In addition to the physical practice of yoga, aspects of our being and the manner in which we live our lives are acknowledged and addressed within traditional yoga philosophy. In the Yoga Sutras, eight aspects of a Yogic lifestyle called the Eight Limbs of Yoga are proposed. The limbs are practical guides to a person's personal development to achieve the harmony of the mind, the body and the spirit. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
Since yoga is concerned about the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of an individual, the practice of these eight principles leads to greater self awareness, deeper knowledge of one's own self, greater love and respect for one's self, other people and creatures, better health and a cleaner environment.
Because each limb builds upon the other, the eight fold path has sometimes been referred to as a ladder, leading from the common life of self involvement to the uncommon realization of the Self beyond the ego-personality.
The eight limbs of a yogic lifestyle are:
- Yamas or ethical disciplines
- Niyamas or individual disciplines
- Asanas or physical poses
- Pranayama or breath
- Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana or focus of the mind
- Dhyana or meditation
- Samadhi or enlightenment
The Yamas are ethical disciplines. The following are the five Yamas:
Ahimsa or non-violence.
- This Yama does not only mean not doing harm to others in thought and in deed, but also to practice acts of kindness to other creatures and to one's own self.
- To practice Ahimsa, look at fears, ignorance and restlessness in your life. These are manifestations of violence. Bring these manifestations into your awareness. By looking at the unconscious thought patterns that inspire violent acts and simultaneously refraining from violent such acts, we become more peaceful.
Satya or truthfulness.
- Satya is the Yama that is about living a truthful life without doing harm to others.
- To truly practice Satya, one must first realize that our perceptions (made up of past experiences and future projections) tell us what we perceive to be true. When we let our perceptions define truth for us, we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience joy because we are denying our self. The ultimate truth lies beyond our perceptions.
- With Satya consider two things: think before speaking and consider the consequence of your action. Seek to speak your own truth and demonstrate it through your actions.
Asteya or non-stealing.
- This Yama asks you to put faith into the idea of abundance. There is no need to steal material objects or another persons ideas, thoughts and other possessions. Using power for selfish motives or telling someone else about confidential information you had been entrusted with is against Asteya.
- Avoid thinking that there is never enough and life is scarcity. Free yourself from the ideas and cravings of power, wealth, fame and enjoyment.
Bramacharya or non-lust.
- Bramacharya means to move toward the essential truth or to achieve self-control, abstinence or moderation, especially regarding to sexual activity.
- It is about not giving in to our ego's excessive desires or taking nothing in excess.
- Self restraint and self moderation are responsible for your own growth.
Aparigraha or greedlessness.
- This Yama encourages us to allow resources to flow through us rather than being possessive with objects, belongings and other people.
- Aparigraha is about living a life taking only what is necessary. Simplicity leads to bliss.
Niyamas are individual disciplines. The following are the five Niyamas:
Sauca or purity.
- This Niyama is concerned with both the cleanliness of the body and the mind.
- Seek a clean and healthy diet, practice the asanas and pranayamas, keep a clean and simple environment around you.
- Be mindful of what your mind takes in through television, media, news, etc.
Santosha or contentment.
- Santosha tells us to be present in the moment and content in the moment.
- Choose peace and contentment over drama and conflict. This choice happens in the present moment.
- Being content in the moment creates the space and the mindfulness to make healthier choices about life.
- "Happiness is a practiced state of mind"—The Dali lama
Tapas or austerity.
- This Niyama refers to simplicity through modest living.
- Ask yourself, do these possessions help me create and live a centered life? Look at what you buy, what you own, and explore why each is a 'need.'
- Eat only when hungry and maintain a good posture.
Svadhyaya or self study and scripture study - becoming one study.
- Scriptural study is like looking into the mirror, because the job of any great scripture is to reflect back up to the reader that which is within.
- Apply self-inquiry and self-examination and other things that can help you get to know yourself more.
- As your knowledge about yourself grows deeper, so is your connection to the higher power and your union with all things.
- Some Sacred texts: Upanishads, Vedas, Yoga Sutras, Torah, Gospels, Koran.
Svarapranidhama or surrender.
- Surrender the will of the ego and let it be replaced by the spirit will.
- Surrender your actions and results of those actions to the divine.
- This Niyama encourages us to let go of our false sense of control and to connect to the Divine or that which gives us the sense of wholeness and sacredness.
Asanas or physical poses of yoga
The asanas, or physical postures, are the most commonly known aspect of yoga for those unfamiliar with the other seven limbs. The benefits of moving the body into postures include improved health, strength, balance and flexibility. On a deeper level, the practice of asana is used as a tool to calm the mind. The Asanas both relax, rejuvenate, and energize the body, bringing the body and the mind into a harmonious union. The challenge of the poses offer an opportunity to explore and control the constant chatter of the mind and its emotions.
Pranayama or breath
Pranayama is the conscious awareness and control of the breath. The aim of pranayama is to strengthen and cleanse the nervous system and increase a person's source of life energy. pranayama practice also makes the mind calmer, more focused and centered in the present moment. For pranayama techniques see Pranayama.
Pratyahara or withdrawal of the senses, pulling the mind inward
Pratyahara translates as "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses." In yoga, this implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects. The practice of asana and pranayama lead to a progressive desensitization that shuts out external stimuli and allows the inner mind to come alive, creating pratyahara. Pratyahara also occurs during meditation as when the mind is so focused, outside situations cease to be an influence. Awareness and concentration become completely inward.
Dharana or focus of the mind
Dharana is training the mind to focus without any distraction on one part of the body or an external object that is internalized such as an image of a diety. The practice of silence allows for the cultivation of Dharana by allowing you to step back from your mind and your minds reactivity. That alone provides profound insight. This can also serve as a preparation for meditation. B.K.S. Iyengar states that the objective of dharana is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are restrained and there is no feeling of 'I' and 'mine'.
Dhyana or meditation
Meditation is the practice of stilling the mind in order to perceive the Self. In meditation, there is constant observation of the mind and the thoughts that come to the mind. The mind is not engaged in these thoughts; rather it is a witness to them. It is also an important tool to achieve mental clarity and Health. For more information on meditation, see meditation. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus.
Samadhi or enlightenment
The final step in the eight-fold path of yoga is the attainment of Samadhi. Samadhi means "to bring together, to merge." At this stage, the practitioner merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self. A profound connection to the Divine and an interconnectedness with all living things is realized. The body and senses are at rest, yet the faculty of mind and reason are alert. It is a state of peace and completion, awareness and compassion with detachment.