While yoga is often pursued for its physical benefits, especially in the West, it is much more than a discipline to enhance wellness. From a historical perspective, yoga’s roots are anchored in a quest for spiritual growth. Thus, while yoga does tone up and strengthen the physical body, including improving the health of internal organs and a variety of physiological systems, it is also an excellent way to improve the emotional and spiritual bodies.
Asanas, challenging poses and movements, are actually just one form of yoga. It is only one of eight limbs of yoga. However, all eight limbs are intimately interconnected, deeply affecting all aspects of a person’s mind, body, and spirit. Spiritual growth from yoga courses may come from following one or more of the eight limbs of yoga.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The first limb of yoga is called yama. This is a philosophical form of yoga, which emphasizes right action, action that is socially responsible, including observing social restraints, practicing moral values, and respecting ethical concerns.
The second limb of yoga is called niyama. This is a yoga for self-cultivation, what Western thought would be called personal development. Self-cultivation comes from personal study, which means getting to know one’s own character and nature better.
The third limb of yoga is called hatha. This is the yoga most people are familiar with—the yoga for cultivating physical health and well-being. However, many people unfamiliar with yoga, assume that the study of asanas or postures is the only form of yoga. Yet the truth is that this is just one form of yoga and not the whole of yoga; one limb out of the eight limbs of yoga.
The fourth limb of yoga is called pranayama. This is the yoga that focuses on breath awareness. In yoga philosophy, there is a vital substance in the air called prana, and learning how to control the inflow of prana into the body can restore physical vitality. In Chinese philosophy, this vital substance is called chi.
The fifth limb of yoga is pratyahara. This is the yoga that prepares a yogi or yogini for sense withdrawal. When the attentions of the senses are removed from the external world and redirected to the internal world, a person is ready to experience the depths of meditation.
The sixth limb of yoga is dharana. This is the yoga that improves the mind by teaching it how to be highly focused, alert, and aware. This yoga teaches the art of attention and promotes intense concentration.
The seventh limb of yoga is dhyana. This is the yoga of meditation.
Finally, the eighth limb of yoga is samadhi. This is the yoga of enlightenment. When someone experiences samadhi, they experience bliss, joy, and peace beyond comprehension. All suffering based on cravings and association with physical pleasure and pain now comes to an end.
Ultimately, the goal of yoga is to arrive at the eighth limb, samadhi. Mastery of any of the limbs might bring one to this point, or one may choose a multi-disciplinary approach.
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