Inviting the Eight Limbs of Yoga Into Your Life
by Charlotte Bell
Recently I had a conversation with a woman who works as a marketing specialist for a purveyor of yoga supplies. She attends all the major yoga conferences in the United States and has taken classes and workshops from many of the best known teachers in the world.
In the course of our conversation we began talking about the yamas, the first of the eight limbs of yoga. These are the ethical guidelines defined some 5,000 years ago by a sage named Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras. The yamas form the ground for the entire system of yoga.
My friend admitted that in spite of her intensive immersion in the world of yoga, she had never heard of the yamas until she read a scathing article in the September 2002 Business 2.0 magazine, which outlined the ethical principles and gave examples of their abuse in the West’s burgeoning yoga business.
This did not surprise me. Yoga in the United States has been largely a practice of performing postures — a fitness regimen. The emphasis has been on asana, the third of the eight limbs outlined by Patanjali.
An attraction to asana practice was what brought me to yoga in 1982. During my first three years I enjoyed the strength, flexibility and quiet balance I felt as a result of my practice. I felt no need to look further.
Then in 1985 I met the couple who would be my mentors for the next 18 years. Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, owners of the Last Resort retreat center in Cedar Breaks, Utah, introduced me to meditation. Their commitment to living the principles of yoga practice was inspiring, and I became consumed by renewed spiritual curiosity. I wanted to learn the entire system set out by Patanjali through study, but even more by continuing to deepen my consciousness in a way that would allow these truths to come alive for me in my experience.
Yoga means union. In the West this is interpreted as the union of mind and body. While this is true, it means more than that. The unification that takes place while practicing all the eight limbs is an integration of all aspects of our lives.
Your limbs relate to each other in the same way as the limbs on your body. Each limb extends out from and feeds into a central, whole being, you. The practice of one limb strengthens all the others.
The eight limbs are a living entity. Understanding of them evolves over time and varies depending on who is reading them. The yoga sutras only have meaning in the context of a life. They have the power to transform only if they are investigated and integrated.
The First Limb: Yama
Ethical Precepts for Living Harmoniously in the World
The first and second limbs of yoga are meant to be understood as guidelines, not as commandments. As practitioners grow in consciousness, understanding and practice of these limbs becomes more subtle and creative. It is helpful to remember that every situation invites conscious interpretation of each precept. For example, a situation may arise where satya (commitment to the truth) may have to take a back seat to ahimsa (non-harming). The practice of these limbs is a lifetime study that yields increasing wisdom and compassion.
1. Ahimsa, non-harming or non-
violence: The first yama, ahimsa is arguably the foundation for the rest of the eight limbs. All the other yamas are rooted in the intention not to cause harm. The intention not to harm can be a compelling reason for becoming more conscious in our lives. Ahimsa can be practiced in word, deed, thought and intention. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Alistair Shearer describes ahimsa as “a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with loving openness.” Imagine how different our world would be if everyone committed to following just this one precept.
2. Satya, commitment to the truth: Satya is impeccable truthfulness in thought, action and speech. Honesty forms the foundation of all our relationships. A relationship built on falsehood has no strength or stability, no ground on which to stand. Because dishonesty causes harm to ourselves and others, the practice of satya can be seen as a branch of ahimsa. The foundation of practicing satya is the exceedingly challenging practice of being true to ourselves. While practicing satya may not always be easy, it brings with it a great abiding peace.
3. Asteya, non-stealing or integrity: Asteya asks us to take only what has been freely given. This includes material things as well as intellectual property. The practice of asteya can include refraining from monopolizing others’ time and energy. Practicing this yama cultivates a sense of respect for others.
4. Brahmacharya, conservation of energy, also wise use of sexual energy: In its broadest sense, brahmacharya is the practice of conserving our life force. The practice teaches us how not to leak our energy through over-activity, careless speech and unconscious or harmful use of energy, including sexual energy. It is often translated as chastity, a troublesome definition in that it has been widely misinterpreted as the suppression of sexuality, resulting in a great deal of sexual misdirection and abuse. Brahmacharya is not suppression; it is the wise and compassionate expression of this powerful energy to create positive effect in the world. It is practice of discovering the delicate balance between suppression and unhealthy indulgence. Life force energy can take the forms of creative as well as sexual energy, so its potential for positive expression is infinite.
5. Aparigraha, non-grasping, also generosity: Aparigraha is the practice of non-grasping. It relates closely to a core principle of Buddhist philosophy — that greed is at the core of all suffering. Grasping comes from dissatisfaction with life as it is. When this condition is present, there is no way to be content. Grasping includes attachment to material goods, relationships and our beliefs and ideas about ourselves and others. Aparigraha also includes the practice of taking only what you need in terms of resources such as water, food, shelter, material goods — the practice of living simply. Practicing generosity helps to uproot the habit of grasping.
The Second Limb: Niyama
Codes for Cultivating
Harmony in Ourselves
1. Saucha, purity or cleanliness: The practice of care of the body-mind, saucha aims to keep the body free and clear of physical pollutants, such as chemical-laden foods and other toxins, and the mind clear of mental pollutants, such as violent and harmful images and ideas. Aligning ourselves with kind and inspiring people helps us stay emotionally clear. The cleaner the body-mind, the more clearly we can taste and enjoy the simple and subtle pleasures in our lives.
2. Santosa, cultivation of contentment: Being content with our lives as they are in the present moment is at the root of happiness. Contentment does not, however, depend on our lives being “perfect.” Contentment is a condition of inner peace that is not reliant on external conditions. This does not mean we reluctantly tolerate unhealthy circumstances. Rather, we nurture patience while we take the steps necessary to effect change, and we learn to appreciate the gifts that present themselves along the way.
3. Svadyaya, study of the self: In its essence, the practice of yoga is svadyaya. Consciously studying the nature of ourselves opens us to an understanding of our fellow travelers on this journey. Everything we need to know is within us. Sitting quietly and watching the parade of mind-body phenomena is a good way to begin seeing what mental/emotional habits we have developed over the course of our lives. Many activities can lead us to ourselves — meditation, yoga, music, writing, raising children, painting, walking, reading, exercise. Anything we enjoy doing can be a gateway to understanding ourselves.
4. Tapas, discipline or commitment: Tapas is the fire that compels us to practice. It is translated most directly as “discipline.” The word, discipline, shares a root with the verb to learn and can be interpreted as the desire to learn. Tapas is more than a simple desire to learn, however. It is also the enthusiasm and inspiration with which we approach our practice. The qualities of discipline and enthusiasm feed each other, thus inspiring greater commitment to practice.
5. Isvarapranidhana, recognition of the spiritual in our lives: Isvarapranidhana is the practice of seeing and celebrating the spiritual in our practice and in our lives. Isvarapranidhana is the acknowledgment of an intelligence larger than our own, and an understanding of our part in that intelligence. The practice teaches us to trust the unfolding of our lives in a larger context than our own immediate desires and needs.
The Third Limb: Asana
The Practice of Physical Postures
The practice of asana is about finding our calm center in physical postures that can be both challenging and pleasurable. Asana practice teaches us how to harmonize and refine the body, making it an abode of quiet for the mind, heart and spirit. The practice is intended to prepare the body for meditation by freeing blocked energies and refining body awareness so that the body may resonate with more subtle frequencies. Each asana is a living, evolving entity, and can be understood most profoundly when the practitioner lets go of preconceived ideas about practice and keeps his/her mind curious and open to whatever insights arise.
The Fourth Limb: Pranayama
The Practice of Refining and Expanding the Breath
The breath is the carrier of our life force, or prana. Pranayama is a set of breathing practices designed to expand and calm the breath, thus calming the nervous system. Together, asana and pranayama practices form the discipline hatha yoga. The practice of hatha yoga aims to refine and open the nervous system, making available the subtle states of consciousness required for meditation.
The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara
Refinement of the Senses
Pratyahara resides at the gateway between the inner and outer. In pratyahara we begin to withdraw from the habit of seeking sense stimulation as a way of trying to escape our inner world. In common parlance, it is the practice of being in the world but not of it. Far from being a dry desert devoid of pleasure, practicing pratyahara refines the senses, opening the practitioner to the pleasures of subtle sensation.
The Sixth Limb: Dharana
Steadiness of Mind
Dharana, along with dhyana and samadhi, form the heart of yoga practice. This is where the practitioner enters the realm of the mind. Dharana is the practice of stilling the mind by focusing attention on a single object. Traditional objects of attention include a physical object, a mantra or the breath. This practice settles and collects the mind.
The Seventh Limb: Dhyana
Dhyana is the refinement of the mind. In dhyana, the concentrated mind is able to sustain awareness as its activity becomes more subtle and refined. Awareness is able to watch and identify — but not identify with — the workings of the mind along with all manifestations of namarupa, the Pali word for all mind-body experience.
The Eighth Limb: Samadhi
Merging with the One
Samadhi is the state of a completely settled mind, the most subtle state of awareness. In samadhi, the mind’s boundaries disappear, opening it to the profound connection to all that exists. Samadhi is a state of being beyond the divisions of time and space, self and other.
Each limb in the eight-limbed method of yoga aims to bring stillness to the mind, in its own way. An integrated system, yoga brings together all aspects of our lives to create a whole being that is at peace in itself and in the world.
If you choose to practice within the framework of the eight limbs of yoga, make the practice your own. No book or teacher can lead you to your own truth. They can, at most, illuminate your path so that you can see it more clearly. The practice is immensely fulfilling; enjoy it. Plant the seeds of self-awareness. Watch your life flower. u
Charlotte Bell is a longtime yoga and meditation instructor living in Salt Lake City.