Yama : As I discussed yesterday, this limb relates to our moral and ethical practice, with a focus on our interactions with others. The yamas inform (or should inform how we live in the world on a daily basis. And, also, it rhymes with llama, so that’s nice.
Niyama : Niyamas represent our personal observances of principles and practices of healthy (physical, mental, spiritual) being. Though the niyamas do related to the spiritual (purity), they can also certainly be understood as taking care of the self in a way that is healthy and positive.
Asanas : Asana is probably what we think of most when imagine yoga. Asana is the bending, folding, stretching part of yoga. While asana is the public face of yoga, it is important to remember that it is only one of the eight limbs.
Pranayama : Breathing might seem like it can’t possibly be part of a yoga practice. After all, we do it every day. But, the limb of pranayama relates to how we can focus our breathing in ways that provide additional control over the prana (lifeforce/energy) of the body.
Pratyahara : Control or withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara involves the attempt to remove our focus from the external or sensory world. This presents us with greater opportunity to observe the responses of the body and self without being distracted by what is going on around us or by the sensations of the body.
Dharana : While concentration is certainly a part of asana, pranayama, etc. in this limb of yoga we intentionally bring focus to directing the mind to one focal point. As we have withdrawn our attention from the outer world, bringing the focus inside, it is the case that there are still many distractions within. Practicing dharana helps us to set aside those distractions and bring attention to a single point. It is the preparation for dhyana.
Dhyana : Meditation might be the limb of yoga most understood in public presentations. While dhyana is related to, and to some degree requires, dharana, it is not the same thing. In dharana, we focus attention directly and intensely on one thing. In dhyana, we promote a quiet awareness that is without focus. Our thoughts slow or stop and we simply are.
Samadhi : Samadhi represents the goal of union with the divine. In this state we become one with the universal and are able to completely let go of our understanding of self as distinct. Some yogic philosophers would argue that, when we reach this state, we would cease to be, as the self would become utterly unified with the universal. Others say that we can have glimpses or momentary experiences of samadhi without reaching that full state of “enlightenment.”
And so… there you have it! You started this post with four limbs and now you have a total of 12. Sweet, huh? 😉