What Are the Physical Limbs of Yoga?

This blog is third in a series of four blogs that started with “What is yoga anyway?” posted March 1, 2019 and continued with “What are the lifestyle limbs of yoga?” posted on October 16, 2019. Part 1 provided a general outline of the eight limbs of yoga, touching on each briefly. Part 2 dove deeply into Limb One: Yamas – the ethical practices of yoga – and Limb Two: Niyamas – the discipline of yoga. We are now ready to take a detailed look at the third and fourth limb of yoga, both of which address our physical and energetic layers of self and beyond.

Limb Three: Physical Postures and Movement

The physical practice of yoga, called Asana in Sanskrit, is what most people in the Western world identify as yoga. In the holistic or integrated study of yoga, posture and movement practices represent but one of eight limbs. Nevertheless, the third limb of yoga is essential due to its power to reconnect us to our bodies and to prepare our bodies for the inner practices of yoga (such as meditation, concentration, and sense withdrawal, covered in part 4 of the eight-limbs series). Through mindfulness-based embodied movement, we hone insight into the physical and emotional layers of self. We create physical, emotional, and mental health and fitness, including balance, strength, stamina, flexibility, coordination, and power. Even more importantly, we come to understand physical habits, challenges, and strength; we get (back) in touch with our bodies. We learn about emotional reactions, needs, and preferences; we (re)attune to our inner world at a level that is often unconscious and thus unconsidered in day-to-day life.

Modern science has echoed the importance of embodied movement. All of our experiences and perceptions enter through the body. How we experience ourselves begins and ends with our physical experience of the world – be it our experience of pain, heat, fear, love, embarrassment, joy, or pleasure. Our brain is not the only part of us that responds, thinks, interprets, and understands. We produce neurotransmitters in our gut; we have neurons in our hearts. Trauma embeds itself in our tissues where it can live – ignored – for years, affecting reactions and comfort levels in our bodies, emotions, and relationships. Injuries or illnesses may heal, yet their reverberations stay encoded in the body forever unless directly addressed. Mindful, consciously embodied movements – and breath – bring us back into the body. They reconnect us, reground us, and recomplete us.

For physical practices to reach their most powerful impact, a few yogic principles apply that awaken our capacity to feel our bodies and to understand our physical sensations and emotional perceptions or reactions. Physical practice relinks us to neuroception, proprioception, and interoception. Neuroception is our (often unconscious) interpretation of the world in which we move as safe or unsafe. Proprioception is our ability to understand where our bodies are in space. Interoception is the capacity to feel our bodies from the inside out – being aware of the importance of inner sensation rather than focusing on outer forms. Limb Three of yoga is a powerful practice that awakens and brings to consciousness all of these ways of perceiving ourselves.

What are some of the mindful, embodied movement principles of Limb Three?

· Integration and targeted application of form and movement – This principle invites attentive mindful attention to healthful alignment, awareness of the body in space, awareness of how the physical body collaborates with breath and mind, and awareness of the body’s response to environment stimuli. It creates coordination of breath with movement into, out of, and within each posture. It creates a beautiful energetic flow through well-sequenced movement through multiple postures with careful attention to the energetic state of the body.

· Balance of effort and ease – This principle asserts the need to combine effort and ease in all physical practices. This allows for restful awareness combined with optimal exertion of effort, such as finding strength within flexibility and flexibility within strength, maintaining strength without gripping, finding softness without lapsing onto lethargy, find moderation in the middle between extremes, being firm and strong in the core and free and soft at the edges, or finding union in opposing forces.

· Completeness – This principle suggests that every form or movement needs grounding, expansion, and stability in all layers of self. Feeling grounded comes from establishing a firm foundation physically, energetically, and mentally. Feeling stable comes from establishing and attending to the core, or center, of each pose physically, energetically, and mentally. Feeling expansive comes from a clear line of energy that supports movement and invites radiance physically, energetically, and mentally.

· Synergy – This principle embraces integrated form and movement practices that link to all other limbs of yoga, clarifying that physical practices are not an end in and of themselves, meaning that asana practices is not just about achieving physical shapes and fitness. Limb Three is a component within a greater yogic lifestyle commitment to all eight limbs of yoga. It is always connected to all other limbs, be they ethical and disciplined lifestyle choices or concentrated and meditative inner work.

How do we apply the principles of Limb Three?

There are infinite options and choices for physical yoga practice; those new to Limb Three are best served working with a skilled yoga teacher. On the mat, form and movement practices are most typical. The important thing that differentiates embodied movement as a yogic practice is the application and conscious experience of the principles outlined above. We can be in a posture simply as exercise; or we can be in a posture experiencing our energetic flow, sensing our emotional reactions, and understanding our body from the inside. We can be in a posture simply to get strong muscles; or we can recognize whether we feel safe, balanced, and peaceful, or whether we are connected to a deeper experience of the pose that reaches beyond its physical manifestation.

Form – posture practices, best learned from a skilled teacher, include but are not limited to:

· backbends (e.g., cobra, camel, bridge, wheel); balancing postures (e.g., tree, eagle)

· forward folds (e.g., downward dog, head-to-knee, chair)

· inversions (e.g., headstand, handstand, elbow balance)

· restorative poses (e.g., relaxation pose, meadow brook, legs-up-the-wall)

· seated postures (e.g., staff, hero, lotus, easy seat)

· standing postures (e.g., mountain, warrior, triangle, side angle)

· twists (e.g., lord of the fishes, supine legs around the belly)

· and more

Movement – movement practices, best learned from a skilled teacher, include but are not limited to:

· sun and moon salutations

· yoga kriyas

· vinyasa

· and more

Limb Four: Breathing Practices

The biofeedback practice of yogic breathing, called Pranayama in Sanskrit, addresses a more subtle physical energy than movement as practiced in Limb Three. Breathing practices, whether breath observation, breathing awareness, or advanced breath control, invites us to become mindful and conscious of links between the breath and our emotional and physical wellbeing or experience. Yogic breathing practices help us become aware of physiological arousal and emotional reactivity; they invite us to gain an understanding of our autonomic nervous system responses. They connect us to inner sensations, recruit the parasympathetic nervous system, reduce allostatic load, and improve vagal tone. They are beautiful and inspiring ways to cultivate deeper awareness of breath that supports mindfulness, balance, and efficiency in body, breath, mind, and relationships.

Breathing practices invite awareness of how and where we breathe into the body. They help us understand that how we breathe affects and reflects our emotional and physical wellness. Breath is often an obvious indicator whether the breathing individual is at ease, in pain, tense, sad, anxious, worried, panicked, angry, and so on. Breath manifests in different ways depending on what is happening in the body. Pain may cause a shallow breath that in turn may worsen the pain. Anxiety may move the breath high into the chest –away from abdominal breathing – which in turn is likely to increase anxiety into panic. Ease moves the chest into the belly inviting a spiral of increasing calm and wellness.

Modern science has revealed that breath and physical or emotional experience are reciprocal. Just as our physical or emotional state can be read in the breath, our breath can be altered to change our sense of wellbeing. If we learn how to breathe deeply into the belly when we are anxious, we can nudge ourselves toward a greater sense of ease. If we can learn to take a long and deep inhalation and exhalation when we feel challenged, we can transform angry reactivity into thoughtful responsiveness.

Central principles for Limb Four explore the nature of breath as it manifests physiologically, anatomically, and energetically. The breath is explored from a multitude of dimensions, including the considerations related to depth, texture, location, and more.

What are some of the principles of Limb Four?

· Breath timing – To create breath awareness, attention is given to the number of breaths per minutes and the balance between inhalation and exhalation. Breath control includes lengthening (slowing down) or shortening (speeding up) the inhalation, exhalation, or both, which in turn may affect physical or emotional states.

· Breath volume – In observing the breath, awareness is expanded about how much air is moved in and out of the body with each breath. Breath control may purposefully change volume to influence physical or emotional states.

· Breath texture – Breath awareness is cultivated to recognize the texture or smoothness of breath, noticing if it is choppy, interrupted, soft, smooth, or gentle. Breath control may be used to consciously smooth a choppy breath, reduce hitches and glitches in the breath, and move toward a smooth flow of air.

· Breath space or location – Attention is given to where breath is sensed and directed in the body, with awareness whether breath is balanced between the right and left side of the body, between front and back, and across the lower, middle, and upper thirds of the torso. Breath control may direct breath into certain body parts, sometimes via changing physical position.

· Breath rest – Attention is given to exploring the top (between inhalation and exhalation) and bottom (between exhalation and inhalation) of the breath, creating increasing gaps or rest breaks. Rest breaks at top and bottom may be calibrated to calm the nervous system and mind.

How do we apply the principles of Limb Four?

The same caveat issued for Limb Three applies: when new to breathing practices, it is best to work with a skilled teacher to learn the basics. Central practices within Limb Four start with breath observation and breath awareness (including mindful natural breathing). These are safe and readily accessible practices that, once taught, can be practiced alone in any situation or circumstance. Once observation and awareness skills are established, breathing practices can expand to include breath regulation.

Practices, guided by a skilled teacher, that consciously and purposefully regulate the breath include, yet are not limited to:

· Balanced breathing (e.g., same length inhalation/exhalation)

· Belly breathing (e.g., abdomino-diaphragmatic, thoraco-diaphragmatic)

· Breath retention (e.g., short break at top of breath)

· Cleansing breath (e.g., alternate nostril breathing)

· Energizing breath (e.g., breath of fire)

· Victorious breath (i.e., ocean-sounding breath)

There you have them – Limbs Three and Four. I hope this introduction of the physical and emotional/energetic limbs of yoga inspires your curiosity and desire to live a more embodied life. If you are curious to learn more, check out the other blogs in our eight-limbs series and our Instagram blogs in November 2019 and beyond. And then – go take a class and enjoy the power of these practices in your own physical and emotional layer of self.

With embodied joy, deep breath, and an open heart --


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

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