When Beryl Bender Birch said, “The word yoga is not synonomous with asana – the word yoga refers to all 8 limbs,” in the last series, I realized how much we were just scratching the surface of what yoga actually is. My sense, just from looking around in yoga class, had been that our concept of yoga in America is a little more than slightly askew from yoga in the classical sense – the kind that had been handed down through thousands of years in India and led people to enlightenment, or at least to inner peace. Indeed Bender Birch added that, “I’ve been such a serious student of classical yoga for – gosh! – 30 years. It seems that, even today, as Judith Lasater once said, yoga is a mile long and an inch deep.” While there’s no denying that yoga had to change a bit to be embraced in this country by our modern, Western minds, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t welcome – or at least understand a little bit about – the rest of the practice.
So, let’s get philosophical. In this series, we’ll look at the eight limbs of yoga, one by one.
In short, the eight limbs are: yamas (“restraints’), niyamas (“observances”), asana (poses), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (intense focus), dyhana (meditation), and samadhi (state of oneness). Most people are familiar with asana (poses) and perhaps with pranyama (breathing). And meditation is even gaining ground, as more people start to experience its tangible benefits – and as scientific research shows what wonders it can do for the brain, even after a very short time.
An important thing to remember about the eight limbs is that they’re not like the 12 steps – you actually incorporate them all at once (as much as possible), rather than stepwise. I spoke to the Reverend Jaganath Carrera, who is founder and spiritual leader of the Yoga Life Society. He underlines that “The eight limbs are not steps to be completed one at a time before going on. They represent a harmonious balance and integration of body, mind, and spirit.”
It takes a bit to learn about all eight limbs (as I’m finding out in spades!), but doing so, I’m also learning, can round out one’s practice in a significant way. After all, for me and I think for a lot of people, the whole point of yoga is to feel better – and not just physically. Any form of physical activity can make your body feel better, but the value and the beauty of yoga is that it takes you out of yourself, out of your head, which for me has always been the problem. Learning only yoga poses or breathing techniques doesn’t give a complete picture of what yoga really is – it’s sort of like reading the middle chapter of a novel and thinking you understand what the novel is about.
In fact, Rev. Jaganath says that, “While the physical practices are wonderful and might help us experience clarity and peace, they don’t address the reasons why we lose our peace, why we may be anxious, insecure, or unfulfilled.” If learning about the eight limbs can help a person be less of those things, I’m in.
Next time we’ll start with the first limb, the yamas, which include five of the ten “moral and ethical guidelines” for feeling less stressed, distressed, depressed, and generally more at peace. Stay tuned, and please feel free to comment below.
Do you have experience with the eight limbs of yoga? Has learning about them helped expand your practice?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.