Posts tagged ‘stretch’

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a spiritual and physical practice that was created over 3,000 years ago in India. Yoga, meaning “union”, is intended to connect the mind to the body.

There are many different types of yoga. The physical practice is called Hatha Yoga, “ha” meaning sun and “tha” meaning moon, and its purpose is to unite opposites and stretch the body in all directions.  The physical practice was invented specifically so that yogis could sit comfortably erect in meditation without too many pins and needles in their bodies.

Hatha Yoga is what we think of when we refer to yoga in the West, however, as you will read below, yoga is much more than just the physical practice where we contort, strengthen, and stretch our bodies.

Wait a minute… What if I am not interested in a spiritual path? Can I still practice yoga?

Of course you can! The spiritual path of yoga is not for everyone. The beauty of yoga is that the philosophy can be adapted to fit your personal beliefs.

Even if you practice yoga just for the health benefits, or the amazing workout of asana, you can still call yourself a yogi. Likely what will happen is that even if you practice only asana and nothing else, you will find yourself able to deal with stress much better than before, which will improve your quality of life.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

The asanas are just one part of yoga. There are, in fact, 8 limbs to yoga, which represent the intention of our yoga practice. These 8 limbs were written out in the Yoga Sutras by the sage Patanjali around 300 BCE.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explained that the purpose of yoga is to calm the mind so that we can elevate our conscious awareness. He laid out an 8 fold path.

The 8 limbs of Yoga are:

Yamas (the restraints)                     Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
Niyamas (ethical observances)     Dharana (concentration)
Asana (postures)                              Dhyana (meditation)
Pranayama (breathing)                 Samadhi (higher consciousness)

The 8 limbs are meant to be a series of progressive stages where we begin to explore our ability to live in a state of Samadhi.

Samadhi, meaning bliss, refers to living our lives in a state of equanimity, where no matter what the circumstances are we can be content. The place of contentment comes through the journey of the other 7 limbs where we learn non-attachment to the fruits of our labor; giving, working, and loving just for the sake of doing the right thing.

But the 8 limbs does not start at the finish line, of course.

The “10 Commandments” of Yoga

The first two limbs of yoga are the Yamas and the Niyamas, which together make up the “10 Commandments of Yoga”. The Yamas are the restraints that Patanjali suggested allowed us to live a more selfless life. The Niyamas are the ethical observances that he recommended we adopt to live more healthfully and consciously.

The 5 Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa – Non-Harming
  • Satya – Truthfulness
  • Asteya – Non-Stealing
  • Brahmacharya – Control
  • Aparigraha – Non-Greed

The 5 Niyamas are:

  • Saucha – Cleanliness
  • Santosha – Contentment
  • Tapas – Heat/Passion
  • Svadhyaya – Self-Study
  • Ishvarapranidhana – Surrender to God, or surrender to the powers greater than yourself, or simply, surrender to that which is.


Asana means “seat”. In the Yoga Sutras, the word asana was used to represent the seat upon which a yogi sat to meditate. Asana includes the physical postures we associate with the word “yoga” in the West.

Part of the Niyamas is tapas, or heat. Asana is meant to purify the body using the heat that we build as we practice the athletic aspects of yoga. Yogis treat their body as a temple, and asana is the method by which that temple is maintained.


The second sutra in the Yoga Sutra states that yoga is a practice by which we still the mind. Pranayama is the breath work that yogis use to calm the mind.

There are dozens of breathing practices used by yogis, each of which have a different purpose. Some of the breath work stimulates the body to prepare it for intense labor, and some of the breath work is calming and relaxing. Some are meant to warm the body, and some are meant to cool the body. Others relax certain areas that commonly hold tension. There are even breathing techniques that intend to bring yogis to higher levels of conscious awareness.

As different as they are, all of the pranayama techniques have purpose along the 8 limbs of yoga.


Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses. Why would we want to withdraw from the senses?, you might as. Withdrawal from the senses allows the mind to begin to look inwardly so that the next limb of yoga can be achieved.


Pratyahara withdraws the distractions of the senses from the mind so that the mind can reach Dharana, which means concentration. The Sutras claim that with single-pointed awareness, the yogi can move to the next stage of the 8 limbs. Are you beginning to see how the limbs are intended to be followed in a sequence?


Dhyana translates to meditation. Remember that asana was created so that the yogi could sit comfortably in meditation. Through purifying the heart with the yamas and the niyamas; keeping the body strong and relaxed through asana; stilling the mind through pranayama; withdrawing from the senses with pratyahara; finding concentration with dharana; the yogi finally comes to a place where the mind can be quiet enough to sit in meditation.

Samadhi: Why We Meditate

Yogis meditate to reach Samadhi, bliss. Through meditation, yogis can begin to explore the intentions behind their actions. With this kind of svadhyaya (self-study), equanimity can be achieved.

As previously mentioned, the path of yoga is a path to live without attachment to the fruits of our labor. To live for the sake of living. To give for the sake of giving. To love for the sake of loving.

When we live from a place where we are not attached, inner peace is achieved. By not being attached to the results of our actions, there is no place in our hearts for greed, jealousy, resentment, anger, or heartache. When we peel away those negative emotions, we find our true nature, which is love.

More importantly, through non-attachment, yogis are content (santosha) regardless of the circumstance. Does that mean they are never sad? Of course not. What it means is that even though yogis might be sad, we are aware that “this too shall pass”.

Nothing is constant except change. Yogis understand that the ups and downs of life are all fleeting moments. True happiness, true contentment, true satisfaction can only come from within.

Yoga is a path to enlightenment, and yogis believe that enlightenment is living without attachment to action, equanimity.

To Practice or Not to Practice

Remember, you do not have to be on a spiritual journey to practice yoga, but I am sharing this with you because most people do not know that there is more to yoga than just the physical practice.

Please feel free to continue practicing asana or meditation, or only the limbs suit your needs. Regardless of how many limbs you practice, you will reap rewards!




Post-Workout Stretch II

A few days a go, a friend of mine asked me to post a few yoga stretches that would help him after a workout. Today, I will discuss Supta Kapotasana, or Supine Pigeon Pose, also known as Figure Four.

Supine Pigeon is a posture to stretch the back of the hips, the piriformis, and it relieves sciatica. The piriformis is a muscle that is often tight on runners. This stretch is especially good after running, using the stair stepper, or the elliptical.

Follow the steps below to perform this wonderful hip opener.

Supta Kapotasana

  1. Lie one your back with your left knee bent and your left sole of your foot on the floor. Keep your head and shoulders on the ground. Try to relax your neck and shoulders.
  2. Cross the right ankle over the left thigh, making a figure four with your legs.
  3. Keep the right foot flexed, place your hands behind your left hamstring muscles, inhale completely, and exhale pulling the left leg closer to the body. It is very important to keep your right foot flexed.
  4. Hold for 30-90 seconds, and repeat on the other side for the same duration.

Deeping the Posture

To deepen the stretch, practice PNF Stretching, or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. That means you use isometric contractions, then release the contraction for a greater stretch. Follow these steps to deepen your stretch:

  1. In the case of Supta Kapotasana, with your right leg crossed over your left thigh, on the inhale press your right leg into your left thigh and your left thigh into your right leg.
  2. Hold the contraction on the inhale, and release the contraction when you exhale.
  3. You will find a lot more flexibility in your right hip when you hold a contraction and then release it.
  4. Repeat on the other side with the same intensity and duration.

Happy Stretching!



Post-Workout Stretch

A friend of mine asked me to post a couple of poses he could do after a workout. Today’s post, I focus on one such stretch.

Below, I walk you how to get into Uttanasana, the forward fold. The reason this posture is great after a workout is that it opens the hips, the calves, and the hamstrings, and secondarily on the back. With variations by using a chair, you can also get into the shoulders.

Uttanasana, fullest expression

Please do not let the picture above scare you. This picture represents the fullest expression of the posture. I am aware that not everyone’s hamstrings are that flexible, especially runners and sedentary office workers. Remember, there are modifications and variations for everyone.

If your hamstrings are not that flexible when you try to come into Uttanasana, please bend your knees very deeply and connect your stomach to your thighs. That will protect the low back so you do not pull a muscle.

Uttanasana – The Forward Fold

  1. Begin in Tadasana, Mountain Pose. In Mountain Pose, the thighs are contracted and the abdomen is pulling in toward the spine.
  2. Inhale raise your arms up and look up toward your hands.
  3. Exhale begin to hinge at the hips to forward fold. Keep the knees bent if the hamstrings are tight. Also, keep the front side of the body open. Do not round in through the shoulders and thoracic spine (area of the spine connected to the ribs).
  4. If the knees are bent, focus on straightening the spine on every inhale and folding a little more forward on every exhale, lifting the hips upward toward the ceiling.
  5. If the knees are straight, keep the quadricep muscles contracted. A contraction of the quadriceps facilitates the opening of the hamstrings. On every inhale lift up on your quads and engage your abdominal muscles to lengthen the spine. On every exhale, relax the contractions and forward fold a little bit deeper, continuing the opening of the hamstrings, hips, calves and back.
  6. To come out of uttanasana, inhale halfway up so that the spine is parallel to the floor. Exhale completely, then inhale rise the rest of the way up to standing. Taking that extra second in Ardha Uttananasana, or half forward fold, will help stabilize the blood pressure so that you do not get dizzy going from a forward fold directly to standing.

Variations of Uttanasana

  1. If balance is an issue, you can perform this posture with the sitting bones on a wall. You can keep the knees bent and lean into the wall, or if the hamstrings will allow, you can straighten the legs vertically with the wall. Follow the same steps 4-6 above.
  2. To open the shoulders, use a chair in front of you. Place the hands on the seat of the chair and try to drop the head and drop the heart through your arms. To lessen the intensity of the stretch, bend your elbows and place the crossed forearms on the back of the chair. Still drop the head and try to sink your heart through your upper arms.

Uttanasana against a wall

Benefits of Uttanasana

  1. Lengthens the hamstrings and calves and opens the back of the hips. Secondarily it stretches the back.
  2. Strengthens the quadriceps and the abdominals.
  3. Alleviates neck and shoulder pain.
  4. Aids in digestion.
  5. Helps relieve stress, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, and mild depression.


Do not perform the full variation of uttanasana with a back injury. Instead, bend your knees. You can also perform Ardha Uttanasana facing the wall with your arms pressing into the wall. Your torso and your arms are parallel to the floor.

Happy stretching,