I’m so happy to welcome back Stasia Holmes, my dear friend and yoga instructor, for another informative guest post on yoga! I’ve been practicing yoga regularly for several years and have done a bit of my own research on the history and practice. I’d love to attend a yoga teacher training one day to further my study. Here in America we focus so much on the physical yoga practice, asana, which is just 1 of 8 limbs of yoga. In other words, yoga is about way more than making cool shapes with your body. This is something not many people realize so I invited Stasia on to introduce us to the other 7 limbs of yoga. Also check out Stasia’s guest post on Yoga for Better Sleep!
Often when we talk about “yoga” we are referring more casually to yoga asana, or the physical postures that we rehearse in classes and see represented in movies and magazines. Almost everyone has at least seen if not attempted Downward-Facing Dog or Sun Salutation A, and the number of people in the U.S. who regularly practice yoga is rapidly rising (36.7 million in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012.) The benefits of an established asana practice are numerous and well supported by research: improved strength, flexibility and balance, as well as decreased pain, stress and depression. It’s no wonder we’ve adopted these beloved poses into our larger wellness culture.
Less often included in the mainstream conversation are the other aspects of yoga, which (along with asana) comprise the eight “limbs” or branches of the practice. The eight limbs were outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali — the single most essential text in the Yogic tradition — between 500 and 200 BCE, and remain the practical guide and ethical code for the modern yoga practitioner:
The first limb is dedicated to our relationship with others. Yama means “observance” or duty, and there are actually five of them. The five yamas bring to mind the Golden Rule, to treat others as we would like to be treated, and assumes a basic responsibility to behave with kindness and respect.
- Ahimsa: non-violence or non-harming
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: conservation of energy, to “act as Brahma”
- Aparigraha: non-grasping or non-coveting
Many of these are familiar to us as the foundations of civil society or the tenants of major religions. Most people can agree that it’s wrong to use violence toward others or steal from them, and we see these values reflected in our secular laws. However, as we observe the yamas and incorporate them into our practice, we discover more subtle understanding. For example, how do we cause harm to ourselves through negative self-talk, or pushing our body into a certain yoga pose despite feeling pain? If we always arrive late, are we stealing time from a friend? Are we jealous of the success of others, or refusing to let go of grudges from the past?
The second limb is dedicated to our relationship with ourselves. Niyama is an inward “observance” or duty, and there are also five of them:
- Saucha: cleanliness
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapas: “heat” or fire, discipline, persistence
- Svadhyaya: self-study, or self-directed study of sacred scriptures
- Ishvara pranidhana: surrender (to God, or that which is greater than oneself)
We may have different interpretations of the niyamas depending on our family of origin or personal belief system, but there are practical applications for everyone. And again, as we invite these responsibilities and observe them in our life, we find greater depth of meaning. We can keep our bodies and living spaces clean, but we can also commit to making less waste to keep our environment clean. We might read scriptures, or medical textbooks, nature writing or poetry that we hold sacred. We may have a faith and a specific vision of God, we may look to the Universe or a collective consciousness for support, or we may simply connect to the shared humanity and basic belonging of all beings.
Ah, the yoga poses that we know and love. The literal translation of asana is “seat” and these postures are designed to keep our bodies strong and flexible so that we can live well — and sit comfortably for meditation. As it turns out, Patanjali didn’t give any instructions for handstand, but did note that asana should be a balance of effort (sthira) and ease (sukha) in Sutra 2.46. The asanas help us embody these qualities: strength, discipline, uprightness and rigidity, as well as peace, contentment, fluidity and softness, in equal measure so that we are well-balanced and well-equipped.
Prana translates to “life force”, and as living beings we are animated by our breath. In this way, pranayama or breathing techniques strengthen and build our vital energy, and in Western science we understand their ability to affect the autonomic nervous system. There are many different types of pranayama, each with its own purpose and energetic quality, but one of the most simple to practice is samavritti or “equal turning” breath, which simply means to make your inhale and your exhale the same length. You can use a count (breathe in 4, breathe out for 4) if you like, or just feel for an equal rhythm if you prefer.
Pratyahara means withdrawing the senses, or turning our attention away from the external environment. This comes more naturally when we’re relaxed, but there are lots of little tricks to help direct focus inward. You can start by closing your eyes (sight is the dominant sense for most people) and imagining the inner landscape of the body.
Dharana means one-pointed concentration, or concentration on an object. We might practice this by bringing to mind the image of a diety, lotus or candle flame. We could also concentrate on an energetic center in the body, the internal sound of a mantra or even a concept such as love.
Dhyana means meditation, or awareness without an object of focus. Sometimes this seems overwhelming or discouraging to new practitioners, but like the other limbs, it becomes easier with practice. Focusing too hard on “achieving the goal” or trying to force your mind to settle can be counterproductive. This type of meditation is sometimes described as a clear blue sky of awareness where thoughts, like clouds, are free to appear and pass without grasping or pushing them away.
Samadhi, means “bliss” or a state of pure awareness where there is no separation between the observer and what is observed. Some people think of this as enlightenment, or a transcendence of the individual self. This limb can create discomfort or resistance if it is interpreted as spiritual bypassing, or when it appears to conflict with other belief systems. However, if we practice with the desire to understand, we may come to define samadhi through our individual experience.
Through study and application of the eight limbs, we discover new tools to evolve our self-awareness and compassion for others, lending greater depth of meaning to our yoga practice and our life off the mat.
Recommended translations and further reading:
Stasia Holmes teaches classical yoga and meditation in Chicago, with a focus in trauma-sensitive and restorative applications. She received her 200-hour certification through Moksha Yoga and completed advanced training through Yoga to Transform Trauma. Connect with Stasia on her website for private sessions and special events.