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The Eight Limbs as Life Practice

Patience is a virtue they say—but when your emotions feel like they’re on a roller coaster, even the most patient person is tested. Coming back to the age old practices of yoga is always a sure fire way to calm your rolling heart. Yoga practices are robust and rich and there is always, always one that can meet you where you are. These practices are intended to take you inward to explore what’s happening on the inner landscape. To explore what feels good, but also what feels dark and unkempt. To see what has received a lot of attention and to notice what needs attention. When we spiral, we desperately seek to return to our homeostatic selves—but these practices ask us to lean into what’s coming up, rather than cover it up.

There is so much to learn, but today we’ll start with an intro into The Yoga Sutras and look at what’s called “the eight limbs of yoga.”

The Yoga Sutras are not the first text of yoga, but they are the first text that compiles yoga into a systematic practice. Prior to the sutras, you’ll find references in a handful of spiritual and religious texts dating back as far as 5,000 BCE. “The Sutras,” as they’re referenced, is divided into four sections and totals 196 sutras, or threads. These are short, concise statements that are intended to get the point across in as few words as possible. As you may know from your own experience, conciseness is either super clear or leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Most sutras happen to fall into the latter category. So nowadays, there are many interpretations and translations that we call upon to better understand what the sage, Patanjali, was trying to convey.

In the first four sutras, Patanjali sums up the entire book. To keep it super simple, I will omit the Sanskrit and only provide the fluid translation:

Sutra 1 – Now yoga begins.
Sutra 2 – Controlling (or stopping) the modifications of the mind is Yoga.
Sutra 3 – The Seer (witness, knower) abides in his/her true nature.
Sutra 4 – At other times, the Seer will take on the mental modifications.

To help interpret more clearly what Patanjali is trying to say, imagine a time when you were in pure unadulterated bliss. You weren’t thinking or narrating your moment, but you were present, clear, and only aware of the peace and joy you felt. And then think of all other moments. The moments when you are thinking, narrating, problem-solving, analyzing, feeling, etc. These are the mental modifications of the mind and through various yoga practices, you can learn to control and/or lean into them. You’ll find more info about identifying your mindstuff in our blog Are You Living Too Much From Your Head?, but ultimately these modifications aren’t wrong or bad. In fact they’re necessary. But without some form of control, they can take over.

So, Patanjali lays out some ground rules to guide you on the path to practicing more control over the mind. We call these “The Eight Limbs of Yoga,” or “The Eight Limbed Path.” The first five (some would say four) are intended to be called upon and practiced at various times. They do not need to be practiced in order, but they all need to be practiced. The final three to four are, and must be, practiced sequentially. In fact there’s no other way around it. I will bring in a little Sanskrit here. Don’t let it throw you off from the true intent of each practice.

  1. Yamas – how you interact with your world
    1. Ahimsa – non-harming
    2. Satya – truthfulness
    3. Asteya – non-stealing
    4. Brahmacharya – moderation
    5. Aparigraha – non-greed
  2. Niyamas – the practices of self
    1. Saucha – purity
    2. Santosha – contentment
    3. Tapas – discipline
    4. Svadhyaya – self- study
    5. Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender
  3. Asana – steady easy posture
  4. Pranayama – breath
  5. Pratyhara – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – enlightenment

Phew. That’s a lot to unload. In fact, it would and does take a lifetime to unload it. So let’s start simple and contemplate what each of these might mean past the obvious.

Yamas
Ahimsa – non-harming
By telling us to not harm, Patanjali is making the assumption that we are harmful and violent people. And we are. We may not be murderers or abusers, but in small subtle ways, we harm both ourselves and others. It shows up in our judgements, criticisms, and in our communications when we speak from the head and not the heart.

Satya – truthfulness
Although these practices are intended to be called upon as needed, they do have a certain order that they follow. Ahimsa is never sacrificed for the sake of satya. Rather, we find it within ourselves to see how they can coexist. If you cannot find a way for them to coexist, non-harming must always take priority over truthfulness.

Asteya – non-stealing
We are an outwardly-focused society. So, it’s no wonder that our minds immediately consider the safety of personal belonging when you hear about stealing. However, when we look past material objects, you’ll find that we are all thieves. We steal from Mother Nature, from ourselves, and even from those we love the most. We take without asking and with expectation—the resources of the earth, the time of others, and even our own birthright of joy. Some of these are necessary for life, so we incorporate reciprocity and gratitude as counter-practices to our thievery.

Brahmacharya – moderation or celibacy
Yes, you read it correctly. Celibacy. Many teachers skim over this one because it brings up a lot of discomfort for them. But I’ve grown to love to unload it for people. Consider it more a matter of energy distribution. Brahmacharya translates to “with God.” When we distribute our energy in excess, let’s say sexually, we exhaust ourselves and have no energy left to be with God, spirit, or even at peace. We become depleted, deadened even. So we must moderate and uphold our dedication to the things we know keep us at peace.

Aparigraha – non-greed
Non-possessiveness, non-coveting, non-attachment. All apply. Again, our mind tends to fall towards objects. But I find that the most beneficial work here is when we can recognize emotionally what we cling to. That may be objects, but it also might be people, beliefs, ideas, or our persona. When we cling we eventually become exhausted and filled with pain because everything, everything eventually goes. Then we feel great loss because we believed something was ours in the first place. So with aparigraha, we soften our grip and strengthen our “letting go” muscle.

Niyamas
Saucha – purity
There are many schools of thought. Here in The Sutras, they get a little crude around the idea of purity. They emphasize how unpure and dirty our bodies are. Yet we have only one, and it’s temporary. So don’t get too attached but don’t make more a mess of it either. It’s an ongoing practice to become pure in body, thoughts, words, and intents. Although this sutra can apply to environment as well, it’s really about cleaning up how you treat yourself. How you treat yourself matters deeply and there’s a level of acceptance we tend to have for poor behavior towards ourselves. We justify that it’s okay because sometimes (rarely) it motivates us to make a change. But yet we abuse ourselves with poor diets, shaming thoughts, and judgement far more than any habit change is worth. So clean up, because how you treat yourself is also how you treat others.

Santosha – contentment
Simple in nature, difficult in practice. Contentment is being at peace regardless of any circumstance. Because we attach (see aparigraha), we create our own suffering. Everything leaves at some point. Our bodies, our material possessions, our loved ones. It’s all transient and we never know the timeline. Contentment encourages us to allow things to come and enjoy them while they’re here. And then allow them to go without disrupting your peaceful, joyful state.

Tapas – discipline
A highly adored characteristic in our society. Discipline is such a beautiful thing, but also a trigger into an impure state for many. We accolade those that can embody this niyama regularly but admonish ourselves when we fall short of it.
In our modern day language, tapas could translate into will power, passion, enthusiasm, or even consistency. It’s our ability to simply stick with something and overcome our own obstacles—to sit in meditation daily, to come to your yoga mat, to choose nourishment over indulgence at every meal, to practice rigor in our bodies, to say nice things, etc… especially in the times we don’t want to. Which is how often? Pretty often. So we call upon tapas to help us along the way.

Svadhyaya – self-study
Although there is a component here of observing your own psychology and “your truth” (a common phrase used these days), this guideline speaks more to understanding universal truths. Universal truths are shared in every spiritual text, including The Yoga Sutras. I’ve been doing this work for a while now and there are many modern thought leaders and personal development gurus out there. When you understand universal truths from a knowledge standpoint, but more importantly from your experience, you’ll come to find that everyone is teaching the same thing. That’s relieving because it means you can start anywhere. It doesn’t have to be with the Bible, The Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads, or any other deep spiritual text. Pick-up a book from Dr. Wayne Dyer, Michael Singer, or even Tony Robbins. Begin to contemplate what they’re saying and study how it applies to you and to all life. Drop any biases and ask yourself “does what they say hold true for everyone?”

Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender
If you can master this one sutra, you’ve mastered them all. Ishvara Pranidhana sweeps us away from the thinking mind and asks us to humbly bow. To what? Well that’s your choice. The Sutras say to God, but it’s not an explicit God. It’s the God of your own choosing. The One (or many) that you believe can help you when you can’t help yourself. When no one can help you really. In fact, surrender dissolves the illusion that we have control over anything and invites us into the full experience of being alive.

Asana
A steady easy posture. This limb has morphed into our modern day yoga practice. But initially, this referenced our meditation seat. It wasn’t until much later that a few more postures were added via the Hatha Yoga tradition. And then later again, (only about 150 years ago) many more postures were added, as well as a systematized way of putting them together that we now know as sequencing. Nowadays, anything can be a posture, but unless it is practiced with “steadiness and ease,” it bypasses yoga’s true nature.

Pranayama
Breathe in. Breathe out. The simple and automatic process that sustains life. But our breath is so much more than the default process we rely on day-in and day-out. It has the power to actually shift our state and process information. Feeling anxious? There’s a breath for that. Need an energetic boost? There’s a breath for that. Need to strengthen your respiratory system to better fight infection? There’s breath for that. The historical yogis believed that our lives are not calculated in years, but by the number of breaths we take. So if we can slow our breathing and keep our nervous system calm, we inevitably live longer. That is the power of prana.

Pratyahara
Here we begin to shift deeper into our inner landscape. Pratyahara is withdrawing from the senses. This may be a practice you’ve not considered before. I know I didn’t in my pre-yoga days. But our senses are used for sensing. They are little antennae that are on all the time and they take in every piece of information that is presented to you. Information that you aren’t even aware you are taking in. So here, we take all the signals that we disperse outwardly and draw them inward to rest our senses and let them recharge.

Dharana
Have you ever considered that concentrating is a practice? We all wish we could do it better but we toss it out into the ether as a distant dream, just hoping that one day we will have better focus. But you get better at concentration by, well, concentrating. Just like you get better at playing piano by practicing the piano. Or you get a toned bicep by doing a bicep curl. You focus your attention to one thing and softly hold your attention there. Your attention will break and you’ll have to do it again, but that’s how any muscle gets stronger—through repetition of the practice.

Dhyana
If you know someone that has a meditation practice, it is their daily aspiration to reach this state. Dhyana is the state of meditation, and it’s only reached after first withdrawing the senses and concentrating your attention. During concentration (dharana), there is still a separation between you and the object you are focusing on. You can distinguish you from it. When you reach meditation, that separation disappears and your ability to distinguish the object from yourself disappears with it. You move into a state of oneness.

Samadhi
I’ll be honest, this last limb can get a little heady. The experience of samadhi, or enlightenment, goes way way beyond what our minds can comprehend. It’s beyond touch, taste, sight, or smell. It’s beyond, object, thought, feeling, or emotion. It’s beyond your ability to watch, observe, or witness your own experience. All of itdissolves in the state of samadhi and all that exists is bliss.

If you made it to the end, congratulations. You have a yearning inside that wants you to go deeper. Take these practices in bite-size pieces. You might pick a limb to study for a week or a month and then shift your focus to another limb. Or you may dive into a text that gives a more thorough overview than what I’ve provided here. Or you may meditate and contemplate upon them. Wherever your starting point, commit to these practices as a lifelong journey.

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