A lot of people roll their eyes when I mention that there’s a lot more to yoga than stretching or even exercise. The exercise is actually just one little piece of it. I was letting yoga heal me and transform my view of the world well before I realized that it was doing just that. Then I went to a yoga instructor course and it all came into focus. The goal of yoga is not to get bendy, that much I knew, but I didn’t really get what it was either. I had just started grasping the concept of yoga being about “what we learn on the way down” when I took that course and learned about the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
I’ve recently started reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and that’s helped so much. I know, how can someone who loves books and yoga so much not have actually read about yoga? I can’t even with myself sometimes too. I’m only about half way through but it’s already clear that it’s the kind of book that will make more sense with each reread. My current plan is to reread it every January and hopefully learn more about it along the way. If you haven’t read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, with any of the commentaries, I highly recommend it. Here is the one that I have and am reading currently. There’s another version with a different commentary that I want to get to on Scribd too but one thing at a time.
I had started off trying to read a bunch of other yoga books with different focuses but they all cited this original work on the practice and so I stopped and came back to this. There are some amazing insights in here, mostly those that I was not ready for when I read them. Isn’t that how it always goes?
There is a section on how much our outlook actually determines whether we are liberated or in bondage, no matter where we are. It isn’t a place or situation that binds us but our attitude about either. I was definitely not in the right mental space to take that on when I read it because I was in the midst of having a really poor attitude about life. But the more I sat with it, the more I had to deal with this truth.
I was also blown away by several mentions on God and union with God and the theory of how that works. I say theory because it’s not the same for everyone, which is also mentioned. There is more than one path to God and this is one of them for the person who needs it and who practices for that goal. A lot of it is about looking inside rather than outside, for that spark of the divine that is in us. I’m far from being able to adequately explain it, but I found it really interesting. It’s something about being able to find the divine in us that links us to the Supreme Divine.
I got about half way before reaching the 8 Limbs of Yoga, which was a part of what I had started off trying to study with all these yoga books anyway. I learned a little about the 8 limbs in instructor school and have been working to internalize them since, but it’s good to go back to the source when studying. To me, its easier to understand as more of a path.
For those who are already practicing and know a little about the effect of the asanas (poses) on the brain, it can be easy to see. Every form of exercise may have a bit of a high when we’re done, but there’s something different that happens in yoga. At some point, it starts to work on your mental state too. It’s because the asanas are doing their job and giving the yogi the ability for both breath control and a withdrawal of the senses even when the practitioner doesn’t realize it.
I do find it a little interesting and strange that many of us in the US start off yoga on the third limb, asana or poses. We come to it as exercise and then it starts working it’s magic. At the same time, after diving into the first two limbs in another book called The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, I get why it’s not that big of a stretch for a lot of us. Americans may not be great at actually practicing the tenets of our country’s primary religion, but we certainly know them and the yamas and niyamas fall right in line with the basics of the teachings of the Christian churches. It doesn’t make for a perfect comparison by any means, but it’s also not a stretch for many of them.
Still, poses are great and so is exercise, but staying in the third limb means missing out on the best parts of yoga, especially when the yogi never learned the first two limbs as they are and is just trying to build on the teachings of religion. There’s also no getting to some of the advanced poses without the limbs that come after asana.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga are:
- Yama – Moral Restraint
- Niyama – Ethical Observance
- Asanas – Poses
- Pranayama – Breath Control
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the Senses
- Dharana – Concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – Full Meditative Absorption
Each limb leads to the other, more like a path than a tree. The whole process made sense out of the way it takes a lot of people a while to feel comfortable staying for savasana in class. I didn’t even bother with it for a long time, especially when I practiced at home. These days, I try to get as long a savasana as I can at home.
Much as yoga is known for helping posture and breath control, the real benefits for me came into play when I started to touch on the sixth limb. As I understand it, full meditative absorption is a kind of unity with God and creation. I know it sounds all crunchy granola, but if there’s a path to being at peace or in union with everyone and everything, why not get on it?