The first time the eight limbs were explained to me, I was all like—SAY WHAT?! The Sanskrit words confused me, and then there was also my own desire to grab ahold of that last limb and conquer the shit out of it.
I liked the idea of it all, but how was I supposed to a) Memorise this stuff (that was my main concern), b) Practice it and then c) Accomplish all of it and receive my Yogi Badge of Success and Honour?
Breaking Down the Eight Limbs
The eight limbs define the practice of yoga, which can really help any practitioner understand the intricacies, beauty, and potentiality of this practice.
Don’t fret if the eight limbs are new to you, and try to resist ever believing that you already know everything there is to know about the eight limbs (or really anything for that matter—that’s just a good piece of life advice from me to you. You’re welcome).
Imagine you’re a spotlight. This first limb, Yama, wants you to take a looky at the way you beam your light out into the world.
- Are you nice and compassionate to other living beings?
- Are you committed to truthfulness?
- Are you like, not stealing stuff (iPhones and emotions included)?
- Are you using your energy wisely?
- What about resisting the desire to be a clingy hoarder?
The Yamas (plural because it breaks down into ‘lil sub-categories) encourage us to be wonderful and kind to one another. Period.
This is your inner spotlight. The attitude you take toward your own self-care and growth.
- Are you keeping your body and mind pure?
- Are you finding contentment in all that already have?
- Are you disciplined with the use of your energy?
- Are you working toward self-awareness?
- And are you taking the time to bask in an energy that is bigger than you—a sort of Divine Force?
The Niyamas (again with the plural) will help you see that taking care of yourself in more ways than just the physical is a massive part of the yogic path.
This is the limb that everyone already knows.
You may be surprised to learn that the practice of the physical postures is just one part of the overall puzzle of what makes yoga, well—YOGA! Postures are used to dive into your own inner world. It might seem like the point of Asana is to get nice abs and buns, but that’s just a friendly byproduct.
Asana, the third limb, is about becoming embodied and uniting all aspects of yourself—body, mind, heart, breath, and soul—to find acceptance, non-reaction, and a slew of other worthwhile things.
Your life force, the prana (energy) that keeps you alive in this life, is your breath. Pranayama, the fourth limb, is the balancing of this life force and is actually Asana’s bestie. Have you met?
Focused movement of the breath balances the flow of vital forces in the body. Breathing is not just a little important to the practice—it is hella important. Follow the breath and everything will fall into place, is my motto.
It’s time to pull your spotlight in. The fifth limb, Pratyahara, is about withdrawing the senses from the outside world and instead shining them inside yourself. Sensory withdrawal allows the senses to become stronger because they aren’t being fanned out toward a million external stimulations.
Pratyahara is not about shutting out the world, but refocusing your attention inward so that you’re less fragmented and more clear. Mad truth: when you see yourself clearly, it’s easier to see others clearly too.
With the sixth limb, Dharana, you’re going to take your focus now and plant it on one steady entity. The object of focus isn’t the point, it’s just a tool for going deeper. Mantra, your breath—whatever works for you is fine.
The purpose now is to still the wandering mind and become steady. Choose one single point of focus and practice staying connected to it.
Once you’re steady, it’s time for meditation. This is contemplation with no object or specific focus.
You know that feeling when you become so absorbed in an activity (running through the woods, performing on stage, sitting quietly) that there’s no thought—it’s just a direct experience of the task at hand? Well that’s the seventh limb, Dhyana. That’s the definition of meditation.
Dhyana is about letting go of the focus and becoming completely immersed in the present.
The Big Kahuna—union or Samadhi. Unfortunately, this can’t be a goal or a plan that you set in your diary (as I learned through personal experience).
It happens as a result of practice and can also happen rather spontaneously. The body, the senses, the mind—they are at peace. It is a space of simply being, experiencing truth and connection.
Samadhi is the braiding together of all the limbs. It is a complete understanding and a total immersion in presence. It is in a sense, when you become the Universe. Sounds a little cray-cray, maybe, but that’s the best way I know how to describe it!
The Eight Limbs—A Path that Makes Sense, Am I Right?
For some reason, the theme song to Married With Children keeps popping into my head. That part that says—you can’t have one without the other. That’s how the eight limbs feel. They’re all equal, they work together and you can’t leave any of them out or it just wouldn’t be yoga.
I hope that this little foray has helped you better understand the intricate tapestry that is the path of yoga. There’s so much to learn and experience. So get out there and explore! Or rather go deep inside and explore, I think that’s more apt.