Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Namaste everyone,

Since yoga is about increasing our sense of well-being, aliveness and peace, I want to offer some ways that you can practice outside of class. In addition to your asana practice, I encourage you to think of yoga in the big-picture sense, and explore ways that you can live your yoga beyond the mat. One of the ways to do this is to apply yogic principles to your life in general.

In the West, we often think of yoga as a series of physical exercises we do on a mat. This is actually a relatively small part of what yoga is about. Postures were taught as a way to condition and prepare oneself for the deeper practices of meditation and absorption in Spirit's presence. I've also heard it said that the asanas arose spontaneously as a result of yogis being in deep states of awareness from meditation and breathing practices.

In the classical teachings, yoga is viewed as an eight-limbed path. Some use the image of 8 spokes on a wheel, or a ladder with 8 rungs. According to the 2000 year-old yoga sutras of Patanjali, these 8 limbs are:

--Yama: restraints
--Niyama: observances
--Asana: postures
--Pranayama: increasing life force through breath control
--Pratyahara: sense withdrawal, introversion
--Dharana: concentration
--Dyhana: meditation
--Samadhi: absorbtion, merging with the infinite

These 8 limbs are what comprise Ashtanga yoga (ashta=8, anga=limb). This is different from the popular brand of power yoga that is known by the same name. The original Ashtanga yoga is a system that integrates each of these 8 aspects into a spiritual life that is balanced and deep.

In addition, there are many types of yoga beyond the physical postures, breathing, and meditation. What we typically practice in class is called Hatha Yoga. Karma yoga is the practice of selfless service, through work, to others and to the Divine. Bhakti yoga is the practice of devotion through prayer, chanting and ritual. Jnana yoga is the discipline of seeking Truth, using the power of the mind to transcend the mind.  We'll be exploring these more fully in future postings.

All this information is an invitation for you to broaden your concept of yoga practice. When you say "I do yoga," it can mean a lot more than doing downward dog on your mat. When you are at work and giving your energy to others, that is part of your yoga practice. When you are engaged in prayer or meditation, that is also yoga practice. Yoga is anything that brings us to a sense of union with Spirit and inner peace. Perhaps your yoga happens through walking in nature, singing, making love, running, dance, or serving others. What makes you feel fully and vibrantly alive?

Through the streets

Throwing rocks through windows,
using my own head to ring
Great bells,

Pulling out my hair,
Tearing off my clothes,

Tying everything I own
To a stick
And setting it on

What else can Hafiz do tonight
To celebrate the madness,
The joy,

Of seeing God

 ~Hafiz (trans. Daniel Ladinsky)

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