The Eight Limbs of Yoga are guidelines for living a life of meaning and purpose. Each stage is preparation for the next stage and must be mastered before moving on to a higher level. The first four limbs deal with the physical aspects of yoga – the personality, the body and developing our awareness. These initial stages prepare us for the final stages. The last four limbs deal with the spiritual aspects of yoga – the mind, the spirit and reaching a higher state of consciousness. We will explore The Eight Limbs of Yoga in greater depth, and from an environmental perspective.
The first limb, YAMA, is the universal principles, our ethics, our integrity and our standards.
Ahimsa (non-violence) – we avoid harm to all living beings, including human and non-human life. We may use skin care and cosmetics that don’t contain ingredients derived from animals, or refuse to use products containing palm oil to save orangutans. We may use less paper products so more of the world’s forests remain intact, or we might give up eating threatened species of fish so that marine populations can be replenished. We may boycott products or companies that allow child slavery. We may be vegetarian, or eat a plant-based diet. Whatever our choice of diet, it’s important to eat with a sense of reverence and respect for the life that sustains us, whatever the form that life takes, and ensure our food is produced ethically and sustainably.
Satya (truth and honesty) – we avoid lying and cheating. There is no discrepancy between what we say and what we do – our intentions match our actions. We may talk about the importance of consuming less, the benefits of organic food, or recycling, but if we don’t take the appropriate action to manifest these ideas in our lives and role model our beliefs, our words mean nothing.
Asteya (no stealing) – we avoid taking material objects that don’t belong to us, or we don’t deny others the opportunity to follow their own path in life, make their own mistakes, learn from their own experiences, and make their own decisions. An important aspect on the Environmental Warrior path is taking responsibility for our choices and accepting the consequences of our actions.
Brahmacharya (control of sensual desires) – we avoid meaningless sexual encounters. Showing respect for ourselves and for others helps us to avoid exploiting other forms of life in other ways, for profit or power.
Aparigraha (no accumulation) – we avoid greed, excess and hoarding. We embrace simplicity and avoid over-consumption. In Buddhism, non-attachment is important, but this isn’t the same as detachment. We can find joy in beautiful things, but we must not attach too much importance to objects. We own our things – our things do not own us.
The second limb, NIYAMA, is our personal principles, self-discipline, our spiritual practice and how we interact with our environment.
Saucha (purity and cleanliness) – we treat our body as a temple by nourishing it with fresh, healthy, organic food. We avoid the use of harsh, synthetic, toxic chemicals that pollute the environment. We live in a clutter-free home, surrounded only by what brings us joy. We practice meditation and breathing to purify our minds.
Samtosha (contentment) – we show gratitude for the gifts we have. There are many people in the world who have much less than we do, or who don’t have the basic essentials of life (adequate shelter, healthy food, potable water, sanitation). We need to find inner peace and happiness with what we have, be happy in the present moment and avoid living in the past or the future, being pre-occupied with what we’ve lost or for what we haven’t got. The more stuff we want, the more we have to take from the environment and from others.
Tapas (spiritual purification) – we show discipline in body, speech and mind. We direct our physical and mental energy to a higher purpose, rather than be part of the consumer culture destroying the Earth.
Svadhyaya (study of the sacred texts and observation and awareness of self) – we find the books and the spiritual belief system that inspire us, and can help us learn about, and understand ourselves, and the world, better.
Isvara pranidhana (awareness of the divine) – we identify with a spiritual belief system or higher power. I became interested in Buddhism more than a decade ago, and found that the philosophy resonated with me profoundly, as it was very similar to the way I had always thought about life from an early age.
The third limb, ASANA, is the physical aspects of our daily practice (the yoga postures).
This is where we build our physical strength, eliminate toxins, and increase our circulation and flexibility, and where we develop our discipline and ability to concentrate in preparation for meditation. A strong body allows us to sit for prolonged periods of time. The body is a temple for the personality and spirit, and we must take care of our bodies so that we are fit and strong enough to be able to handle the challenges on the path of spiritual growth and development. I would take this further and say this is also where we strengthen our bodies and our minds in order to prepare ourselves for the path of environmental awareness and action, where we may encounter opposition and ridicule from others. There are many yoga postures, and we need to find the postures that resonate with us, both physically and spiritually, that provide maximum benefit to us.
The fourth limb, PRANAYAMA, is our breath or life force.
We cultivate awareness, and gain control, of our breath in order to expand our life force. Our breath, mind and emotions are connected. Slowing down and deepening our breath helps us slow down our minds, and bring our emotions into a state of peace. Prana is the life force or energy that flows through us via our breath. Practising slow, deep, rhythmic breathing is essential in yoga practice. Breathing purifies the mind. We need to find a method of breathing that is right for us. Abdominal breathing works for me because I have a shallow breath and tend to breathe from my chest. Breathing also connects us to the external world. We take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is taken up by trees and plants and converted to oxygen via the process of photosynthesis, providing us with the very air we breathe. It is a relationship of reciprocity, a giving and receiving of life force. We understand the importance of the ocean and forests as the lungs of the planet and as important vehicles for carbon sequestration.
The fifth limb, PRATYHARA, is the withdrawal of our physical senses.
We learn to transfer our awareness away from the distractions and stimuli of the external world and direct our attention and focus inwards, to experience our internal self. Withdrawing from the noise of the outside world allows us to objectively observe ourselves and any thought patterns that may be harmful to our health, to others, or to the environment. We learn to cultivate detachment from external stimuli, whilst remaining keenly aware of the outside world. I practise a form of this limb where I sit in Lotus Pose and imagine an outline around my physical body, to help me identify where I stop and the rest of the world starts. I can still hear any sounds or noises that may be going on around me, but I don’t focus on them. I quietly observe myself inside this imaginary outline. This is a great technique that helps me recognize what is ‘me’ and what is the outside world.
When we focus on the self this way, and detach from the outside environment, we begin to see who we really are, without all the external distractions, the pressure to be someone, or to do or have certain things, and our attachments to objects we own, or may want. We learn what it is we really need. We may find we need very little at all to be truly happy, and that we don’t need much in the way of material objects. We are enough. We may also get a sense of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world, that we are part of something bigger than us. It’s like the feeling I have when I am in the presence of nature, in a forest surrounded by tall trees and the sounds of life, or observing the great whales swimming the beautiful blue oceans. I feel a sense of humility and awe. It’s not a feeling of being less than everything else, but more that I am but one small part of a greater whole.
The sixth limb, DHARANA, is focus and concentration of our attention on a single point.
The aim of this stage is to cut through distractions to achieve a still, calm, centred mind. Before we were concerned with the distractions of the physical world, now we deal with the distractions of our own minds. We learn to slow down our thoughts by concentrating on a single mental object, an energy centre (chakra), an image, a candle flame, a colour or a mantra. As Environmental Warriors, this can be a symbol of the environment – a tall Californian redwood or an immense Blue Whale. I practise a form of Buddhist meditation that involves focusing on the breath, while keeping my eyes slightly open. This enables me to remain centred in the present moment, so that my thoughts don’t start wandering into the past or into the future. Being able to concentrate for long periods prepares us for the next stage of meditation. We still the mind and gently push away any thoughts that arise. Time may appear to slow down.
The seventh limb, DHYANA, is meditation or contemplation without a point of focus.
Our boundaries dissolve and we no longer feel separate from everything else. We have keen awareness, but there are no thoughts, no distractions, and no focus. The goal is not to be unconscious or feel a sense of nothingness, but to experience a heightened awareness of the greater universe. We know we are part of a larger human (and non-human) family, and we are not separate from other forms of life. We accept that our actions do affect others, and that our individual behavior has an impact on the Earth.
The eighth limb, SAMADHI, is the final stage of practice and of life.
Our goal during our lives is to merge with the point of focus, and at the end of our lives we merge with the great unknown. We transcend time, form and space. Savasana (Corpse Pose) at the end of our practice allows us to surrender the self and open up to the infinite and eternal aspects of ourselves, and the world. Buddhism teaches us that nothing in this world or this life is permanent – the only thing we can be guaranteed of is change. Even the Earth and the environment are slowly changing, shaped by the forces of evolution, nature and the presence of humans. But this doesn’t give us the right to take more than we give back, to pollute the Earth, or to indulge in mindless, careless destruction.
Our reliance on finite resources and our current way of living can only work short-term. We understand we cannot live on the Earth without making an impact, but we know we must live in a way that human life can be sustained long-term. We live in a world where life and death co-exist – to fully embrace our life we must also accept we will eventually die. Life is a cycle, everything has a beginning, middle and end and to surrender to this realization is to become free. This stage is where we find inner peace. Accepting that death is an inevitable part of life opens us up to living. Why spend our lives in an endless cycle of consumption when we can have wonderful experiences that truly engage us?