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Although the Yoga Sūtras come from an ancient text written by Patañjali around 250 B.C.E., the application of the wisdom dispensed in them has vast use in our modern lives. You can practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga every day, in so many ways.
Limb 1: Yamas
The yamas are ethical principles that clarify our relationship to the world and everything in it. They emphasize our connection to others as an integral part of yoga—everything is interconnected. They can also be a great resource to help us learn about our own habits, values, and beliefs. From learning about ourselves we can learn how to create more personal integrity by changing the parts of us that don’t serve ourselves or others. The yamas break down to 5 practices:
Daily Practices for the Yamas
Each of the yamas is meant to be practiced with both the mind and body, on a literal and also on a compassionate level. Here are some ways you can practice each yama on a daily basis. As a challenge, pick one to focus on each week, then notice what shifts in your behavior and your internal experience from this practice. Share your thoughts at #8Limbsofyoga.
Ahimsā Not Harming. Start with you—be kind in the ways you talk to yourself, staying away from the negative self-talk trap. Do things that make your body feel healthy and vibrant, like adding a morning walk to your daily routine. After you start treating yourself with loving kindness, it’s easier to treat others that way, too. Go out of your way to say kind things to loved ones… and maybe even a stranger you pass on the street.
Satya Honesty. You can start by being mindful of your speech and truthful with your words. Avoid gossip. This practice builds upon the first yama, ahimsā, and asks that we always be honest in a way that does no harm. A good rule of thumb: if it’s not beneficial to say, don’t say it. Your thoughts and words help shape your environment. Speak in ways that create a compassionate, loving habitat for yourself and those around you.
Asteya Not stealing. Moving beyond the literal level of stealing, we are encouraged to consider how we might steal on more subtle levels, like wasting time or sapping someone’s energy. A good practice is to be respectful of other people’s time and energy as well as our own. Stealing is based on a fear of scarcity. The opposite of stealing is giving. Challenge yourself to give your time and presence to others by showing up on time, listening intently, and not expecting anything in return.
Brahmacharya Wise use of energy. This refers to all of the creative ways we use energy, including sexual. Treat ourselves—and others—with dignity and respect. A good practice for this yama is to notice what feelings arise when you experience sexual energy. If appropriate, share these feelings with your partner. Always act from a place of integrity with your energy, sexual and otherwise.
Aparigrahā Non-possessiveness. This yama does not forbid us from owning things. After all, life is meant to be enjoyed. But when our thoughts and actions are based on greed, it brings a negative cloud over our souls. Whether we are greedy in ways overt (addiction, material cravings) or subtle (like with time), it is destructive. This yama guides us to shift our greed to generosity: do something generous for someone else instead.
Limb 2: Niyamas
The second limb is niyamas: internal disciplines that teach us to respect ourselves—body, mind, and spirit. They are forms of self-discipline as well as reflective practices. The niyamas break down to five habits, which help us hone our Selves:
Daily Practices for the Niyamas
Saucha Purity, cleanliness. Many cultures believe that a healthy mind and body promote a healthy spirit. Saucha keeps our body clean on the outside and inside. One way to practice this is by eating cleanly, which promotes health and balanced emotional energy. Another good way to practice saucha is feng shui, which helps clear energy from our home and boosts our personal energy. It’s amazing how good it feels just to clean up one little area: start with a clutter-free desk to help ignite your creativity.
Santosha Contentment, gratitude. Santosha is to come from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. It’s knowing that what you have, are, and feel is already good enough. Be grateful for your life the way it is right now. This can be as easy as making a mental list of all the things you are grateful for, or praying or meditating on what makes you grateful. Do this each day and notice the positive affect it has on your life.
Tapas Discipline. In the yogic tradition, this means being diligent and committed to yoga and self-work. Through constant practice we will reap the benefits of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Tapas is also described as the fire in our bellies that keeps us motivated and on the path. To start, pick one aspect of your life you’d like to change and practice that new way of being for 30 days. For example, meditate for 20 minutes every day for a month.
Svadhyaya Self-reflection. This is the practice of truly understanding who we are through inner reflection, by reading yoga texts, and by chanting yoga mantras. These methods help inspire us to be the best we can be and support us on our journey. One way to practice svadhyaya is to read some of the ancient yoga texts and more contemporary writings. Consider starting a book club to help enrich your reading experience. Maybe your favorite yoga studio will entertain hosting it!
Ishvara Pranidhana Devotion. Yoga is a spiritual practice, not a religion. Yoga does not try to limit a higher power by imposing certain beliefs, but it does emphasize the divine in each of us. We are all sacred beings. OM is the name of the divine, the sound of the universe, which connects us all together: WE ARE ONE. It is the ultimate mantra, reminding us of our own divinity and the divinity of all life. Chant OM on a daily basis, and make an effort every day to cherish and appreciate all creatures and objects you come across in your life.
Limb 3: Āsana
The third limb is āsana: the physical practice of yoga. Of the 196 verses in the Yoga Sūtras, a mere 2 are dedicated to poses, but the practice of āsana is invaluable to cultivating a sublime meditative state. By linking breath to movement, āsana teaches us to turn within.
Daily Practices for Āsana
Āsana practice helps us to maintain physical health and vitality, but along the way, we also learn valuable lessons about ourselves and about life. Some poses teach us patience, some humility. Yoga teaches us to feel into each pose, and push to the limit—without ever causing pain. Most poses teach us to do what feels right, not just in the pose, which is very important, but in every situation. When you’re presented with a challenge, can you listen to your gut, rather than doing what you think you should do? In your next āsana practice, focus on what you are feeling in each pose, and modify the pose accordingly—ease off or push a little harder. Then, take it a little further: reflect on situations in your life and the feelings that come up around them. Learn to trust those feelings.
Limb 4: Prānāyāma
The fourth limb is prānāyāma: the focus on the breath. Prānāyāma enables us to cultivate our very life force (prāna) through various techniques that teach us to relax and control our breath… creating divine conditions for health in the body and peace in the mind.
Daily Practices for Prānāyāma
In the yoga tradition, there are several pranayama techniques. A great one to start with is nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breathing. By breathing through each nostril, one at a time, you can train your mind to stay focused on tasks and calm the chatter in your head. Here’s how you do it:
Limb 5: Pratyāhāra
The fifth limb is pratyāhāra: the withdrawing of the senses and the letting go of all the many sensations we feel, hear, see, taste, and smell. By abandoning the countless distractions of day-to-day life, the mind is free to move into meditation—the ultimate goal of yoga.
Daily Practices for Pratyāhāra
We live in an era of sensory overload, constantly bombarded with messages from the media, smart phones, the internet, and stressed-out friends and colleagues. Pratyāhāra encourages us to let go of all the distractions of life. It gives us the freedom not to take it all in. Try choosing one of the following pratyāhāra techniques and practice daily for one week. See if you feel calmer as a result.
Limb 6: Dhāranā
The sixth limb is dhāranā: strict concentration on one object or task, a state in which there are no distractions. When staring into your lover’s eyes, the rest of the world is forgotten. Likewise, when you are enthralled with the object of your concentration, all else disappears.
Daily Practices for Dhāranā
The goal is to still the mind… easier said than done! A beginner technique for dhāranā is to focus your attention on one object, such as a candle, a fresh flower, or a precious gem. Another technique, called Transcendental Meditation, asks you to repeat a simple mantra over and over.
Limb 7: Dhyāna
The seventh limb is dhyāna: meditation, a state in which you experience the sacred through a deeply focused awareness. Through the practice of dhyāna, we begin to see reality for what it really is: impermanence. This is how we ultimately achieve bliss on a higher plane.
Daily Practices for Dhyāna
To truly reap the benefits of yoga, you must cultivate a daily meditation practice, which is why four of the 8 limbs are focused on it. If you are a beginner to meditation, there are several ways to learn: personal instruction from a teacher, YouTube videos, DVDs, books. Start with a goal of 5 to 10 minutes a day, every day—preferably in the morning, when your mind is clear. Over time, increase your meditation sessions to 30 minutes a day.
Limb 8: Samādhi
The 8th limb is samādhi: the bringing together of the yoga practice, a state in which we truly know and feel that everything is interconnected. The intellect has stopped; there is only the experience of unutterable joy. A liberated soul can thus enjoy pure awareness and harmony.
Daily Practices for Samādhi
Although samādhi is the goal, the practice of yoga is not linear. It’s circular and ongoing: our practices may change and evolve, but we are always practicing. One way to experience samādhi is through the yamas (the 1st limb of yoga) which are the ethical principles that calrify our relationship to the world. The yamas encourage us to be kind, honest and generous. By practicing the yamas deeply we begin to realize our interconnectedness with our planet and all beings. The illusion of separateness has fallen away and we see clearly that every action we take does matter.
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