In this series, Katrin will provide a more in-depth exploration of the angas, or eight limbs of yoga.
When we decide to venture onto the transformational path of Yoga, at some point we will become acquainted with the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Astanga (pronounced: Ashtanga), as explained by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras 2.29-45. As a practice, Yoga can help us examine and understand our habitual attitudes and behaviors and their consequences. Our ultimate goal is to recognize these patterns that manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, and then begin the process of transforming those that no longer serve our greater good. Yoga is the crucible where the pure ore of the spirit is liberated from the dross or karmic slag that keeps us locked in the prisons of our own making. Yoga is a path toward the light, toward healing and wholeness.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, we typically come to the practice of yoga with some intention. We may be clear that we want to become more flexible, or diminish the stress in our lives. Perhaps our intention is something more ambitious like healing from a past trauma. Still others may not know exactly why they are drawn to the practice, but they sense, instinctively, that their lives are out of balance, or they may be seeking an means to achieve a life of greater meaning and purpose.
Most yogins enter the path through the gate of asana, seeking the physical benefits of the practice. Others may find their way through the related practice of meditation, dhyana. Regardless of our point of entry, if we follow the path long enough, eventually we are lead through the Eight Limbs of Yoga, or angas. This may be accomplished through self-study, svadhyaya, by reading books, practicing with videos, or under the guidance of a teacher.
The Eight limbs are as follows:
Yama: Ethical practices that direct how we interact with the world society.
Niyama: Observances that direct how we interact with ourselves.
Asana: Physical postures that keep the body strong, flexible and relaxed. They strengthen the nervous system and refine the process of self-perception. Asana is preparation for the next 5 angas.
Pranayama: Regulation and mastering breathing practices that help to develop constancy the movement of prana, the life force, through the body. Pranayama supports asana and thesubsequent limbs.
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses, drawing the attention inward toward stillness and silence.
Dharana: Sustained focus, centering attention on one object, single point focus, cultivating internal perceptual awareness, concentration and containment.
Dhyana: Merging with the object of meditation, sustaining awareness under all conditions.
Samadhi: Leaving the object of meditation behind and merging with the Divine. Observing the true self. Experiencing oneness. The return of the mind into original silence.
Though they are distinct practices, the eight limbs are inter-related, for certain. We need not approach the angas in a linear fashion. Yet, there is merit in integrating the first two limbs as early in the practice as possible, as these address our attitudes about others and ourselves. So, if we are to approach the practice of yoga with intention and mindfulness, we must be aware of how we relate to others and the environment, and how we deal with our own issues.
With awareness comes the possibility for change. Do not expect to change an attitude overnight. Just as our body is the product of years of conditioning, the layering on of physical patterns, injuries, emotional trauma, etc., our mind is the product of years of habituation. Our belief structures are set up very early in life, and may take many years to unravel and re-pattern. Approach this process with compassion and maintain a sense of humor. Through the dedicated practice of asana and pranayama, we begin to change the body, and eventually our attitudes towards others and ourselves will transform, as well. Once the mind begins to become clearer and our emotions are more stable, we can enter the realm of meditation with greater ease. As we cultivate our meditation practice, our sense of isolation and separation from the whole begins to fall away and we recognize we are integral aspects of the greater Whole.
Next time, we will investigate the first of the yamas, ahimsa.