The 8 limbs are concepts of goodness that many religions practice, but they aren’t a religion in and of themselves. My own personal spiritual practice is a deep belief in God’s astounding Grace, and my practice of that “religion” to live a life of love and compassion. Having said that, I do not look to the 8 Limbs as rules to follow, but rather sticky notes to remind me of the path I’m following. I’m in favor of anything that reminds us that we can be better, more thoughtful people.
Since many yoga teachers refer to the 8 limbs as they lead a class, I want to explain what they are. Chances are, they’ll sound familiar to you if you’ve ever gone to a church or grew up in a religious home. Yoga gives people an opportunity to think over these principles, or it allows people to simply stretch and flow with their breath. There isn’t a wrong way to do yoga. I know people who practice purely for the sake of exercise, and I also know people who benefit greatly from the spiritual value they find in their practice. God’s presence is not exclusive to a church or a synagog or a any other structure, and we can find a uniquely spiritual path on our mat. It’s all about taking the time to look, listen, and think about the Divine.
I hope that like myself, you also strive to live a more thoughtful life in pursuit of a higher calling, whatever that may be. We are all flawed people, living with other flawed people, and we can neither expect perfection from ourselves or others.
We can however, pursue inner sanctification and purification. We can live a life of compassion. We can maintain principles that allow us to live a beautiful, kinder life. The yoga philosophy is not unique; almost every religion ranging from Buddhism to Christianity adhere to these concepts. Yoga merely helps us sharpen our focus and strengthen our ability to follow these guidelines for a more enriching experience. Yoga feeds the soul as we work the body.
1. Yama – Virtues
The first limb, yama, deals with one’s discipline integrity in behavior, the ethics of cleaning up one’s act. These universal practices relate to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others” but are also easily summarized as “Cleaning House”. There are five yamas:
Non-violence: Ahimsa (kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and animals. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities)
Truth and Honesty: Satya
Non-lust: Brahmacharya Avoid meaningless sexual encounters, but, as B.K.S. Iyengar says, “see divinity in all.” The idea is to view sex as something that is divine and a union of two divine creatures.
Non-possessiveness: Aparigraha. Neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth
• Take only what you need.
• Take only what you have earned.
• Let go of hoarding & collecting – come to know the providence of God.
• Release attachments – change is the only constant.
2. Niyama – Personal Observances
Niyama is about how we treat ourselves, or begin to cultivate the inner being. These are sometimes called observances, the do’s, or the thou -shalts. There are five niyamas:
Keep the inner body pure by eating clean foods, and keep the outer body and home clean and tidy.
• Appreciate what you have.
• Appreciate who you are.
• Appreciate the small things every day.
• Seek happiness in the moment, take responsibility for where you are, and choose to grow from there.
• Live graciously.
Show Disciplined use of energy, in body, speech, and mind.
Attention to body posture, attention to eating habits, attention to breathing patterns – these are all tapas.
Study of the sacred text and one’s self: Svadhyaya
Read Sacred texts that are relevant to you and inspire and teach you.
Live with and awareness of the Divine: Isvara pranidhana
Surrender to God, to an omnipresent force that guides and directs the course of our lives. Be aware of how the Divine works on our behalf and has left thumbprints all over creation.
3. Asana – staying/abiding in the inner being.
Asanas are postures that allow the practitioner to discipline the body and the mind. When we approach out mat, we can look at it as an opportunity to exercise both body and mind. This is why we set “mantras” or mottos at the beginning of every class, because as our bodies go through the practice and begin feeling weak or uncomfortable, we choose to find strength by focusing on our motto, be it a theme of love or grace or fearlessness. This meditation retrains our thoughts and reshapes our emotions.
Just breathe. It’s a technique used by first responders and Navy SEAL’s, because a person who can control his breathing during an uncomfortable situation can regulate the sympathetic nervous system and prevent an extreme “fight or flight” reaction.
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from their objects. The natural tendency of the senses is to become distracted or overwhelmed by stimuli around us—be it the news, situations with family and friends, or the ever so annoying traffic jam. But a yoga practitioner learns to disconnect from all white noise and maintain an equanimous state.
Concentration. One-pointedness. Learning to wield your own ability to focus, not be distracted by it.
Dhyana is translated as meditation. There are countless forms of meditation, and science has proven how incredibly beneficial a simple meditation practice can be to both body and mind.
As described by Swami Sivananda this is “The state of consciousness where Absoluteness is experienced; in other words, a true connection with God.
Again, these 8 limbs are NOT a religion, though many people can turn yoga into a religion. They are simply guidelines; what we do with them is what matters most.