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The Eight Limbs of Yoga- A brief guide

When people first think of yoga, it’s usually the poses and breathing that first springs to mind. The truth is, the asanas are actually just a very small portion of what yoga has to offer. Meditation is yoga. Breathing is yoga. Mindfulness is yoga. Self-study is yoga. Selfless good needs are yoga. Devotion is yoga. It's not just crow pose and down dogs. The eight limbs framework was first introduced as principles of yoga by Patanjali in the famous Yoga Sutra, and is an excellent guide for those wanting to enhance their yoga practise, deepen their understanding on themselves and change their perspective on the world around us for the better. So here they are, below in order, with a brief description on each to show you how to do just that. Yama- Restraint The first limb in Patanjali’s system is all about our relationships, interactions and behaviour with the external world. The way we perceive and act towards other people, places and things teaches us a great deal about ourselves and plays a huge role in how we feel inside and what obstacles/ pleasures we pulls towards ourselves. There are five principles to Yama, each explained in more detail below. 1) Ahimsa (non- violence) This refers to not killing or harming other living beings, including emotional harm through verbal communication, not just physical harm. An excellent way of practising ahimsa and gaining control over more aggressive thoughts and emotions is through meditation, so that we can get good at becoming mindful of of angry thoughts when they arise but not be effected by them. A vegan/ vegetarian diet is also recommended. 2) Satya (non-lying) Truthfulness is a must for spiritual development. Intentionally misleading people is unfair, causes harm and the intention behind a lie must always be questioned. Lying also usually leads to even more lying, to keep the initial lie alive. Also, if we are lying to others, we are likely lying to ourselves in other ways, creating a foggy vision of who we truly are. Avoiding gossip and brutal honesty is also vital, as these things usually cause more harm than good. 3) Asteya (non-stealing) No big explanation needed here! This refers to stealing money or possessions from others, as well as stealing ideas or being in an imbalanced emotional relationship, which derives from dependancy. 4) Brahmacarya (sexual restraint) This is an extension of ahimsa (non-violence); ask yourself- are your sexual interactions causing any harm to yourself or others? Are you partaking in a sexual relationship because it is coming from a pure place or is it to satisfy a negative trait/ emotion (like insecurity/ lack of self-esteem)? We must be mindful with our sexual interactions and ask what our true intensions are. Freedom from attachment and not having sexual addictions are also vital for spiritual development. 5) Aparigraha (non-greed) This is all about being satisfied with what you have and not constantly searching for more and more and more. Having a materialistic attitude and always wanting and taking (and thinking you NEED) more, not only leaves others without, but you will never be satisfied because by the time you get the thing you having been ‘needing’, you will be onto looking for the next thing. Aparigraha is also about instant gratification. We become obsessed with material things because most of the time they give us instant happiness, which is easier than the hard work that needs to be put in for internal, long-lasting happiness. For example, when we first buy a new car we will feel so happy and accomplished, keep driving it around and showing everyone, but over time we will get bored and soon want a new one. Money doesn't buy happiness and materialistic possessions will not help us through emotionally/ mentally challenging times. Start looking for happiness within. Niyama- Observance Where Yama is all about our behaviour with the external world, niyama is all about our relationship with ourselves. Again, there are five principles to this limb which give us a bit more guidance. 1) Sauca (purity) A clean body and environment leads to a clear mind. Removing clutter from ones home, regularly bathing, practising Shatkarma and sticking to a healthy diet are great ways to practise sauca. Waking up each day with the intention of maintaining a positive and compassionate attitude throughout and practising things like meditation to put you in a desired frame of mind also contribute. 2) Samtosa (contentment) My absolute favourite word since I started on the yoga path! If you can feel content with where you are at and what you have, enjoying the journey day by day, you will relieve yourself of so many false wants and needs and a lot of pressures. Experiencing contentment doesn’t mean you can’t have plans for the future or strive for better. It simply means being patient and enjoying every part of getting where you want. If you don’t do this, then as soon as you achieve whatever it is you are setting out to do, you will quickly forget about the achievement and move onto the next thing. Asanas are a great example- sometimes during our yoga practise we may feel frustrated if we can’t do a pose straight away and this can lead to injury if we are not careful. Instead, we should see not being able to do something as an exciting new project and enjoy the journey getting there so that we feel extra accomplished when we do. 3) Tapas (self-discipline) Pushing our minds and bodies to the limit for the gain of spiritual discipline, which gives you a sense of control of yourself and environment. As tapas means something like ‘the heat’, great ways to practise this are through bikram and ashtanga yoga and running. Pushing your body to the limit, through things like fasting, is another example. 4) Svadhyaya (self-study) Read, observe and spiritually reflect! Use yoga to learn about yourself and why you work the way you do. There are so many incredible texts out there which also help with svadhyaya- the yoga sutra, Bhagavad Gita and so on. I have tons I can recommend if this is something you want to start doing. 5) Isvarapranidana (devotion/ dedication) Practising devotional yoga leads to the diminishing of the ego. Having a higher power that we surrender ourselves to is accepting that things are out of our control and helps us trust that when things 'go wrong', it is for the greater good. For some people, this is a god or religious figure. For me personally, I refer to this hire power simply as 'the universe'. I am a strong believer in the law of attraction, which not only helps me act and think more positively about other people and things, but when things go wrong for me now and I have released the initial anger/ upset towards the situation, it is so much easier to think positive and trust that it has happened for a reason. Practising chanting and mantras, such as OM (which is considered the vibrational sound that represents the universe/ God/ devotional), forms a devotion enabling us to feel a stronger bond with this higher power, which in return speeds up spiritual development. Asana- Posture The most common and highly practised of the eight limbs, mainly because the poses are something that can be practised and enjoyed by anybody and everybody, no matter our culture, religions or philosophical beliefs. Yes, the fitness benefits that come with regular practise of hatha yoga are incredible, but the spiritual benefits are even more so. I find practising more challenging postures especially is an excellent way of merging the body, mind and spirit and enhancing awareness, because I am so focused on exactly where each limb is placed, where my weight is leaning for balance, where my gaze is and how this I am breathing to maintain the posture- very present! Sometimes it is easier for our minds to wonder when doing a pose we have done a million times, that's why it is still so important to be focused on each and every element of that posture (spreading fingertips wide, envisioning the lines of energy, spreading the limbs as far as they will go etc.) so that we can ensure we are getting the full experience in each one. The asanas work hand in hand with pranayama (below) and we want to get to the point where it feels like we are moving because we are breathing and breathing because we are moving. That is one of the reasons why we link inhalations with things like back bends and exhalations with forward folds. Pranayama- Breath control There is a lot to be said about the magic created through the practise of pranayama (practised either alone or with asanas), so I have written a separate blog for this. In short, focusing on the breath leads to quietening our minds, which allows us to then listen within to our true selves, not the ego. Pranayama is the most effective way of leading us to pratyahara (withdrawal) and sets us up so that we are ready for dharana (concentration) and dyana (meditation), all explained below. It is important to notice here how the limbs all begin to merge and work with each other. Pratyahara- Withdrawal Patanjali did not speak too much of this principle in the YogaSutra, but the segment is all about the process of withdrawing away from our senses and objects of the external world so that we can go inwards. While pranayama makes us ready for meditation, pratyahara proceeds to take away our association with senses and things as things so that we can be wholly present. A lot of people become frustrated (and actually get put off) during meditation, because of distractions disturbing them. We should not let these things deter us, but rather see them as opportunities to practise pratyahara; the more we practise, the better we will get, the more effective our meditation will become. Where the first five limbs are about the outside world and interactions, ending with the action of drawing inwards from this world, the remaining three limbs are all about the mind inside. Dharana- Concentration Collecting the mind after withdrawing as many times as you need to, to reach concentration. It is so important to get good at this principle so that we can maintain a meditative state once we achieve it. This, again, is why regular practise is vital. It is good to have a specific technique that works for you to support concentration. One of my first meditation and yoga instructors taught me to stare at the screen of my eye lids. I also find becoming engrossed in how I feel from the inside outwards really helps. Kumbhaka, especially on an exhale, is one of my favourite ways of getting to that point of feeling like I am 'just existing' and it is such a healing experience. Dhyana- Meditation Dhyana is about withholding that stillness of the mind. That quiet, that inner peace. Where Dharana is about that initial focus and concentration, Dhyana is described as an extension or perfection of that. The ability to withhold it for a longer period of time without distraction. Samadhi- Bliss Once dhyana is perfected, we reach our final limb- samadhi which means contemplation or in its' highest form, enlightenment. Samadhi is the merging of the soul with the spirit. A feeling of wholeness, like all parts of the mind, body and spirit have become one with each other and the surrounding universe. Things are 'equal' and exactly how they should be, because we are seeing them from a present and silenced mind, one that isn't contaminated by thoughts, distractions, memories, fears, opinions, labels of people and places and things. Samadhi is not a permanent state and there is a lot that goes into this principle, different levels and stages of connection as examples. It is an experience that is hard to put in words and better that we individually try to seek this ourselves through regular practise of the eight limbs, finding ways that work best for us as individuals.

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