Yoga Philosophy and the Eight-Limbed Path

Yoga Philosophy and the Eight-Limbed Path

The word “yoga” typically evokes an image of the postures and movements associated with hatha yoga, a branch of yoga study. Although we may know yoga today in the West mainly by the physical postures called asanas, yoga is actually an umbrella term for a vast set of practices and philosophies. Yoga includes paths of devotion, study and service, as well as hatha yoga, which consists primarily of the physical postures and practices that we are most familiar with in the West.

In Sanskrit, which is the language of yoga, “ha” means sun, “tha” means moon, and yoga means “to unite,” so one interpretation of the term “hatha yoga” is to unite mind, body and spirit. Hatha yoga is part of Raja or “royal” yoga, an eight-limbed system whose ultimate goal is samadhi, the highest stage of meditation or union with the Divine. Meditation is one of the tools or practice in this system.

People of all backgrounds and belief systems can practice yoga. Yoga is a considered to be a science, as the consistent application of its practices will lead to a given outcome and is not based on faith. Practiced in a balanced manner, yoga postures and the breathing and meditative techniques have a great capacity to bring the mind, body and spirit into a state of equilibrium. However, there is more to yoga than the techniques of hatha yoga.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga as described by the sage Patanjali in the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras, include the following:

  1. Yama – Moral guidelines for behavior (starting with ahimsa or non-harming)
  2. Niyama – Personal guidelines for behavior (starting with santosha, or contentment)
  3. Asanas – Body postures
  4. Pranayama – Breathing techniques and control of prana
  5. Pratyahara – Sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – Concentration
  7. Dhyana – Meditation
  8. Samadhi – Union

The Yamas and the Niyamas

The majority of Americans start the practice of yoga with the physical postures, or asana. However, the eight-limbed path of yoga also includes many other facets, including a rich tradition of philosophical or ethical principles that guide one’s behavior toward oneself and the world, known as the yamas and niyamas. These are not dogma or religious beliefs, but are guiding principles for enjoying a more peaceful life, eventually moving toward a state of bliss. Each ethical principle can be practiced on physical, verbal, and mental levels, moving from the gross to the subtle. The yamas, which are behaviors to restrain, and niyamas, which are behaviors that we should practice freely, are tools we can use to develop or maintain the centered, balanced state that we often feel after yoga class.

Many people new to yoga for cancer initially report joining a class to increase flexibility and to reduce stress. However, experiencing the teachings of the yamas and the niyamas gives any one of us more tools to create health and a balanced life. There are endless ways to gently and creatively weave the yamas and the niyamas into a class session, as well as into the framework for a healthy lifestyle beyond the walls of the classroom. The practice of any yama or niyama encourages the practice of the others, and helps to create a framework for weaving yoga into daily life beyond the time on the mat. The following summarizes some ways to incorporate the wisdom of the yamas and the niyamas into a practice on the mat that can also help with life issues encountered off the mat as well.

The Yamas

Ahimsa (non-violence)

During times of stress, or for a variety of other reasons, we can experience a disconnection between the mind and the body. This disconnect can be exacerbated by illness and medical intervention, especially in situations such as after a cancer diagnosis when the individual wishes to dissociate with the pain or failings of the body. However, practicing ahimsa helps to alleviate this by increasing body awareness and noticing the difference between sensation and pain.  In addition to the aspects of ahimsa related to the physical body, one of the more powerful aspects of ahimsa is the cultivation of gentle thoughts toward oneself, especially when illness and disease can lead one to feel betrayed by her body. Ahimsa starts with first treating oneself with gentleness, observing the thoughts or words that one may be using to berate oneself and observing, without judgment, and then consciously shifting to more compassionate thoughts or words. A “metta” meditation, which focuses on loving kindness, is a technique to encourage ahimsa, focusing on feeling acceptance, love, and goodwill for oneself and others.

Asteya (non-stealing)

While most of us are not physically stealing items, there are many other ways that “stealing” can show up in our lives. For example, in our asana practice, stealing can show up as obtaining the shape of a pose at the expense of alignment, breath, or mental peace. Directing our awareness to self-observation can provide insights as to whether this is occurring on our practice. A teacher might ask students who are practicing trikonasana (triangle pose) questions such as:  Are you getting depth in the pose, but sacrificing (stealing from) the opening in the chest? Is your attention in the present moment, or are you cheating yourself from the fullness of the present moment by letting your thoughts drift away to the past, the future, or thoughts of judgment?

Refraining from feelings of jealousy or competitiveness are also ways to practice asteya. Encouraging a sense of self-acceptance in the poses helps us develop a sense of satisfaction no matter where we are with our asana practice, or elsewhere in life.

Aparigraha (non-attachment)

Non-attachment to thoughts and feelings is an important practice, and our healing may be facilitated by a release of emotions, including resentments and negative beliefs. We also can cultivate release of attachments to idealized versions of what we think our poses, our lives or our bodies should look like and accept what is. For example, during cancer treatment, it may be helpful to release the identification with society’s idealized physical images and gentle affirmations can help to encourage this release of externally imposed values. In addition, releasing attachment to too many things or too many activities helps to reduce mental clutter, increase peacefulness and reduce stress.

Satya (non-lying)

Satya translates as truth. The practice of satya begins with being honest, which starts by being honest with oneself, and that begins with self-awareness. When we are too busy or unaware, we may not realize that we are not being honest with ourselves or others.

During yoga practice, this could appear as not being honest about which poses we should do or about how we can do them. As emotions come up and we become aware of them, we can acknowledge them, greet them with our breath, and then release them.  It is useful to become aware of what thoughts or emotions come up during class or in other situations. As we become more aware of our thoughts and motivations, we can more consciously transform the ways in which we are not being truthful with ourselves and others. Awareness, acceptance, and non-judgment about thoughts and emotions help to release them, and are practices with benefits that research confirms.

Brahmacharya (moderation in the senses)

Brahmacharya can be thought of as “control of the senses” but has been more specifically interpreted to mean celibacy or chasteness.  But another way that this yama can be interpreted is as trading momentary pleasure for lasting joy.  Brahmacharya can be cultivated by drawing one’s attention inward, while in daily life it can be accomplished by quieting the environment and nurturing a connection with nature or one’s inner Self. For example, instead of watching a TV show or answering email time, we could take a walk in nature instead. Allowing time for meditation helps to cultivate this yama, and we can spend a few minutes meditating on the breath, the sounds of nature or the sounds of silence. Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga that deals with health and lifestyle, teaches that illness is a deviation from the order of the universe, and that meditation may be best way to get a glimpse of this Divine order.

The Niyamas

Saucha (purity)

Saucha means purity or cleanliness, and on the physical level, we can practice saucha by keeping our environments clean or by performing gentle cleansing techniques, such as practicing yoga, drinking the appropriate amount of water, or by eating more unprocessed foods. Practicing forms of saucha during or after cancer treatment may require discussing these with a medical team. In addition to physical cleanliness, mental saucha is valuable as well—keeping external stimuli to a minimum and practicing meditation to create a break from the constant stream of thoughts. Being aware of the quality of input from television, social media and social relationships and eliminating disruptive sources is a form of saucha. Keeping our calendars from becoming overbooked and our outer, physical space orderly are also important in cultivating a sense of inner peace and psychological purity.

Santosha (contentment)

Contentment creates contentment, so in order to cultivate contentment we must practice it—which can be especially challenging during stressful times such as during a serious illness.  Intentionally practicing gratitude and appreciation develops a skill that moves from effortful to effortless over time and with practice. On the mat, we can enjoy wherever we are with the yoga practice and stay in the present moment. Off the mat, we can practice activities such as stopping throughout the day to appreciate, keeping a gratitude journal, or writing letters of appreciation to oneself or others. There are even smart-phone apps like

Tapas (self-discipline)

Tapas is the intensity which is created through focus. On the mat, focusing on the breath and the integrity of alignment in poses also helps to build tapas. For people who are exhausted by medical treatments or illness, tapas can take the form of self-care, such as getting enough sleep and letting other people help. For those who are feeling better, tapas can look more like developing daily routines and positive habits, such as exercising or meditating. In class, yoga teachers can encourage the sharing of ideas for self-care through discussion and creating an encouraging atmosphere.

Svadhyaya (self-study)

Svadhyaya encourages knowledge of the self and study of inspirational Works. We often get caught up in the busyness of life and don’t take the time to reflect on ourselves and our lives. Facing challenges such as an illness can sometimes make this process take on a new importance. There are many ways to practice the niyama of svadhyaya. On the mat, noticing the effects of various postures and techniques, and the feelings that arise during yoga practice is a way of overcoming the effects of illness and the medical system can disconnect us from our bodies. Off the mat, activities such as prayer, meditation, expressive writing and journaling, and reading spiritually uplifting materials can all be grounding and centering expressions of svadhyaya.

Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher power)

The goal of this principle is to cultivate a deep and trusting relationship with universe, and offering up the fruits of our actions to a higher meaning or power. Particularly when we are under stress or in a situation where we feel stripped of control, we may feel compelled to try to micromanage the universe and to try to fix others. Clinging to the illusion of control can be an exhausting proposition. By practicing Ishvara Pranidhana, we can release into the stream of well-being that surrounds us. Examples of ways to do this would be to meditate on the mantra, “Let go, let God” or “Breathing in, I am calm, breathing out, I let go.” In daily life, it may mean stopping co-dependent behaviors and focusing on things that have gone well.  The energy freed up by eliminating controlling behaviors can be channeled toward to developing greater connections to our spiritual side. As we stop over-functioning for others and trust in the flow of the universe, we can better care for ourselves and allow more well-being into our experience.

This is a version of an article by Marianne Cirone that that originally appeared in Yoga Therapy Today, a publication of the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

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