Philosophy of Yoga: The Eight-Limbed Path

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Hello! I’m excited to bring you another yoga update. This one will be a bit more educational/informational. As I mentioned in my last post about yoga, I have a test to study for, so sharing with you is a learning tool for me. : )

One of the first weeks of training we had a special guest lecturer who taught us all about the philosophy of yoga, specifically “The Eight-Limbed Path.” The Eight-Limbed Path is said to be the collected lessons that inform yoga. And this goes beyond asanas (poses)–yoga is more than just physical movement, it’s also the practice of feeling oneness, or a connection with a higher Self. The lessons provided through the Eight Limb Path help guide us through life in a more ‘yogic’ way.

There is a myth that the real brain behind the Eight-Limbed Path was Shiva. One day Shiva was talking about these lessons, when Ananta, a many-headed snake, started eavesdropping. The snake’s punishment was to take what he learned from Shiva and teach it to humans. In order to be taken seriously by humans in a nearby village, the snake transforms itself into a young boy—-simultaneously granting the wish of a barren woman who was praying for a son. The boy was called Patanjali, and that is the name usually associated with the Eight-Limbed Path. More likely, the Eight-Limbed Path is the combination of lots of minds, and Patanjali is just a good pen name. : )

The main components of “the ELP” include:

Yama– Restraints; A list of five things to NOT do. (see below)

Niyama– Observance. A list of five things TO DO. (see below)

Asana– “Seat”/Posture. That which connects you to the Earth; physicality.

Pranayama– “Life force.” (The type of breath we practice in our yoga style).

Pratyhara– Turning away from the senses, turning towards the internal.

Dharana– “Concentration.” Practice of drawing your ego back to the point; the thing you want to focus on.

Dhyana-“Meditation.”

Samadhi-“Same as the highest.” Enlightenment. Moment when you realize there is no separation. Both the goal and the practice.

Of course, these could all use a lot more in-depth explanation, but for the sake of time, I’ll spend the rest of the blog post focusing on the Yamas and Niyamas.

YAMAS (restraints; don’t do these)

Ahisma: non-harming, non-violence.

Satya: truthfulness. Don’t be dishonest. Ask yourself before you speak, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Asteya: non-stealing.

Brahmacharya: “sensual moderation.” Moderation of the senses.

Aparigraha: not grasping; non-striving, non-hoarding. Not possessed by your possessions.

NIYAMAS (observances; things to do)

Saucha: cleanliness/purity. Keeping a clean space, body, diet.

Santosha: contentment. Abide to the experience of lacking nothing. Practice of gratitude.

Tapas: heat. Heat of positive transformation and self-discipline. When you do something positive even though you don’t want to; the heat of that discomfort.

Svadhyaya: self-study. “Someone who practices self-study is someone who reads the book of their life, and is writing the book of their life.” Then reflect and be the change you wish to see.

Isvara-Pranidhana: Give your life force to The Universe/Divine/Self. Surrender, devotion, offering.

As I said before, this is as sparse an overview as you can get, but at least it gives you a basic picture. (Here’s a site that provides a bit more thorough overview in case you want to learn more!).

It’s been a fairly powerful experience to keep these things in mind as I go through my days. In many ways, I can feel this intentionality benefiting me. For example, I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to stay committed to the 21 Day Meditation Challenge, if I wasn’t thinking about Dhyana.

I’ve also tried to be intentional about the Yamas and Niyamas. Some have been very easy for me, like Saucha. Not only am I a huge fan of showers, but I’m also near-obsessive about cleaning my home (every day it gets a dust, wipe, swiffer, dishes always done, etc.). Imagine my frustration when I realized that my success at Saucha directly impacted my failure at Aparigraha. If I was really practicing “not grasping around,” I would not feel so attached to my apartment space to feel the need to have it spotless all the time. Nor would I be so careless with my water use, when so much of the world has a limited supply.

Yikes. This yoga stuff is hard work.

I could give a lot of examples of this. Like Ahisma (non-violence/non-harming). I’m a vegan and I don’t kill bugs. I’ve drastically cut down on harmful/gossipy speech. I’m committed to a (mostly) non-violent approach to political struggle (at least in the US, right now). But I haven’t internalized ahisma enough to always practice it on myself. This has only been magnified during teacher training: our rigorous and physically demanding schedule requires attention to self-care and proper nourishment/hydration. Unfortunately, there has been more than one occasion that I have experienced hunger and dehydration-related exhaustion (and other physical manifestations of not eating enough). On the other hand, I’ve gotten pretty good at Svadhyaya (self-study), so I’m now more in tune with my body to be aware when those things are happening, and have a more keen ability to address it.

The most important thing I try to remember is the same thing I mentioned before. It’s all a process. So finding yourself being yog-tastic on some of the niyamas, and not so much on some others, is all part of it. All part of the journey to finding balance and oneness.

I’d really love to hear from you all about some of this. Do these “Do’s” and “Dont’s” resonate with you? How have these manifested in your own daily life?

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9 thoughts on “Philosophy of Yoga: The Eight-Limbed Path

  1. Julianne says:

    Balance always seems to be the most difficult for me. When I attach to something that makes sense (diet, way of thinking, morality, idea) I can get a little preachy about it :-/ I have to remind myself that everyone’s opinion is valuable and makes sense to them on their journey, and no one likes to be “told” what/why to do something :) How exciting for you to enter an new path in your life!

    • raechel says:

      I struggle with that same thing! Fortunately, I learned that lesson fairly early when it came to veganism. As soon as I got off my “high horse” about it, more people in my life seemed inclined to give it a try!

  2. Gabby @ the veggie nook says:

    I would have to say santosha would be the most difficult for me- while I absolutely am grateful for all the blessings in my life- I always find myself pursuing more, never quite content with life as it is, always feeling the need to be better. I know there is a positive aspect to wanting more, but I could certainly benefit from remembering that what I have is amazing and what I have achieved is good enough in the end.

    Great post! Keep them coming :)

  3. Lou says:

    oh you KNOW I love this post…. so much to reflect (and work) on!

    I think I’m the opposite to you in my Saucha…. I hate showers and my house is always crazy (I blame the toddler!)…. BUT I did take a little something from your advice regarding your yoga teacher training…. I went to a BEGINNER class today and made myself take a step back and just focused on the basics. It was SO GOOD…. I really FELT each pose, as opposed to just whipping through them and focusing on all the “tricky” stuff. :) It was actually really humbling, and re established in my mind the fact that yoga is MY journey x

    • raechel says:

      I’m so glad to hear this! It is such an interesting feeling to encourage our bodies to focus on things we assume we “totally know.” Your journey, indeed! : )

  4. absolutely ayurveda says:

    wonderful post! aparigraha is pretty tough for me, since i can be quite the hoarder (albeit a tidy one) and attachment is something that is deep in my heart (everlasting nostalgia, anyone?)

    as a funny side note, when first studying the ashtanga yoga last year, i brought up the fact that asteya is especially important in the yoga/ayurveda community, as cultural appropriation is a very real and prevalent form of it. needless to say, it caused an uproar!

    oh well, that is just the satya coming out :p

    • raechel says:

      Oh gal, PREACH! YES, asteya is SO important in terms of what it means for a group of almost entirely white women to starting “owning” this stuff. Such a necessary thing to be self-reflexive about!

      And, also, you know I hear you on the nostalgia. Sigh.

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