Well, yoga of course!
Yes, yoga does have eight limbs. One limb for each aspect in the yogic system. These eight different appendages are called: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana & samadhi.
I am going to, briefly, identify each limb one by one so that you can get a better understanding of the full system of yoga. Western teachings/classes normally only focus on 1, 2 or 3 parts of the eight-limb system, namely the postures, breathing and some stillness techniques.
While there is no true order for understanding, the limbs do build upon one another and lead us to the goal of yoga: peace, truth and unutterable joy.
These are the universal ethics of yoga. When these values or virtues are upheld, one can thrive in life’s fundamental nature. Therefore, the yamas help to align us with the external world. There are five yamas: non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, right energy use and greedlessness.
The Niyamas create a foundation for superior health and well-being. They are the codes of personal conduct. Therefore, the niyamas align you with yourself. There are five niyamas: purity, contentment, effort, study/self-study and devotion.
These are what we all know as the postures of yoga.
Documentation tells us that when yoga started there were only 15 poses:
- siddhasana (perfect pose)
- padmasana (lotus pose)
- simhasana (lion pose)
- bhadrasana (fortunate pose)
- vastikasana (auspicious pose)
- gomukhasana (cow face pose)
- virasana (hero pose)
- kurmasana (tortoise pose)
- kukkutasana (cock pose)
- uttanakarmasana (intense tortoise pose)
- dhanurasana (bow pose)
- matsyasana (fish pose)
- paschimottanasana (intense West side stretch pose)
- mayurasana (peacock pose)
- savasana (corpse pose)
No downward dogs, no sun salutation, not even a tree pose.
As we have discussed many times in the blog, prana is life force and pranayama is the expansion of that life force via the breath. There are many breathing practices utilized in the practice of yoga and we will revisit these and their benefits in the weeks, months and years (gasp!) to come.
This limb of yoga begins the journey of going inward. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. Here, it’s possible to move away from the external world, through which the senses (and the mind) are commanding attention, and become quiet.
This is the practice of concentration. Step 2, if you will, in the journey towards meditation. Many of us have had glimpses of meditation which are actually moments of focused awareness. Through this limb, we begin to understand and direct the flow of thoughts.
When the moments of focus or concentration become linked or steady, one is experiencing dhyana or meditation. In this state, we are completely aligned with the breath and body. Concentration becomes meditation when you are able to remain in a steady blissful state for a prolonged time.
A good description for samadhi is “unlimited meditation.” Here, the body and senses, including the mind, are resting and the ego is checked. The oneness is real in this state as the individual is completely absorbed into pure consciousness and bliss.
So, these are the eight limbs of yoga in a nutshell. Although they don’t fit in a nutshell very well, I think an overview is essential as we forge ahead with our future discussions of yoga. The system of yoga is comprehensive indeed and capable of more than just giving us physical flexibility.
Namasté, Kim 🕉