A lot of the time when we hear the word yoga we automatically think of attending a yoga class, or the physical postures of the practice. But in actuality, yoga is much more than that. Yoga means “to yoke”, to connect to Source or the Universe, and involves much more than just yoga poses. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally translates to “eight limbs”. These limbs cover everything from how you should behave in the world, to how to attain spiritual fulfillment.
Yamas- moral discipline, external restraints
Niyamas- self-discipline, internal focus
Asana - physical postures
Pranayama- breath control
Pratyahara- sensory withdrawal
Dharana- concentration + strengthening the mind
Dhyana- meditation / following the call of God
Brahmacharya: right use of energy
The yamas help us hold ourselves accountable and maintain integrity. They act as moral disciplines and guide us to interact with our surroundings in a positive way.
Tapas: burning desire; spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God
The niyamas help us tend to our inner worlds. They keep our minds focused and committed to right-living.
Often we think of asana as a term for our yoga practice or postures, but the original meaning behind asana is simply a comfortable seat. Once we have a framework for how we should live in accordance with the external world (through the yamas and niyamas), we can start to take our attention deeper: inwards. This limb acts as the foundation for your meditation practice - it is very challenging to quiet the mind and connect with the deeper parts of your being when your body is asking for attention. Although practicing yoga can help prepare the body for meditation, you don’t need to be able to sit in lotus or hero pose for hours on end to meditate - you can simply sit on a comfortable chair or couch. Comfort is key!
The breath acts as a link between the mind and the body. When you are feeling fearful or anxious, your breathing may be fast and shallow. When you are feeling comfortable and at ease, your breathing may be slow and deep. Not only can your breath give you an indication of how you are feeling, but you can intentionally alter your breathing to shift your mood. When you take long and slow inhalation and exhalations, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which signals your body to relax. This allows your mind to rest and your attention to remain inward.
Now it is time to prepare for the final three limbs. Our reality is filtered in through our senses: everything we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell are constantly being inputted into our systems. In our current society, this can be very overwhelming - with social media, advertisements, and information being funneled at us from every direction. By taking time to consciously withdraw the senses we are giving our receptors a break as well as allowing the body and mind to detox. When we have less attachment to sensory stimulation we are more ready for meditation.
Dharana is a form of practicing self-control, not to restrain the mind, but to guide focus. The mind always likes to wander and find sources of distraction, and it takes powerful strength to keep calling it back inward. There are many different techniques for this, some of which include: trataka (candle, sun, or moon gazing), chanting (repeating a mantra or verse), mudras (specific hand gestures with spiritual importance), visualization, breathing practices, etc.!
Once you have found a concentration technique (dharana) that you enjoy, the next step is following it towards bliss (samadhi). This is the sweet spot between controlling the mind, and surrendering to all that is. Meditation challenges your ability to focus the mind in order to connect with the deepest part of yourself. Once you begin to find that inner resonance, your goal is to stay present with it. This is meditation! When you are not questioning whether or not you are meditating, but you are fully immersed in the experience. This will eventually lead to the final limb.
This occurs when you become one with the object of your attention. Your mind and ego loosen their grip, and you surrender into oneness. This is liberation. This does not necessarily have to be attained through traditional meditation, but it can be experienced through other activities such as creative arts, surfing, swimming, being fully present with a loved one, hearing a child’s laugh. It is si