Have you ever wondered what "Yoga" really is? Yoga is a system that is made up of eight limbs, and is not just the physical practice that we are led to believe in the western culture. There is so much more to yoga than flowing through movements and poses. I mean, it is so beautiful, calming, and energizing to move, flow, and hold. The physical movements and poses are only one of these eight glorious limbs.
Did you know that when attending a yoga class, there is meant to be some level of teaching or awareness brought to these limbs for the students? I didn't either, until I learned what Yoga was all about in a 200 HR Vinyasa Teacher Training. In this post I will be focusing on outlining the four limbs that you will be most likely to learn about in class. The upper four limbs are more spiritual, and have been found to have a certain level of controversy in western society. They are also best practiced alone, in solitude, which is why you may not find them taught in a yoga studio.
Yoga is a sanskrit word, and is roughly translated to english as "yoke". This yoke, is meant to be a bridge between the physical and spiritual realms of oneself. The first four limbs are a guide to mastering your physical presence, while the last four are meant to be a path towards enlightenment. The first four limbs bring awareness to ones actions by focusing on specific items for reflection, and helping oneself understand the body and breathing.
The first two limbs described are fundamental ethics, and are suggestions for how we are meant to deal with people around us as well as ourselves. Both of these limbs are concerned with how we use our energy in relationship with others and oneself in regards to the attitude that we have towards others, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly.
The first limb is the "Yamas" which is a form of social discipline, or ethical restraints. There are five limbs that make up the yamas, and thus will be described in another post. Essentially the Yamas are a guideline of how we are meant to act ethically. Rather than a list of "Do's and Don'ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is to act with kindness & compassion (Ahimsa), be truthful (Satya), not stealing (Asteya), using all of our senses (Brahmacharya), and acting without greed (Aparigraha).
The second limb is the "Niyamas", which is a form of self discipline, or physical observances. Again, there are five limbs that make up the niyamas, and these will be described in yet another post. The niyamas are observances of ourselves, intimate and personal, and are used to help guide us through life by reminding us to be pure (Saucha), to be content (Santosha), to have discipline in everything we do (Tapas), to study ourselves (Svadhyaya), and to celebrate your idea of a higher power (Ishvara-Pranidhana), be it god, the divine, the big bang, etc.
The third limb is "Asana", which is the physical practice of postures and movements. This is where one will flow through a sequence of movements, from basic to advanced movements, and from one breath hold in the posture to holding up to 15 minutes in the posture! The practice of asana has many benefits, the main ones being improved health, flexibility, and balance. The goal of Asana is to become one with the physical self, to know, feel, and control all of the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments. Through consistent and disciplined practice, one will eventually attain this connection with their body, once the mind has been calmed.
As one practices asana more and more, it becomes apparent that this is a preparation for meditative practices. Releasing to the flow and the inner strength that one develops brings an incredible grounding effect to the physical self. The key to mastering this vehicle of expanding awareness and consciousness begins with the control of the breath, or Pranayama. Practicing Asana and Pranayama together will bring about a desired state of health, harmony to the flow of energy in the organism, and thus creating a fertile field for the spirit to evolve.
The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body. The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he know that He is within. - B.K.S. Iyengar
The fourth limb, and the last limb covered in this post is "Pranayama", which is the breathing practices, breath work, or life force energy. This is the practice of bringing awareness to our breathing, to feel the energy flowing in and out of our bodies, lengthening the breath to begin to slow our thoughts. The result is perfect relaxation and a realization to the balance of the bodies activities.
Pranayama is very important in yoga, especially with the asana practice. The practices of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self discipline for ones mind and body. The practice of both produce the sensation of heat, the inner fire of purification known as tapas (one of the niyama's). This purification process aids in clearing the nadi's, which are the subtle nerve channels of ones body, thus providing a more healthful state and a calmer mind.
The eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality.