Before I took the initiative to actually learn about yoga, I thought it was all about handstands, downward dog, and laying on your mat trying not to fall asleep (i.e. shavasana). The first several times I attempted yoga I hated it! It wasn’t until I started reading about the foundations of yoga and the limbs of yoga that I gained an appreciation for this form of exercise.
Frankly, I owe the fact that I now enjoy yoga to one of my patients. This person recommended that I read the book Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice by Charlotte Bell. Let me tell you, it totally changed the way I looked at yoga and my practice. Everyone reading this post should do themselves a favor and read this book!
Now I promise not to try to get too “out there” for this post, because my yoga style does focus primarily on the physical poses (asana) and breathing techniques (pranayama) of yoga. But if you’re anything like I used to be and struggling to appreciate the process, learning about the limbs of yoga may be beneficial.
Note: Yoga is not a religion. I can explain more about this myth in a future blog post, but before reading about the following limbs I think it is important to note that yoga is not a religion and can/should be practiced by individuals of all beliefs.
Limb One: Yama
This is our attitude towards our environment. Our interactions with others not only influence the people around us, but in turn, it influences ourselves as well. Yama consists of five guidelines to help us live and interact more positively with our surroundings. These guidelines are: non-harming, truth, non-stealing, wise use of energy, and non-greed. Incorporating these guidelines into our daily interactions will ultimately have a positive influence on those around us.
Limb Two: Niyama
This is our attitude towards ourselves. Similar to the first limb, Yama, it consists of five guidelines. These guidelines are: cleanliness, contentment, heat, study of scripture, and surrender to God.
Limb Three: Asana
Physical postures (i.e. asana) is by far the most popular of the limbs of yoga. One obvious benefit to this limb is that the postures promote us caring for ourselves and our bodies. This is one of the main reasons individuals typically seek to start their yoga practices. However, another major benefit to this limb is that the postures also teach us things about ourselves, increase our determination, and promote mindfulness. Each of these benefits will help us with the other limbs.
Limb Four: Pranayama
This is the restraint or expansion of the breath. Too often, we either hold our breath and/or have an inconsistent breath pattern while doing yoga. You’ll be amazed at how your practice changes when you start moving with the breath, and try different breathing techniques. I highly encourage people to be more mindful of their breath throughout the day. Taking a deep breath vs holding your breath in times of stress makes a profound change in your ability to manage the situation.
Limb Five: Pratyahara
This is our withdrawal of the senses. We live in a world with arguably too much stimulation. We are constantly managing different sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensation in the world around us both in our daily lives and possibly our yoga practice. There is no way to avoid this unless you lock yourself in your house and never turn on a phone/television again. But we can manage this. It’s not a bad thing to be aware of the sensations you are experiencing during yoga, but refraining from reacting to these sensations is something to practice. You can acknowledge the car noises occurring outside your window while still experiencing a calm mind while completing yoga.
Limb Six: Dharana
This is our concentration. When I first started yoga I was thinking about how inflexible I was, wondering how much longer this yoga class was going to last, going through my to-do list in my head and focusing every sound I heard in the room. The total opposite of this is dharana. While difficult to practice, dharana allows us to focus on one thing (whether it be your breath, a mantra, a sensation) and let everything else disappear.
Limb Seven: Dhyana
This is experienced through meditation, and a continuation of dharana (the sixth limb of yoga, previously discussed). When you are able to concentrate on one thing for a sustained period of time (i.e. meditation), you enter into a state of consciousness that limits what is going on in the world around you. That state of consciousness is known as your dharana. While it is challenging to practice this limb specifically, most yoga resources encourage practice of pratyahara (limb five) and dharana (limb six) to promote dhyana.
Limb Eight: Samadhi
This is us putting it all together and becoming self-aware (aka enlightenment). It’s not about escaping into “another world”. It’s about becoming fully present in the moment.