Introduction to the 8-Limb Path:

As you begin to read this, take a moment to pause-

Take a deep breath and notice what’s happening right now. Are you busy? Are you relaxed? What’s happening in your body? What’s happening in the space of your mind? What kind of mood are you in? Are you happy? Are you depressed? Are you focused or distracted?

The practice of yoga helps us remember to ask these types of questions on a regular basis. The act of answering them helps us stay aware of what’s actually happening in any given moment of our lives. It also helps us to see that everything is always changing. If you stopped and asked the same set of questions again, right now, your answers would inevitably be different. Everything is in a constant state of change. But we humans don’t like change very much. In my personal reflection and in my work with others, I’ve seen many of the ways we try to avoid or deny the constant changing nature of ourselves and our world. The practice of yoga, however, asks us to look at it straight on.

The yoga sutras talk about two possible options for awareness. We can be in the state of yoga, which means that the changing states of our mind have stilled. This is, of course, an advanced state of being. One that I hope we all experience. The other, more common option, is that we are absorbed in the changing states of our mind–we are confusing our identity with the ever-changing stream of thoughts, moods and physical sensations. In yogic language, we have confused the seer for the seen. According to the yoga sutras, this confusion is the cause of suffering.

This can be difficult to understand. A helpful way to think about it can be to use an intense emotion. Have you ever been so angry that you can’t think of anything or feel anything but the anger? This type of intensity can be debilitating and can affect your actions and decisions. A difficult, but useful practice is to remember that you are not your emotion. Yoga doesn’t ask you to deny anything. The emotion is real. It’s present, but like everything else, it’s in a constant state of change. And the practice of yoga asks you to remember that it’s not who you truly are. The way I practice this understanding is to change my language from “I am angry” to “anger is present.” Sounds easy or even silly, but it’s actually quite difficult. It’s worth the effort though. While it doesn’t take away my anger, it does allow me to step back, to notice what is happening and then decide how to act with intention rather than react from old habits.

The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras discusses the nature of suffering in detail. Suffering on a metaphysical level as just described: the confusion of the seer and the seen. It also includes a discussion about the immediate causes of suffering on a psychological level: misapprehension or ignorance, ego, attachment or desire, aversion and fear (specifically of death). And it is in this context, a discussion of suffering, that Patanjali offers us the 8-limb path of yoga. This practical 8-limbed path of practice is offered so that we can free ourselves from suffering. It is a gift!

Over the next few months I plan to dig deeper into the 8-limbs with all of you. Next month the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances), then asana (posture), pranayama (breath control) and pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and finally dharana (concentration), dhyana (mediation) and samadhi (absorbtion).

Do you have questions about any of these? Send them to me and I will do my best to answer them.

I’ve just returned home from a session of my teacher training, which is held in the Redwood Forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains. No matter how many time I see them, the redwood trees continue to amaze me!

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