Today, especially in the Western world, yoga is largely thought of as a physical exercise. We incorporate it into our fitness routine because it’s a full-body workout that has the possibility to be both heart-pumping and zen-inducing, often in the same class.
Truth be told, though, the physical practice of yoga is just one of eight parts of living the complete yogi lifestyle – a lifestyle that promotes complete physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.
Those eight parts of yoga were introduced in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra as the eightfold path, eight steps that act as a guideline for living a meaningful and purpose-driven life. The eightfold path is also known as ashtanga, which translates to “eight limbs” (ashta = eight, anga = limb). The first four limbs work to help us focus on developing, refining, and mastering ourselves – personality, body, and awareness – in order to prepare ourselves to fully experience the second four limbs, which deal with the senses, the mind, and higher consciousness.
Limb #1: The Yamas
The yamas are five ethical standards yoga holds to instill a sense of integrity within, allowing us to focus on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in our day to day lives. They are:
The niyamas are five separate ethical standards that have to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. So while the yamas require us to hold ourselves to a higher standard with regards to the world around us, the niyamas ask us to hold ourselves to a higher standard within too.
The asanas, or the postures of yoga, make up the third limb. In yoga, the body is considered a temple of the spirit and, as such, it’s care is of utmost importance. Practicing the asanas helps develop the ability to concentrate and the habit of discipline which, in turn, helps the mind in meditation.
Limb #4: Pranayama
Pranayama as a yogic limb is generally translated as breath control although its literal translation is “life force extension.” It’s designed to help us master the respiratory process by recognizing the connection between the breath, mind, and emotions. Pranayama is practiced by performing breathing exercises as well as when performing the asanas.
Limb #5: Pratyahara
The fifth limb, pratyahara, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During pratyahara, we make a conscious effort to draw awareness away from external stimuli and the outside world. The purpose of this is to give us each an opportunity to step back and look at ourselves, to observe our cravings and habits and anything else that may interfere with inner growth.
Limb #6: Dharana
Limb five prepares us for limb six: dharana or concentration. Dharana represents the time of practice between withdrawing from our outside stimuli and coming to meditation. It teaches us to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object.
Limb #7: Dhyana
And limb six prepares us for limb seven: dhyana or meditation. While dhyana and dharana may appear to be the same at first, they have one major nuanced difference. Dharana practices one-pointed attention, a singular focus, while dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus.
Limb #8: Samadhi
And once we’ve perfected the other limbs comes the eighth and final limb: samadhi, a state of ecstasy. In samadhi, you merge with your focus during meditation and transcend the Self altogether, realizing a profound connection to the Divine as well as an interconnectedness with all living things. It’s the experience of bliss in being one with the Universe. It’s a state of ultimate joy, fulfillment, and peace.
So, as you can see, there’s a lot more to strive for in your yoga practice beyond the perfect handstand or lotus pose. Check out HealingRadius to find the best studios and teachers near you to help in your own personal yoga journey.
Kat Wiseman is a content writer for Span Enterprises in Rock Hill, SC. She has a B.A. in English-Creative Writing from Winthrop University and her RYT 200 from Yoga Alliance. When she's not writing or doing yoga, she enjoys Netflix marathons, mystery novels, and being at the beach.