Tag Archives: eight limbs

Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

Patanjali35

When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

Yama and Niyama in Asana

I have been on a Yama/Niyama theme lately. That is because Yama/Niyama are the true foundation of Yoga. As Iyengar says in Light on Yoga, “Practise of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” In the West, we have fetishized asana as “yoga” without giving the other limbs their due.

There is a popular misconception that the eight limbs are to be done sequentially. However, Iyengar taught that the limbs can be done concurrently. Based on concepts from Prashant Iyengar’s The Alpha & Omega of Utthita Trikonasana, I will present examples on using Yama/Niyama with Asana. Here is BKS Iyengar in Utthita Trikonasna:

iyengar triangle

This is Iyengar’s pose in his prime. His arms are perfectly straight, his legs are perfectly straight, and there are three distinct triangles within his pose. In his pose, he is practicing Ahimsa (non-harming) by doing the correct actions and not injuring himself. He is practicing Satya (truthfulness) by having proper form. He is practicing Asteya (non-stealing) by not allowing one side of his body to do the work that should be done by the other side of the body. He is practicing Brahmacarya (continence) by presenting the asana in a pure manner. He is practicing Aparigraha (non-greediness) by sharing his practice with the world.

Meanwhile, he is practicing Saucha (Cleanliness) by presenting himself as with good hygiene. He is practicing Santosa (Contentment) by the placid look on his face and he calmness of his asana. He is practicing Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort) by his dedication to the pose and getting his hand to the floor without distorting any other part of the asana. He is practicing Svadhyaya (Self Study) by examining his pose and redoing what needs to be corrected. And lastly he is practicing Isvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God) by “sealing” the pose and transforming into three triangles right before your eyes.

Isvara Pranidhana is what I aspire to in all of my poses. It is the true giving of myself to the practice in Asana. Iyengar often said “My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.” He was referring to Isvara Pranidhana.

In modern yoga, people seem to be fixated on yoga as some sort of “workout.” While asanas do tone and strengthen the muscles and bring health, doing asana without the other limbs is much like carrying around a wheel and thinking it’s a car.

People are afraid to say that yoga is a spiritual practice because of their own religious views. But yoga transcends religion. It is what religion wants to be, but is yoga is not bound by politics. Yoga leaves the “religion” to the individual self to decide.

When asana is done for the ego, you can tell in the face that Isvara Pranidhana is absent. There is strain when we push the body where it is not ready to go.

yoga strain

When asana is practiced with all of the yamas and niyamas, this is what the face looks like.

eka pada sirsasana

In your asana practice this week, try to see if you are practicing all the Yamas and Niyamas in the poses. That in itself can be a lifelong practice.