Many people think that yoga consists only of asana, postures and forms that we put our body in and pranayama, breathing exercises. However, those are only two aspects of the practice. Ashtanga Yoga is also a bit misunderstood as being correlated to a power yoga style of practice. Just a a tree has roots, trunk, branches, bark, leaves, sap, flowers, fruits yoga also has eight limbs that make up the full matrix of the practice. Ashta means eight and anga means limbs. The eight limbs of yoga consists of yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Yama is like the roots of a tree. It sets the foundation for the practice in the way it teaches us how to behave within society. It describes a moral code in which to live by that all people can adhere to regardless of age, class, sex, race or religion. There are five principles under yama which consist of ahimsa, non-violence in words and actions, satya, truthfulness, asteya, non-stealing, brahmacharya, self control, and aparigraha, non-covetousness.
The niyamas are compared to the trunk of the tree and are rules for self purification. They too have five rules which are saucha, cleanliness of body, mind and environment, santosha, contentment in the life we are blessed with, tapas, austerities or spiritual practices, svadhyaya, self reflection or self study and Ishvara pranidhana which is self surrender or surrendering to God.
The most well known limb is asana, yoga postures. These branches of the tree bring the body and mind into balance. Many believe that yoga asanas comprise the yoga practice, but as we learn the depths of yoga, we begin to understand that it is only one aspect. Pranayama is the fourth limb, the various breathing exercises that are compared to the leaves of the tree. Just as the leaves bring oxygen into the tree, pranayama, aerates the body and harmonizes the respiratory and circulatory systems which steadies the mind and purifies the body.
Pratyahara, is drawing the five senses inward to begin to understand the inner workings of self more intimately. Just as the bark of the tree protects the tree itself, so too does pratyahahra draw the awareness of the senses of the outside world, from the skin to the core of the body. This withdrawal inward leads to concentration, which is known as dharana, the sap of the tree. This nectar carries the senses further inward, leading to deep levels of meditation. Meditation is like a flower which blossoms representing the an even deeper level of understanding of effort in the practice, revealing the true beauty of expansiveness and connection to ourselves, each other, the world we live in and the cosmos. From the flower comes the fruit, the culmination of the practice, the freedom of expansiveness, the joy, the bliss, the complete understanding that we are the essence of God, self-realization or samadhi.
These are the eight limbs of yoga that should be practiced in synchronicity rather than thinking of it as a ladder to climb. It is called a practice for a reason. Each day presents us with another opportunity to put these limbs into action. We too can utilize these tools to grow strong and become beings full of awareness of the potential we all have within us. We are luminous beings and our birthright is pure joy and abundance. The practice of yoga simply is guide to help us remember.