The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Eight

Most of us are familiar with the physical side of yoga, known as Asana, but very few know that all together yoga comprises of Eight Limbs. There’s more to yoga than just stretching and trying to get some killer arms while working on your Chaturanga. The Eight Limbs were first recorded in the sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. While it might sound daunting, I will try and outline each limb as simply as possible.

Yama:
There are five Yamas and they act as moral guides on how to interact with the world around us. This is how we practice yoga off the mat. They are:
Ahimsa (non-violence)
Satya (truthfulness)
Asteya (non-stealing)
Bramacharya (moderation)
Aparigraha (non-greed and non-hoarding)

Niyama:
There are also five Niyamas which are seen as observances and  self-discipline practices. They are:
Saucha (cleanliness)
Santosha (contentment)
Tapas (discipline)
Svadhyaya (self-study and the study of spiritual or yogic text)
Isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power)

Asana:
This is the limb we’re all familiar with and practice when we go to a yoga class. It’s the physical aspect of yoga. The idea behind Asana is to get the body ready for meditation.

Pranayama:
I have grown to love this Limb. Prana is energy or life source and can be described as the breath. Pranayama is the practice of controlling your breath. This can be achieved through different breathing exercises such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) which I do whenever I feel anxious.

Pratyahara:
This is the practice of withdrawing the senses. During meditation we draw our focus inward, letting go of the distractions around us.  Most of us experience this when we’re concentrating hard on something. It seems like the whole world falls away except for that one thing you’re focusing on.

Dharana:
Dharana is connected to Pratyahara. It’s the focussed concentration required when the senses are withdrawn to begin to meditate. We begin to focus on concentrating on a single point. Through extended periods of focused concentration we begin to meditate.

Dhyana:
Dhyana is when we become completely absorbed in our focus, this is meditation. Initially we might only be able to hold it for a second or two, but through regular practice you will be able to meditate for longer periods of time without any breaks or distractions.

Samadhi:
Samadhi is often referred to as enlightenment or bliss.

That is essentially the Eight Limbs in a nutshell. Each Limb works together with the next one to encourage your body to relax, your breath to come under control and for your mind to find clarity and peace. So next time you unroll your yoga mat, maybe try to sit still for a few moments and focus on your breath or save a few minutes for a meditation practice.

5 Ways yoga changed my life

5 Ways Yoga changed my life

When I first started practicing yoga many moons ago, I didn’t really think it would have much impact on my life away from the mat. Boy was I wrong! But I’ve never been happier about being wrong.

Yoga helped me combat stress and anxiety.
I’ve always been a bit anxious but by the time I was in my last year at university I was battling both anxiety and high stress levels. Yoga taught me to breathe, to soften where I was holding tension and to let go. It wasn’t something that magically happened overnight but through regular practice I was able to cope a lot better. I’m much better today at identifying when I’m starting to feel anxious or stressed and often a simple, quick meditation or breathing practice will help.

Yoga gave me family in a new country.
We moved to a city and country we had never set foot in. It was difficult initially trying to settle down without family or friends to support us. Luckily I was practicing with a great group of people who soon became my surrogate family. We’ve been through heartaches, health scares, tragedy and babies together. Having that support and friendship means so much to me and has made my life all the more richer.

Yoga taught me to live in the moment.
My yoga teacher often tells us to let go of all expectations when we step on the mat; to focus on our body and breath in that moment and to let go of what we were able to do yesterday. This really rang true for me when one morning I was finally able to get into headstand only to find myself in the emergency room that night due to appendicitis. This meant letting go of what my yoga practice was and changing it completely to suit my body at that moment as it recovered from surgery. I’ve also learned to do the same in my life off the mat. Dwelling on what could have been or what could happen takes away what is really happening in the present. You can’t change the past and you can’t really control the future, so rather be present in the moment now and enjoy it.

Yoga taught me body awareness.
Yoga has taught me to listen to my body. I’m much quicker now to pick up on subtle changes and can adapt my practice accordingly in order to avoid injury. It’s also taught me to respect my body and that it’s not going to be the same each day. Some days back bends are easier than others and that’s ok.  It’s just another opportunity to explore my practice in a different way.

Yoga made me a better person.
I know, this one probably sounds like a cliché but it’s true.  Yoga has really made me a more compassionate person. I’m also much more relaxed so way less likely to blow up at someone when something goes wrong. Bugs that I previously would have squished now get caught in a container (albeit gingerly) and then get released outside. I make a point of smiling and greeting people I pass in the street and pick up litter whenever I see some. Yoga has really taught me that we are all connected and by doing small things you can really make a positive difference.

Has your yoga practice had any influence on your life off the mat? Let me know how in the comment section below.

Adapting your practice to autumn

Autumn

Ok, who flipped the switch from summer to autumn? Already the mornings are much darker when I get up and there’s a chill in the air when I head out to yoga practice. This has meant changing my personal practice (and my classes) a bit to adapt to the changing season.

I am definitely slowing my practice down a bit. As it’s cooler in the mornings when I usually practice, it’s taking my muscles a longer time to warm up. I’m also finding that my body wants a slower practice so I’m really focusing on my breathing as I mindfully move through each pose.

I’ve also been doing a lot more Yin Yoga lately. Poses in Yin Yoga are generally more passive and lets gravity do most of the work. You can also make the practice quite restorative with the use of props like bolsters. My favourite pose at the moment is coming into a reclined twist and spending a few minutes on each side, breathing deeply.

I’m also spending more time meditating. While it’s not always easy and my mind does wander sometimes, I’m finding it a bit easier to sit for longer and just to focus on my breath after a slower practice. Before I meditate, I practice nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing). To practice nadi shodhana:

  • Sit in a comfortable position.
  • Place your left hand on your knee and bring your right hand to your face, resting your thumb gently n your right nostril, your index and middle finger between the brows, your ring finger lightly on your left nostril and your little finger on your left cheek.
  • Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale through your left nostril.
  • Close the left nostril and exhale through the right nostril. Keeping the right nostril open, inhale deeply through the right.
  • Close the right nostril and exhale through the left. Keeping the left nostril open, inhale through that left before returning back to exhaling through the right.
  • Repeat for a few minutes.

This is one of the many reasons why I love yoga so much. You can adapt your practice to suit your needs at any time. I have no doubt once the cold weather really sets in, I’ll be changing my practice a bit again.

Enjoy your autumn practice!

Your first yoga class

Your first yoga class

Yay! Congratulations on booking your first yoga class!
You might be excited or even nervous (don’t worry, I still get nervous whenever I attend a class at a new studio). The good news is, your nerves should disappear as soon as you walk in the door. But if you’re still unsure and wondering what you’re in for, I’m here to set you at ease with a little list:

General etiquette:
While in class, it’s polite to make sure your phone is switched to airplane mode, or at the very least silent. Of course there are occasions when you need to be on standby and that’s completely understandable. In those instances, just let the teacher know so you can keep your phone close.

Try to avoid eating a big meal just before class. Either eat a few hours before, or after. This is to avoid feeling uncomfortable, especially when doing twists. I have firsthand experience in this, trust me.

Pain is never an option. Try to move mindfully into each pose and avoid pushing into extremes. If any pose causes any pain, immediately come out of it and let your teacher know. They will be able to provide you with another variation to suit you.

While in class, teachers might offer physical adjustments. Good teachers always ask first before they assist you. Please remember that you are allowed to say no. If a teacher adjusts you without asking, definitely let them know if it’s not ok.

Clothing:
As you will be moving around, wear something that’s comfortable and you can easily stretch in. I’ve worn some ill-fitting tops to class before and it’s less that ideal to spend most of your class adjusting your clothes.

Definitely bring something warm as well for Savasana / Rest at the end. This can be a warm tracksuit top or a shawl. If it’s a cold day or night, make sure to keep your socks close by too so you can make sure you’re super toasty.

What to bring:
If you have your own yoga mat, it’s always a good idea to bring it along. Not all teachers have extra mats and those who do will need to disinfect the mats after every use.

If it’s a particularly dynamic class and things get a bit sweaty (pretty much any class in summer here!), bring a small towel with. They are great for placing at the top of your mat to prevent hands from slipping plus you can also use them as an eye pillow during Savasana.

Any big pieces of jewelry, watches or rings that get in the way is best left safely at home.

Arriving:
Try to make sure you’re on time for class by arriving 5 to 10 minutes earlier. This will allow your teacher to sign you in and also provides you with time to ask any questions. While teachers know life can happen and sometimes people run late for class, it’s always nice to be able to start on time. If you’re late, firstly try not to stress. Most teachers will still let you join the class. Once class is over, just make sure the teacher signs you in.

Please let your teacher know if you think you might be pregnant or if you have any injuries. You might need to adjust your practice to ensure you’re moving in a safe way.

Don’t skip Savasana:
I know, for the first few classes it might feel tempting to leave as everyone gets ready for Savasana but please resist the urge. There’s a reason Savasana is considered to be the most difficult yoga pose, and that’s because so few of us are able to take a few minutes of our day and lie still. We have so little opportunity in our day to soften our muscles and allow our bodies to recover that we all need to practice Savasana each day. The pose is there as a little thank you for your body for working hard throughout class and to begin to practice calming our minds. This is the moment we begin to reconnect with ourselves before we head out into the world again.

Leave the ego at the door:
I know this one is easier said than done, even for yoga teachers. It’s always tempting to compare ourselves with our yoga mat neighbours. They might be more flexible, or not confuse their lefts with their rights (for some of us it’s a daily struggle) or not lose their balance at all. But it doesn’t matter, because in the end yoga is an individual practice. The person you wish you were as flexible as might have hyper mobile joints and struggle to maintain stability in poses, or might be pushing their bodies beyond their capabilities.

It’s important to listen to your body and to remember that each day is different. What you could do yesterday you might not do today, or you might be able to do more today. By approaching your practice with no expectations, you can really focus on how your body feels in each pose in that moment and adjust accordingly. Remember, this is your practice, your time and your body.

Most importantly of course is to remember to have fun. I always have a laugh at myself when I lose my balance in a pose and fall over. Then I try again.