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Ultimate guide to understanding the 8 limbs of yoga

The real meaning of yoga, in all its depth

Yoga is the union of everything. It’s the connection, harmony, the flow and the balance. And to understand yoga, you need to learn about the 8 limbs of yoga first. Here’s your ultimate go-to guide for this ancient philosophy and way of living.

Yoga consists of eight limbs, considered a moral or ethical code, and also the core principles that serve as a compass for living a meaningful and purposeful life.

Definitions have changed over time, but in the modern age, yoga is widely known as “the union between the body, mind and soul”. Most importantly, yoga is a journey from and to yourself.

It is relevant to notice that yoga is not a religion, however, you may find yoga is in every religion. Also, many people get confused with the physical practice, also known as asanas, as well as a meditation practice. If you want to get into the yoga journey, you must be aware that yoga is much more than that. 

In this eBook, “Change your life with yoga while you make the world more sustainable” we cover a bunch of information related to my Yoga Teacher Training course in Rishikesh, India, and some of the basic theories of yoga. For now, let’s dig deep into some of the most important topics to understand what yoga is about: the 8 limbs of yoga.

“Although yoga has its origins in ancient India, its methods and purposes are universal, relying not on cultural background, faith or deity, but simply on the individual. Yoga has become important in the lives of many contemporary Westerners, sometimes as a way of improving health and fitness of the body, but also as a means of personal and spiritual development.” –Tara Fraser

A guide to understanding the 8 limbs of yoga

 

  • Yama > meaning “Abstention”

The Yamas are the ethics that guide you to rise above the animal tendencies and include non-violence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), non-stealing (Asteya), control of desires (Brahmacharya) and non-avarice (Aparigraha). 

  • Ahimsa: practice nonviolence in thought, word and deed; practice self-love.
  • Satya: tell the truth; opt for silence if your words may harm others.
  • Asteya: do not steal, even in non-material ways, such as withholding information or time.
  • Brahmacharya: use your energy wisely and with intention; avoid excess or overindulgence.
  • Aparigraha: you are enough and you have everything you need already.

 

  • Niyama > meaning “Observance”

Niyamas are the virtuous behaviours that will guide you to personal growth and evolution, to connect to your higher self and reach towards your Divinity. 

These include purity (Saucha), contentment (Santosha), self-discipline (Tapas), self-study (Svadhyaya) and surrender to the divine (Ishvara Pranidhana).

  • Saucha: “Leave a place cleaner than you found it”.
  • Santosha: “Don’t worry, be happy”
  • Tapas: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” 
  • Svadhyaya: “Learn from your mistakes” 
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: “Have faith”

 

  • Asana > meaning “Steady poses”

Asanas are widely known as the exercise poses we see in western yoga schools. You will be surprised that the aim of the asanas is to gain stability and strength, with the ultimate goal of getting your body ready for the meditating position. This is one of the key points in where most of us get confused: firstly because we think yoga is all about doing the asanas; and secondly, because the asanas are just one step that will help you to stay comfortable while doing meditation and hold the position for a long time. 

For those who have tried to sit during the meditation, you would have noticed that it is much more challenging than what initially looks like. The reason behind sitting during meditation is that the strength in this position allows more flow and oxygen into our lungs.

There are 32 main asanas with over 8.4 million variations (for example, the warrior has 6 variations).

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ultimate guide understanding eight limbs yoga
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4. Pranayama > meaning “Control of breathing or energy through inhalation and exhalation”

We breathe 21,600 times on average every day. And what do we breathe? You would easily think we only breathe oxygen. To my surprise, I learned that we do not just inhale oxygen, but also that all the amount we do inhale is not what we keep in our lungs. Here is a quick snapshot:

ultimate guide understanding eight limbs yoga
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The whole point behind the practice of Pranayamas is that holding the breath helps us to increase our ratio of oxygen retention. Slow breathing, increases life. This is why for example dogs have a short life, or turtles have a long life; it is the breathing what makes the whole difference. 

Because when you learn to manage and control your breath, you are able to find space and stillness in your mind. You will also hear that if you control your breath, you control your life.

One of the first lessons we learn when we start Pranayamas is that we do not naturally breathe through both nostrils simultaneously. Either the air comes in through the right side of the nose or the left side of the nose. If we are well-balanced, when we wake up in the morning our right nostril should be very active; on the other hand, when we feel sleepy, very relaxed or go to sleep in the night-time, our left nostril takes over. None of us in the group taking the Yoga Teacher Training course knew this. 

This is a self-awareness lesson that, in my opinion, should be taught at school. If we did, we would all understand so much more about how our bodies work. You can start noticing what nostril you have active right now and just observe. 

Now, without going much in depth, here is a general overview of pranayama techniques we learned in the Yoga Teacher Training course.

  • Nadi Shodhana. Consists of alternate breathing and it’s the best one to practice & purifying our nadis. The purpose is to clear these subtle channels of the mind-body organism while balancing its masculine and feminine sides.

Doing this has an incredible amount of benefits which banyan botanicals explain incredibly well. 

  • Surya bheda. Consists of the right nostril breathing. Surya means the Sun (using the right nostril or Pingla Nadi) to inhale activation through solar energy; we exhale with the left nostril.

The basic purpose of this pranayama is to increase our physical energy and to revitalize the body. It boosts especially the sympathetic nervous system and also increases the efficiency of the digestive system. In a more practical way, if you want to lose weight take ten Surya Bheda breaths before each meal and you will feel incredible changes in your body, as it accelerates your metabolic system. 

  • Bhastrika. This is an advanced breathing technique and therefore requires some familiarity with abdominal breathing. Consists of an active filling and emptying of the abdomen and lungs which is recommended to repeat 5 times forcefully. It’s best to practise on an empty stomach.

This breathing stokes the inner fire of the mind and body, supporting proper digestion on all levels. Familiarise yourself with the benefits, steps and contraindications in this detailed resource

  • Sheetali. Consists of folding the tongue and inspire through the hole. It is a breathing practice calms and soothes the mind-body organism by activating a powerful evaporative cooling mechanism on the inhalation. If you try it, you will sense gently cooling energy, that actually filters to the deep tissues of the body. What it achieves is that it effectively cools the body, the mind, and the emotions. 
  • Sitkari. This is a technique that is very similar to Sheetali, with a variation. Instead of breathing through the whole of the tongue you press the teeth and inspiring with the teeth pressed and the mouth open. It has similar benefits since both have a cooling effect on the body. You can learn about the specific instructions, and precautions by following this link.
  • Ujjayi. The “G” or ocean breath and it is performed with a slight constriction at the back of the throat. It is a very common breathing technique that is used during the Ashtanga practice, which requires high intensity. It allows us to keep up with the practice while focusing (just) on our breathing, keep the energy, as well as benefiting of the calm sensation and body relaxation. 

It can be done at any time. Slows the pace of the breath, which is said to improve longevity. Learn about how to do it and its endless benefits here.

  • Bhramari. Also known as Humming Bee Breath, is a calming breathing practice that soothes the nervous system and helps to connect us with our truest inner nature. With your hands you close eyes and ears and, with your mouth closes, you reproduce a long “mmmmm” sound. 

Aside from relaxing and releasing tension; it is a memory booster and great to improve the senses. And again, it has incredible benefits for our health – but also some precautions you should be aware of. Please before you get into the practice Pranayamas make sure you read the information I provide for each one.

  • Murcha. This is a very advanced Pranayama that consists in holding the breath until you feel a fainting sensation. This Pranayama is not meant for everyone. Only people who have attained mastery over all other forms of breathing techniques should try this exercise. Explore all the benefits and precautions here.

 

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5. Pratyahara > meaning “Withdrawal of senses”

The withdrawal of the senses is what allows us awareness. This fosters the ability to be still and undistracted by the senses or thoughts.

By withdrawing the focus from the senses and the external environment, the mind can turn inward. As your practice grows, your heightened sense of awareness leads to an ability to see things are they are, not as you are. 

There are various ways to remove the distraction of the senses, such as remaining still, closing the eyes, and sitting in a quiet place or using earplugs. 

This is the final preparatory stage before deep meditation. Pratyahara forms a bridge between the external focus of the previous limbs of yoga and the internal focus of the subsequent limbs, which move us into concentration, meditation and, eventually, to the goal of samadhi (union with the Divine).

6. Dharana > meaning “Concentration of mind”

This is the practice of intense concentration, usually focusing on one object. This object can be either external with the eyes open  (flame of a candle mantra or a mandala) or internal with the eyes closed (such as chakra or the breath).

This practice trains the mind in stillness and focus. Start with just a few minutes each day and expand your practice as it serves you. If other thoughts or distractions flicker through your experience, recognize them then let them go. It trains the mind to remain calm and increases mental strength.

Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana limbs should be considered together, as they are progressive stages of concentration.

 “Meditation is a way for nourishing and blossoming the divinity within you” Amit Ray

7. Dhyana or Phyana > meaning “state of meditation”

Finally, we got to the point we were all waiting for: meditation. This is a state of mind where the mind does not have any thoughts. As difficult as this sounds, the goal is to increase the time between two thoughts.

The best way to start is by practising concentration and awareness. But, as you can imagine there are different meditation techniques that can help you. Here we outline the most common practices of meditation:

  • The kind that involves self-reflection, which is basically sitting quietly and asking yourself “who am I”.
  • The self-questioning type, which consists of questioning your beliefs.
  • The widely known as mindfulness (which is a terrible word, because you are not using your mind when you are raising awareness). The awareness of a thought is not a thought.
  • The transcendence meditation, which uses techniques like a mantra. A mantra is like a sound that competes with your thoughts and ultimately takes you to a place where there is no thought and no mantra, and you are just left with the awareness.

Have you heard of Headspace? It is an incredibly useful app that can help you with meditation. Here’s a short guide about meditation techniques.

As we practice these techniques, we get in touch with our spiritual consciousness, which in some religions is called the “soul”.

The best time of the day to meditate is between 4 am and 6 am for several reasons: there is less magnetic movement, there is more oxygen in the air, and the body and the mind are relaxed after sleeping.

8. Samadhi > meaning “Bliss or superb conscious state”

The true goal of Yoga, Samadhi is the release, liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death. It is also known as Enlightenment, or Oneness with the Divine.

While this is the ultimate state of yoga, it is very complicated to reach. 

Many people coming to the Yoga Teacher Training would expect by the end of the course to achieve this easily. These are expectations that are not covered in such a program. How this course is designed, is that it will teach us the techniques we could use to practice in our own time. For example, in the meditation class we were not taught how to meditate, but about the methodology that would get us there if we practice on an ongoing basis.  

The truth is that 200 hours of the basics of yoga is not enough. Some people spend their lives meditating or practising yoga and have not experienced Samadhi. The good thing is that you will get the benefits of yoga anyway. From day one. Promise.

 “Do not feel lonely. The entire universe is inside of you” –Rumi

If you really enjoyed this experience, we have available for you a FREE eBook “Change your life with yoga while you make the world more sustainable”

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Maxime Ducker

The connector of good people, good brands, good social entrepreneurs, good bloggers. Bringing collaboration to the next level. Visionary and probably an idealist, but a real kickass in making things happen. The top goal is travelling the world to discover good brands, keeping the community activated towards the sustainable mission. Maybe launching more good brands. Good fun!

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