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Yoga Articles by Julene Louis
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga means eight (asht) limb (anga) yoga. Of these eight limbs, the first five are outer limbs (bahir anga) and last three are inner limbs (antar anga). The outer limbs relate to the external realm of the senses while the inner limbs relate to realm of the internal awareness of the mind.
The first two limbs combine as a set of restraints (5 yamas) and observances (5 niyamas) that create the ethics of yoga. Since Yoga is a way of life, the yamas and niyamas are the 10 ways to live an ethical life. The five yamas are non-harmful (ahimsa), truth (satya), non-stealing (asteya), non-excess, continence, chastity (brahmacharya, translates to sacred behavior), non-possessiveness (aparigraha, translates to non future-grasping). The five niyamas are purity (saucha), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas, translates to asceticism), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender (ishvara pranidhana, translates to abstract contemplation on the Supreme).
The third limb, asana, is not about getting your body properly into a particular posture or series of postures. It is about connecting the movement of your body to your breath. It is about connecting to the inner awareness of your vital energy within your body. Again it is not about pushing our bodies into a posture we aren’t ready for, but a means of becoming aware of the union of mind and body through breath and movement.
The forth limb, pranayama, translates to “breath control” or “the art of checking or curbing the breath of life.” Prana is our vital energy (like the Oriental “chi”). So pranayama is also a way to control our vital energy. It is also a way to create more vital energy within ourselves. Pranayama techniques relate to kundalini, the chakras, and nadis of our physical and subtle energy bodies. Pranayama techniques connect our breath to the universal life force. Pranayama also helps to calm our minds and prepare for meditation.
The fifth limb, pratyahara, translates to “sense withdrawal.” This is the last outer limb that prepares us for the inner limbs. Since the outer limbs exist in the realm of the senses, and the inner limbs exist in the realm of the mind, this limb is the bridge. Pratyahara is about curbing our external sensory perceptions learning to perceive with our inner senses. Pratyahara is about seeing with your mind’s eye, hearing the inner vibrations of your own mind, and cultivating the inner senses that connect to the higher realms.
The last three limbs describe the three fold process of meditation. In fact samyama mentioned in the Yoga Sutras means “total concentration” and is the combined state of dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
The sixth limb, dharana, translates to “concentration.” This is our power of attention that allows us to quiet our minds from continuously spinning thoughts. There are many tools or methods of dharana like concentrating on the flame of a candle, concentrating on our breath, concentrating on our chakras, on the awareness in our heart, and turning our gaze to our 3rd eye. It is about directing our gaze so that the mind follows and our external senses no longer distract us.
The seventh limb, dhyana, translates to “meditation” and “attention.” This is about directing our attention inward to the very nature of the internalized mind that is calm and happy in its own being free of external influence. David Frawley says “In this state the mind functions like a mirror to reveal the inner reality of whatever we hold our attention on. The meditative mind can provide us special knowledge of the universe, the subtle worlds or the deeper dimensions of our own being.” There are many tools for this as well such as devotional meditation on a deity, guru, the divine presence in our hearts or anything that inspires us and meditating on the mind as the inner witness to our thoughts, allowing them to rise and fall but not attaching to them.
The eighth limb, samadhi, translates to “intense absorption,” “joining with,” “brining into harmony” and “trance.” This is the state of absorption in the higher awareness from which results a state of bliss that is more like a deep peace than a euphoria. Samadhi is also becoming absorbed in an object we wish to unite with through such a deep meditation that the boundaries between self and object disappear and a union or mergence results. Ultimately it is about being one with everything at the core of our being and cultivating this oneness as the natural condition of our awareness and maintaining the awareness of the true nature in our heart that is one with the divine.
Each week in 2015 I am going to blog about each of these limbs, taking 5 weeks each for the yamas and niyamas. Visit my blog, share your yogic journey, insights and wisdom.
Yoga the Greater Tradition, Frawley, David, Mandala Publishing, 2008
Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, Adele, Deborah, On-Word Bound Books LLC, 2009
© Julene Louis 2015