The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney


Over the last couple of months, we looked into the Yamas (the “restraints”) to help us delve a little deeper into our yoga practice. You may have noticed that the Yamas and the Niyamas come before the Asanas (the poses) in Pantanjali’s 8-Limbs of Yoga. In the Western world we tend to focus on the physical elements of yoga. The original belief was that the mind & body must be purified together for the Asanas to deliver the most benefits. 

Here’s an example I once read that really drove this point home for me. Some of the highest pesticide counts are found on apples so, although apples are inarguably good for you, it takes a lot of extra effort for the body to digest and process these impurities before it can start to absorb the healthy components of the apple. Many people believe you should consume organic apples whenever possible. You can think of the Yamas (non-harming, non-stealing, truthfulness, restraint and non-attachment) and Niyamas (purification, contentment, asceticism, self-study, and devotion) as clearing away the impurities of modern day living so that we can approach our Asana practice from a more “organic” state.  

The first Niyama, Saucha (pronounced sow-cha), is the Sanskrit term for cleanliness or purity. On a physical level this Niyama can apply to personal hygiene. We all have been taught from a young age the importance of personal hygiene. Saucha applies to things such as wiping down your mat after each use and arriving to class in clean comfortable clothing. If you practice at home, it’s important to have a clean space that is preferably free of distractions. Awareness of cleanliness shows a certain level of self-respect that can bring a positive energy to your space and practice. 

When we look at Saucha as it applies to the mind we start to see all the Yamas come into play. Purity in our thoughts, both on and off our mat, has a profound effect on the quality of our lives. For the sake of this article let’s look at it regarding our yoga practice. If we arrive on our mats carrying the stresses and obstacles from our day, it’ll take some extra effort in our Asana practice to rid us of these “impurities” before we start moving deeper into our practice. It is recommended that for an evening practice you take time to shower beforehand and wash away some of the physical and mental toxins you’ve acquired. Briefly look at your thoughts before you practice and run through the Yamas: “Is this thought harmful? Is it true? Am I attached to it?” Sometimes pausing and acknowledging your mental state before you practice is enough to set you off on the right foot. If you take that time and you still can’t seem to let something go then it’s time to roll out your mat, tap into your Ujjayi breathing and allow the physical movements of your asana to help with the cleansing process.

“The practice of asanas tones the entire body and removes the toxins and impurities caused by overindulgence. Pranayama cleanses and aerates the lungs, oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves” (BKS Iyengar, “Light on Yoga”).