What Are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
The benefits of using yoga to change your life are different for everyone. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are divided into two groups: practice and experience. The first two limbs, Yamas and Niyamas, provide guidance on a tangible way to live our lives.
As we study the Yamas and Niyamas, the qualities outlined are placed at the forefront of our minds allowing us to manifest them in our lives. These are essentially the dos and don’ts of how to live ethically. Moving further down the path, we learn about the practice of the asanas or poses and the breath or pranayama.
The ultimate goal is achieved when we reach a state of oneness.
Pranayama- Yoga Guideline
Pranayama in Sanskrit is our vital life force. The practice involves consciously controlling the breath to cultivate and mindfully use your life force. Maintaining a steady, rhythmic breath is the single most crucial part of your yoga practice.
The act of breathing is performed both consciously and unconsciously and can be voluntary or involuntary. Too many of us only experience unconscious breathing. Anyone who has ever been to a yoga class understands the process of purposefully breathing as you match your breath to movement.
There are many Pranayama techniques. One breath technique central to most practices is Ujjayi, pronounced: “ooh-JAI-yee.” When practicing Ujjayi, you completely fill your lungs while slightly contracting your throat, as if saying ahhh, and breathing through your nose.
In Sanskrit, Ujjayi means “to conquer.” This breath is also sometimes called “Ocean Breath” because of the sound it makes.
When practicing breath control, you calm your mind and bring awareness to the present moment. By consciously practicing breath control exercises, you can bring positive changes to your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being and improve your concentration, focus, clarity, creativity, purpose, and compassion. Ujjayi is particularly beneficial for calming the mind.
To learn how to practice Ujjayi breathing, check out this video:
Another useful Pranayama technique is the breath of fire. Breath of Fire is a rhythmic breath with equal emphasis on the inhale and exhale, no deeper than sniffing. This technique is used in Kundalini yoga and is believed to be the key to reaching a higher consciousness.
The breath of fire is a warming breath to generate heat and releases natural energy throughout the body. It promotes internal harmony to sync your mind, body, and spirit.
The breath of fire aids physical endurance, the strengthening, and balance of your nervous system, and helps you regain control in stressful situations.
Learn how to practice this energizing breath here: https://youtu.be/jbtLH-3DfLc
The third and final technique is alternate nostril breathing. In Sanskrit, this technique translates to a “subtle energy-clearing breathing technique.” This breath pairs well with meditative practices.
Alternate nostril breathing may help you relax your body and mind, reduce anxiety, and promote overall well-being to help you be more focused and aware.
Learn how to manage stress throughout the day or bring mindfulness to the present with alternate nostril breathing at https://youtu.be/8VwufJrUhic
The fifth limb of yoga is called Pratyahara. It is perhaps the most puzzling of the eight limbs. Pratyahara is defined as “the conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.”
The best way to understand and experience Pratyahara is through Savasana or the Corpse Pose. There are two layers to this asana. Many students of yoga are familiar with the first stage but fail to master the second.
Savasana is the practice of relaxing deeply and involves physiological relaxation of the muscles, the breath, and finally of the body—completely letting go. This is merely the first phase of the practice and can be challenging to master. The second phase, however, is when we practice Pratyahara.
Pratyahara is the release of consciousness, withdrawing from the external world without completely losing contact with it. It is a non-reactive state, one where you register input from your senses, but you don't react to that input.
The goal of Pratyahara is to withdraw ourselves from external stimuli so we can hear the sounds from within. The flow of stimuli can be overwhelming. We live in a world where our senses are continually bombarded with external stimulation making it difficult to take a moment of sensory rest.
The issue then becomes an instant reaction to the information our senses feed us, allowing our minds to take over, moving from one impulse to the next. When this happens, we have pulled away from our inner peace and forgotten our higher life goals.
To practice Pratyahara, start by withdrawing from the things that work against you, such as unhealthy food and toxic relationships. The mind cannot rest when we are surrounded by never-ending stimuli such as TV or social media. To distance yourself from this sensory overload, spend some time without your technology. Switch off your cell, TV, and laptop, and turn your focus inward.
Next time you are in Savasana, I encourage you to work towards Pratyahara. Allow your mind to focus on all the different sounds around you without assigning judgment or labeling the sounds, merely listening. Once the mind gets used to the sounds, it will naturally focus more on the inside.
When was the last time you were entirely focused and immersed in a single activity?
Maybe you were doing something creative such as painting or writing, or perhaps it was a physical activity such as running.
This mental stillness or focus is what Patanjali's sixth limb, Dharana, is all about. When you’re truly focused on and committed to the moment, you can not experience conflict.
This kind of state of total focus is a sense of peacefulness.
The final three limbs of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga are all interconnected. The practice of Dharana will prepare you for Dhyana and Samadhi.
We all experience thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘should have,’ but they are distracting. Our thoughts often project us into the past or to the future, which causes us to miss the present.
Dharana is about fixing the mind to one specific point. The goal is to learn how to be fully present which can be achieved by focusing on an activity or object. This focus cures the inner conflicts we so commonly experience.
What you choose as your focus is not important. The purpose is to quiet the mind with total concentration. The practice of focused concentration leaves less room for other thoughts, memories, and planning that the mind tends to be otherwise busy with.
To practice Dharana, try to find a comfortable seated position. Either close your eyes and focus on something within or focus on a picture or an object in front of you. As distracting thoughts enter, which they undoubtedly will, simply acknowledge them and redirect your focus to the present.