When many people think of yoga, they often envision lithe bodies twisted into pretzel positions. But, yoga is much more than just a way to increase your flexibility. It is a system of mental and physical practices that originated in India roughly 5,000 years ago. The art and science of yoga includes lifestyle and behavior principles, philosophy, meditation, and breath work — in addition to physical exercise.
The basic tenets of yoga are outlined by the sage Patanjali in the classical Indian yoga text, the "Yoga Sutras." This eightfold path is a road map to right living. Dedicating yourself to following the eight limbs will lead you to self-realization through the unification of body, mind, and spirit. Read on for a deeper exploration of the eight limbs of yoga, and set yourself on your own path towards right living.
The Eight Limbs
According to Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are:
- "Yama" — Sanskrit for "moral discipline"
- "Niyama" — Sanskrit for "moral observance"
- "Asana" — Sanskrit for "body posture"
- "Pranayama" — Sanskrit for "breath control"
- "Pratyahara" — Sanskrit for "withdrawal of the senses"
- "Dharana" — Sanskrit for "concentration"
- "Dhyana" — Sanskrit for "meditation"
- "Samadhi" — Sanskrit for "bliss"
The physical practice of yoga, asana, is only one step on the path toward a meaningful and purposeful life. These eight steps provide guidelines for moral and ethical actions, self-discipline, and personal spiritual direction. The effects of the eight limbs are cumulative, as each stage prepares you for the next.
A yama (YAH-mah) is one of a set of ethical standards that offers guidance on how we act toward others. "The Yoga Sutras" lists five yamas:
- "Ahimsa" — Sanskrit for "non-harming"
- "Satya" — Sanskrit for "refraining from dishonesty"
- "Asteya" — Sanskrit for "non-stealing"
- "Brahmacharya" — Sanskrit for "wise use of sexual energy"
- "Aparigraha" — Sanskrit for "non-possessiveness"
Similar to the yamas, the niyamas are also codes of conduct for living — only this time, what matters is how you treat yourself. A niyama (nee-YAH-mah) is one of a set of moral observances toward oneself. Turning your awareness inward helps prepare you for the later, more internally focused limbs. "The Yoga Sutras" lists five niyamas:
- "Saucha" — Sanskrit for "purity"
- "Santosha" — Sanskrit for "contentment"
- "Tapas" — Sanskrit for "self-discipline"
- "Svadhyaya" — Sanskrit for "self-study"
- "Ishvara pranidhana" — Sanskrit for "surrender to a higher source"
Literally meaning "seat" or "sitting posture," asana (AHH-suh-nuh) refers to a body position used in a yoga practice. Through practicing asanas, you learn discipline and concentration which are necessary for the later limbs. Moving and stretching your body also helps you prepare for long periods of seated meditation. Common asanas include Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) and Ustrasana (Camel Pose).
Although pranayama (prah-nah-YAH-muh) can be translated as "restraint of the breath," it refers to more than simply holding your inhalations. In yoga, the life force energy is called "prana." Practicing pranayama includes yogic breath control and regulation techniques. These exercises are intended to manipulate the flow of prana in order to bring about steadiness of mind and changes in consciousness.
Through these first four limbs, you learn to control your "outer" world of personality and senses. This emerging awareness of your true self helps to prepare yourself for the deep, inner journey of the next four limbs.
Enlightenment is the understanding that this is all, that this is perfect, that this is it. Enlightenment is not an achievement, it is an understanding that there is nothing to achieve, nowhere to go.
Literally meaning "withdrawal of the senses," pratyahara (praht-yah-HAHR-uh) is the practice of tuning out the distractions of the outside world. Focusing your mind inward allows you to detach from the trials and fluctuations of life and see their challenges in a new light. You can view your habits and patterns more objectively, becoming aware of things the way they are, instead of reacting to the world.
Dharana (dahr-AHN-uh) is the practice of concentration or complete attention. It’s the ability to focus entirely on a single point — to be completely in the moment. Once you have withdrawn your senses through pratyahara, you can slow down your thoughts and concentrate on a single thing. Athletes often refer to this mental space as being "in the zone." You can practice dharana by bringing your attention to a single sensation, object, or thought. Some examples include focusing on:
- Your breath
- The flicker of a candle’s flame
- An image of a deity, saint, or inspirational figure
- The repetition of a sound, syllable, or phrase
- A value or virtue, such as love, compassion, or joy
Your brain uses 20 percent of your entire body’s energy, even though it is only 2 percent of your body weight.
With dhyana (dee-YAHN-uh) , you turn your focus entirely inward. This is the practice of deep meditation to attain self-realization. In this second-to-last stage of yoga, you become aware of the flow of all life and existence. Unlike the single-pointed concentration of dharana, dhyana is awareness without a singular focus. Your mind becomes still and your thoughts cease. You simply are.
Literally meaning "a putting together," samadhi (sah-MAHD-hee) is supreme bliss; the highest stage of meditation. Also understood as spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment, samadhi is the state in which you transcend your lower self and merge with the universe. You become aware of your connection to all living things, to your higher self, and to the Divine. The freedom, joy, and fulfillment brought forth through samadhi creates peace, internally and in the world. It is the ultimate "goal" of yoga.
Eight Paths for One Yogi
Traveling the yogic path is a deeply personal journey. It can’t be learned in a book or through a story — it can only be experienced. Although supreme bliss may seem inconceivable, it is not impossible to attain. Be steady and consistent with your practice, but remember that yoga is a life-long process. It will take dedication and patience, perhaps for many years, but the rewards will be infinite.