The physical asanas of yoga, followed by pranayama, are probably the most recognized forms of this ancient spiritual path. But like an octopus, yoga has eight limbs, and all are important for movement and life.
The 8 limbs of yoga include:
- Yama: universal practices of right conduct
- Niyama: self-discipline practices
- Asana: practice of the physical postures
- Pranayama: breath control
- Pratyahara: withdrawal/detachment from our senses and our cravings and habits; self-observation
- Dharana: concentration on a single point; keen awareness with focus
- Dhyana: meditation, stillness of the mind; keen awareness without focus
- Samadhi: ecstasy!
You may be thinking, life is busy ... I don't have time to manage 8 limbs of anything! But you will be surprised at how extending your yoga off the mat enhances your asana practice as well as making your life easier.
Let's take a look at the Niyamas. Practices of self-discipline can include everyday rituals such as saying a prayer of gratitude in the morning and evening, or taking a moment of grace before meals.
Specifically, the Niyamas are:
Saucha: cleanliness. A daily ritual might include washing your face and hands gently and mindfully before sitting for meditation or getting on the mat. Use a natural product that you buy or--even better, make yourself--that has a fragrance you enjoy, or is spiritually purifying like Frankincense. Incorporating mindfulness into a simple self-care act contributes to a feeling of self-love, which translates to compassion for yourself during your practice.
Samtosa: contentment. Taking moments each day when you arise to feel gratitude naturally spawns a feeling of contentment. Notice how contentment feels in your body, and realign yourself with these feelings during the asana poses that you find challenging. Contentment equals more ease and self-compassion.
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities. This might seem an abstract concept to translate into daily life, but Tapas can refer to the "heat" of personal commitment. A choice to practice asana every day, or to perform service once a week is an example of how this niyama can show up in daily life. Commitment as a constant practice anchors you to your yoga lifestyle.
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self. Knowing ourselves naturally leads to the need to practice compassion and self-forgiveness, as well as self-love. There is no aspect of our life that can't benefit from more self-love! Especially on the mat, working with our limited bodies and challenging poses. And this love and compassion extends outward toward fellow students, family, and co-workers.
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God. In everyone's life there comes a time when a situation must be surrendered. When we have to "let go and let god." The courageous act of surrendering our attachment to a particular outcome also affects every area of life. We take to the cushion or the mat, and we make our best efforts. Letting go of how deep we go in a pose, or how still our mind might be allows for ease and compassion.
Yoga is a multi-layered path that leads not only to greater physical health but to increased self-awareness. Taking your practice beyond the yoga mat leads to the development of qualities--such as compassion, discernment, and love--that will enhance every area of your life. The more ease you cultivate off the mat, the more ease you will find on the mat.