Day 13: The Eight Limbs – Yoga Beyond the Physical Poses
Kumbhakasana, dhanurasana, malasana and the crowd favorite, shavasana.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you have likely heard these poses or positions called by teachers as you have moved your body and breath through class. But yoga goes so far beyond the physical practice represented in much of mainstream America.
The classical system of yoga was given to us by Patanjali through the “Yoga Sutras”, and is based on traditions going back to earlier traditions of Vedic times. Put simply, Patanjali considered yoga “the complete control of the operations of the mind”, and only from such control of the mind can the knowledge of our true self, or atman, be achieved [Yoga Sutras 1.2].
Written between 500 and 200 BCE the 8 limbs (ashta=eight, anga=limb) are designed to be practiced in order, and although some limbs carry more importance than others, in order they are represented as follows:
1. Yama: How we relate to the world through our thoughts and actions. This includes speaking truth, non-violence, non-stealing, and non-clinging.
2. Niyama: How we relate to ourselves in our thoughts and actions. This includes contentment, purity, self-study and self-discipline.
3. Asana: Postures that bring balance to the musculoskeletal system to keep the body disease-free and preserving prana (life force) and help prepare the body for meditation.
4. Pranayama: The controlled expression of prana. Using breath to move energy and help to steady the body and mind, and enhance movement between breath and physical postures.
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses, including sense withdrawal from external surrounds and objects.
6. Dharana: Control of the mind, including concentration upon a physical object, such as a candle flame, or focusing the mind on the heart space.
7. Dhyana: Meditation through the undisturbed flow of thought around the object of meditation without distraction. This may take the form of a mantra, object, vision or breath observation.
8. Samadhi: Where the boundary between what is observed and the observer no longer exists. Where the meditation and the object of meditation become one so that we may find divine union in all things.
I have just returned from a week-long yoga and meditation retreat in Mexico, and while I was limited in many physical postures due to a shoulder injury, through the eight limbs approach, I could still happily “do” yoga.
Whether it was sitting with others listening with an open heart, resting to honor my pained body, quietly observing an ocean sunset, or through a walking meditation, I practiced over and again.
Yoga begins when we step off the mat, beyond the security of a structured class, and become fully present in a fast, stimulated, and digital world. Staying centered in these spaces and places is a more advanced practice than any pretzel pose can ever be.
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