The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The classical Yoga of Patanjali, an Indian sage who lived more than 2,000 years ago, has eight limbs, or aspects to the path:
Yama Niyama Asana Pranayama Pratyahara Dharana Dhyana Samadhi
The idea is that for us to transform as human beings, to reach our full potential, we need to practice all eight limbs. Additionally, each limb can contain all the other limbs, so we can practice all eight limbs within any one limb. It’s holographic.
These days, our culture’s understanding of yoga is more limited. We see it as a cool form of exercise, or a way to relax and de-stress. This relates to yoga as asana, literally “seat” or “posture,” and these are the exercises that we do in any hatha yoga class. But asana is just one aspect of the practice. Infact, we can continue to do the exercises for years and years and derive some benefit, but not change very much. For the practice to be transformative, that is; for the practice to awaken us to our full potential as human beings, we need to practice all eight limbs. This is the spiritual path of yoga.
This series of writings will introduce you to the eight limbs and offer a way you can begin to practice these other aspects in your life today.
The first limb, “Yama” refers to those wise characteristics we can practice in order to live in harmony (in yoga, literally “union”) with the world around us. If we are not living in harmony with the world around us, it will be difficult or impossible to still our minds, or come into yoga.
The 5 yamas are: Ahimsa – non-violence Satya; truth Asteya – non-stealing Bramacharya – containment of energy Aparigraha- non-grasping
This week let us look at Ahimsa (non-violence). For most of you, violence at the gross level is probably not a big problem. You are not killing or harming others in obvious, over-the-top ways. This is good, and yet there are more subtle levels to ahimsa that we can begin to consider. For example, we often leak our aggression out into the world while driving. We honk, and give the finger, and yell in our cars, and express our violent energy in this way. It is socially acceptable. We often harbor angry and resentful thoughts about people, gossip in ways that are harmful (is it ever not harmful?), yell and de-stress onto our loved ones and practice self-critical and harsh behavior towards ourselves.
Mukunda Stiles’ translates Patanjali’s sutra on ahimsa, II,35, with these words:
By abiding in nonviolence one’s presence creates an atmosphere in which hostility ceases.
A wise meditation teacher once said that we learn to be loving by noticing how unloving we are. This week, I invite you to learn to be non-violent by noticing how violent you can be. Begin to pay attention to the ways you leak aggressive energy into the world in harmless ways. Begin to notice the ways you talk to yourself, how often the inner voice is critical, harsh and unkind, and how you talk and behave with those nearest and dearest to you.
Don’t use your discoveries as more fuel for your inner critic (I am really a terrible person for being so unkind); instead celebrate the wakefulness you exhibit when you notice the aggression within yourself. Feel humble, for we are all learning. We learn to be non-violent by noticing how violent we are. For this week, practice ahimsa.