by Sarah Clark
I’ve come to think of my eight-limbed yoga practice a lot like the image of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara from the Buddhist tradition. This figure, said to embody compassion, is often depicted with many, sometimes innumerable arms. Each one of these arms and subsequent hands holds a different kind of tool – the tool that will be just right for the task; and that right tool depends on the circumstance.
Like many westerners, I was introduced to yoga through asana, or the practice of yoga postures. Asana is the third limb of yoga in the eight-limbed path. For a long while, my practice was characterized solely by the time I spent on my yoga mat, sweating, moving and breathing (working with the energy of breathing is the fourth limb, by the way: pranayama). It was glorious.
But after awhile, I felt other seeds starting to grow. My posture and breathing practices were effecting other aspects of my life. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I felt as though I was becoming more patient and calm. I could feel these seeds sprouting tendrils that were reaching down into deeper parts of me that earnestly valued compassion, kindness and peace. I was hungry to understand more about what was happening.
I found teachers, or maybe they found me, that were eager to foster my deeper growth. I started learning about the eight-limbed path and I started to ask myself hard questions and take on new practices. I wanted to know: what is this practice for? Why bother? Why, exactly, am I dedicating all this time in my life to practice? Where is it leading? What are my truest, deepest values?
The beauty of the eight-limbed path is that it dealt with the whole of me. The first limb, the yamas, profoundly changed my life. The yamas are comprised of five ethical practices that help us navigate the sticky world of relationships. We activate these yamas in our actions and speech, in how we listen, and how we work with our thoughts. We wrestle with the intention to cause no harm (ahimsa), to be honest (satya), and to let go of our tendencies for greed (aparigraha).
I discovered that the other limbs were equally potent. I learned how to cultivate patience when yoga postures and everyday life was high in intensity (practice of tapas) and how to find contentment in my being regardless of circumstance (santośa). These are part of the second limb, called the niyamas.
I learned to harness the subtly of my breath, and how to savor its energetic effects with more nuance as I dove deeper into the fourth limb of pranayama.
I learned how to work with my sensory experiences and to let go of them through the fifth limb of pratyahara so that I was able to psychologically settle down. This paved the way to being able to mentally stop running around and running away in my mind: that’s the sixth limb, dharana.
I began a quiet, seated meditation practice, limb number seven, dhyana. I took a deeper look at how I constructed my reality. Now, I sit every day. And samadhi, the eighth limb, opens up in moments. This is the limb of being fully integrated in my life, just how it is. It circles me back around to the first limb again, begging that I use these deeper insights and growing wisdom in the actions I take in my life.
The eight-limbed path has not led me to some constant state of bliss or ended world hunger. But its richness is a scaffolding through which I stay more steadily connected with what is most meaningful in my life. It keeps my eye on the target of living a life of kindness, compassion, steadiness, and love. And it is whole. It addresses my entire, interwoven body-energy-mind-heart.
As a practitioner, and especially as a yoga teacher, I owe it to myself and to the world to take on a more whole practice; it’s critical I encourage my practice to mature. We live in a complex, interconnected world, and so we need a wide range of tools in our tool belt! I hope to see us as a wider yoga community embrace the fullness of yoga through all eight limbs, so that this path can more meaningfully address the real needs of this particular culture at this particular time. The way that actually shows up in our life is entirely dependent on each of our unique circumstances! And, allowing a whole practice to shake up our world honors the precious opportunity that is being alive.
If you want to learn more about the eight limbs of yoga and how they can enhance your life and your practice, join me on Sunday, May 3rd at noon at Yoga One for an in-depth workshop, 8 Limbs for a Whole Being. For more details and to register, go here.
Sarah Clark has been teaching yoga since 2006. She currently offers Teacher Training, workshops, private instruction, and group classes throughout San Diego, CA. Her primary teachers include Michael Stone, Joe Miller, Christie Clark, Judith Lasater & Cyndi Lee.