Not knowing anything about the eight limbs of yoga, the first things I thought of when I heard the phrase were my arms and legs. However upon typing it into Google I found that I wasn’t quite correct and that the eight limbs of yoga have a much more spiritual meaning than my literal translation.
The eight limbs of yoga represent a metaphorical eight-limbed path that basically forms the framework for yoga. Upon exploring each limb of the path, one will find that no one path is more important than another. There is no hierarchy controlling the order in which to say that one is more important than another; they rely on each other.
To summarise the eight limbs we have:
- Yama – universal morality
- Niyama- personal observances
- Asanas- body postures
- Pranayama- control of breathing
- Pratyahara- control of senses
- Dharana- concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana- devotion, meditation on the divine
- Samadhi- union with the divine
The first limb of the path deals with integrity and ethics in everyday life. It relates on a level to the rule we all know as ‘do only to others what you would have them do to you’, and includes the likes of being truthful, non-violent and non-stealing.
The second limb, Niyama, relates to self-discipline and spiritual observances. It is about developing your own personal meditation process- whatever works for you. It could be going to church or making a habit of taking long thoughtful walks.
Asanas are the postures practiced in yoga. The body is a temple of spirit and by practicing the yoga postures (asanas) we allow ourselves to become more meditative and concentrative.
Pranayama is a word that you may have heard during your practices as we often partake in ‘Pranayama breathing’ at the beginning of a hot class. Pranayama generally translates to breath control and so implies mastering the respiratory system and the ability to recognize the connection between breath, the mind and emotions.
The fifth limb, Pratyahara means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. In this fifth limb we make a conscious effort to draw our awareness away from external stimuli, and focus internally. It gives us an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves.
Dharana, the sixth limb, is prepared for in Pratyahara and involves the element of concentration. Focusing inside, without the distractions of the external world, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. I am sure I am not the only one who has often formulated a ‘to do list’ for the day in a morning yoga class, or debriefed myself on what I have achieved that day during a night class. This is where we need to slow down the thinking process and concentrate on a single point. If this can be achieved for extended periods of time, then a meditative state can be reached.
The seventh stage is Dhyana, which refers to meditation, or the uninterrupted flow of concentration. The distinction between concentration and Dhyana is that Dharana practices one-pointed attention, whereas Dhyana involves being keenly aware without focus. Who knew meditation, something that we all associate with relaxation and peace, could be such a difficult state to reach?
The final stage is a stage of happiness; sounds like something I can work with! Samadhi allows the meditator to realize a profound connection to the Divine and interconnectedness with all living things. It is apparently an experience of bliss at being at one with the Universe. It can even be described as a feeling of ecstasy. I cannot say I have ever managed to reach Samadhi, but after hearing that it is the ultimate stage of enlightenment, let’s just say I might be concentrating a little harder and harnessing a keener focus in order to get there.