Yoga is commonly recognized as a physical exercise. However, the physical exercise is only a relatively small portion of the entire realm of yoga. What?! There is more to learn and practice than that super hard yoga class I just took? Oh, boy… You may be having one of those moments when you think the whole world revolves around you, then you look up at the stars and realize how small you are. I have that feeling on a regular basis. Let’s see what the universe of yoga looks like…
The 8 Limbs of Yoga (Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga) are instructions on how to achieve peace of mind. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is recognized as Citta Vritti Nirodhah (cessation of the fluctuations of the mind). The stopping of mind fluctuations can also be recognized as mental peace. When you achieve yoga, you will be balanced, focused, and in constant connection with the truth that we are pure awareness. We will continue to live in everyday life, but we will not be swayed by greed, jealousy, and other similar humanly struggles.
Connecting with your higher Self is known as yoga, because we develop clarity and peace of mind to see that awareness is all that is real. Patanjali describes a very practical and straightforward list of steps to take on the path towards yoga. Maintain your faith, practice these 8 limbs, and you will achieve peace.
Yama (universal moral commandments)
Brahmacharya (sensual moderation)
Niyama (self purification by discipline)
Tapas (internal fire)
Svadhyaya (self study)
Ishvara pranidhana (dedication of action to the divine)
Yoga poses are intended to create a healthy body, a healthy mind, prepare your body to sit in meditation, and to create union between your body, mind, and soul.
Pranayama (rhythmic breath control)
There are many breath control techniques that work with your inhale, exhale, retention, and suspension.
Breath control can create a heating or cooling effect in your body. Controlling your breath prepares your mind for concentration.
Pratyahara (sensory control)
Master stimuli received from all 5 senses. This limb trains your mind to be steady and unwavering to smells, sights, sounds, tastes, or feelings during practice.
Awareness/focus on one specific object.
Focused concentration on a single objective during an extended period of time. Train your mind to focus, be present, and unwavering.
Last stage of meditation. The observer and the observed are not viewed as separate. All is one. The result of maintaining/cultivating/combining all prior limbs correctly.
The first two limbs are moral life practices that help us begin the path of yoga. Practice all parts of Yama and Niyama during each day. Be inquisitive of your thoughts, words, and actions. Bring all parts into every aspect of your awareness.
Practice asana (physical postures of yoga) to develop strength, flexibility, and a healthy body. Practicing physical yoga cleanses your internal organs so that you can be healthy. If your body is sick, your mind will not be able to prosper along the path of yoga for the following limbs. Asana stretches and strengthens your muscles, so that you are able to live a pain free life. Practicing asana is also vital for your success in meditation, as it can be physically challenging to sit for long periods of time without moving due to discomfort.
Practice pranayama (breath work) to regain vitality after a strenuous asana practice. This practice is an important precursor to your success in meditation. If you are able to sit for a long time and remained focused on the task of maintaining a breathing pattern, you will have more success in meditation. There are many breathwork techniques that produce specific effects. As an example, Sitali breathing is a cooling breath. Inhale through your mouth with a curled tongue and exhale out of your nose. Try practicing this breath for 8 minutes in a meditative seat.
The last 3 Limbs of Yoga are all stages of meditation. Begin by practicing Dharana (concentration). It will take time to develop a focused and unwavering mind. Practice by looking at the flame of a candle. Keep your eyes focused on the outline or general form of the flame. Do your best to release all thoughts and simply watch the fire. Breathe regularly and sit still. This meditation practice develops the longevity of your concentration.
Once you are able to concentrate for a long period of time, you will naturally enter into the stage of Dhyana (meditation with a single focus). You can maintain the same practice of looking at the form/outline of a flame, but your mind will be able to concentrate without struggle.
Once you have developed the first two stages of meditation, Samadhi will naturally occur. Samadhi is a state of pure awareness. In this stage, the observer loses any sense of separateness between the observer and the object being observed. This is when you awaken to pure awareness or total consciousness. This is the desired state of yoga that you work hard for in the previous 7 steps. It can take decades to achieve this state, but every person is different. We all have different lives, backgrounds, etc. Samadhi may come more quickly to someone living a peaceful and good life. So whatever your life looks like, stay diligent and work hard! Peace is achievable.
Best wishes on your journey to yoga! Namaste!