Deepen Your Practice

Our Yoga 101: Deepen Your Practice resource provides historical and philosophical context for what we do in an asana practice. Here, learn the basics about the eight limbs of yoga, the energetic body, and additional aspects of yoga that can support your practice.

Aspects of Yoga

The Eight Limbs of Yoga
In the Yoga Sutra, a text comprised of 195 aphorisms, or words of wisdom, written over 1,700 years ago, Patanjali detailed the eightfold path of yoga. These eight steps essentially serve as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.
The first four steps of Patanjali’s “Eight Limbs of Yoga” concentrate on mastery over the body, moral and ethical restraint, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves. The first four steps prepare us for the last four steps of this journey, which deal with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Step 1: The Yamas
The Virtues
The 5 yamas guide our moral and ethical behavior. These practices impact our attitudes toward others and the world.
Ahimsa – non-violence
Satya – truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Bramacharya – non-lust
Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
Step 2: The Niyamas
The Observances
The 5 niyamas guide our self-discipline and spiritual observances. These practices impact our attitudes toward ourselves.
Sauca – cleanliness
Santosha – contentment
Tapas – austerity
Svadhyaya – study of the sacred text and one’s self
Isvarapranidhama – living with the awareness of the Divine
Step 3: Asanas
The Physical Poses
The physical postures in yoga, or asanas, are designed to free our mind and body from tension and stress. They relax, rejuvenate, and energize the body and aim to bring the body and the mind into a harmonious union. Asanas should be done with comfort, ease, alertness and steadiness, achieving a balance between ease and effort. Through the practice of asanas, we develop physical discipline and the ability to concentrate.
Step 4: Pranayama
The Breathing Exercises
Pranayama is the control of breath. The duration of inhalation, retention, and exhalation of breath is regulated with the aim of strengthening and cleansing the nervous system and increasing a person’s source of life energy. Pranayama practice also makes the mind calmer and more focused. Pranayama exercises can be practiced in isolation or combined with an asana practice.
Step 5: Pratyahara
Withdrawal of the Senses
Pratyahara, the practice of sensory withdrawal, marks a commitment to detach from the outside world and turn attention inward. Pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings and aversions.
Step 6: Dharana
Concentration
Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In dharana, the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound.
Step 7: Dhyana
Meditation
Meditation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. While dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. This may seem a difficult if not impossible task, but remember, yoga is a process. Benefits abound at any stage of the process.

Step 8: Samadhi
Enlightenment
Samadhi is the ultimate goal of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. It is characterized by the state of ecstasy and the feeling that you and the universe are one. It is a state of peace and completion, awareness and compassion with detachment.
Four Paths of Yoga
In recent decades, yoga’s popularity has soared as celebrities endorse its contribution to their sleek physiques, athletes testify to their improved flexibility and agility, and high-powered businessmen and women champion the benefits of the physical practice as they navigate the stress of their careers. But to diminish yoga to just a physical practice, is to miss out on the numerous benefits that yoga provides for our mental, emotional, and spiritual sides.
Our modern understanding of the term “yoga class” fails to acknowledge the holistic nature of yoga. Many believe that yoga is mostly, if not completely, a series of poses. While the postures are an important aspect of the practice, they are only a small part. There are four traditional schools of yoga. All four paths are present and work together as we strive to attain clarity of mind.
Jnana Yoga
Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection, and contemplation. This may be practiced by listening to the words of a teacher, studying ancient texts, reflecting, and discussing with others. The underlying assumption of jnana yoga is that all knowledge is within us – we only have to discover it.
Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, emotion, love, compassion, and service to God and others. In the practice of bhakti yoga, we offer our thoughts and actions to a higher power.
Karma Yoga
Karma yoga is the path of action, service to others, and mindfulness of the consequences of our actions in the world and in the lives of others. Karma yoga is also related to the letting go of expectation and the need for recognition.
Raja Yoga
Raja yoga emphasizes meditation in the pursuit of clarity and peace. Raja translates to “king,” and the path is named in honor of the king within each of us who is always in a state of enlightenment. This path encourages encountering and transcending thoughts of the mind.
Mudras
Mudras are hand gestures held to cultivate a state of mind. The power of these seemingly simple hand gestures goes far beyond adding focus to your yoga practice. There are mudras to invoke states of peace, concentration, compassion, physical health, courage, wisdom, and more. Each area of the hand has a reflex reaction in a specific part of the brain. As your hand assumes a gesture, the position locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain. Mudras also bring balance to the Ayurvedic elements, as each finger represents an element: thumb – fire, index finger – air, middle finger – space, ring finger – earth, and pinky – water. A mudra practice reminds us that seeking these states of mind is a choice. The next time a mudra is incorporated into your yoga practice, reflect on the mudra as a physical expression of an inner intention. Here are some common mudras that may show up in class:
Anjali Mudra
Anjali = Offering; Mudra = Gesture, Seal; aka Prayer Position
Bring your palms together at heart level and gently touch your thumbs to your sternum. As your hands meet at center, you are connecting to your self, to the world around you, and in a literal way the right and left hemispheres of your brain.
Gyan Mudra
Gyan = Knowledge; Mudra = Gesture, Seal
Gently connect the tips of your thumb and index finger with a light amount of pressure. The three remaining fingers are extended but relaxed. Gyan mudra is related to openness and knowledge. It is used to cultivate peace, tranquility, wisdom, and focus.
Pran Mudra
Prana = Life Force, Energy; Mudra = Gesture, Seal
Join the tip of your thumb with the tips of your ring and pinky fingers. Extend and separate your index and middle fingers. This mudra is held to cultivate energy and self-confidence and reduce anxiety.
Uttarabodhi Mudra
Uttara = Realization; Bodhi = Enlightenment; Mudra = Gesture, Seal
Lace your fingers while leaving your index fingers and thumbs extended. This mudra symbolizes non-separateness, and reminds us that strength comes from interdependence not independence.
Bandhas
The Sanskrit word bandha translates to “bind” or “lock.” We engage the bandhas by locking certain areas of the body to direct the flow of energy through the body. The bandhas play an important role in the body’s physical and energetic cleansing processes and should unfold naturally when the physical body is well aligned and the breath is free and without force. By the time a student is ready for these teachings, she or he has probably discovered them for themself through regular practice. It is important to understand that the bandhas are more than just a physical practice. Bandha also refers to binding your attention – focusing the mind on one point – and the practice can be powerfully transformative for the mind.
The bandhas are intimately intertwined with pranayama (breath control) and can be practiced with many asanas (yoga poses). Before I introduce the three primary bandhas, a disclaimer: the practice of the bandhas is so refined and specific, it is highly recommended that students learn to practice under the close supervision of a teacher. The consequences of practicing the bandhas incorrectly can be physically harmful.
Jalandhara Bandha
Water Pipe Lock
Jalandhara bandha is the first bandha to be taught upon learning the techniques. It is a lock located in the throat, and it is engaged upon lifting the spine, drawing the head slightly back, and dropping the chin slightly so that the back of the neck lengthens.
Uddiyana Bandha
Upward Lock
Uddiyana bandha is located in the abdomen and should only be attempted when you feel well practiced in jalandhara bandha. It is executed by raising the diaphragm and low abdomen. On an exhale, fully and slowly contract the abdomen. The naval will move toward the spine, and the rectal and back muscles will engage. The whole abdominal area will feel hollow.
Mula Bandha
Root Lock
Mula bandha develops out of uddiyana bandha. It is achieved by releasing the contraction of the upper abdomen and diaphragm but maintaining the contraction of lower abdomen and pelvic floor.
Chakras
Many yogis believe that our physical bodies are animated by an energetic system. The chakra system is an ancient mapping of this subtle, or energetic, body. The Sanskrit word chakra translates to “wheel” or “turning” and refers to the whirlpool-like motion of energy centers located along the midline. There are seven chakras at the intersecting points of the three primary nadis (the ida, the pingala, and the sushumna), or corridors through which our vital life force, prana, flows. When the chakras are “open,” they are considered to be in balance.
The low body chakras relate to our instincts and our relationships to others and the world. The chakras closer to the head relate to our mental consciousness. The chakras are often described in great detail with correlating colors, shapes, associated sounds or tones, numbers of lotus petals, and related emotional and psychic aspects. Understanding this subtle body map can awaken our full potential and aid in bringing balance to our lives.
Muladhara
Root Chakra; Root or Base
Location: At the base of the spine
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our sense of foundation; Our feeling of being grounded; Our sense of survival, including our need for food and financial independence; Our connection to the earth element
Svadishthana
Sacral Chakra; One’s Own Place
Location: About 2” below the naval and 2” in
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our connection to other; Our ability to accept new experiences; Our senses of abundance, well-being, pleasure, and sexuality; Our connection to the water element
Manipura
Solar Plexus Chakra; The Jeweled City
Location: At the base of the sternum
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our ability to be confident and in control of our lives; Our sense of self-worth; Our connection to the fire element
Anahata
Heart Chakra; Unstruck Sound
Location: At the center of chest just above the heart
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our ability to love and be loved; Our experiences of joy and inner peace; Our connection to the air element
Vishuddha
Throat Chakra; The Wheel of Purity
Location: At the throat
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our ability to communicate; Our feelings of self-expression and truth
Ajna
Third Eye Chakra; The Command Center
Location: At the forehead between the eyes
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our ability to see the big picture; Our ability to focus; Our sense of intuition, wisdom, and imagination; Our ability to think and make decisions
Sahasrara
Crown Chakra; Thousand-Spoked Wheel
Location: At the top of the head
Psychological/Emotional Aspects: Our spiritual connectivity; Our connection to true bliss and enlightenment
Mantras
The practices of yoga and mantra meditation are intimately entwined. The Sanskrit word mantra comes from two words: man, meaning “to think” or “to be aware,” and tra, meaning “an instrument.” Both yoga and mantra are self-study practices that help us to cultivate awareness, focus, and contemplation of ourselves in relation to the world around us. Mantras can be anchors for our wandering minds.
Mantras, sometimes referred to as chants, are made up of sounds, syllables, or phrases that reflect the energy of divine nature. They are often practiced in a seated position, but may also be combined with movement. Repeating mantras out loud or silently to yourself can calm and focus the mind and have numerous physiological and psychological benefits. There are millions of mantras out there. Here are a few you might come across in a yoga class:
Om
Om is considered to be the sound that created the universe. Within this single syllable are the vibrations of past, present, and future. This mantra, from which all other mantras are derived, brings balance, focus, and cleansing.
So Hum
So Hum translates to “I am that.” On your inhale, silently repeat the syllable “so” to yourself, and on your exhale, silently repeat the syllable “hum” for self-affirmation.
Om Shanti
Shanti means “peace.” Repeating this mantra can calm the nervous system and cultivate a sense of balance between the self and the universe.
Om Namah Shivaya
The five syllables of this mantra are said to represent the five elements (earth, fire, air, space, and water) and to bring awareness back to the Source. The word Shivaya refers to the Hindu god Shiva, but more generally suggests the supreme reality, or the consciousness that dwells in all.
Om Mani Padme Hum
This mantra for compassion is said to invoke loving kindness, wisdom, and to free us from negativity in mind and speech.
Yoga Classes By Style
If you’ve recently opened a yoga studio brochure to peruse the class offerings, it may seem that there are as many styles of yoga as there are poses. It can be daunting to distinguish one style from another. In truth, there is a great deal of crossover among the various styles of yoga – many will incorporate the same poses, call them the same name, and draw upon the same history and philosophy. But each style of yoga has a unique emphasis and approach. Here is a primer on common styles of yoga offered in studios today.
Hatha
Hatha, a term made up of the syllable ha, meaning “sun,” and the syllable tha, meaning “moon,” describes any yoga class that emphasizes the asana aspect of the eight limbs of yoga. In the strictest definition of terms, every style of yoga is a hatha class. When you see Hatha written in a class listing, it most likely implies that poses will be held for sustained periods of time and that the teacher may be bringing a combination of stylistic influences into class.
Vinyasa
Vinyasa refers to the relationship of breath and movement. Often times, vinyasa classes are described as “flow” classes and string flowing sequences of poses together with rhythmic breathing for an intense body-mind workout.
Ashtanga
Ashtanga is a rigorous practice of sequential postures developed by K. Pattabhi Jois from Mysore, India. The system is based on six codified series of sequences that increase in difficulty. Classes are led non-stop with little or no time built in for physical adjustments.
Iyengar
Iyengar classes, named after developer B.K.S Iyengar, are known for their attention to detail in the practice of alignment within the poses. In Iyengar classes, a pose is typically held for much longer than in other styles so that practitioners can observe the specific muscular and skeletal subtleties of the pose. Iyengar is also known for its use of props to enhance alignment within poses.
Bikram
Bikram classes feature a series of 26 traditional postures sequenced by developer Bikram Choudhury in a room pushing nearly 100 degrees. The sauna-like environment relieves the body of toxins through extreme sweating.
Kundalini
Kundalini yoga incorporates postures, pulsating movements, dynamic breathing techniques, and chanting and meditating on mantras. Practitioners concentrate on awakening kundalini, the energy at the base of the spine, and drawing it upward through each of the seven chakras.
Viniyoga
Viniyoga is a gentle approach to yoga developed by T.K.V. Desikachar, son of Krishnamacharya, one of the greatest yogis of the modern era. Viniyoga adapts the practice to the unique condition, needs and interests of each individual – giving the practitioner the tools to individualize and actualize the process of self-discovery and personal transformation.
Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is a restorative yoga practice that focuses on passive posing, or allowing your muscles to relax to let gravity do the work. It is intended to complement a yang yoga practice, or styles of yoga that emphasize muscle toning, such as Ashtanga and Iyengar. Practitioners rest in yin poses for long periods of time.
Svaroopa
Svaroopa, named for the transcendent inner experience described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, is a gentle and anatomically conscious approach to yoga developed by Rama Berch in La Jolla, California. New students find this to be a very approachable style. Rather than impose a shape on the body, poses are encouraged to unfold from within.
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