The Limb By Limb Series

Eight Limbs of Yoga-Part V

Welcome back to the Limb By Limb Series which serves as a tool to introduce Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras.  Each limb is a step on the path toward living a more virtuous, healthy and happy life.  So far I have covered the first two limbs:  Yama and Niyama.  Yamas are a set of moral codes to follow, while Niyamas are about how you treat yourself.  If you haven’t already, take a look at my previous posts for more details on the first two limbs.

That brings us to the third limb called Asana.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines “asana” as “to be seated in a position that is firm, but relaxed”.  This is truly the end goal of your asana practice and entire yoga journey.  However, we also use the word asana today to describe any physical posture performed during yoga exercise.  In Sanskrit, the name of each yoga pose ends with asana.  For example, trikonasana means triangle pose.  Trikon means triangle.  Asana means pose.

Originally, asanas were created to ensure that you could sit comfortably in meditation for a long period of time.  In order to guarantee you would not feel any discomfort or pain during meditation, you would practice the physical postures to train your body to be strong and flexible.  That way, you would find ease in prolonged meditation and be able to receive the full benefits of this spiritual practice.

Nowadays, and especially with such a strong Western influence on yoga, the genuine purpose of asana seems to have lost its meaning.  On the surface, it is easy to assume that the more difficult a physical posture is, the better yogi you are.  All over Instagram and Facebook there are fit, beautiful people who can bend like a pretzel and stand on their hands.  This can be misleading to some, as asana is not about performing the most impressive posture.  It is about developing a spiritual practice to live a more conscious and content life.

Do not get me wrong.  I follow and am inspired by all the gorgeous, strong and extremely talented yogis out there on social media.  I, myself, aspire to nail a press handstand one day and be flexible enough to do Kapotasana (see photo below).  And yes, I have mastered many difficult yoga poses, which I am very proud of, and I have posted many asana photos on my social media as well.  We all do it.  It can just be misleading, that’s all, when only looked at on the surface.

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Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the true purpose of asana practice is to help you realize the ultimate goal and final limb of yoga—Samadhi.  I will elaborate on Samadhi further when I discuss the final limb in this series, but briefly, Samadhi refers to the highest level of meditation where you become one with the Divine.

Thus, which each asana you practice, whether it is a simple forward fold or more advanced back bend, you take one step closer to being able to be comfortable in a seated position for a long period of time.  Your aches and pains begin to dissolve so that you may instead turn your attention inward and transcend the physical realm.

So, when you go to your typical yoga class, asana is the main limb being focused on.  The teacher takes you through a series of asanas that become easier over time.  Each posture is designed to increase flexibility, strength and balance and as a whole, keep your joints lubricated and your muscles strong.  Without knowing it, you are being prepared for seated meditation, as well as the myriad of benefits associated with a consistent yoga practice.

Those of you who have been practicing asana for some awhile now–have you noticed that you are able to sit on the floor or in a car or airplane more pleasantly and for a longer period of time?  What other physical changes have you noticed since practicing asana regularly?  How do your asana and meditation practices intermingle?

As you now see, asana has perhaps become the most widely-practiced limb in the West, but it is still only one facet of the Eight Limbs.  Each limb builds upon the next, and each limb has supreme value.  Keep incorporating the limbs into your daily life and see what transformations occur!

**Kapotansana photo courtesy of the virtuoso yogi, Rachel.  Thank you so much!

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