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Introducing The Eight Limbs of Yoga

When there us war within us it won’t be long until there is war with others, even those we love.- Thich Nhat Hanh

The sentiment of these words links beautifully with the Sanskrit word Yoga. Yoga means union, to yoke or to bring things together.

That last part could be open to interpretation. Bring what together?

People? Communities? Body, mind and spirit all linked up through our breath?

Union may not be part of our everyday experience because modern life, from medicine to politics, breeds the illusion of reductionism which means relating to ourselves as all separate bits working independently of each other. For example; according to reductionist thinking a pain in one’s ankle could only be about the ankle. Whereas a yogic, WHOLEistic approach would consider the ankle as a piece of the greater whole including stress levels, diet, overall mental health, remnants of previous injuries to the body as well as our personal dosha meaning constitution in Ayurvedic medicine.

In my opinion, yoga is the felt experience of oneness of body, mind and spirit which we can glimpse both on and off the yoga mat while practising the eight limbs of yoga. These limbs pertain to the concept of astanga yoga (asta- eight, anga-limb). You may recognise this term from the 20th century brand of yoga called Ashtanga. However, the original eight limbed philosophy based primarily on meditation was popularised in the nineteenth century, far before unscrupulous predator Patabhi Jois* set up the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948.

It is believed that the eight branches, or limbs of yoga, first appeared in a text called The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali circa 48 BCE, even though nobody knows for absolutely sure who Patanjali was! As is often the case with yoga’s history, some folks dispute this timing and say that the astanga approach was added to the sutras much later.

The eight limbs are said to be a pathway to train a student to reveal samadhi, a state of being at one with self-realisation and the whole universe. Pretty powerful stuff! Is this possible for modern humans? I don’t know the answer. But we could all acknowledge that we live vastly different lives from our ancestors, summed up in this quote (couldn’t find out who said it)

“we are stoneagers living in the space age”.

Our brains are simply not built to assimilate all the information that can potentially come at us in a day. Don’t get me wrong I have time for space age; new energetic healing technologies (not mrna) and the vibrational soup of quantum physics. But not a space age with ramped up surveillance and mobile phones affixed to hands. It can’t hurt to give self realisation a go though hey? On the path to samadhi we explore:

1. Yamas- ethical behaviour toward others

2. Niyamas- ethical behaviour toward ourselves

3. Asana- physical movement to maintain the flow of energy around the body

4. Pranayama- breathing practices for cultivation our life force energy

5. Pratyahara- sense withdrawal to focus inward

6. Dharana- meditative concentration

7. Dhayana- meditative contemplation

8. Samadhi- self realisation, enlightenment

For me, samadhi is wholeness. It’s not a lofty, heady, new age concept where a student needs to wear robes and be dripping in crystals while acting all superior. It is the result of practicing observing the mind to recognise the stories we tell ourselves that keep us at war with ourselves. It is freedom from engaging in these stories. It is grounded, unified self-acceptance and an acceptance of others on a heart and soul level. All of our actions can take us toward samadhi or away from it over a lifelong yoga practice.

Do we ever fully end up there? I don’t know.

I endeavour to honour the limbs of yoga in my style of yoga teaching. I’d love to see you in class.

Or on Retreat.

*For information on the problematic history and results of Ashtanga Yoga refer to Matthew Remski’s book Practice And All Is Coming.

Please note this book refers to abuse and could be distressing for some readers.

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