Like most people who are new to yoga, I started with a very limited view of the practice. When I began, I automatically associated the term “yoga” with just the series of postures that you move through to break a sweat and feel invigorated.
But the more I practiced yoga and the more I read about it — and especially as I began to learn about meditation — the more I came to realize that yoga is a whole lot more than just exercise and that the purpose of the practice is much greater than mere physical fitness.
I came to realize that the “yoga” that most people refer to as yoga is actually just one aspect of a much larger and all-encompassing system that purifies our body, mind, and spirit.
It was only once I encountered The Yoga Sutras, a classic book by the ancient sage, Patanjali, that I understood that the physical yoga exercises we ordinarily do in most yoga studios are just one ‘limb’ or step of the overall yoga system.
So let’s take a brief look at that system, so we can understand how the physical postures and movements relate to the system as a whole.
Follow These 8 Steps to Experience Greater Purity of Body, Mind, and Spirit
The Yoga Sutras outline the system of yoga as a gradual process of refinement of the body, mind, and spirit. Patanjali enumerates the process of yoga into eight steps, often referred to as limbs:
Limb One and Two: Yamas and Niyamas
Patanjali calls the first two limbs the yamas and niyamas. These limbs refer to the actions that you should not take and the actions that you should take. The yamas and niyamas are not a set of commandments, but rather a set of guidelines or common sense codes that will ensure good karma and help you lead a happier and healthier life in accordance with your practice of purification.
With this in mind, live in adherence to some obvious principles. On one hand, don’t harm, don’t lie, don’t steal, etc., etc. On the other hand, maintain study, purity, contentment, and discipline. And learn how to practice letting go!
Third Limb: Asanas
Asanas are what Patanjali calls the third limb of yoga. The asanas refer to the physical exercises of yoga, including the postures and movements that most people mistake as encompassing the entire system of yoga. So to avoid confusion, you could easily substitute the word asana almost every time you encounter the word yoga. You can think of it more like this: Asana teacher, asana studio, asana class, asana magazine, etc.
The asanas are a way to purify the body. If you live in a body that is unhealthy and impure, you will not possess adequate preparation to study the breath and the mind. Asanas vary in their level of difficulty, and all you have to do is visit your local yoga studio and an instructor will guide you through them.
Fourth Limb: Pranayama
The next stage of yoga practice is called the pranayama, or the breathing practices. Learning how to work with the breath is an important stage in the overall system of yoga because breath is the bridge between the body and the mind. Pranayama breathing exercises are intended to refine and elongate the breath so that the breath is more natural and smooth during the more advanced stages of yoga that involve meditation.
One of the most important forms of pranayama is a technique called ‘ujjayi’ breathing. Ujjayi breathing is a deep breathing practice that utilizes the diaphragm. You can practice ujjayi
breathing while sitting or standing, or you can practice it while moving through a series of asanas.
To breathe using the ujjayi technique, inhale through your nostrils but observe the sensation of the breathing at the back of your throat instead of the tip of your nose. Allow your belly to expand full of air during the inhalation. Then contract your belly, squeezing the air out during the exhalation, whilst also observing the same raspy sound you produced during inhalation.
Initially, keep the length of your inhalation and exhalation the same. If you are sitting you can try 5 seconds of inhalation and 5 seconds of exhalation and work your way up to 10 or more seconds of each. Later, you can experiment with more advanced pranayama techniques which involve differing the length of inhalation and exhalation — such as five seconds inhalation, ten seconds exhalation — and using breath retention techniques called ‘kumbaka.’
Limbs Five, Six, Seven, and Eight: Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi
Once you have devoted some time to practicing your control of the breath, you can move on to the final four limbs of yoga, which Patanjali calls ‘pratyahara,’ ‘dharana,’ ‘dhyana,’ and ‘samadhi.’ These remaining four limbs comprise all the activities and experiences of the practice of meditation.
Pratyahara is the control of the senses and detaching from the distractions of the external world. This is when you sit still on your meditation cushion, close your eyes, and begin the process of moving your attention inwards.
Dharana is the steadying of the mind onto a single object of inner focus. Your object of focus could be the breath, a mantra, a vision, or an emotion. The important aspect of dharana is that you continually return your attention to your chosen object of focus whenever distractions arise.
Dhyana is absorption into the object of focus. This is when you have begun to maintain single-pointedness, able to concentrate on your chosen object of focus exclusively for extended lengths of time.
And samadhi is the supreme state of meditation, total transcendence of the object of focus, the state of bliss which defies description. Keep in mind, however, that while samadhi is the highest state of meditation, it’s not the end of spiritual practice. An important aspect of spiritual practice is integrating our experiences during meditation with our activities throughout our daily lives.
Deepen Your Yoga Practice with This Important Take-Away
So the process of yoga really follows this trend. First, purification of actions. Second, purification of the body. Third, purification of the breath, the bridge between the body and mind. And fourth, purification of the mind.
Note, however, that you do not have to perform these processes perfectly in order. You do not have to perfect your actions before you qualify to practice physical postures and you do not have to perfect your postures before you qualify to practice meditation. The idea is that you want to practice each of these activities every day. But if you’re like most people, you’ll want to place more emphasis on the steps closer to the beginning than the more advanced meditation techniques at the end.
So here’s an activity that you can pursue this week: plant your roots. I told you that Patanjali's system is composed of limbs, and you can imagine these as part of a flower or a tree. Every beautiful flower and every strong tree starts with deep roots. Deep roots, in our case, imply fundamentals. Get started with the fundaments, then move further.