While I do not profess to be a scholar of the Eight-Limb Path of Yoga, it has provided a wonderful framework for my yoga & life journey. The Eight Limbs include the Yamas, the Niyamas, the Asanas, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, & Samadhi. The limbs don’t necessarily go in one specific order and one can move back and forth between them.
The Asanas (Poses) are how I entered my yoga journey about 15 years ago. At the time, I was experiencing a lot of pain due to Fibromyalgia and I was looking for some relief. I had also gained 30 lbs. because of inactivity due to the pain and I was looking for a way to increase my activity. Little did I know that The Asanas were my gate way to the Eight Limb Path and all the associated benefits. For example, the asanas are a form of moving meditation for me and they helped me to gain a better understanding of my body by turning inward (Pratyahara). Doing the asanas regularly gave me more flexibility, balance, and strength and taught me how to align my body so that it works more efficiently.
The next step for me was becoming more aware of my breath and its importance to my health (Pranayama – mindful breathing). I started by coordinating my breath with the actions of the asanas or poses and then began doing a Pranayama practice. One of the primary benefits of mindful breathing for me is a calmer, more focused mind, which allows me to navigate my life and relationships with more ease and less turmoil (Dharana – concentration & Dhyana – Meditation). The highest level on the Eight Limb Path is Samadhi, which means the union of the Self with the object of meditation. I’m not sure I fully understand this limb at this point, but as I have found with the rest of the limbs, they reveal themselves when I am ready to receive them.
The Yamas (Five Moral Restraints) include Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (nonstealing), Brahmacarya (moderation), and Aparigraha (nonhoarding). I have grown to understand that applying these principles not only in the studio, but outside the studio as a life philosophy allows me to live with greater integrity. While all of the Yamas are important, the first one, Ahimsa, has had special significance for me. I have learned that it not only means that I should behave in a nonviolent manner in thought, word, and deed toward others, but also toward myself. I don’t need to berate myself if I am not able to do a specific pose. I need to be patient and honor my body where it is on any given day.
As for the Niyamas (Five Observances) of Sauca (purity), Santosa (Contentment), Tapas (Zeal), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Isvara-pranidhana (devotion to a higher power), these help to motivate me to be a better person and try to make a positive impact where I am able. Again, while they all have importance, Svadhyaya helped me to know that the more I understand my body and the specific actions of the poses, the better chance I have of doing a difficult pose such as Urdhva Dharnurasana (Upward facing Bow pose). I did not enjoy backward extensions when I first started doing them, but now I really like them and understand the benefits of opening the chest and the front part of the body.
Many of us have developed a slouching posture from all of the activities that we do in front of us, i.e., working at computers, writing at a desk, gardening, etc. One of the physical benefits of backward extensions is that it allows more room for greater lung expansion bringing more oxygen/circulation to the body and making space for better organ function. Other benefits include bringing more flexibility to the spine and stimulating the adrenal glands. It takes courage to open the heart and it can sometimes be emotional, but for me, the benefits have outweighed the effort it has taken.
I don’t think of yoga as a religion, but rather as a life philosophy that is similar to many other belief systems. I use what makes sense to me and let the rest go. At the very least, it has helped me to honor my body and slow my thoughts down (multi-tasking isn’t always beneficial), so that I can be present for my life and the people in it.