Whether you have attended only one yoga class or you are a veteran yogi, you know that yoga poses are just the beginning of what yoga is all about. Sure, you may notice there is an emphasis on mindful breathing and turning the movements into a type of meditation, but there is so much more to yoga than your yoga teacher’s dharma talks about non-violence as you move through your Sun Salutations with Krishna Das pumping in the background chanting “jai Ganesh.” We will save the digging into chanting and Ganesh for another time, but for now let’s look at the eight limbs of yoga and how they can be found in our daily life!
Where do these eight limbs of yoga come from?
Well, these eight limbs of yoga come from Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras (the text from which all things yoga came form) which sets the foundation for a life with purpose as being made up of eight equal parts: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dhrana, Dhyana and Samadhi. They are both meant to be explored individually as well as used as a whole.
So, what do each of these limbs really mean?
The first two limbs are yamas (how we interact with the world) and niyamas (how we interact with ourselves), these two are the easiest to live on or off the mat since essentially they are guides to living life. Each are composed of five tenants to keep in mind as we go about our days.
The five yamas are: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asetya), restraint (bramacharya), and non-coveting (aparigraha). Each of these can be applied to ourselves as well as others as can be a great first step into living yoga off the mat. Personally I like to look at these guides as a way to lead by example for my boys as well as those days when I feel like not practicing yoga poses. The simplicity of reminding myself to be truthful when speaking to my toddler instead of lying because it is easier or remembering that someone else’s yoga practice as seen on Instagram takes nothing away from the beauty of my practice. These tenants for living are akin to the Golden Rule we all have heard “treat others how you want to be treated,” this limb just gives us the directions on how to do that.
Just as important the niyamas show us how to better take care of ourselves: purity or cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and surrender (ishvara pranidhana). From making sure we drink enough water to feeling the contentment of our blessed life, these cues for better self-care are like the owner’s manual we never received for our bodies. Taking time for ourselves to really notice and feel our bodies, taking time to be quiet and still the mind, and surrendering into the flow of life/the universe/God so that each day can be fully lived.
The next limb is posture, asana is what you find in most yoga studios around the western world, so the question of how this can be an off the mat practice is often overlooked. The truth is, the physical practice keeps us limber and open for what we do all day. Whether it is a Warrior 3-like pose to snag a toy before it hits the ground and keep my balance in check or squatting low to play trains. This movement part of yoga is the introduction for most into yoga, it’s the doorway into that scary house on the street. Once we enter, we see it is just like every other house, a home. The lessons a pose can teach us do not end with the use of it in our lives, but how we deal with challenges that are thrown our way in life, to accept and go with the flow or be present enough with ourselves to say “not today.” It is a powerful tool, the moving of the physical body in keeping us focused and fluid.
Breath work, pranayama is the fourth limb and the final limb that works with the body. Breathing is a great way to become focused and present especially in a world filled with distractions and comparison. Even if you never get into the fancier breathing techniques like alternate nostril or ujayii, sometimes it just takes a slow inhale through the nose and a very loud exhale out the mouth. When we get angry or frustrated, the simple act of a deep breath can bring us front and center. Back to acting instead of reacting, a slow mindful breath is a great way to gain control of our bodies and our actions at work, at home, and in the car. Even my toddler knows that when he gets frustrated, he should take a deep breath and then explain to me what is happening. Whether it was from school, Sesame Street, or our yoga practice at home.
So, yoga doesn’t have to be just experienced on the mat or in the yoga studio and really yoga is best practiced out in the world, with our fellow friends and family. Our practice of yoga shows up at home, at work, in the car, sometimes even in line at the grocery store—that is the point. Yoga is meant to be a continual practice, the asana is just how we get the process started.
Liz Vartanian is a yoga teacher, writer, and mom living in Austin, TX. She teaches restorative yoga offering yogis a chance to leave class feeling energized and supported with a side of community as students are often surprised with home cooked goodies after long relaxing Savasanas. She is the co-creator of eight limb//life, a course encouraging everyone to discover their practice of yoga in all aspects of life. When not teaching yoga, Liz can be found with her family where there is coffee, good friends, toy trucks, and a body of water!
You can follow her on Instagram @lizv_yoga or at her website www.blissfulbetty.com.
Photo used with permission by author.
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