While there are many branches to the tree of yoga, Patanjali’s Sutras, clearly defines an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga study and practice. The Yoga Sutras consist of four books produced sometime in the third century before Christ. Patanjali’s Sutras consolidate the entirety of yoga philosophy into a series of 196 lucid aphorisms. Each thread of the Yoga Sutras is revealed as a part of a woven fabric, with each aphorism merely a mark or color within the whole pattern. The threads begin to make sense through a direct experience of them. The embodiment of the full teachings of yoga is not linear process. It is an organic process. It unfolds with time, practice, and unplanned experiences in your life. The Sutras are a description of the process of unbinding your limited ideas about yourself and the world, and becoming free.
The eight limbs of yoga are often presented as a hierarchical progression, but this linear progression toward an idealized goal tends only to reinforce the dualistic idea that yoga is something to “get.” You “have” it or you don’t. It is more helpful to think of the eight limbs as the arms and legs of a body–connected to one another through the central body of yoga. Just as the body’s limbs grow in proportion to one another, whatever limb of practice you focus upon inevitably causes the other limbs to grow as well. People who begin yoga through the limb of meditation are often later drawn to practice more physical postures. Those who are drawn to vigorous physical practice later find themselves being drawn into the quieter, more meditative practices. Each limb is essential for the optimal functioning of your mind/body, ultimately every limb of yoga practice is important. Growth in practice happens naturally when you are sincere in your wish to grow.
The eight limbs emanating from the central core are:
Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that allow you to be at peace with yourself, your family, and your community.
Asanas: Dynamic movement in the form of postures. These movements help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system, the muscular-skeletal system, refines our process of inner perception, and has many other documented benefits.
Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help us to develop constancy in the movement and exchange of prana, or life force.
Pratyahara: The conscious withdrawal of energy from the senses.
Dharana: The art of concentration. Focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.
Dhyana: Sustaining attention under all conditions.
Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence.
These concepts are complicated and complex. To understand them is a lifetime of study and practice. But we’ll be exploring them in-depth conceptually and contextually each week. Enjoy!