Thursday, December 27, 2007

Asht = Eight, Anga = Limbs; The Eight Limbs of Yoga

So 2007 is coming to a close and 2008 is starting to unfold before us. As with the turning of the year comes the "New Year Resolutions": to eat better, to abstain from all junk food, to work out 5 days a week, to loose weight...those seem to be the usual ones. And every year I watch people leap into January with great intent, and by February folks have started to slide from their goals, creating all sorts of reasons why, and by March old habits have subtly and quietly returned.

Now wouldn't it be nice to have something to follow year round with out being so rigid? Some...guidelines...perhaps? for better living?

There is often some confusion when starting out in a yogic practice - and in the Ashtanga practice in particular - regarding the term "ashtanga". It does have two meanings to us. In one it refers to the Primary (and following) Series, and in a broader sense it relates to the yogic philosophy of the Eight Limbed path.

If the reader will recall, one of the purposes of the Primary series was to accommodate the layman who did not have an entire day to devote to the practice and study of yogic asana and philosophy. Was designed to consolidate the eight limbs of Yogic Philosophy (Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi) into 2 hours, with the focus on Asana. The idea was that everything could be condensed and the person would still receive the great benefits of yoga - that and being a renuciate isn’t for everyone.

But what are these Eight Limbs? What do they encompass? How can they be guidelines?

Yama (self restraints)
Ahimsa - non-violence
Satya - truth
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - chastity or walking with the divine
Aparigraha - non-attachment

Niyamas (observance)
Saucha - cleanliness
Santosa - contentment
Tapas - self discipline
Svadhyaya - self study
Isvara pranidhanani - surrender to the divine

Asana (postures)

Pranyama (breath control)

Pratyahara (sense withdrawl)

Dharana (concentration)

Dhyana (meditative absorption)

Samadhi (to bring into harmony)

Matthew Sweeney in Astanga Yoga as it Is, sums these concepts up very succinctly: "The third and fourth limbs...asana and pranayama, are the common starting point with any physical hatha yoga. However, it is with the evolution of the first two limbs, self-restraint and observance, that inner awareness truly unfolds. "

He goes on to further say, "The five components of yama, self restraint, are considered universal vows and are not confined to time or place. The yamas evolve as a result of the practice of self awareness. When fully committed to the inner process it becomes impossible to harm oneself and so harm others."

And on the niyamas, "The process of the five niyamas indicates the journey from gross Self to refined Self, step by step to Samadhi. It is something like a personal self-study course. One begins with cleanliness, progresses to contentment, through self-discipline, into self-study, right to the gateway of Brahma."

So perhaps this year instead of making broad sweaping resolutions, make just one - to study the eight limbs of yoga - and see what happens. Afterall, they're just...guidelines....

Astanga Yoga As it Is. Matthew Sweeney. The Yoga Temple,2005.
Yoga From the Heart. Alice Christensen (out of print) Yoga North Extended Studies; Life's 10 Guidelines.
Forth coming book: The 10 Jewels of a Joyful Life by Deborah Adele.

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