What Are the Inner Limbs of Yoga?
This is the fourth and final blog in a series that explores the eight limbs of yoga as originally presented in the first written record about the comprehensive practice of yoga – the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Part 1 of the series gave a brief overview of an integrated, holistic way of practicing yoga, stressing that yoga is not synonymous with posture practice, embraces an ethically-grounded and disciplined approach to mindfulness, and invites us to move inward. Part 2 addressed the ethical practices and disciplined lifestyles that ground our yoga practice and support a values-based, purposeful life. Part 3 framed the physical and energetic practice of yoga in the context of ethics, discipline, and mindfulness, stressing that an 8-limbs-based yoga practice is integrated, holistic, peaceful, and ultimately introspective. Part 4 takes us deeper into the interior practices of yoga – the essence of yoga practice as defined by Patanjali.
The sutras’ definition of yoga is multifold. However, a central point about yoga’s essence is made in the second sutra which roughly translates as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.” Patanjali suggests that if we can still the mind, we have found refuge in our true being and our practice is complete. He then basically chuckles (if you can chuckle in writing…) and lets us know that if we cannot just sit down and still the mind (and who can?), we need to follow a slightly longer path to enlightenment. Enter the eight limbs. The first four limbs are the outward practices of yoga; the final four limbs are the inward journey of yoga. The inner practices are what we have been preparing for and what we embark on – knowingly or unknowingly – as we practice yoga ethics, discipline, movement, and breath. The inner journey begins with drawing inward, then invites deep concentration and meditation, and finally leads us to a sense of connection and absorption in a greater community and purpose.
Limb Five: Drawing Inward
The first inwardly-focused practice of yoga (called “pratyahara” in Sanskrit) sharpens self-awareness of automatic or habitual thoughts, speech, actions, and relational patterns. It prepares the mind for concentration and meditation by halting the constant flow of sensory stimulation that leads to stimulus overload, poor concentration, and scattered attention. It is a practice of disconnecting from the steady flow of sensory input through eyes, ears, nose, taste buds, and other sense receptors (e.g., touch, pain, temperature, texture). Pratyahara is an absolutely crucial step in the yoga journey that stills the fluctuations of the mind. The only way to begin to still the impact of our constantly emerging thoughts is to become aware that we have them. To do this, we have to cut through the noise of day-to-day life. How can we attend to what is on our mind, if we are distracted by the TV blaring all day? How can we attend to what is on our mind, if we keep fiddling with our phones or computers, allowing noise and distraction to enter into our life almost non-stop? How can we attend to what is on our mind, if we are walking through crowded streets, overwhelmed by sounds, sights, smells, and other sensory enticements?
The fifth limb of yoga encourages us to take a break from constant outer and inner distraction. It invites us to draw our senses inward – either by being fully captivated by one sensory experience at a time or by witnessing what is happening in the mind, without being distracted into sensory overload. Our outer practices have prepared us for this step – we have cultivated neuroception (understanding how we achieve a sense of safety and community), proprioception (understanding our body in the physical plane of being), interoception (gaining insight into how we feel physically, energetically, and emotionally from the inside out), and exteroception (having become aware of the constant stream of outer sensory stimulation).
What are the central principles of Limb Five?
Central principles within the fifth limb of yoga explore the nature of moving inward with intention. It is a crucial step toward deeper levels of calming the nervous system, reducing emotional reactivity, and resting in a ventral vagal space of safety and peace.
· Taking a fast from extraneous sensory stimuli – This principle invites us to turn away from external influences to help us attune to our inner neuroceptive and interoceptive state. It invites us to turn away from the sea of information that normally streams in through the sense organs and tosses us about in the waves. Just as we can eschew food for a fasting period to cleanse our body, so can we eschew stimulation to cleanse our mind.
· Refining sensory inputs – This principle suggests that sensory input is like food for the mind. Just as we carefully select what we eat, we can be careful about the sensory impressions we invite into our mind. We become more discerning about what helps us become familiar with our mind and what helps us find tranquility in the barrage of distractions of modern life.
· Cleansing the lens of perception – This principle asserts that tuning into our inner life allows us to identify our behavioral habits, emotional reactivity, and cognitive preoccupations, fantasies, distortions, and illusions. This principle invites us to recognize that how we behave, emote, and think is driven by automatic reactions to external and internal stimuli. While these reactions may have served us at one time in our lives, they may have become obsolete or even counterproductive in our current lives. Yet habits keep pushing us toward the same reactions – tuning out our inner wisdom that may tell us to respond otherwise.
· Opening up to inner wisdom – This principle suggests that as the senses become quiet and the mind turns inward on itself, we become peaceful. We begin to see our reactivity and use this insight to transcend behavioral, emotional, mental, and relational habits. We move into silent self-exploration that invites equanimity and careful attention to what is really happening – not our preconceived notions of what is going on. When we rest in this resilient tranquility, we tune into our intuition, our inner voice of recognition and wisdom. We are ready to change automatic reactions into thoughtful responsiveness. We are ready to move into the deeper interior practices of concentration and meditation.
How do we apply the principles of Limb Five?
There are many ways in which we can withdraw our senses or turn our attention inward to become familiar with our minds. Following are a few applied practice examples.
· Limit sensory junk food. Do this by saying “no” to gratuitous violence through movies or television shows. Our nervous systems are overwhelmed as it is; why invite more sensory experiences that are upregulating, anxiety-provoking, over-stimulating, or anger-inducing? Take a media break. Eliminate certain types of media forever.
· Be silent for a moment or a while. Do this by observing silence – perhaps sitting still for a few minutes with the eyes closed to watch the movies that play in the mind. Or you take a whole day of silence – perhaps home alone or out in nature, without conversation, media, or distractions – just you, in peace. As tranquility envelopes you, notice the fluctuations of the mind – be curious, but take nothing that emerges too serious. Follow the bumper sticker advise that says “don’t believe everything you think…”.
· Find an inner point of focus on the mind’s activity. Do this by tuning inward to disarm the senses. Distractions from the outer world move into the background as your inner wisdom firmly anchors itself to your interior world. It may be difficult at this stage to find inner focus in a simple seat. This is where your breathing and physical practices can support you. Perhaps you stand in a balancing pose, with your focus drawn firmly inward to maintain this posture. Notice that as the mind wanders to outer stimuli, you lose your balance. As the mind is stably focused inward, your posture too remains stable.
Limb Six: Concentration
Once we have cultivated the capacity to calm the influence of outer and inner distractions, we can begin to steady the mind through concentration, the sixth limb of yoga (called “dharana” in Sanskrit). This self-regulation practice of yoga integrates top-down and bottom-up processing to allow the mind to become honed and clear, like a still mountain lake. Concentration is a practice of surrendering thought in exchange for deep inner concentration on a single point of focus to achieve mental one-pointedness. Concentration helps us transcend mental states that are disturbing, upsetting, distracting, discouraging, lethargic, heavy, agitated, or restless.
Through practiced awareness of our inner states, we receive input from within – sitting with sensations from our body or emotions (i.e., bottom-up input) without the need to react. Through being able to sit with inner signals without reacting, we cultivate the capacity to formulate deliberate responses and discerning choices, instead of reactions. We hone the capacity to delay our response to a stimulus, inviting wisdom, intuition, and the ability to use reasoning (i.e., top-down processing).
What are the central principles of Limb Six?
Central principles of the sixth limb of yoga help us move into clarity, focus, even luminosity. They invite us into a space of lucidity and concentration. They encourage attention, discernment, one-pointedness, and single-tasking.
· Cultivating a single focus of attention – This principle invites us to create stillness in the nervous system, calming emotions, body, and mind by directing our attention to a single point of focus with clarity and discernment.
· Accessing a relaxed ventral vagal space – This principle invites us to move us away from mental chatter, multitasking, and distraction to find ways to access relaxation and an inner space of calm, quietude, and safety. Often this means accessing concentration through specific guided imagery practices.
· Committing to single-tasking – This principle presents concentration as the antithesis to multitasking and multiattending. It invites single-pointed attention to one thing at a time. It is a myth that we are capable of doing many things at once. Whenever we multitask, we actually disrupt our attention on one thing to turn it to another – in very fast sequence. These fast shifts of attention are dysregulating and slow us down – making us less efficient and unhappy.
How do we apply the principles of Limb Six?
Central practices within the sixth limb of yoga reduce mental chatter and connect us to our true self beyond thoughts, emotions, and ego-identification. On the mat, concentration can be practiced in many, many ways. Following are a few examples.
· Focus on something that is inspiring, such as the image of a revered teacher, or a loved-one
· Focus on your own breathing – sensing clearly how the breath travels in and out and being fully absorbed with curiosity about the breath
· Focus attention through the chanting of a mantra, the intoning of the syllable ‘om’, or the repetition of a meaningful word (e.g., peace)
· Find a physical focus point (such as the movement of the belly or a sensation in a particular body part)
Off the mat, concentration practices invite us to do the ordinary with extraordinary attention and purpose. Some examples are as follows; however, the options are endless.
· Practice an everyday, routine task with full attention and focus
· Let an action as uncomplicated and ordinary as washing a dish or peeling a piece of fruit become a concentration practice by being fully focused only on it
· Play or listen to a piece of music with complete attention and focus
· Invite in a state of flow during physical exercise or action by being fully present with the associated physical sensations
Limb Seven: Meditation
Meditation, the seventh limb of yoga (called “dhyana” in Sanskrit) is a seated or reclining practice in which the skills of all prior limbs come to their full flowering. The prior limbs have built the platform upon which the meditator can rest – body, breath, and mind are prepared; intuition is honed. As a spaciousness practice, meditation helps us forge new neural pathways, encouraging neuroplasticity and increasing gray matter volume in certain parts of the brain. Meditation facilitates new learning and augments the number of synaptic pathways in the brain. It is a practice of achieving an effortless state of awareness that transcends even a single point of focus.
Through preparation for sitting or reclining mediation, we are able to move into spacious awareness. The body is at ease, the breath is calm, and the mind is tuned inward; good posture supports the body; rhythmic breathing supports the calming of emotions; the mind is still and no longer serves as the constant interpreter and evaluator of experience. From this place of preparedness, we come to understand the central principles of this limb of yoga.
What are the central principles of Limb Seven?
· Creating a decisional gap – This principle of opening a space between stimulus and response invites practitioners engage in new choices, to exercise conscious authorships over emotions, cognitions, behaviors, and relationships.
· Developing spaciousness and peacefulness – This principle asserts that sufficient tranquility needs to be developed so that sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise while seated no longer become a disturbance. They are observed, noted, and let go. They inform the practitioner more deeply about ingrained emotional and mental habits. Practitioners develop the capacity to observe these stirrings without losing a sense of peace and spaciousness.
· Engaging in choice and adaptive, resilient decision-making – This principle suggests that when a gap opens in awareness, new emotional, mental, behavioral, and relational choices emerge. Practitioners then become responsive and discerning, rather than reactive and discriminatory.
How do we put into practice the principles of Limb Seven?
Many meditation practices and traditions exist. Within yoga, meditation means no longer needing a single point of focus (which is concentration) and becoming spacious. In concentration, we pay attention to a chosen stimulus (an object, the breath, movement, an image). In meditation, attention is replaced by awareness – awareness of our connection to a greater community and a higher purpose. Meditation is not an easy skill and requires firm commitment and dedicated practice. A few sample practices offered below are meditations that have a clear and dedicated purpose. However, these are not the only meditation practices. In fact, the most basic practice is to sit still; to observe body, breath, and mind; and to access spacious awareness.
· Insight meditation
· Lovingkindness meditation
· Mindfulness meditation
· Moving meditation
Limb Eight: Absorption
Once a practitioner has a regular and committed integrated yoga practice, the spontaneous experience of the eighth limb of yoga can arise – absorption (called “samadhi” in Sanskrit). Absorption is not a practice but an experience; it is the spontaneous arising of a felt sense of integration or oneness that is beyond an ordinary state of consciousness. Purpose and interconnection arise in absorption. Practitioners gain a clear recognition of the interconnectedness of all sentient beings and a profound connection to a greater whole. Typically, a feeling of being complete, whole, or integrated arises along with the experience of unity with everything. In absorption, practitioners experience mindful and joyful connection to a greater purpose and a sense of community or belonging. Absorption is like coming home to ourselves and our loved ones. Absorption is unique to each one of us and defies definition.
There you have them – the eight limbs of yoga!
The eight limbs are yoga for the rest of us – for those of us who cannot just sit down and gain mastery over the activities of the mind just because we would like to. So – if you are like all of us at YogaX, your yogic path may follow that of the eight limbs. You may start with committing to an ethical and purposefully dedicated life (limbs 1 and 2). You may cultivate ease and grace, strength and power, and balance and integration in the body through posture and movement practices (limb 3). You may sit and breathe – becoming aware of your breath, observing your breath, and influencing the rhythms and patterns of your breath (limb 4). You may move inward (limb 5) to find single-focused concentration (limb 6) and to access spacious awareness (limb 7). And if you are very patient and dedicated, you may access moments of integration, wholeness, and deep connection to all that is (limb 8). If you are interested in this path, study with a teacher – either with YogaX or another dedicated yoga group that follows an integrated 8-limbed path into yoga.
I wish you joy in your journey. I wish you a deep appreciation for the process. I wish you non-attachment to a particular outcome of your journey. Following the 8-limbed path has changed my life and I hope it will add light to yours. With deep appreciation for all who practice – in the past, present, or future –
About the Author:
Christiane Brems, PhD, ABPP, E-RYT500, C-IAYT, is the Director of YogaX, a clinical psychologist, registered yoga teacher, and certified yoga therapist. She has practiced yoga for over 40 years. You can read more about her on the YogaX Team page
PS For readers interested in accessing the 2000-year old Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are several excellent translations:
· Hartranft, C. (2003). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A new translation with commentary. Boston, MA: Shambala Classics.
· Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the yoga sutras. of Patanjali New York: Thorsen.
· Maki, B.. (2013). The yogi’s roadmap: The Patanjali yoga sutras as a journey to self-realization. Scotts Valley: CreateSpace.
· Excellent free online version: https://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras.htm