Whether its Vinyasa flow, Iyengar, Sivananda or Ashtanga, they are everywhere: ASANAS wherever you look. But do you actually know what’s beyond this practice? That it’s only one point on the list of Patanjalis eight limbs of yoga? Do you know and practice the other seven?
We all know the asanas of yoga. And we love them. Nothing better than hanging out in downward facing dog or watching the world upside down in sirsasana. Asanas are the essential element of our Hatha Yoga class. Even though originally Yoga is more than asanas, in the West this ancient practice is generally misunderstood as a fitness program. I’d say that derives from our obsession with appearance. We are always concerned about how we look, more than about what we do. We often forget that beauty comes from our inner light. Therefore yoga has some proposals to make.
A complete Yoga practice is balanced — between physical, mental and spiritual disciplines. To train our mind and spirit is just as important as doing physical exercises. It’s about how to live a meaningful life and feel union and peace. Therefore Master Patanjali described a complete yoga path in his sutras, written down around 400 CE. Today we refer to it as Raja or Ashtanga Yoga, the eightfold path (Attention: Ashtanga Yoga is often confused with the yoga type Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga).
Asana is number three of the eight limbs – Which are the other seven?
Asanas are number three of the eight steps of yoga. And what do the other seven teach us? It’s mainly focused on how to reach Samadhi, the ultimate goal of yoga. That’s why it’s also called Raja Yoga, King’s Yoga. This royal path contains not only practices to control the body, but the mind. It contains ethical codex about how to behave in the world and with us, what to practice and develop to reach Samadhi, the ultimate state of yoga, a superconsciousness where we feel union and peace (my personal emphasis: you can give it different names, nirvana or enlightenment, but to understand what it is, remains only its experience). So what are the 8 limbs of yoga?
Eight limbs of Yoga – Raja Yoga by Patanjali explained
The first limb, the yamas, gives us some guidelines about how to behave with the exterior world. It’s the ethical codex of yoga. How to behave in the world? The 5 yamas are non violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), chastity (brahmacharya), non stealing (asteya) and non covetousness (aparigraha).
This is about reflecting yourself. Put the spotlight on your person. How do you behave? What do you practice? Self discipline? Spiritual observances? The 5 niyamas are purification (Saucha), contenteness (santosha), austerity (tapas), self study (swadhyaya) and surrender to god / your highest power (ishwara-pranidhana)
Now it’s ok if some terms are still confusing. This is just a short introduction. The yamas and niyamas are not the easiest part of a complete yoga practice, but even more important. And we can learn how to live them in our daily life.
The most familiar part is of course number three: the steady and comfortable pose (Did you know that there was a time, when there was only one asana?)
4. Pranayama — Observe your breath.
It’s your personal indicator about your mind and spirit. Have you ever observed how your breath is, when you feel anxious or stressed? Or how it is when you are relaxed and calm? That’s exactly what Pranayama is about: be conscious, know your breath and learn to control it. The art of breathing is powerful and healing.
5. Pratyahara — withdraw of senses.
This is very interesting for our modern society. We live in a constant overstimulation of our senses. There’s so much our senses and nerve system have to process that it gets easily too much for our mind and we feel exhausted. With pratyahara we learn how to control, which stimulation we follow, and which we don’t. So our energy remains conserved for the object we choose. What do you want to be receptive for? Learn how to put your attention on this.
When we practice pratyahara, withdrawing our senses, we learn to focus on one object. We practice dharana, concentration. That means that we are able to control our attention, stay focused, resist distractions. This is the key for deeper experiences.
From the withdraw of senses and the ability to focus and concentrate we come to number seven: meditation. Here our concentration becomes effortless. While in Dhahran we have to control and resist distractions, practicing one pointness, in dhyana you enter in an effortless state of concentration. You meditate. In this state we disconnect from everything else, posterior thinking patterns, judgement, exterior distractions, emotions. We are able to be — just to be. And instead of our analytical mind we observe with intuition — or our higher self. We connect with the truth inside of us.
We arrived at the last step of the eightfold path. Samadhi. The ultimate goal of yoga, a state of super consciousness. It’s the state were we feel complete union. It’s beyond everything, no inner wars or effort. There are a lot of stories about Samadhi. Some call it enlightenment, the experience if the divine, a state of inner peace and bliss. But whatever we hear about it, there’s only one way to know: your own experience.
You see Yoga is much more than asanas. And the eight steps of yoga go hand in hand. One follows the other and reverse. Try it. Practice all of them everyday a little bit and you will experience life changing results. And you don’t need to strive for Samadhi. Every limb has its own potential for your daily life and we meet them in different shapes everyday.