If you love yoga, but can’t practice as often as you’d like, I have good news. You’re probably practicing yoga more often than you think!
What do I mean by this? In the West, yoga is most often associated with asana, or posture practice. That means going to a studio or unrolling a mat at home and doing yoga poses. But if you can’t get to a yoga class or make time to practice at home, don’t worry: there are eight limbs of yoga to practice. In Sanskrit, the word for eight limbs is “Ashtanga”. This is the lineage I practice and teach and I often get asked: “What’s Ashtanga yoga?” While some know it as a vigorous sequence of postures, it’s so much more.
Side note: I wish someone told me this after I took my first yoga class in 2001. It’s possible my teachers did tell me this, but I was so stuck in the “I’m not practicing six days a week” shame spiral that I didn’t listen. Allow me to short-circuit that step and assure you that even if you’re not unrolling your mat to practice asana, I’m sure you’re practicing in other ways. Read on to learn more, yogi!
Definition of Ashtanga Yoga
So what’s Ashtanga yoga? In Sanskrit, “ashta” means eight, and “anga” means limb. The eight limbs of yoga come from Patanjali’s philosophical text: the Yoga Sutras. This codified collection of “sutras” meaning threads or sayings was written in 400CE.
Below I’ll describe each of the eight limbs and provide a modern-day example. Read on to learn if you are practicing yoga without even unrolling your mat!
The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
These are the ethical rules or precepts determined by the outside world. In somewhat oversimplified terms, it means right and wrong behavior. There are five yamas:
- ahimsa (non-violence)
- satya (truthfulness)
- asteya (non-stealing)
- brahmacharya (non-excess or sexual restraint)
- aparigraha (greedlessness or non-clinging)
- Saying something kind (ahimsa) or true (satya)
- Starting and ending a meeting on-time (asteya)
- Honoring fidelity agreements with your romantic partner (bramacharya)
- Not buying toilet paper, flour, disinfectant wipes in excess during a pandemic (aparigraha)
Referring to the inner observances of self. There are five niyamas:
- saucha (purity or cleanliness of mind, speech, and body)
- santosha (contentment)
- tapas (heat; persistence and self-discipline)
- svadhyaya (self-study; introspection)
- ishvara pranidhana (surrender to higher power, true self, or what is)
- Going on a run when you don’t feel like it (tapas)
- Taking a shower afterward (saucha)
- Noticing your desire to not exercise (svadhyaya)
- Feeling grateful that you’re able to move your body (santosha)
- Trusting your body knows the difference between: “I don’t wanna” and “I need to stop or I’ll hurt myself” (ishvara pranidhana)
Meaning “seat” or “posture”, this is the form of yoga that’s most visible and known throughout the world. In the Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali gives simple instructions for asana: steady and comfortable. His direct words are sthira (steady) sukham (comfortable) asana (seat or posture).
- Investing in a good chair for your home office (asana)
- Sitting on a blanket or cushion in meditation with your hips higher than your knees (asana)
- Stretching as far as you can in a yoga posture and breathing at your edge (asana)
- Practicing yoga in a way that’s comfortable and steady for you on a given day (asana)
Breath control: prana (breath) and ayama (restraint). There are many ways to control the breath. Ashtanga yoga uses ujjayi (victorious) pranayama – an aspirant and audible breath. It sounds like ocean waves breaking or Darth Vader.
- When you take deep breaths in response to feeling frustrated (pranayama)
- When you’re blasting “Don’t Stop Believin'” in your car and take a deep breath before the chorus (pranayama)
- Go ahead and practice that last one right now: “…[deep inhale] Doooon’t STOP! Belieeeeevin’! Hold on to that feeeeeeliiiiiiin…” (pranayama)
The first four limbs focus on external experiences. Pratyahara is the limb where the practitioner’s focus turns inward. It means sense withdrawal from the external world. Drawing the sensory experiences inward. Pratyahara is acknowledging the outside world, yet choosing to focus on your experience.
- Choosing not to become overwhelmed by what you cannot control (pratyahara)
- Reading the news and not reacting with the thought that everything is bad just because one thing is (pratyahara)
We can define dharana as maintaining a single-pointed focus. By focusing the mind on one idea, mantra, pranayama technique, or subject, we learn to calm our minds.
- Driving a car without taking your eyes off the road (dharana)
- Practicing Metta (loving-kindness) meditation and staying focused on the phrases (dharana)
- Starting and completing a home improvement project and not leaving it unfinished (dharana)
Related to dharana (single-pointed focus), dhyana is reflecting on the object of contemplation. If dharana is the doing, dhyana is the being or the flow state.
- Deciding to cook three meals at home this week (dharana)
- Following through by buying groceries and making all three meals (dharana)
- Being in the flow of the process of cooking (dhyana)
- Knowing which spices would make this meal sing and improvising with what you have in your spice rack (dhyana)
This one is the most elusive and difficult limb to define yet easy to imagine. In essence, samadhi means stable concentration in meditation. It’s a blurring of the lines between the person, act, subject, and the process of meditation. The full absorption of all sensory features of an experience. It’s sometimes defined as total bliss.
- Swimming in the ocean and letting the waves wash over and over you (samadhi)
- Hiking in the forest and smelling the woods and feeling your blood flow (samadhi)
- Losing complete track of time while tending your garden or pulling weeds (samadhi)
- Lying in a hammock and feeling the breeze on your skin as you rock side to side (samadhi)
- Whatever activity helps you relax fully and be present and content with the moment
How to Practice Ashtanga Yoga Every Day
The Ashtanga tradition encourages yogis to practice six days per week. It takes approximately 90 minutes to practice the full primary or intermediate series. While some are able to carve this time into their lives, many others practice for a shorter time or fewer days per week.
We modern-day yoginis are not renunciate cave-dwellers. We have jobs, families, and other global responsibilities to tend to. Too often I hear people speak about their yoga practice with guilt or shame. They say things like: “I SHOULD practice more, but…” If this is you, I invite you to stop “shoulding” on yourself. Give yourself credit for what you currently do. If you want to practice more often, you’ll find a way to focus on it. If you can’t or don’t want to, that’s okay too.
Above all consistency is the key to improving at everything and that includes yoga.
I hope you give yourself more credit for all the ways you practice yoga on and off your mat. I hope you can see that even if you don’t unroll your yoga mat every day, you’re still practicing the other eight limbs!
Can you think of other ways, other than the ones I listed above, that you’re practicing the eight limbs of yoga? If so, leave a comment and inspire someone!