Weekend Yoga Thoughts – Lists and the Limbs of Yoga

OmI love lists. Lists are helpful because they provide organization and systematization of thoughts and ideas that would otherwise not be very useful. One of the reasons I really love yoga is because of its systematic organization found in its foundation documents, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The beauty of lists is that they provide a simple and convenient guide for directed mindfulness or meditation.

Last week’s Weekend Yoga Thought, for example, reflected on the list of distractions and obstacles identified by Patanjali that hinder a dedicated yoga practice. That list provides useful direction for assessing individual obstacles and ways to overcome them. Reflection and introspection on each subject in the list can be useful in pin-pointing areas in our lives that are keeping us from moving smoothly down the path of yoga.

Two of my other favorite lists come from the first two limbs of yoga: yama and niyama. The five yamas constitute the ethical disciplines of yoga. In essence, they are the yoga equivalent to the Ten Commandments, or the principle of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They are as follows:

  1. ahimsa (non-violence)
  2. satya (truthfulness)
  3. asteya (non-stealing)
  4. brahmacharya (continence)
  5. aparigraha (non-coveting)

The second limb of yoga, niyama, deals primarily with individual spiritual discipline. The niyamas are yogic practices that help create the physical and mental environment for achieving yoga, or the union of mind, body and breath. They are as follows:

  1. saucha (cleanliness or purity)
  2. samtosa (contentment)
  3. tapas (heat or spiritual austerities)
  4. svadhyaya (study of sacred scriptures and study of the Self)
  5. Isvara pranidhana (dedication or surrender to God)

While much could be said about each item in these lists of yamas and niyamas, the main point is that mastery and understanding of each of these elements ought to comprise a great deal of our practice of yoga. The yamas and niyamas are simple, yet so complex. Since they are the first two limbs in the eight-limbed path of yoga, they should be thought of as the low-lying branches upon which the rest of our yoga practice should be built. Without internalization and actualization of each of these ten principles, there is likely not much substance to the rest of our practice. Yet, as we mindfully integrate each of these attitudinal limbs of yoga into our lives both on and off the mat, surely greater fruit and rewards will be realized as we progress through the other limbs identified by Patanjali. Above all else, these two lists of limbs of yoga are reminders that the practice of yoga is not confined merely to the hour spent on the mat at the yoga studio, but is instead an ongoing attitudinal practice that penetrates every aspect of our lives.

[Recommended Reading on Yamas and Niyamas: Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, pp. 31-40; and The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, pp. 96-105]

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