BEYOND ASANA: Explore the other 7 Limbs of Yoga
Once you open up the door to yoga, you will soon come to realise that there is a whole universe of wisdom and knowledge out there.
For many of us, including myself, yoga simply started as a physical practice, also knows as ASANA, but that is only one of the eight limbs. Yoga is so much more than that, and if you want to develop your yoga practice further, it’s important to understand the underlying philosophy and principles, and how they can enhance your life.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The idea that yoga has eight limbs comes from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most fundamental texts in yoga philosophy. The eightfold path is called ASHTANGA, which literally means eight limbs (ashta: eight & anga: limb).
According to Patanjali, these eight steps form a path to living a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for ethical conduct and self-discipline, and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual nature of our being.
On a personal note, I found that once yoga became an integral part of my life, and in fact a lifestyle, I incorporated many of these eight principles subconsciously. You might realise that it’s the same for you. Asana, the physical practice of yoga, is a marvellous tool, but the other seven limbs are just as important (if not more so).
So let’s get a brief overview about the eight limbs of yoga, and how you can deepen your yoga practice on and off the mat.
The yamas are social observances, meaning that they govern how we should interact with other people and the world around us. There are five yamas:
As you can see, the yamas are all about ethics, integrity and how we practice yoga off our mat. While they are primarily about our behavior toward others, they also apply to how we should treat ourselves.
The niyamas are another set of five observances, but these are personal disciplines and spiritual practices. They govern how we should behave and attend to ourselves. The niyamas are:
Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
Isvara pranidhana (surrender and devotion to one's higher power)
It’s a wonderful experience to pick one niyama on a weekly basis and put it into action. For example, spend a week practicing contentment with your life, or even better, choose gratitude. Or get a book about yoga philosophy and read a chapter in bed every night. Cleanliness is another great one. Clear out that closet, desk or garage. Clear your mind of outdated and limiting beliefs that don’t serve you anymore.
Asana is our physical yoga practice, and this is the limb that most of us in the west identify as yoga. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. It's through asana that we dissolve tensions, build strength, eliminate toxins, and increase circulation.
But more importantly, through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Maybe consider giving yourself a little asana challenge and get on that mat at least 3 times per week for self-practice, even if it's just for 20 minutes. Trust me you'll feel amazing!
Pranayama is broadly translated as breath control, and it consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between your breath, your mind, and your emotions. The term is derived from the Sanskrit word prana (life force) and ayama (extension, restraint, control).
This has become such a HUGE part of my own asana practice, the power of breath simply blows my mind. Without pranayama there really is no yoga, it is that important.
You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (by performing a number of breathing techniques on your meditation cushion), or integrate it into your physical asana practice by activating your ujjayi breath. I highly recommend doing a workshop on pranayama, it’s transformative.
Prana is the life force that rejuvenates body, mind and spirit. Through pranayama the monkey mind gets quiet, so that the body can find its natural state of healing.
These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from external stimuli, and turn our attention inward by cultivating a detachment from our senses.
Our entire life experience is dominated by our five senses, through which we are constantly receiving information into our being. Pratyahara is where we turn the noise off and withdraw from the outer world, so that we can experience the inner domain of the mind.
The practice of pratyahara provides you with an opportunity to step back and take a look at yourself. This withdrawal allows you to objectively observe your cravings and habits that could be detrimental to your health, and which may interfere with your inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. Ooh that naughty monkey mind!
In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a mantra.
We have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages: in asana and pranayama we pay attention to our actions, but our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant. And now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
Focus is like a muscle in the body, the more you use it the stronger it becomes. Dharana is like a laser that cuts through the endless chatter of the mind and paves the way for a calm, centered, and still mind.
This may sound easy but it’s surprisingly challenging. So don’t get frustrated if the mind wanders off (and trust me, it will). Let the thoughts pass like coulds in the sky and gently bring your focus back. The mind is like a naughty child that needs to be put in its place with love and care.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus.
At this stage, the mind has become quiet, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. In dhyana we dissolve separateness and experience a deep river of peace. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don't give up. While this may seem a difficult (if not impossible task), remember that yoga is a process.
Of course we still need to get on with our daily lives, we don’t have the luxury of sitting underneath the Boddhi tree meditating for days. But even though we may not attain the "picture perfect" pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit immensly at every stage of our progress.
Samadhi is absolute, ecstatic transcendence moving beyond time, form and space. It's the goal of all yoga and the supreme state of consciousness.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as enlightenment, absorption, and divine bliss. At this stage, the meditator transcends the Self altogether and comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine and an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the "peace that passeth all understanding" - the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe.
I know I know, this may sound rather airy-fairy. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, I think we can all agree that joy, fulfillment, and freedom would be on top of our lists.
What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: PEACE.
We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga, enlightenment, can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspiring yogi.
If this sound completely out of reach then you might want to consider applying for a 10-day silent Vipassana Retreat. There are countless centres in Europe and all over the world. Courses are run solely on a donation basis. There is no charge for the course, not even to cover the cost of food and accommodation. All expenses are met by donations from those who have completed a course, experienced the benefits of Vipassana, and wish to give others the same opportunity. Yes I have done one, and it is life-changing. Give yourself this gift.