Here is a simple overview of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga and how they apply to daily life.
The Yamas and Niyamas
It is said that Yama and Niyama represent the spiritual side of our nature in relation to the three dimensions of the Self. The first dimension is how we see and relate to ourselves – I and I. The second is how we see and relate to others – I and you, and the third is how we see and relate to the universe at large, I and You or I and It. Yoga practice helps us to reintegrate our vision of life, so that these three dimensions of the Self enter into a unity; a oneness.
The Yamas and Niyamas therefore deal with our interaction with the world around us, our environment and how we behave towards ourselves and our problems.
The Yamas and Niyamas both consist of 5 guidelines detailed below.
Yamas: External Restraints
The Yamas represent how we behave towards our environment and the people around us. They are as follows:
Ahimsa: Non-violence – Ahimsa means non-violence to self or any living being. This includes physical injury, by word or by thought. Although it can be argued that we hurt millions of creatures every day by just breathing, this idea of Ahimsa has its seat in intention; that we never intentionally harm oneself or other living creatures, ever. It means being kind, friendly and considerate at all times.
An example is speaking ill of another, or negative chatter towards self. It may mean not pushing too hard in your practice, studies and achievements or understanding that there is not such a thing as failure, only opportunities to expand.
Satya: Truthfulness – Said to be only that word uttered which one has either directly seen or experienced or heard under authority, or is worthwhile, relevant and practical. The words should always be said with a kind heart, be informative and necessary. This means not speaking what may be considered the truth if the intention is to harm someone.
Truthfulness can also be applied to conversations where a barrage of words are used to disguise reality. This is big business in the advertising industry and political campaigns. Silence can also be a form of untruth, such as withholding information that may help or harm someone. Basically it is being conscious of what we say, how we say it and how it may affect others.
Asteya: Non-stealing – This is closely related to Satya and means not taking that which does not rightfully belong to us. Aside from the obvious; taking physical objects that are not ours, Asteya includes things such as, not taking credit for things that belong to another, or pretending that we own something we don’t.
Demanding more than what is due is also a form of stealing, as is taking up more of someone’s time than is necessary. This may refer to not taking advantage of private information passed on to us in confidence. It can also refer to being late as others waste their time waiting for you. Even as a student, turning up late for your practice means you steal your own time and waste the time of your teacher.
Brahmacharya: Restraint of the senses
Often Brahmacharya is seen only as the restraint of the sex organs, however, it is more than that. Brahmacharya is the regulation and conservation of all the energy systems.
The conservation and application of energy is the main determinant of success or failure in spiritual endeavour. Diffusion and dissipation of energy always weakens. Hence Brahmacharya is a vital pillar of Yoga.
Brahmacharya relates to not only the obvious, such as excessive or unnecessary physical endeavours, this Yama also involves restraint of emotional expenditure. For example, lust, anger, greed, envy, hatred, resentment, depression, fear, obsession, etc. are all emotions that deplete vital energy both physically and energetically. Positive emotions on the other hand, enhance and raise our energy and physical levels.
The correct placement and expenditure of energy is the essence of the science of Yoga, and Brahmacharya is its foundation.
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
“Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not take advantage of a situation”(Desikachar, 1995, p.g. 99)
When one sees that all things are imperfect and that unhappiness comes from keeping or maintaining these things, as well as losing them, he is wise enough to show Aparigraha, or freedom from ‘thingology’.
To own or have things isn’t bad in itself. It is when we become obsessed, possessive and it feels like a great loss when that object is no longer available. That is when issues arise.
In asana practice, either through injury, age or changes in the body, the practitioner may no longer be able to practice as before. With the loss of a pose, comes grief, anger, frustration and all kinds of mental anguish. Through the practice of Aparigraha, this suffering can be eliminated.
The Niyamas are more personal. They relate to our intimate relationship with ourselves.
There are two aspects to Saucha; the inner and the outer. The outer aspect literally means to be physically clean. The inner aspect refers to the cleanliness of our internal organs, diet, thoughts and emotions. Asana and pranayama are essential to the practice of this Yama.
According to Desikachar (1995, p.g. 101), Santosha means “…modesty and the feeling of contentment of what is.” It is about being content with ourselves, our situations, what we have and what life has given us.
In asana, it is about being content with our practice, our bodies, our limitations and where we are. It can be seen in a busy Yoga room; the whining about cold or hot days, about lack of space or the empty room. Often eyes can be seen darting around the room as someone practices an asana beautifully, or comparisons are made between students.
Is the person next to you breathing too noisily? Did that woman shut the door too loudly? Are you comparing your practice to the girl next to you or is she watching yours? How do you feel, light, heavy, happy, sad or are you content with where you are?
Tapas: Self-discipline or restraint
In relation to the Niyamas, Tapas means keeping the body fit and healthy and more literally, meaning using the heat of the body to cleanse yourself. This can refer to having restraint on what you eat, being attentive to posture, breathing patterns or just being committed to your practice.
In asana this may also mean restraining one’s Yoga practice when injury has occurred, or knowing when the body needs a rest or restorative practice. It may mean being careful of the food that is eaten before practice or taking the time to do a full practice without cutting it short through laziness. Tapas are restraints, from excess and lack of effort also.
Svadhyaya: Study of the sacred scriptures and of oneself
Svadhyaya means to study the self, or to get close to oneself. This means all self-study, self-enquiry, reflection, and any practice that helps the practitioner learn more about their true nature. It is seen as the study of the scriptures. Not because one is required to dogmatically believe something, but that these ancient scriptures become reference points or guides to shed light on the journey. The recitation of mantra is also considered Svadhyaya as is the living in balance with life’s energy.
Isvarapranidhana: Surrender to something greater than ourselves
Are you able to lay all your actions at the feet of the divine? Can you offer the fruit of all your actions to something greater than yourself? Can you perform an action and have no disappointment of the outcome?
One need not be from a religious mind-set to understand and practice Isvarapranidhana. It is more than just bowing to an altar; it is the identification with one’s eternal being, rather than with the constantly changing mind and body. It means surrendering the activities of the mind so that perfect union with the divine, or Samadhi is attained.
This may mean letting go of fixed plans, ideals and allowing things to unfold.
In asana practice, can you just practice for the sake of moving closer to your true nature, or must you see results; more flexibility, admiration from others?
“Just as activities of the mind influence the breath, so does the breath influence our state of mind”(Desikchar, 1995, p.g. 59)
The intention behind breath regulation or Pranayama is to calm the mind in preparation for meditation to arrive. It means breathing consciously and is something we do in Asana practice through the Ujjayi breath to anchor our attention upon.
There is much research surrounding the benefits of breath regulation in relation to stress, anxiety and a number of ailments. This will be discussed in another blog entry.
Asana refers to the physical poses one practices in Yoga. “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an Asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha. Sthira is steadiness and alertness. Sukha refers to the ability to remain comfortable in a posture” (Desikchar, 1995, p.g. 17).
One basically uses asana to prepare the body for long periods of sitting meditation and to practice unifying the breath, body and mind; again for the purpose of meditation. Hence, the unimportance of how advanced your asana practice is. As one may practice the most basic of asana with intelligence and consciousness or the most advanced with a scattered and distracted mind.
Pratyahara means to focus the mind inward. The aim of this limb is to disengage with the constant disturbances that arise when our senses latch on to a stimuli; forming attachments and aversions to the objects found there.
Initially this is done through focussing on the grosser objects available in Asana practice such as the drishtis or focal points such as the nose or toes, bandhas and breath; eventually moving on to more subtle practices such as Japa (recitation of words) and other meditation techniques.
This does not mean you shut the world completely out, as that is impossible, just that you do not buy in to the sounds that arise; giving no meaning or attention to the disturbance that present themselves.
Dharana refers to one pointed concentration and can be obtained through proficiency in asana, pranayama and pratyahara when practiced.
According to Hartranft (2003), in his translation of the Yoga Sutras, “as withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara, 2.54) diverts the attention from the gross realm of externals toward the internalized and subtle, concentration (dharana) can yoke its orientation to any chosen object or field.”
Dharana can also be likened to ‘being in the flow’, or ‘in the zone’. You could be running, knitting, talking and listening and be in a state of one pointed concentration. It is an integral skill to master as a tool for arriving at meditation. If done for this purpose, one needs to have the ease of seat or posture, breath regulation and ability to withdraw the senses inwards so that distractions do not pull you out of the meditative state.
Once concentration is mastered, dhyana or meditation can be attained. Meditation begins as the effortless flow of awareness from the mediator to the chosen meditation object, to complete absorption in oneself.
“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It is a way of entering into a quiet that’s already there”Deepak Chopra
When the three components or pratyahara, dharana and dhyana are at one, the aspirant is in complete absorption, bliss or ecstasy. The yoking to the self is complete. One is able to see the world as it really is and freedom from conditioned existence arises.
This is the state we strive to live from. It is where we have access to the infinite wisdom that is ours to tap in to. Ashtanga Yoga is for the sole purpose of arriving here. Free, centered, complete and at ease with ourselves and the world around us.
A final note: Spirituality is not about being perfect, it is about learning how we can harness our true potential so we can deal appropriately with whatever arises.
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