The Yoga Sutras are a compilation of yogic wisdom authored by an ancient sage by the name of Patanjali. Found in this text are the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which outline the principles and practices that support our journey toward enlightenment. In today’s society, we are likely quite familiar with some of these practices – physical postures (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana). However, we are likely equally as unfamiliar with the remainder of these principles, though their contribution to our journey is just as relevant. With this in mind, below you will find a brief introduction to each of the Eight Limbs including a corresponding mudra (hand gesture) for aid in contemplating the limb.
1. Yamas (abstinences) – The yamas are 5 abstinences, or ethical guidelines.
1. Ahimsa (non-harming) – When we take the time to care for and show compassion toward ourselves, we recognize and honor an innate desire to be happy, healthy, and at peace. Through this process we also come to understand that this very same longing exists within all beings. Our motivation then becomes to care for and be just as compassionate to others as we are to ourselves. Kapota Mudra (gesture of the dove) – hands begin in prayer in front of the heart, maintain contact between the fingers tips, outer edges of the thumbs and heels of the hands while the knuckles to bend to either side and create an open space between the palms
2. Satya (truthfulness) – Thoughtfulness in regards to speaking the truth and acting in ways that reflect that understanding may seem like common sense. And it is, but there is a catch. From a yogic perspective, we acknowledge that our life experiences have created a lens through which we view the world. Our job then, in this case, is to seek, speak and act on the truth without the influence of prior conditioning. Samputa Mudra (gesture of the treasure chest) – hands are gently cupped, left hand in front of the belly with palm up, place right hand on top of left with the palm down – right fingers alongside left thumb, heel of right hand alongside outer edge of left hand
3. Asteya (non-stealing) – Non-stealing in this context refers to more than the obvious. We seek a balance of giving and receiving in regards to material goods, services, time and in our interactions and relationships with others. Hastaphula Mudra (gesture of open hands) hands are held slightly cupped in front of the upper abdomen with palms skyward
4. Bramacharya (conscious use/conservation of energy) – Seeking a balance of rest and activity physically, emotionally and mentally finds us with enough energy to enjoy health and radiance of being, which in turn finds spiritual growth more accessible. The physical component of this equation may seem more accessible, but ensuring that we manage the level of negative thoughts and feelings we choose to give energy to is just as important. Kubera Mudra (gesture of the lord of wealth) – touch the tips of the index and middle fingers to the tips of the thumbs on the same hand, gentle curl remaining fingers in toward palms and backs of the hands on knees or thighs
5. Aparigraha (non-grasping) – Aparigraha involves letting go of attachment to material possessions beyond those which meet our basic needs. It also seeks that same distance and freedom from clinging in regards to our relationships, our stories about ourselves and others, as well as the beliefs that have stemmed from them, as each of these may become an obstacle to our understanding and experience of the true self. Pushpanjali Mudra (gesture of offering flowers) – in front of the belly, gently cup hands with palms skyward and touch the edges of the pinky and ring fingers on the left hand to those on the right
2. Niyamas (observances) – Where the yamas above address our interactions with others, the niyamas relate to matters of the self and offer 5 personal observances.
1. Shaucha (purity) – Purification at the level of the physical body is supported by an appropriate diet and lifestyle. Additionally, creating an external environment that is clean, simple and open contributes to an internal environment that reflects the same, both physically and mentally. When we are able to move through life from a spacious place, we are free from the heaviness and clutter associated with judgement and attachment and can see the world and our true nature more clearly. Vishuddha Mudra (gesture of purification) – the tips of the thumbs press into the inner edge of the lowest digit on the ring fingers, remaining fingers extend away from the palms, backs of the hands rest on knees or thighs
2. Santosha (contentment) – A modern interpretation of the word contentment might find us feeling as though we are being told to be happy with whatever our circumstances may be, and may even support the notion of complacency. In this context however, we can instead contemplate the term equanimity. One of my teachers, Joseph Le Page, presents the idea of Santosha beautifully by saying “…life’s challenges may disturb the surface of the sea, but we don’t give them the power to affect the calm depths of our inner being.” Chaturmukham Mudra (gesture of four faces) – as if holding a globe between the palms in front of the belly, touch the fingers of the left hand to those of the right with the thumbs extending skyward
3. Tapas (discipline) – Here again, we have the potential of contemporary associations with a word potentially skewing our perspective, as the term discipline may carry with it the idea of punishment. In reference to the idea of Tapas, consider the notion of commitment. It is through our commitment to our practice and personal journey that we cultivate transformation and ultimately, awakening. Mushtikham Mudra (gesture of the fist) – make fists with the thumbs extended skyward, join the length of the thumbs, knuckles and heels of the hands, rest forearms against mid-abdomen
4. Svadhyaya (self-study) – Self-study finds us aware of the experiences and tendencies at the level of body, thoughts and emotions as if viewing them from a few steps back, from the seat of the witness. This detached perspective creates clarity regarding the origins of these experiences and tendencies, which ultimately allows us to be free from them. Sakshi Mudra (gesture of witness consciousness) – hands begin in prayer in front of the heart, bend the knuckles at the base of the fingers out to either side to create a diamond shape, bend the middle knuckles of the thumbs and tuck thumbnails into the space between the palms
5. Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to the divine/consciousness) – Ishvara refers to the consciousness that pervades all of creation. Surrender refers to our willingness to let go of limiting thoughts or beliefs that separate us from that unifying consciousness. Chin Mudra (gesture of consciousness) – touch the tips of the pointer fingers to the tips of the thumbs, remaining fingers extend away from palms, gesture rests on knees or thighs with palms down
3. Asana (physical postures) – Likely the limb that most of us recognize as yoga is this aspect of the practice, the physical postures. Asana translates as “seat” and is introduced in the sutras with the intention of creating a steady and comfortable posture so that we may sit for meditation. Murti Mudra (gesture of the body) – interlace the hands with the right thumb on top, extend the pinky fingers straight and press them into one another, gesture is held in front of belly or resting in lap
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques) – “Prana” is the energy that enlivens and sustains us, and is closely linked to the breath. Because of this relationship, we can influence and nourish the energetic aspect of our being by controlling inhalations, exhalations, and the pauses that follow each. Dirgha Svara Mudra (gesture of expanded breath) – hold hands in front of the heart as if in prayer, but with a few inches separating left hand from right, curl the middle fingers down toward the earth and press the nail bed of the left middle finger into that of the right
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) – Cultivating an awareness of the experiences created by our senses allows us to then detach from them. Instead, we choose to reside in the aspect of ourselves that is free from the influence of external distractions and the need to reach outward; we reside in our inherent wholeness . Ishvara Mudra (gesture of the lord of creation) – interlace hands the hands with the outer length of the thumbs touching, extend pointer and pinky fingers forward and press them into one another, forearms rest on mid-abdomen
6. Dharana (concentration) – Concentration is the active practice of focusing and continually returning one’s awareness to a chosen object. One may choose to focus on an external object, the flame of a candle for example, or an internal object such as the breath, the belly, or the tip of the nose. Abhisheka Mudra (gesture of anointing) – curl the last three fingers into the palms and extend the pointer fingers forward with their tips touching, join the heels of the hands and align the outer edges of the thumbs, resting them into the space between the pointer fingers, gesture is held in front of mid-abdomen
7. Dhyana (meditation) – When the active aspect of concentration dissolves into a passive and continuous flow of awareness we have transitioned from Dharana to Dhyana. Dharmadhatu Mudra (gesture of tranquility) – relax the left hand in your lap with the palm facing skyward, rest the right hand on the left, also palm up, join the tips of the thumbs to create a soft oval shape
8. Samadhi (unity consciousness) – A dedicated practice of each of the preceding limbs supports our journey toward this blissful state. Samadhi refers to a complete immersion into the experience of the true self ~ of oneness with all that is. Mandala Mudra (gesture of the circle) – relax the left hand in your lap with the palm facing skyward, rest the right hand on the left, also palm up, join the tips of the thumbs to create a large open circular shape