When I first went to a yoga class I went in with my own ideas and expectations. I stretched, sweated and meditated… I enjoyed it! But was always eager to learn more about it. Unfortunately the London life doesn’t allow us to have super long yoga sessions where your teacher can explain why they’re telling you to breathe like Darth Vader or what on earth the Mula Bandha is and how on earth to activate it?!
So I’m starting a series of yoga blogs to answer some questions I’ve received in class or even some of the questions I’ve asked myself before I went on my teacher training. Today’s blog we’ll be looking at the eight limbs of yoga. This might not mean much to you right now but hopefully by the end of it you’ll have more of an understanding.
A bit of history
Yoga was traditionally passed down form teacher to students and never actually written down. Students had to prove they were interested and dedicated to learning yoga and seek out a teacher. K. Pattabhi Jois created the Ashtanga series as a set sequence of yoga postures focusing on the breath(ujjayi breath), energy locks (bandhas) and focus points (dristi). The physical practise is one of eight limbs of yoga.
The Eight Limbs
Point one!! Yama’s relate to our values. As a yogi it’s good to have an understanding of these because once we do then we’ll automatically follow them. The Yama’s relate to our deeper emotions and hence can be really powerful. We split the Yama’s into 5 categories:
1) Ahimsa (Non-violence)
Here we are linking it to the emotions of hurt, fear and anger. In yoga we believe in not hurting yourselves and others. When people normally speak of Ahimsa we immediately think vegan or being kind to others but for me I learnt that Ahimsa needs to start with ourselves. We need to be aware of our actions wether they are physical, mental or verbal, indirect or direct and what the intentions are behind our actions. Knowing that we have 100% freedom to choose how to respond and do not need to be hurt by others actions either. To me Ahimsa means being kind to yourself and to others.
2) Satyam (Truthfulness)
Satyam links to ego and self-acceptance. When we tell a lie we are actually splitting ourselves into a double life- the actual one that’s happening and the one you’ve made up. Whereas, yoga is about becoming one and this starts with liking ourselves and self-acceptance. Also knowing that the ‘truth’ can also be someone’s opinion.
3) Asteya (Non-stealing)
As you may imagine Asteya is linked to Greed. When we become greedy we are actually postponing our happiness by constantly shifting the goalpost for when we will be satisfied and happy.
4) Brahmcharya (No desire)
Knowing that two things in life are able to control our energy: desire and fear. We need to understand our desires, observe them when present and understand the energies. Now I’m not saying we can’t have any desires and no you can’t dream about that chocolate doughnut! It’s about knowing and understanding your desires and being able to recognise them with control and moderation.
5) Aparigraha (Non receiving of gifts)
So I didn’t fully understand Aparigraham at first, I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to receive gifts! But now I know it’s not about that. It’s about not being possessive and having the ability to let something/ someone go.
Niyama’s relate to personal practises and there are 5 of them too:
1) Sauca (cleanliness)
It’s as simple as a clean house is a clean mind. Allowing yourself to declutter the space around you will help find that space and cleanliness in your mind. Sauca also links to 6 cleansing techniques (which I’m not really going to go into in detail but feel free to ask me about them later).
2) Santosha (cheerfulness)
Yep you heard right! Being happy is actually yoga! We need to consciously bring light into our life even when faced with problems and challenges, smiling can help bring you the energy you need.
3) Tapas (generating heat/ energy)
Tapas relates to doing things outside our comfort zone. During my yoga training we had silent days which were hard work for me but as a result of staying silent you saved energy, reflected and were able to practise bramcharya (see above) too.
4) Swadhyaya (self study)
Getting to know yourself, asking yourself questions and journalling. Writing things down has really helped me process things and realise what I want to do. It’s a way of bringing thoughts into someone real (once written). I really love journalling and think it’s an amazing way to understand ourselves.
5) Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender and recognise ishwara)
Knowing how big and powerful the universe is and everything that happens in it. Having faith and knowing the universe has your back and everything happens because of something much greater than ourselves will bring you peace.
So here we are, at point number 3 and finally talking about the physical aspect of yoga. Strictly speaking Asana means ‘to sit’ and the purpose of the physical practise is to prepare our body for sitting still in meditation.
Asana is the most common limb of yoga practised and it’s amazing so many people are drawn to it! With amazing benefits for the body’s strength and flexibility. Just don’t let yourself be put off if you can’t touch your toes or think you’re not good enough for it!
Right now, just put one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Take a moment to notice how you’re breathing. Are you breathing into your belly? Or into your chest? Are you anxious and taking quick, shallow breaths?
A wise yogi once said to me, fear is excitement without the breath! Breathing is this amazing unconscious process we do but we can actually voluntarily control it. It’s said that we only breath into 30% of our actual capacity due to stress, constriction of our clothes or even just forgetting to breathe.
Pranayama is so important in yoga. We say the breath is the ‘prana’ meaning energy force, life force for our body. When we move in yoga we focus on the breath, the thing which carries energy around our body as we practise.
I’ve always been told that when practising yoga if you ever feel out of breath, STOP! Come to child’s pose and connect with your breath again. Let your breath be the soundtrack to your physical practise.
There’s also so many amazing pranayama techniques we can use for purifying, heating and cooling down the body (more on this in later blogs).
Pratyahara literally means withdrawing the senses from external objects. That means when you’re practising and your neighbour is playing loud music or there are road works happening outside, just withdrawing in. But also on a deeper level it means having non-attachment to distractions. Thus allowing us to return to internal peace without being disturbed.
Once your body has been stretched, moved and able to sit, once you’re able to breathe and withdraw your senses from external stimulation you arrive at Dharana. Focusing on a single-point, one mindedness. Bringing stability to the mind by focusing on one point. When focusing so deeply on one point; our mind focuses less on to-do lists, memories, worries, tasks and ego. Once we reach this stage we are talking about some deep internal healing and focus.
For me, I may be able to sit about 20 seconds before a thought, memory or task comes to mind and that’s ok. I let that thought come and go, let it pass through my head like a cloud and just return my focus to my breath.
Building on Dharana, you are able to hold concentration for longer and your mind is able to focus on one point. This now becomes effortless and you start enjoying the process and come to a quieter state.
Complete enlightenment. This is the goal! It is the point at which the mind is absorbed. The body and senses are at rest (as if you’re asleep) but the mind is still active. There are no difference or confusions just your true self. Reaching this level is difficult and for that reason it is point 8 on the list! Allowing us time to master and practise each of the seven points before.
Well that brings me to the end of that lengthy blog but if you’ve made it this far you’ve done well! I’m hoping to carry this on and be able to share some more yoga knowledge with you all so if you’ve got any questions let me know.
Love and light to you all