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The word yoga has been in use for thousands of years and is a derivation of the Sanskrit word yuj, which means yoking, as you would a team of oxen. In contemporary yoga practice, yoking is interpreted as meaning union, in reference to unifying the mind, body, and spirit.
While in the western world many people only know yoga as “stretching,” yoga is actually a holistic practice that addresses the health of the body, mind and spirit. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, there are actually 8 “limbs” of the practice of yoga that build upon each other to help us create joyful and fulfilling lives. They are:
- Yama – Your behavior toward others (ethics, integrity)
- Niyama – Your behavior toward yourself (self discipline, spiritual practices)
- Asana – Using physical yoga poses to benefit the body and mind
- Pranayama – Life force extension through specific breathing techniques
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal, or taking attention away from the senses to focus within
- Dharana – Concentration, focusing on a single mental object to quiet the mind
- Dhyana – Meditation, the state where the mind produces few or no thoughts
- Samadhi – A state of ecstasy in which you transcend the self and feel a sense of oneness with all things.
Each of the limbs of yoga can bring their own benefits to the health of the body and mind. Breathwork can help optimize immune system function, meditation can help normalize the stress response and practicing the physical asanas of yoga can reduce mental and physical tension and increase mobility and flexibility. The collective and cumulative effects of the practice of all the limbs of yoga can help us create balance of the body, mind, emotions and spirit.