A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I was planning on exploring the yoga sutras and sharing some thoughts. I’ve been unsure how to begin, so it seemed like it might be valuable for me to go back to my first exposure to yoga and to the sutras. It’s been a long time since I really sat down with the intention to examine my life through the lens of the eight limbs of yoga, and the past few weeks have been bringing a feeling of being a total beginner. Being a beginner at this is very foreign to me, and not altogether comfortable, but definitely has been good for me; good to be humbled, good to be gentle with myself while I’m still learning (and I hope to always be still learning). I’m hoping sharing my experiences over the next several weeks prompts some interesting conversations. I’d really love to hear any of your thoughts on the subjects I go through.

When I started doing yoga in earnest, I was thirteen years old and I was learning from Beryl Bender Birch’s book, Power Yoga. I’d look at the book, try to remember the next few poses, get on my mat, forget, look at the book… repeat. I loved it. I loved anything old and mystical, and yoga, in my mind, fit the bill. Plus, it was exercise without really being exercise, because I was being “spiritual.” But I didn’t know anything about yoga other than the movement. I can’t even remember whether BBB’s book said anything at all about the sutras. If it did, it clearly didn’t make an impression. And for those who do yoga with home videos (which I next progressed to) or even in classes (which I infrequently attended after two years of a home practice), no one said anything at all about the sutras.

As a teacher I’ve found there are a few reasons for this: first, if you’re focusing on alignment and breath and movement, it’s hard to focus on anything else… and that’s kinda the point, all the other thoughts go away, and if done incorrectly, inviting them back in can defeat the purpose of the postural class; second, it’s a lot of information and simply doesn’t fit in an hour and a half class (or, really, into a lifetime of study); and third, most people in our culture don’t come to a yoga class to be given a philosophical lecture, they come to sweat – and as yoga teachers who need an income, we can’t afford to turn students off of our classes.

Nevertheless, if you’ve been to my class, you’ve most likely heard me mention that yoga is not just about the physical. You may have heard me talk about the eight limbs, and the postures, the “asana” practice, being just one limb, maybe even outline some of the other limbs. I think practicing yoga asana without even being aware of the other limbs is not a full yoga practice – it’s just exercise. And that’s ok, but I practice yoga for the benefits it brings my whole life, and I want to share that, too.

My first exposure to them came in a book called The Spirit of Yoga by Cat de Rham and Michelle Gill. It is still the most treasured book I own – which is saying something, considering my library of books! I recommend it to any and everyone who is interested in learning more about yoga. This book transformed my yoga practice from an interesting hobby to a guide to live my life by.

So, what are the sutras?

The yoga sutras were written by Patanjali, who lived between 500 and 200 B.C. There is very little known about him, despite the acclaim over his sutras (but there are some interesting myths and legends incorporating him that I might share another day). Sutra means thread. The yoga sutras thread together the different pieces of yoga into one cohesive whole. Since the word yoga itself means “to connect” or “to unite” (from the same root as our English word “to yoke together”), this is appropriate. The sutras are a unification of the practices which bring cohesion to a life.

There are one hundred ninety six sutras, divided into four chapters, and within that, eight “limbs” which comprise a yoga practice. These limbs may be studied separately, but they won’t really mean anything until you practice them all together – until studying becomes doing.

The eight limbs are as follows:

Yama – practicing universal moral disciplines

Niyama – practicing personal disciplines

Asana – practicing physical postures

Pranayama – practicing breath control

Pratyahara – practicing withdrawal of the senses

Dharana – practicing focused attention

Dhyana – practicing meditation

Samadhi – Oneness.


It’s a lot of information all at once. A lot to take in. Every time I go through them, I find I need some time to sit with this before moving deeper into them; and this time, I really wanted to give myself a few days to connect with what they mean to me before I read their “official” meaning. How I would describe them, what I’d put in each category, which ones still don’t make sense or carry much weight for me. So that’s where I’ll stop today. I’m interested to hear your take on them, too.

One of my teachers asked me once, “how do you do yoga?” I didn’t have a clue what he meant. He asked again, and a third time, and could see his question wasn’t getting through to me. So he said, “You do yoga alone. You might teach it together and you might learn it together, but you do it alone.” It’s an individual path, and will (and should) always be that way. But it’s good to learn from and with each other, and I’d love to hear where your path is taking you.

~ by Carmen Celeste Thurston on July 22, 2012.

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