The 8 Limbs – The Tree of Yoga

The Path of Yoga was first laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Sutra = “threads”) written in Sanskrit in the second century B.C. It is the first book to attempt to communicate the actual practice of yoga. There are many interpretations of it. I like the translation by Swami Satchidananda from Integral Yoga school. They also print a small pocket-sized version of the book you can carry. There are three sections to the book which outline the path to Samadhi (see definition below.) The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “Yuj,” meaning to yoke, join, create union and harmony. In yoga practice we work to create union of the body, breath, mind, spirit.

In addition, another great book on the 8 Limbs, is a book called the “Tree of Yoga” by BKS Iyengar. I recommend to read both this book and an interpretation of the Yoga Sutras for a complete picture.

The Eight Limbs outline the path of Yoga but are not necessarily a chronological path. Most practitioners will find that beginning with a daily Asana and Pranayama practice naturally leads to the remaining limbs by enhancing an awareness of Self. In the case of the Yamas and Niyamas, most spiritual practices have similar guidelines to help create an environment for our mind and body to settle into the concern of one-pointed meditation leading to Samadhi.

The Yamas and the Niyamas should also be thought of in relationship to physical, emotional and mental actions. For instance “non-violence” might be easy to practice on the physical level, but it becomes an even deeper practice when we consider not having violent thoughts to ourselves or others such as thoughts of self-deprecation or gossiping about others in a way that might harm their reputation. For Purity – we can eat pure food, drink clean water, but we also want to have pure thinking, positive thinking.

1. Yamas – 5 External Restraints – Rules of social conduct

  • Ahimsa – Non-violence
  • Satya – Truthfulness
  • Asteya – Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya – Control of sensual energy – can mean control of sexual energies or over-indulgence of sensory pleasures. Also means having moderation in all things.
  • Aparigraha – Non-clinging (or non-covetousness, non-hoarding)

2. Niyamas – 5 Internal Observances – Rules for the individual

  • Saucha – Purity, internal and external cleanliness of body and mind.
  • Santosha – Contentment. A feeling of equanimity.
  • Tapas – Self-discipline. The word tapas also means heat or burning of impurities.
  • Svadhyaya – Self-study. Study of the higher-self and sacred texts.
  • Ishwara Pranidhana – Dedication to god, surrender to god’s will. Also meaning surrender to the great mystery, to greater powers beyond the indivdual.

3. Asana – Asana means a Seat, Pose or Postures (such as Warrior 1, Tree pose, etc.) In addition the two qualities of a posture are Sthira (steady and alert) and Sukha (comfortable, no unnecessary tension).

4. Pranayama – Prana means breath or life-force energy, Yama means to control or extend. In class we have a strong focus on mindful breathing practices such as Ujjayi pranayama to enhance our vitality and also to focus the mind. Wherever the mind directs is where our prana will go. Pranayama is also considered energy-work and relates to activating the chakra – energy system.

5. Pratyahara – Sense Withdrawal. We practice this by directing our 5 senses inward and by going inward mentally.

6. Dharana – One-pointed concentration. In class we focus on the breath as an object of meditation.

7. Dhyana – Meditation – Continuous one-pointed concentration or continuous being in the present moment. This is an unbroken state of concentration for a long period of time.

8. Samadhi – Bliss, a state of absorption where oneness is experienced. Samadhi is a state that we can not really practice, but is experienced as a result of practicing the other 7 limbs. It is the gift or the fruit of the tree of yoga that we receive.

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