Sri K. Pattabhi Jois quite notably (and most accurately) stated that “yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” The yoga practice he is referring to is much more than physical postures done in a typical “western-style” yoga class. Instead it’s the practice of an eight fold path. A very clear blueprint for self-inquiry and self-discovery, designed to be studied and explored over a yogi’s lifetime. More than a century after it’s codification by Patanjali is still shockingly relevant.
Following the path is not about getting to a destination. There are no short-cuts and it’s already turning out to be a double black diamond route (read: effing difficult). But this GPS, the guidance outlined in the 8 limbs helps us not only find the love, joy, creativity, passion, patience and health that we’re (likely) looking for, it enables us to meet, get to know, and love our true selves and our higher power.
This post is intended as a very primary primer for those who aren’t familiar with the 8 limbs. It’s the path translated through my lens, with my words, and may be a shade different than another’s perspective. I’ve included some links and recommendations for where you can turn for more information, so consider this an invitation to dive deeper.
The Yamas are yoga’s moral principles, the primary tenants and our guidelines for living. They are practical, easy to follow, and centered on loving kindness.
These 5 observances apply to how we operate – how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. They are:
- Ahimsa – Be kind, compassionate and non-harming (above all else!)
- Satya – Practice honesty and truthfulness
- Asteya – Practice nonstealing (don’t steal other’s belongings, sure, but don’t steal their time, energy, trust, dignity, sense of belonging, etc. either)
- Brahmacharya – Practice moderation (historically, thought of as celibacy)
- Aparigraha – Practice nongreed and nonhoarding
The Niyamas, like the Yamas, consist of 5 personal observances to be adopted as a code for soulful living. They are ways to refine how we approach and manage our internal world. Each Niyama helps us prepare and use our bodies to serve both our purpose and our God.
- Saucha – Practice purity & cleanliness on all levels (our spaces, our bodies, our food, our minds)
- Santosha – Practice contentment & gratitude, or as my Wanderlust book describes it “the practice of being happy for no particular reason at all”
- Tapas – Practice self-discipline and choose to act in ways that while they may not be comfortable, will lead to positive change
- Svhadyaya – Practice introspection and self-study
- Isvara Pranidhana – Practice trust and surrender to a higher power. Remember that “life knows what to do better than we do…”
This one were all familiar with, right? The art of turning into a pretzel in order to create the perfect Instagram pic. In Patanjali’s time Asana, the physical postures or yoga poses we know, were used to purify, strengthen and ready the body for the rest of the yoga practice. The intention was to create a physical practice that is mindful, steady and comfortable. While your motivation to practice Asana is none of my business, I do invite you to be mindfully cultivating both stability & sweetness in each and every pose (and consider your six pack is a bonus, not a driving force).
Just breathe baby! The 4th limb, Pranayama, is all about breath control. While it sounds easy, mindful, controlled breathing is some of the most difficult and important yoga you can do both on & off the mat. Wanna live in the moment? Take a minute now, close your eyes, and focus on your breath. You can check out my super quick instructions for the 3-part breath or Google “guided pranayama” and take a quick breather from this post.
Patanjali’s 5th limb is the bridge between the outer and inner aspects of yoga. This practice is centered on gaining control of the power we give our senses, how we experience and react to stimuli and situations.
It can be translated to mean “gaining mastery over external influences” and can be a tricky one to understand. It’s worth your consideration though, because when we’re able to separate our senses from the attention we assign them, when we control and limit the amount of prana we give away to them, a whole new world opens up!
Okay, so following the 8 fold path, we’re now living by a code of conduct, we have a daily physical practice and are mastering the art of breathing. Like a turtle retreating into its shell, we’re withdrawing our senses, gaining control of our prana and are primed for what’s next. This leads us to the 6th limb – Dharana, or “concentration.”
Yoga Glo makes this one really accessible, explaining, “Dharana, at its very heart, can be thought of as the work it takes – the practice – to get your mind to the point where it’s ready for meditation. So Dharana isn’t so much the state of concentration, but it’s more the act of brining your “monkey mind” back to whatever it is you’re focusing on. Again, and again, and again.” Ooooooh, good right!?
This is the practice of meditation & contemplation. Likely, we’re all more familiar with the concept of meditation, but Yoga Journal helps us understand the differences between Dharana & Dhyana, “Where Dharana practices one-pointed attention, Dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus.
At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.”
So, what’s it all for? Samadhi, the practice of awakening.
Swami Sivananda described it beautifully as, “the state of consciousness where Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy; Oneness; here the mind becomes identified with the object of meditation; the meditator and the meditated, thinker and thought become one in perfect absorption of the mind.”
Sounds ok, right?
Yoga is so much more than a way to get fit or work on your flexibility. It’s a daily practice that in all aspects of your life helps prepare you to reach your full potential. Doing yoga means walking this path everyday – being kind even when someone doesn’t deserve it, being self-disciplined even when you don’t want to, being mindful of your reactions even when it’s painful or embarrassing.
Practicing yoga is about power and grace, gaining control and letting go, finding the beauty in both the beautiful and the ugly. It’s the practice of a lifetime that, if truly engaged in, guarantees a life well lived.