If you’ve ever taken an Ashtanga yoga class, or one related to it like Vinyasa yoga, you might have heard your instructor talking about limbs. Nothing about limbs should be shocking in a yoga class, after all, you are there to strengthen and use your body. However, they’re not talking about your physical limbs.
Ashtanga means eight limbs or branches. Physical yoga, breathing and other aspects you have come to know in yoga are all separate limbs. So in addition to stretching out those arms and legs, you are also working out these eight limbs.
The first limb of yoga is called yama and it deals with ethics and integrity. It’s all about behavior and how we conduct ourselves. No doubt you’ve heard of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Well, yama is all about that.
There are five yamas that people should live by. Ahimsa is non-violence, Satya is truthfulness, Asteya is nonstealing, Brahmacharya is continence, and Apargraha is non-covetousness. Basically, yama is all about being a good person.
Niyama is the second limb and deals with self-discipline and spiritual observance. Religious practices like attending church or temple and saying grace before meals would be niyama practices. Spirituality doesn’t have to mean religion, though. Meditation and contemplative moments could also be considered niyama practices.
Like yama, there are five niyamas. Saucha is cleanliness, Samtosa is contentment, Tapas is heat, Svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures or one’s self, and Isvara pranidhana is surrender to God.
Asana is probably the limb people associate with yoga most. Asana is the postures practices in yoga. It involves physical discipline and physical health. The ability to concentrate and meditation are also important for asana. It’s not just moving your body but being aware of it.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is generally translated as breath control. This is probably the second most common limb associated with yoga after asana. This limb is about mastering the respiratory process and recognizing the connection between breath, the mind, and emotions.
These first four steps focus on refining our self’s, gaining awareness, and gaining mastery over our bodies. The second four limbs deal with the mind, the senses and attaining a higher level of consciousness.
Pratyahara means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During this stage, people make the conscious effort to draw their awareness away from the external world. By being aware of yet detached from sense people direct their attention internally. This practice is basically about stepping back from the external world and looking internally.
The sixth limb, Dharana, is concentration. This step is about dealing with the distractions in one’s mind. Dharana is about slowing down the thinking process and focusing on a single mental object. Sound confusing? Well, dharana is basically about focusing on a single thing, like a sound, to create an intense concentration. This is important to the seventh limb which is meditation.
Dhyana can is the uninterrupted flow of concentration, otherwise known as contemplation or meditation. This limb can easily be confused with concentration but there is a subtle difference. Instead of focusing on one point, meditation is about being aware without focus. During this stage the mind will be quiet, producing few or no thoughts. It surprisingly takes a lot of strength and stamina to be still.
The final stage is called Samadhi and a state of ecstasy. Sound great, right? At this stage, a person will merge with their point of focus during meditation and transcend the self altogether. It’s where people come to the realization of the interconnectedness of all living things. This might sound a little crazy and but this stage is all about having joy, fulfillment, and freedom in one’s life.
Looking at all eight of these limbs can be overwhelming and the thought of transcending ones self may seem impossible. It won’t happen overnight, but like practicing yoga, these eight steps take time and dedication.
Sign up for one our yoga classes today to get started on the journey. Namaste!