Yoga teacher training began for me two years ago. It was the edge of summer, still spring, but in Utah the plants were already drying out from the baking sun and the air refused to moisten, staying too dry for my liking. I was blissfully, innocently excited (and nervous!) for my first day. I had taken many a yoga class by this point, but not very many workshops—so a lot of the philosophies of yoga were unknown to me. Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism I was very familiar with; but while a lot of those religions are embedded within yoga (and vice versa), I hadn’t spent much time delving into the specifics. Needless to say, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to do so.
After a soul-searching yoga class led by my yoga teacher trainer to begin our first day, she sat us down to discuss the eight limbs of yoga—the true foundation of what yoga is really about.
“Are any of you familiar with the eight limbs?” was her first question. Some knew a little; others knew nothing. So, she continued, breaking down what exactly they all meant. The scholar inside of me was quivering with joy. This discovery of what yoga really means as a philosophy and not just as an exercise (albeit one of body and mind) blew me away. The entire first day was devoted to learning about, and then teaching, those eight limbs.
Here they are, below:
The Yamas: Yoga begins, not with the poses like we tend to think in the West, but rather with a beautifully designed ethical code that we should fill our lives and attitudes with. There are five yamas (meaning five “ethics”), each building on the next. The first is ahimsa. This is rather well-known in the yogic community; it is the act of nonviolence against all beings. The second is satya, which means living a life filled with truth. The third is asteya, which is translated to mean “non-stealing;” to put it a little more simply, it is to live a life of balance and be willing to share with other people. The fourth is aparigraha, meaning nonattachment. This is all about getting rid of those things that you feel you have to hold on to in life and instead focusing on what you can commit to. The fifth and final yama is brahmacharya, or balance. This is about maintaining your vitality by being careful with the amount of sex you have, the amount of food you eat, and ultimately finding balance in all things within your life.
The Niyamas: While the yamas are ethical codes, the niyamas are all about self-discipline. The first is tapas, or purification through commitment. This niyama is all about purifying those things inside us that we do not like through our own inner fire and drive. The second is santosha, or contentment; it is living a life you can feel content within. The third, saucha, or cleanliness; self-explanatory. The fourth, svadhyaya, or self-study; our search for meaning within our lives. And finally, the fifth, ishvara pranidhana, or devotion to a higher power. And this, obviously, translates through all religions and beliefs.
The yamas and the niyamas come together to form a life not only worth living, but a life that is content, driven, and filled with meaning. Once these codes and disciplines are in place within your life, ancient yoga philosophy allows you to move on to the next limb: asana.
Asana: This limb is all about the poses, or the physicality of yoga. These many poses were created not only to vitalize the body but also to prepare you for the other five limbs of yoga—because when you sit down for meditation, your body needs to be ready. The asanas allow us to move and twist and turn and get all the energy balanced within our bodies so that when we do sit down, our bodies can handle the wait.
Pranayama: This limb is all about controlling the breath, which in turn allows you to control your energy and emotions. This limb is incredibly powerful when worked on.
Pratyahara: From here onwards, each consecutive limb gets increasingly more subtle. This limb is about withdrawing the senses from the world around you in order to more fully focus on the inner workings of your mind. It is the beginning of meditation.
Dharana: After coming into the mind, this limb is about concentration; it is one-pointed focus to center the mind and get rid of distractions.
Dhyana: This is an extension of the last; dhyana is a continuation of the concentration, but moving from one-pointed focus to a focus on space within the mind, or getting closer and closer to emptying the mind.
Samadhi: The last and final limb is one we catch fleeting glimpses of throughout our lives. It is union with the Divine, that state of bliss and enlightenment reached only after lots of hard work, dedication, and effort. It is that feeling of pure light that comes just enough for this all to be worth it.
These eight limbs form what yoga truly is; a way of life that encompasses mind, body, and spirit. These eight limbs lead us along the path of enlightenment. From the very first teacher training class until now, these eight limbs have stuck with me. My life seems transformed; even when life is beyond difficult, yoga gets me through. I found my own form of enlightenment that day when I learned about all this—and from then on, my life has been filled with a greater understanding.
To learn more, understand more, and discover more, join me in my Living Your Yoga workshop in October! See yogainnovations.com/workshops/ to sign up!