The Eight limbs of yoga
1. Yamas (abstention from evildoing)
2. Niyamas (personal observances)
3. Asanas (postures)
4 . Pranayama (control of the prana)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from sense objects)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (absorption in the Atman)
Limb 1 – Yamas (abstention from evildoing)
Yamas refers to ethical restraints, or appropriate social behaviour; how you treat others and the world around you. This limb is to make one think and behave in ways that bring peace and harmony to the world.
To have compassion for all living things. You should never harm or be cruel to anyone or anything. In every situation we should be kind and thoughtful, considering how our thoughts and actions affect other people and things.
Always be truthful; to think and consider the consequences of your actions before saying or doing anything. If the truth could harm others, sometimes it is better to be silent (in accordance with Ahimsa).
This means not only not stealing others possessions, but also being mindful of not taking advantage, or betraying a confidence for selfish motives, or taking something that has not been freely given.
Bramacharya (non-lust or sense control)
This doesn’t mean celibacy, but that one should behave responsibly to achieve self control; not to use sexual energy in any way to harm others. One should not give in to excessive desires, but form relationships that help us along the yogic path towards finding truth.
We should not be greedy; only take what we are due, or have earned. Nor should we take advantage of a situation, exploit anyone, or hoard things. Hoarding means we are attached to material things and the aim of yoga is to become non-attached.
Bringing the Yamas into your daily life spreads happiness and contentment and benefits everyone you come into contact with.
Limb 2 Niyamas (Five personal observances)
- Shaucha (purity or cleanliness)
This refers to cleanliness - both inner cleanliness and outer cleanliness. Cleanliness inside the body is important for healthy organs and clarity of mind. Cleanliness outside the body refers to generally keeping ourselves clean and tidy. Asanas are excellent for removing toxins from the body, pranayama cleanses the lungs, oxygenates the bloodstream and calms the nerves and meditation cleanses the mind of negative thoughts. Other cleansing practises or ‘shatkarmas’ such as the intenstinal wash will encourage good bowel movement and jala netti is helpful in cleansing the sinuses.
- Santosha (contentment)
This refers to being at peace with oneself and being content with what we’ve got, even when life gets difficult. This is an inspirational niyama because being happy with what you’ve got is far better than being unhappy about what you haven’t got.
- Tapas (disciplined use of energy)
This refers to keeping fit, being disciplined in how we use our bodies, being careful about eating habits, posture, and breathing. This way of looking at life helps one to maintain a healthy lifestyle and feel good about one’s own body.
- Svadhyaya (self study and self examination).
This refers to self awareness and self reflection. Being self aware is key to self development and growth and will eventually lead to union with all things; without this one would be unaware of one’s affect in the world.
- Isvarapranidhana (worship of God).
There are a number of different ways of understanding this according to one’s own beliefs. Indian philosophers view God as not being different from man, calling him Paramatman. However, many people believe in an omnipresent and separate God, whereas others would say that God is within oneself. No matter what your religious views, Yoga will bring you closer to whatever you believe in.
Limb 3 - Asanas (postures to prepare the body for meditation)
Hatha Yoga Pradipika refers to asana as being
‘a steady and comfortable meditative pose'; 'a specific position of the body which channels prana, opens the chakras and removes energy blocks.’
Swami Muktibodhananda p 607.
It is often believed that asanas are physical exercises, and of course this is true; they do have a profound influence on the body, but this does not convey their full significance.
Each person is made up of three aspects; body, mind and consciousness, which merge together to constitute our whole being. Asanas aim at influencing all three aspects; moulding and yoking them into one harmonious whole.
The prime aim of yoga is to help us tread the path to higher consciousness so we can begin to understand and know our relationship with existence. However, if our body and mind are not healthy we are unable to achieve this.
Regular asana practice loosens joints, stretches and tones muscles, removes poisons, harmonizes the nervous system, massages and improves the functioning of all the internal organs, the heart, lungs, abdominal organs, endocrinal glands, blood vessels and leads to the best possible health.
Asanas also have a subtle influence on the body’s energy field. Energy travels around the body in specific pathways known as nadis. These can become blocked, leading to physical and mental disorders. Asanas encourage the free flow of prana, facilitating good health. The energy body is intimately connected to the mind, therefore the free flow of prana leads to mental equilibrium and calmness.
Asanas also bring about a change in breathing. Rapid and irregular breathing signifies tension in the body and mind, whereas slow deep and rhythmical breathing indicates calmness and wellbeing. Asanas bring about mental and emotional equanimity by slowing down the breathing and deepening the inhalation and exhalation.
Asanas also help self awareness. When practising, one should be fully aware of what is being done and not allow the mind to wander here and there. Being aware of the movement of breath while doing the asanas takes the mind away from worries and problems. Even though for a short time, this can assist in permanent changes in a person’s mental and emotional makeup.
Asanas make the body relaxed, strong, light, supple, free of aches and pains and because the body and mind are inextricably linked, this in turn brings about emotional and mental calmness and confidence.
Limb 4 Pranayama – This limb generally refers to taking control of the breath
‘After mastering posture, one must practice control of the prana (pranayama) by stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation.’
Prabhavananda and Isherwood (2007) page171
‘Pranayama’ is the combination of two Sanskrit words; Prana meaning life force and Ayama meaning expansion, (or Yama meaning self restraint). Either way, Pranayama is commonly known as breath control, because the breath is generally considered to be the externalisation of prana. However, breathing is not prana, as Swami Niranjananda says pranayama is ‘a series of techniques for controlling and expanding the dimension of prana’.
According to Swami Niranjanananda there are two aspects of nature; consciousness and prana. In the beginning unmanifest consciousness (known as Para Brahman) contained everything necessary for creation, including prana. The first vibration of unmanifest consciousness caused cells to divide and beings and matter to come into existence (the big bang). Prana, the life force, pervaded everything and gave life to the universe, it gives our bodies life; it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and permeates everything around us.
When prana levels are low we become ill, negative thoughts start to creep into our minds and we become restless and disturbed. However when prana levels are high, we have positive thoughts and can experience higher feelings. It is possible to raise levels of prana by working with the breath; therefore breath and prana are intrinsically connected.
The aim of Pranayama is to enhance and guide levels of prana inside the body through control or expansion of the breath. On a spiritual level, by working with the breath we can become aware of energy levels within the body (this is known as prana vidya); experiencing prana one can gain inner knowledge and control of the mind.
On the physical level, science has proved that air quality affects our energy levels. When we are in the country close to nature we inhale negative ions; prana and energy levels go up, oxygen is absorbed into the bloodstream faster and we feel energised. However, even if we are not in an environment with high negative ions, we can use the breath to generate static electricity, which converts positive ions into negative ions therefore increasing prana levels inside the body.
Prana is distributed throughout the body via the Ida and Pingala and Sushumna Nadis (pathways of pranic energy). However, blockages in these pathways (such as negative thoughts, * samskaras * (tensions, unconscious mental patterns, accumulation of impurities) prevent prana from flowing freely and cause disease. Pranayama techniques release blockages, allowing more prana to flow, improving quality of life and lessening the risk of disease.
From a physical point of view, pranayama is beneficial to the cardiac system; through slow deep breathing the heart is rested, the heart muscles are given a gentle massage, and circulation is improved. Mentally, stress levels are minimised and spiritually, meditation can be achieved without stress to the heart.
Different pranayama practices have different effects, for example, Nadi Shodhana (alternative nostril breath) is a balancing pranyama and can be practised with breath retention after an inhalation and after an exhalation. Breath retention raises the internal temperature, improving absorption of oxygen and cerebral circulation, allowing for deeper breathing, greater mental awareness and leading to a point of intense stillness and ultimately Samadhi (enlightenment).
During Bhastrika Pranayama, (bellows breath) all the organs of the digestive system are massaged and toned by the movement of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles. The muscles are strengthened providing support for the organs from the front, thus avoiding stretching the lumbar spine (useful during labour, providing the person is familiar with the practise).
Bhastrika is an activating pranayama, on a physical level it raises energy levels; stimulatings the whole pranic system, increasing vitality and detoxifying the whole system. It also helps to balance phlegm, bile and wind, alleviates sore throats and builds resistance to coughs and colds. On a mental level the practise reduces stress and anxiety. Therapeutically, it is recommended for chronic depression as it induces peace tranquillity and one-pointedness.
Kapalbhati is also an activating pranayama which reverses normal breathing, invigorating the entire brain, making it not only more versatile, but also brings a state of mental clarity. On a spiritual level, dormant areas of the brain are awakened giving subtle perception and spiritual insight.
The effect of regulated breathing also balances the endocrine system. The blood circulation becomes very rapid and the quality of blood very rich, harmonising, purifying and neutralising the secretion of the glands.
Tranquilising Pranyama such as Bhramari (humming bee), Ujjayi, Sheetali/Sheetkari, give greater control over the nervous system and breathing process. As the breathing becomes very slow and subtle, the frequency of brain waves and metabolic rate are reduced, inducing relaxation. For example the vibrations of Bhramari soothe the mind and nervous system and induce a state of meditation. The Ujjayi breath is also called the ‘psychic breath’ because it not only induces a meditative state but also leads to very subtle states of mind. In Sheetali/Sheetkari breath is inhaled through the mouth, cooling the body, reducing mental and emotional anxiety, it encourages free flow of prana, reduces and restores equilibrium to blood pressure and induces muscular relaxation, making it a useful pranayama before sleep.
Limb Five - Pratyahara
The fifth step or limb is called pratyahara and is defined as "the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses." This limb starts to internalise the mind.
To explain pratyahara think about relaxing in Shavasana (Corpse Pose). The first stage of shavasana involves physiological relaxation. In this stage, as you become comfortable, there is first an awareness of the muscles gradually relaxing, then of the breath slowing down, and finally of the body completely letting go. While deeply relaxing, this first stage is only the beginning of the practice.
The next stage of shavasana involves the mental "sheaths."
According to yoga philosophy, each person has five subtle layers of consciousness. In the second stage of Shavasana you are withdrawing from the external world without completely losing contact with it. This withdrawal is the experience of pratyahara. It feels like you're here, but not here. For example, you notice the sounds in the environment, but your mind and body are not disturbed by these sounds. Pratyahara is this state of non-reaction. You still register input from your sense organs, but you don't react to that input. You are simply witnessing and watching the sounds.
Ultimately, the practice of pratyahara will enable a person to choose their responses instead of merely reacting to the environment. We can choose to dance with any stimulus that comes our way, or we can choose to step back and consciously not respond to that stimulus. We can be in control of our reactions, remaining in the middle of a stimulating environment and consciously not reacting, instead choosing how to respond.
Limb 6 - Dharana (concentration)
The previous 5 limbs are concerned with the preparation for meditation, without preparation, the mind is unable to concentrate; trying to meditate with no preparation will lead to an inner battle; you cannot force the mind to concentrate. However, with preparation, concentration comes more easily. These last three limbs bring about total mental relaxation through a process of mental self discipline.
Dharana means controlling the internal mind through concentration, (holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place). The ability to concentrate is the path to higher qualities of mind, but this is not easy and requires sustained and regular practise.
Limb 7 - Dhyana (meditation)
The state of dhyana arises spontaneously through regular and sustained practise. Dhyana cannot be explained in words, the only way to understand this is to experience it for yourself.
Limb 8 - Samadhi (deep absorption)
Samadhi is a superconscious state; the climax of meditation in which the aspirant experiences unity with cosmic consciousness.
It is attention itself, which is progressively moving inward through the states of dharana, dhyana and samdhi:
- Attention leads to concentration (dharana)
- Concentration leads to meditation (dhyana)
- Meditation leads to absorption (samadhi)
The eight limbs of yoga are concerned with our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing and our relationship with other creatures and the environment around us.
The eight limbs consist of Yamas and Nyamas, (the not-to-do’s and the to-do’s of everyday living), Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (control of the senses) and Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi the preliminaries to meditation and enlightenment. Patanjali suggests that dedicated and sustained practise of the eight limbs will lead to deeper self knowledge, love and respect towards other people and creatures, a cleaner environment, healthy diet and union with the divine.
*Samskaras - According to yogic philosophy, we're born with a karmic inheritance of mental and emotional patterns—known as samskaras—through which we cycle over and over again during our lives.
The word samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause, or doing). In addition to being generalized patterns, samskaras are individual impressions, ideas, or actions; taken together, our samskaras make up our conditioning. Repeating samskaras reinforces them, creating a groove that is difficult to resist. Samskaras can be positive—imagine the selfless acts of Mother Theresa. They can also be negative, as in the self-lacerating mental patterns that underlie low self-esteem and self-destructive relationships. The negative samskaras are what hinder our positive evolution.
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Sandy Hector BSc(Hons) Psychology, Certificate in Education (Southampton University), Certified Master Practitioner of NLP, Certified Master Practitioner of HNLP, Certified Master Practitioner of the Art and Science of Time-Based Techniques, Registered Hypnotherapist (GHR), Certified Hypno-gastric Band Therapist, FRYOG Yoga Teacher Diploma.