At the start of my yoga journey, somewhere around 5 years ago, all I was really familiar with when it came to yoga were the postures. Not that my teacher didn't include mantras or meditation and breath-work into the class from time to time, but pretty much all I saw were the poses. Because, after all, what we see is most important...right?
I'm pretty sure we can all agree that's not true but sometimes our vision gets clouded by the images of pretty pretzels with their legs behind their heads and we silently say to ourselves: »ohhh, I want to do that too« (spoiler alert: I've never gotten to that point nor do I think I ever will). And it's great to want to grow and learn and expand, but according to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras, Asana or yoga posture is just one of eight limbs of yoga although social media tries hard to convince us otherwise.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a guide on how to live a balanced and ethical life―on and off the mat. Although they are composed of 196 Indian sutras (aphorisms) on the theory and practice of yoga, most of modern yoga's attention is focused on 31 sutras describing the 8-fold path or Ashtanga yoga (Asha = eight, Anga = limb), as Patanjali called it.
So what are the 8 limbs of yoga that Patanjali talked about?
Yama, the first limb, deals with our ethics and standards. It's basically a set of moral codes that act as guidelines on how to act in relationship with others and the world. The five Yamas are Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
The second limb, Niyama, has to do with our self-discipline and are a set of guidelines on how to act in a relationship with oneself. Five Niyamas are Sauca (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), Isvarapranidhana (contemplation of God).
Probably the most known limb of yoga―Asana or posture―had quite a different meaning in its original context. While Asana is now referred to as any physical practice/pose, the only Asana performed and mentioned by Patanjali was a comfortable seated position in order to meditate and practice pranayama (see below).
The fourth limb of yoga is breath control. Once you feel like you're right with the world (Yama) and yourself (Niyama), got in a comfortable seated position (Asana), then breathwork can start. In the Yoga Sutra, the only mention of Pranayama was the regulation of inhalations/exhalations and retention of breath, all other breathing techniques come from other sources.
Withdrawal of the senses, the fifth limb according to Patanjali, is the final step before meditation described in the last three limbs. It can be practiced as mindfulness where every sensory input is noticed as something external and is allowed to pass, without capturing our attention. It can provide us with great insight into our own behavior that might be interfering with our personal growth.
Now that we're removed all outside distractions, we can turn our focus inwards and focus on what's happening in our mind. Focusing the mind on one point is the first stage in the inner journey toward freedom from suffering.
The seventh limb of yoga or Dyana is total awareness but at the same, there is no focus. To artists and athletes this might be known as a flow state, where your attention is so focused on one point, everything else falls away. Dhyana is complete engrossment into the moment.
When we've reached or achieved all these seven steps, we reach Samadhi or ecstasy. At this point, the meditator merges with the point of focus and transcends the Self. It's a connection with the divine.
Five years and around 300 of training hours later, I'm pretty sure I'm still far away from the majority of the poses I so admired others doing at the beginning of my yoga journey. On the contrary, I feel like in some ways I'm even further away from them as I was all those years back.
Why? Maybe it has to do with the fact that I've been putting more energy into teaching than practicing lately while trying not to neglect my own practice. Because right now I find it more important to share this practice with others in the hopes they feel a little bit better by giving their bodies―and their minds―a little stretch than bringing my nose to my knees in forwarding folds or grabbing my foot in King Pigeon.
That said, I still highly respect those teachers' and students' whose practice focuses more on the physical as by being challenged on the physical level, there's no other place to be than here and now. And what is the goal of yoga than to be more present? Exactly. ;)
Dreamer, creator, lover, yogi.