Yoga Break: The 8 Limbs of Yoga

When most of us think of yoga, the first place our minds go is to a classroom full of students perched precariously on sticky mats in various poses. Or, maybe you imagine an old Indian man seated in Lotus Pose chanting “om”, a Lululemon store packed with funky leggings, or a posh, hazy-with-incense studio in LA. Whatever mental picture springs up for you at the mention of yoga, my guess is that it’s got something to do with twisting your body into crazy shapes. Right?

Well…

Let’s break it down. Yoga in the western world (and pretty much all over the world, honestly) has become very commercialized in the past few decades, and while that’s all well and good and has brought a lot of people to the practice, we’ve started to miss the point a bit. Why’s that? This thing that we keep calling “yoga” is actually only part of the yogic wisdom that the ancient rishis passed down to us thousands of years ago. And, to be quite frank, those crazy, twisty poses you see on Instagram have very little to do with the traditional practice of yoga. Now, I love me a good yoga Instagram feed and I am by no means judging anyone for sharing the results of their hard work and diligence in the physical practice! However, I do think it’s important to note that, while yoga poses are a blast and can tone up your body like nothing else, yoga itself goes a whole lot deeper.

Although the yoga tradition had already been passed down for ages, it was written down by a sage named Patanjali sometime before 400 CE in a text known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. While it’s hardly the only ancient text written about yoga, we do regard it as pretty authoritative. I’d love to go into the 196 sutras, but since that is about 196 blog posts in itself, I’ll stick with the eight-limbed framework that Patanjali gives us. Basically, Patanjali describes eight different “branches” of the yoga practice and lifestyle that, when mastered, will lead you to a state of oneness with the Self, with the Divine. In order, these eight limbs are:

  1. Yama
  2. Niyama
  3. Asana
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi

The physical postures we call yoga in the west actually refer only to the third limb (asana), so when we treat our asana practice as the practice, we are really missing out on about 88% of the wisdom that’s been passed down to us. The good thing is, asana is a great place to enter the yoga tradition and begin your journey! I know those Sanskrit words can seem kind of weird and a little overwhelming (especially if you’ve never heard of them before), so we are going to spend the next eight weeks exploring each of those eight branches a bit more in detail.

I’ll see you back here next Tuesday to get our chat on about the Yamas.

Happy practicing!

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