If you’ve been to any yoga class ever, you’re probably familiar with terms like downward facing dog, namaste, and savasana. But, unless you’ve gone through an intensive yoga teacher training or you’re a total yogic knowledge nerd, then there’s a chance you haven’t heard of the eight limbs of yoga.
“The eight limbs of yoga are from Patanjail’s Yoga Sutra, which many consider akin to the yoga bible,” says Claire Grieve, a yoga specialist and certified health coach. “They are beautiful philosophies that are meant to be guidelines for living a meaningful life and are considered necessary to attain enlightenment.”
Um, sounds amazing—so why aren’t most yoga instructors expounding this knowledge from their spot at the front of the studio? The reason you don’t often hear about the eight limbs during a yoga class, Grieve explains, is that it can be a bit confusing and overwhelming, especially if you’re totally new to the practice. After all, the purpose of going to a yoga class is to zen out and get your sweat on, not add more confusion to your life. “Regardless of whether or not you’re aware, these concepts will be central to any yoga class you take part in,” Grieve adds.
That said, the eight limbs of yoga aren’t meant to just be practiced during yoga. They are principles that you can bring into all areas of your life and can be practiced on and off the mat.
Here, the yoga pro shares the deets behind each of the 8 limbs of yoga—and how to practice them in your daily life.
There are a total of five yamas that comprise the first limb of yoga: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess, and non-covetousness. “They are the integrity and ethics that are the foundation for a life of union,” Grieve says.
You can practice yama by speaking kindly to others or giving a stranger a genuine compliment. Even releasing attachment to your belongings can be a way of practicing yama in your daily life. In other words, Marie Kondo-ing your home might just be the first step towards becoming your most enlightened self. If that’s not enough inspiration for some spring decluttering, we don’t know what is.
The second limb, Niyama, is about self-discipline. The five niyamas are purity of the mind, contentment, self-discipline, self-reflection, and devotion to God. “To practice niyamas, select one to focus on each day,” Grieve says. Daily niyama practices she recommends include reciting positive affirmations, going on a judgement detox, journaling, and praying. Heck, just showing up to your yoga class a few times of week is a great way to practice self-discipline.
“Asana are the movements and poses that you perform while in a yoga class,” Grieve says. “Their purpose is to prepare the mind for meditation. Pantanjali believed that one’s body must be strong and without strain in order to allow for proper meditation.” She recommends getting your asana on for at least 15-30 minutes a day to deepen your connection—even if that means doing a few yoga stretches at your desk during your lunch break.
“Pranayama is the practice of breath, which is thought to be the current of life,” Grieve says. “Taking deep, focused, and rhythmic inhalations and exhalations are a practice of pranayama.” So any time you meditate or flow through your yoga poses, you’re practicing the fourth limb of yoga.
And if you want to squeeze in some pranayama while in line at the grocery store, you can also practice a little breathing exercise Grieve recommends. It involves breathing in slowly and deeply for six counts, holding for two to three counts, and slowly exhaling for eight counts. “Try doing this for five minutes and increase in duration as you become more comfortable with the practice,” she says.
The fifth limb of yoga is about shifting your focus away from external chaos. With so much going on in the world coupled with our constantly buzzing cell phones, this is no easy feat; but it’s essential for living your best life.
“By turning off your reaction to external stimulus and even your senses, you are able to better move towards spiritual mastery,” Grieve says. “Heading to the studio, turning off your phone, and focusing on your practice for an hour can be a form of pratyahara.”
Once you’ve mastered blocking out all the external stimuli with the fifth limb, you can take things to the next level with the sixth limb of dharana, which is all about concentration and eliminating mental chatter. “Dharana is the ability to focus in on one point,” Grieve says. Again, this is not easy (like, at all). Hence why it’s called a yoga practice. You need to do it over and over again in order for it to click. Grieve also suggests bringing a mantra to your meditation practice to help quiet your noisy mind.
With the seventh limb of yoga, dhyana, we’re diving deeper into spiritual territory. “In dhyana, you begin to flow with awareness of your focal point,” Grieve says. “You are able to contemplate the focus without attachment or judgement.”
In layman’s terms? Things are about to get trippy. While dharana is about focusing on a single mental object (like a mantra, or a visualization), dhyana (which is often used interchangeably with meditation, although they’re slightly different) is about becoming so fully immersed in the experience you no longer separate your self from the act of meditating.
“The ultimate goal of yoga is a complete transcendence from the notion of self or separateness,” Grieve says. That’s what the eighth and last limb of yoga is all about: finding pure joy and ecstasy. It’s about becoming one with the act of meditation.
“You can begin to practice this limb by simply noticing your joy and what circumstances allow you to be in that state of being,” she says. “Savasana pose, too, will help you to open yourself to oneness.”
Whether you reach enlightenment or not, it’s safe to say that practicing and living the principles of the eight limbs of yoga can help lead to a happier, more high-vibe life.
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