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It may have happened to you in your very first yoga class. Maybe it was in your tenth or twentieth. Or perhaps it will occur in your next class.
A momentary withdrawal of your senses, a complete release of distraction and sudden perfect focus as you settle into Warrior II. A feeling of power and confidence burning within your solar plexus as you stand tall and stable in tree pose for the first time. Perhaps it happened with a deep and pure breath of surrender and the feeling of being embraced by a greater Lifeforce as you rested in Savasana.
Wherever you find yourself in your yoga journey, there is a good chance that you have felt this exact moment; when you realize that there is more to yoga than simple exercise.
You may now start to hear words like Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), Tapas (burning/discipline) or Dyana (meditation) with more interest and familiarity as they now relate to your own experience.
Whether you know it or not, you have experienced a branch of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This ancient text clarifies the purpose, the practice and the potential of yoga beginning with the classic definition of yoga: Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ” (Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations.)
How to get from tree pose to inner peace is precisely the purpose of the 8 Limbs of Yoga; to provide context and guidance to those seeking self awareness and a more meaningful practice.
Many see the progress through the eight limbs in a linear, hierarchical path, such as climbing rungs on a ladder or the growth of a tree; from root to fruit. However, any and all changes that one experiences in yoga all occur in the same place; within one’s mind and body. Rather than seeing the Eight Limbs of Yoga as an upward or outward journey, perhaps an image of inward transformation would better describe the journey.
One image that rings true to the dynamic nature of yoga is the Seed of Life, a classic symbol of “Sacred Geometry”. Each of eight overlapping circles combine to depict a multi-dimensional form which connects each circle to every other. Shapes appear and reappear in countless combinations allowing the abstract to merge with the literal, the linear to melt into the limitless.
From the surrounding borders of the Yamas (Community Ethics) to the integration of Samadhi (Enlightened Living) all of the parts become a complete whole.
While far from a perfect metaphor, the Seed of Life can still become a useful object of Dharana (Concentration) and Dyhana (Meditation) to allow all eight limbs to be observed at once in harmonious relationship and in context.
May this poster provide you with a simple reminder of this ancient, yet timeless wisdom, to serve as a mirror, a lens or a window through which you may look at as you please.
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The 8 Limbs of Yoga include:
- Yamas : Community Ethics
- Niyamas : Personal Observances
- Asana: Seat/ Postures
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises
- Pratyahara : Inner Awareness
- Dharana : Concentration
- Dyana : Meditation
- Samadhi : Enlightened living
Yama means restraint, moral discipline or moral vow and relates to how we treat others and how we should not treat others. Our lives are microcosms within a larger community macrocosm and therefore inter-personal development depends completely on how beneficial or at least how benign we are to our community.
The Five Yamas are:
- Ahiṃsā: non-violence, non-harming
- Satya: non-lying, honesty
- Asteya: non-stealing.
- Brahmachārya: sexual control, continence
- Aparigraha: non-grasping.
The Yamas represent the borders and boundaries of our interactions with others. These are community agreements which like any agreement must be upheld to establish trust. When a majority of people live within the Yamas, there can be trust individually and collectively.
The red border which frames the Seed of Life represents the Yamas. When we can trust outselves with others and others can trust us, we can create happy, healthy and productive lives.
The Niyamas are the internal commitments which guide one’s thoughts, words and actions and are the basis of personal integrity. They set a high standard of self-respect, practical discipline and a humble mindset which applies to all aspects of one’s life.
The Five Niyamas are:
- Śauca: Cleanliness, purity
- Santoṣa: Contentment, acceptance
- Tapas: Self discipline, persistence
- Svādhyāya: Study of self, sacred texts
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna: Surrender to divine, True Self
The Niyamas are represented with the orange petals. Once we have established community guidelines and respect for our relationships with others, we now establish personal values to live by. These values promote health, peace, wisdom and serenity.
Seat / Posture
Asana includes all of the postures, poses and physical practices that you typically see in a yoga class. Asana literally means “seat” and it is the suffix of nearly every yoga pose that you will hear (Virabhadrasana: Warrior pose, Savasana: corpse pose, etc.)
Despite the endless cues, instructions, and variations that you may hear in a yoga class, the only instructions given for how to perform asana in the Yoga Sutras is: “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable.
One further sutra states, “asanas are perfected over time by relaxation of effort with meditation on the infinite.” Asana was seen as a means to an end, not the end itself.
Asana is represented by the yellow petals in the Seed of Life. Asana is a way to practice and put into action the Yamas (Community Ethics) and Niyamas (Personal Observances) and as well as integrate Pranayama (Breathing) and Pratyahara (Inner Awareness).
Prāṇāyāma is made out of two Sanskrit words prāṇa (breath/energy) and ayāma (extending, stretching).
Once a yoga posture (asana) has been achieved with comfort and stability, the next limb of yoga, (prāṇāyāma) is the practice of consciously regulating the breath (inhalation, exhalation and pauses). There are dozens of different Pranayama breathing exercises with different variations in the length of the inhale, exhale and the pause in between as well as the speed of the breath. Although Patanjali recommends that Pranayama is practiced only after Asana is perfected, many teachers use it as a preparation to asana practice, as well as during and afterwards.
Pranayama is shown as the green petal, bright and full of energy, expanding from the asana practice and forming a bridge from the body to the mind. The breath is one of the few vital functions that can be controlled consciously and therefore it naturally becomes a natural tool for Pratyahara (Inner Awareness).
Pratyāhāra is a combination of two Sanskrit words prati- , “towards” and ahāra “bring near”.
Our five senses are mainly focuses outwards; our eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue are designed to mainly process external stimuli and evaluate our relationships with the outer world. It is very easy to spend the majority of one’s day focusing on other people, our responsibilities in the world and significantly ignore our inner world and senses. Not only are there few situations in a typical day that are conducive to pratyahara, most people have never been taught effective practices to be able to do so. Yoga asana and pranayama are two powerful tools to develop and cultivate Pratyahara.
The light blue petal symbolizes Pratyahara, a bridge for the Asana practice to bring one’s consciousness from the external world to the inner. Pratyahara is the final limb of Bahiranga (the visible practice of the first five limbs) and ushers in the transition to Antaranga (the invisible practice of the last three limbs) which develop the inner state.
Dharana means concentration, one-pointedness of mind. The root of the word is dhṛ, which has a meaning of “to hold, maintain, keep”.
Dharana can be practiced through many different means, from the repetition of a mantra, candle gazing, or unwavering contemplation on a mental subject. Just as the light of the sun feels warm and comforting on one’s skin, when it is concentrated through a magnifying glass, it can cause a burn. The mind is also very powerful when it is focused and to be able to direct one’s attention in a singular direction is an essential ability to achieve any goal.
Dharana is shown as the dark blue petal on the Flower of Life.
Dhyana means “contemplation, reflection” and “meditation”
Dharana is like the journey and Dhyana the destination; one leads to the other. As the mind is suspended in one-pointed focus long enough (Dharana) a meditative state occurs (Dhyana) with measurable changes in the brain waves, body physiology and subjective awareness. In this altered state, there is deep peace, bliss and an ability to hold, examine or revolve ideas or concepts through the mind, looking at it from all sides as if it were an object in one’s hand. This mental control allows the meditator to separate truth from falsehood, unravel the complexities of the ego and to discern one’s true nature.
Dyhana is shown as the purple petals of the inner circle of the Seed of Life. Invisible and intangible, they mark a departure from the normal states of consciousness. Just as the human eye and ear cannot perceive most of the frequencies and vibrations that exist in nature, the invisible and the unknowable is actually much larger in proportion than what can be seen and known. Just as a sugar cube is dissolved into warm water, the rational mind is relinquished through Dyhana and there is an experience of “divine absorption” or Samadhi.
Samadhi means “putting together, union, harmonious whole.”
Samadhi combines the words ‘sama’ meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ meaning ‘to see’.
This means that there is no difference between the meditator and the subject of meditation. There is a realization of the essential oneness, non-duality of reality and a total dissolution of the ego.
Samadhi is oneness with the subject of meditation. There is no distinction, during the eighth limb of yoga, between the actor of meditation, the act of meditation and the subject of meditation. Samadhi is that spiritual state when one’s mind is so absorbed in whatever it is contemplating on, that the mind loses the sense of its own identity. The thinker, the thought process and the thought fuse with the subject of thought. There is only oneness, samadhi.
This final stage of Samadhi is represented as the whole Flower of Life, representing an integration and nuturance of the entire 8 Limbs of Yoga. Just as a seed contains the promise of a flower, every human being has the potential of experiencing Samadhi. In the same way that a gardener can help a plant grow and bear fruit, so can a yoga teacher help her students reveal their potential. Offering nourishment, support, pruning or space, a wise teacher knows that some students grow like a vine and others like a cactus, each with different needs and goals.
B.K.S. Iyengar, a teacher of teachers, says that “Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality.”
In the final verse of the Atma Satkam (Song of Enlightenment) Adi Shankara wrote this of Samadhi:
“Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form,
I dwell within the senses but they are not my home:
Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound –
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I’m found.”
If you would like to download your own copy of The 8 Limbs of Yoga Seed of Life poster,
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If you would like to read more about the 8 Limbs of Yoga or the Yoga Sutras from which it came, check out this list of resources:
Light on the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali – B.K.S. Iyengar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy – Stuart Ray Sarbacker & Kevin Kimple