In the western world, yoga has become synonymous with asana, or the physical practice known as hatha yoga. In actuality, the poses are only a small part of yogic philosophy. According to the ancient sage Patanjali, yoga is a system with eight different limbs, with asana being one of them. Thus, there are seven other facets to a well-rounded yoga practice.
The first two limbs are the yamas and niyamas, or ethical precepts. There are five of each, bringing the western practitioner to consider these as the “Ten Commandments” of yoga. Unlike the list in the Judeo-Christian Bible, however, the yamas are practices of not doing, while the niyamas are practices of doing. The five yamas are ahimsa (non-harming), satya (avoiding lies) asteya (non-stealing), bramicharya (control of the senses), and aparigraha (non-coveting). The niyamas include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (wise use of energy), svadyaya (study of the self), and ishvarapranidhana (seeking the sacred).
The third and fourth limbs of yoga are asana and pranayama, or breathwork. Asana practice was originally designed to prepare the body for meditation, and breathwork to begin connecting bodily energies with meditative states. While asana is obviously the best known of all the limbs, pranayama is also taught in some yoga classes.
The fifth and sixth limbs of yoga are pratyahara (controlling the senses) and dharana (looking inward). These bring the yogini to the beginning stages of meditation. When one assumes a meditative posture, one ceases movement, decides which senses to use or shut off, and turns one’s attention away from the here and now towards the universal, which yogis believe exists inside all creatures.
Finally, the seventh and eighth limbs of yoga are dhyana (focus on the divine) and Samadhi (union with the divine). These limbs bring the practitioner to a deeper knowledge of the interconnectedness of all living beings, as well as of this earth and this universe. While much writing about these last two limbs is rooted in Hindu and Tantric philosophy and religious practices, the modern yogi or yogini is not required to leave his or her religion to use these limbs. Imagery and prayers from any tradition can be used for dhyana, with Samadhi the result of practice.
Historically, the eight limbs of yoga were developed as a pathway for the mystic. In today’s world, however, they are valuable even for those not inclined to mysticism. The ethics of the yamas and niyamas are helpful for more skillful living, while the meditative aspects of the last four limbs has been medically proven for health and vitality. Taken together, the eight limbs of yoga provide a sound roadmap to happiness and well-being.