Monday, April 9, 2012

Reflections & Musings: The Eight Limbs of Yoga

"If I have been of service, 
if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good,
if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action,
if I am at peace with myself, 
it has been a successful day."
-Alex Noble

Today, I was asked by a friend whether I follow the "8 Limbs of Yoga," a framework for living a moral life. Most people don't realize that the physical asana made so popular by our contemporary culture is just one of the limbs on this spiritual tree as put forth by Patanjali, who is attributed to creating these 8 steps of yoga to help unite body, mind and spirit. Ultimately, physical asana was designed so that we could sit for longer periods of meditation to cultivate a greater connection to the Divine within us.

The 8 limbs are delineated as:

1. Yama: Universal morality (includes Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha)
2. Niyama: Personal observances (includes Sauca, Santosa, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Isvapranidhara)
3. Asanas: Body postures
4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises and control of prana
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses
6. Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana: Devotion, meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi: Union with the Divine

The two elements most frequently mentioned in yoga classes are yama and niyama, as they are likely the most tangible "commandments" for people to grasp. 

Do I practice these guidelines? Daily? Is my intention there? Well, yes. I do the best I can. One of the lessons we learn — and teach — in yoga is that by becoming a better person within, we are able to bring that energy into the world and hopefully inspire greater change on a large scale. In Chinese medicine, it is believed that our human bodies are the microcosm of the macrocosm around us. If we can treat and heal ourselves, then we do the same for the world at large.

There are plenty of philosophical questions I don't know the answer to, but what I've learned is that sometimes, we're not supposed to know the answer. We are simply meant to do the best we can given what we have, going inward rather than reacting outward, all the while expanding into faith.

Ahimsa: I do have compassion for all living things, which is why I endeavor to grow my Karma Yoga program and bring free yoga to underserved populations all around us. I've had a soft spot my entire life for volunteering, but I don't think it means that compassion needs to be exhibited in grandiose gestures or ways. Sometimes, all it requires is a helping hand, a smile, a hug. And, because there are two (or more) sides to everything, what I need to work on is greater compassion for my self — this is one of the hardest lessons I am learning every day.

Satya: In Chinese culture, we're taught to "save face" and be humble, be modest, be deferent. We are not taught to practice critical thinking, because the teacher is always right. We are told specifically not to speak up, raise our hand, make trouble. So, speaking my truth has been an outline of understanding that I have slowly learned to fill. To this end, it's not my job to make everyone happy. And, it's not yours either. I was taught that the ring of truth is a sound that's undeniable, one that reverberates through your soul. That, I firmly believe. Speak true, be true, and listen to the sound of peace.

Asteya: This is about more than possessions, as most people have the moral understanding that stealing is wrong. But what about the ambiguity that comes with taking someone else's time by being late or unreliable? What about breaking someone's confidence by sharing gossip or information without their permission? One of the greatest challenges here is in relationships, where because we feel there is a hole that needs to be filled, a gap that needs to be covered, we demand something from our partner they were not ready or willing to give. Perhaps if we could learn to infuse that space with love, we would resist the urge to take what we believe we deserve. I have loved the quote "live in such a way that if anyone should speak badly of you, no one would believe it." 

Brahmacharya: Basically, this refers to abstinence, especially when it comes to sex. One of the things they tell you in 12 Step programs is "Take what works and leave the rest," and I always teach in class that we are all designed differently, so the asanas I'm "guiding" students through may not work for everyone. I am not in your body, I have not lived your life story, so it's up to you to honor what works for you. That's why, the whole abstaining from sex — or anything in a similarly severe manner — doesn't work for me. It sets me up for failure, by placing something "off-limits" so that all my brain can think about is what I'm not supposed to have. This isn't to say that I think about sex 24-7 and am lustful beyond belief (that's not moderation now, is it). And, I liked what one of my yogic mentors shared, "I believe that God gave me this body for a reason and that life is sensual, so I'm going to enjoy it. Within reason, of course." I suffered from bulimia. My whole problem was that I was not able to stop myself from bingeing and purging. So again, when it comes to sense control, it's not one of my strong suits. Mostly because I feel that since I live so deeply in all of my senses, I am able to experience everything so creatively. It is this struggle of getting lost in everything that I feel propels many writers to madness.

I would say that most everything else on that list, I practice to varying degrees to the best of my ability. Yoga is a process for living well, not a means to a state of perfection that does not exist. Instead, I envision life is like a rolling wave and you could be here at this break or over there at that one, but it will never ever be the same throughout the entire ocean. We've got to find our own equilibrium, our own way to float with the elements, our own discovery of what's underneath the water. So, the best thing we can do is become familiar with the conditions, enjoy the sun, then find our center of gravity as we pop up on a board. Sometimes, we fall off the wave; sometimes, we have the best ride of our lives. No one knows what'll happen. But, guidelines like these from Patanjali provide a helpful map and way to put everything in context. 

At the very least, maybe we can rest assured that humankind has been struggling with similar issues since forever ago, which is why these philosophies came about in the first place. We're either right where we're supposed to be or very, very slow learners. 


  1. Awesome J!!! :) I'm learning all about this in my teacher training right now. Miss you and hope you're doing fabulous!!!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I am sending you such good juju for your teacher training. I'm sure that you are having such an incredible time with it. Hope all's well in your world and that we get to connect soon!