The third instalment of our eight-part series on Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga.
The eight limbs of yoga
Almost 2,000 years ago an Indian sage, Patanjali, created the Yoga Sutras, a collection of ancient yogic texts. One of the main teachings is the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga) which can be described as the foundation of yoga and is commonly practised today by yogis all around the world. The Eight Limbs comprises of eight steps that lead us to enlightenment. If practised regularly they can help us to live a happy and meaningful life.
Patanjali’s Eight limbs are:
1. The Yamas (restraints)
2. The Niyamas (self-disciplines)
3. Asana (yoga poses)
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (absorption)
When most people think of yoga it is the physical poses that come to mind. However, asana is only one limb in Patanjali’s eight limb path to enlightenment. Originally it was the physically of asana that drew me to my first yoga class many years ago. In fact, the very first class I attended was a Bikram Yoga class which was extremely intense and took me a few hours of laying on the couch drinking electrolytes to recover from. I persisted for a few weeks (as I had heard so much about the benefits of this new hot yoga craze) and after feeling dehydrated and experiencing headaches I came to the realisation that sweating in a stinky, humid, 39° room for 90 minutes was not for me. I later found a great yoga studio that held hot yoga classes (power was my favourite), but they also had a variety of other classes that were less intense and more restorative. Later, I discovered the joys of Yin Yoga and how complementary it is to a Yang (stronger) practice, along with its many other benefits.
Hatha literally means sun, ha, and moon, tha. The sun represents masculine qualities such as strength and persistence whilst the moon represents feminine qualities, such as softening and nurturing. In our asana practice, as in life, we aim to have a balance of both. There are so many different styles of yoga ranging from restorative to power vinyasa style classes. Neither is better than the other, it really depends on the needs of the yogi at the time.
A common phrase I hear when talking to students, particularly beginners, is that “I am not flexible enough” or “I am not strong enough”. The main goal of asana class is not to achieve those postures that we see on Instagram that may require super flexibility or strength. The purpose of asana, is to prepare the body for meditation. When we focus on the process rather than the outcome, that is where transformation occurs, not only psychically but on an emotional and spiritual level.
Practice Tip: Stop comparing yourself to others! This is your journey and yoga practice. Some people take years to achieve certain poses and others practise consistently and still never achieve the pose. Focus on being grateful for everything that your body can do. Think of the mental and physical benefits that you gain even just attending a class or perhaps modifying a pose to suit your body. An advanced yogi is the one who takes child’s pose when it is needed. A beginner yogi is one who will push themselves into a posture when it is not suitable just to keep up with everyone else.
In Western Society, we live in a very fast paced world. Finding moments of stillness and peace is so important. Yin Yoga allows us to do just this. We hold poses longer than a typical Hatha or Vinyasa class. During this time, we focus on the breath, we pay attention how our body feels, we slow down and allow our mind some peace. When we are holding the asana we should feel challenged but also able to relax. This is finding the balance between sthira (stability) and sukha (comfort). One of the main benefits of Yin is that we target the connective tissue so it can really help with those aches and pains, it is very complimentary to other forms of intense exercise as it reduces likelihood of injury and it helps to calm the nervous system.
As much as I love Yin, sometimes I need to balance this with a more Yang practice. A good Power Yoga class is great for burning off some of that excess energy. The obvious physical benefits are building strength in the body and increasing the heart rate. We can apply tapas (discipline) and santosha (contentment) to our practice which is ability to find joy whist also working through challenge. Yoga is not always flowers and rainbows, often it can take physical and mental effort. If we can continue to show up on our mats every day we can find a practice that is ‘just right’ for our bodies. A practice that is not too easy, allowing our minds to wander, yet not too challenging that we are tense and cannot relax into the posture.
Practice Tip: How do we know what is ‘just right’ for us? Svadhyaya (self-study) involves becoming aware of our thought patterns and paying attention to how the body feels during a posture, drawing your attention to sensations within the body. Perhaps there are aches and pains, maybe you feel a sense of strength or flexibility within the asana. You need to be willing to adjust your practice if required and notice the thoughts that arise. Being aware of unhelpful thought patterns is the first step to changing them. For example, if you have trouble with being present, focus on the breath by counting the inhalations and exhalations. If you notice emotions arising in a challenging asana, focus on its benefits. The best way to practise self-study in order to recognise what our body and mind needs is to do yoga regularly, whether it is the physical practice itself or pranayama (breathing) and meditation.