Yoga as a Path to Awakening: Understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga

Yoga as a Path to Awakening: Understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga

In the West, yoga is widely thought of as either a great workout, or a practice to support body alignment and wellbeing. All true. However, the roots of yoga go well beyond the Asanas, or postures, practiced at the average studio. Yoga includes a rich history of teaching that is available to support us on all levels: physically, emotionally, spiritually and energetically.

In fact, yoga was originally designed to be a vehicle of enlightenment. Renowned yogic teachings like the Autobiography of a Yogi and the Yogasutras of Patanjali share the foundations and intentions of the powerful ancient yogic teachings.

In the following Q&A with Seattle-based Yogi and Author Anne Phyfe Palmer, who runs the 8 Limbs Yoga studios in Seattle and has written This Life of Mine – a Legacy Journal, we discuss how understanding the ancient intentions of yoga can enhance our modern day practice. Enjoy this conversation, and let me know if you have any insights of your own to share!

H+H: Anne Phyfe, can you please explain what the eight limbs of yoga are, and how they were originally intended to support people?

Anne Phyfe Palmer: It’s important for modern day practitioners to be aware of yoga’s origins, history, and the evolution of yoga into what is experienced in the West today.

Yoga developed in South Asia with its origins in The Vedas, a group of texts compiled between 1500 and 1000 BCE. The word ‘veda’ means knowledge or wisdom. The Vedas were followed by the Upanishads, said to be written between 800 and 500 BCR. These philosophical and spiritual texts are considered the roots of yoga.

It’s important to know that it was not until much later that yoga included what people in North America think of as yoga: the physical poses. I like to remind students in my classes that these postures were actually designed to prepare the practitioner for meditation, to be able to sit in relative ease as we learn to watch and quiet our minds.

Sitting still is tough to do when we are in pain, sick, or distracted; yoga postures are intended to keep our bodies strong and more limber, to help us to become steady physically, which helps us to become steady energetically and mentally.

Asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga, eight aspects that are outlined by the sage Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. My understanding, though I’m not a yoga history expert, is that the eight limbs of yoga were developed over a long period of time, and Patanjali was the one who codified them into one text prior to 400 CE. The eight limbs were designed to support seekers to access the path of yoga from a multitude of access points. Some see the eight limbs as eight steps to be taken in order, but I have been taught that they need not be practiced in order. One can enter the system through a naturally concentrated mind, and never practice the asanas (postures); or start with asanas and later learn and practice the first two limbs, the yamas and niyamas, ethical precepts that guide our interactions with ourselves and others.

I’ll list all Eight Limbs here, by Sanskrit word first followed by the English translation:

  1. Yama: restraints
    1. ahimsa: non-violence
    2. stay: truth
    3. asteya: not-stealing
    4. brahmacharya: moderation/celibacy
    5. aparigraha: non-grasping
  2. Niyama: observances
    1. shaucha: cleanliness
    2. santosha: contentment
    3. tapas: enthusiasm, heat
    4. svadhyaya: self-study
    5. Isvara pranidhana: surrender to higher consciousness
  3. Asana: physical postures
  4. Pranayama: breath practices
  5. Pratyahara: sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana: concentration
  7. Dhyana: meditation
  8. Samadhi: absorption/bliss

One of our instructors, Jenny Hayo, has studied the Yoga Sutra for nearly two decades, teaches weekend immersions to unpack the main concepts.

H+H: So, how would you define the purpose of yoga, from the perspective of the original founders of yoga?

APP: My understanding is that the purpose of yoga is freedom, or moksha, in Sanskrit. Yoga is both a practice and a state of being: When one’s mind is clear and unclouded. The sutra that “defines” yoga in Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras is “yogas citta vrtti nirodhah”, which is translated: “yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind.” Patanjali’s ancient text presents several pathways to this goal, allowing for the variety in human experience.

One thing to note is that the system of Tantra has heavily influenced the modern practice of yoga. The word ‘Tantra’ means to weave, and to go beyond one’s limitations. Tantra offered a shift from earlier teachings that the body was what we were to free ourselves from, and instead offered the body as a pathway to freedom. Modern day asana, as I understand it, is an offshoot of this evolution.

H+H: For those seeking to awaken in today’s world, how can people today practice yoga in a way that supports awakening? For example, with less Ego and more surrender to life as it unfolds?

APP: In my opinion, we are now more pulled by distraction –  and more in need of tools to focus and awaken our higher minds – than ever before.  The teachings of the eight limbs, and The Yoga Sutras as a whole, are completely applicable to our modern lives and offer much wisdom to support awakening.

The reality is, human minds haven’t really changed all that much, and these ancient yogic teachings are as relevant today as they ever have been. Personally, my  experience of these practices is that they, on a basic level, help me to access a steady presence in myself, and when I am anchored in practice, offer a truly transcendent experience of this life I’ve been given. Of course, this comes and goes, and is a constant dance of discipline and surrender.

H+H: For those looking for tools to support home practice, with a focus on approaching yoga as a path to awakening, what would you recommend?

APP: For asana, I love to dip into Melina Meza’s Art of Sequencing books. They are the most comprehensive guides to posture sequencing I have seen out there, and I had the fortune to take many classes with Melina in the early days of 8 Limbs. She was the very first teacher hired and still teaches in our Teacher Training Programs.

For pranayama, I recommend keeping it simple. Almost twenty years ago I took a retreat with Gary Kraftsow and when asked “can pranayama be dangerous?” his slightly snarky, but effective response was “no, because you won’t do it.” I took that as a challenge and promptly began my practice the day I got home. I would simply inhale slowly and steadily, with a slight narrowing of my throat, and count to five on inhales and five on exhales. Within a few weeks of doing this daily for just five to ten minutes I could feel the difference in my nervous system.

I solidified my personal mediation practice with Rod Stryker’s recorded meditations. Years ago he had two CDs called “Meditations for Inner and Outer Peace” and “Meditations for Life,” and I did all of them countless times in my first years of practice. His voice, and the visuals and variety were just what my active mind needed to stay still and learn to observe. I never got tired of them! He now has an app called Sanctuary, and I am just getting to know it, mostly through the amazing Yoga Nidra (guided yogic sleep) practices I do almost daily. If I get up in the night I turn one on and when it’s done can almost always turn over and fall right asleep. The practice is meant to help us tap into our consciousness while we put the mind and body to sleep.

At 8 Limbs, we are clearly dedicated to the eight limbs of yoga, and one way we help practitioners connect to daily practice is through our 28 Day Commitment which happens in February. Throughout the month of February we come together as a community to support daily practice, be it at the studios, at home, or on the road. This year our focus is compassion. For those who want to join in, we will post daily about daily practice and compassion at 8 Limbs. Anyone is welcome to participate. For those physically in the Seattle area, come on in and sign up at one of our studios!

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