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The 8 Limbs of Yoga for Athletes (and why YOU need them)

Now, more than ever, athletes are looking to yoga as a way to improve athletic performance— as a cross training technique, to increase mental awareness, to keep their bodies supple, and as a way to rehabilitate their bodies after injury. Most athletes turn to asana, (yoga poses) to fulfill these goals. They might take a class, which might incorporate some breathing and a little mental concentration or a relaxation technique. But did you know asana or the poses are just one of seven principles of yoga? Here we will explore these other principles, or limbs, how they relate to your yoga practice and how we can integrate them into our training routines and competitions.

woman in yoga pose

Traditionally, asanas, are merely used to prepare our bodies for meditation practice— similar to an athlete preparing mentally for a sports competition. The yoga sutras refer to eight limbs of yoga, asana being only one of them. Each limb offers guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. The word yoga means to connect. The thing we look to connect to is the true self. The word yoga can also mean separation or disentanglement. The thing we’re disentangling from is whatever stops us from feeling free. When we practice these limbs of yoga, they can help us in our athletic performance by bringing our mind, body and spirit into balance.

Elite athletes and weekend warriors alike can benefit from this type of balance especially when we have, in the past, pushed our bodies to the max, resulting in weakness, mental and physical fatigue and injury. Yoga can help to restore a weakened body and build it back up. Yoga postures, breathing and focus can help rebalance, strengthen and restore overtaxed muscles joints and ligaments. Through this restoration process, athletes can increase their career longevity and develop an inner balance that will last a lifetime. Balancing the mind,body and spirit, is a true way to honour ourselves and our journey as athletes.

The 8 limbs are: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Here is their definition, how we can incorporate them into our practice on the mat, and how we apply them to our sports training and on the course.

Yamas

The Yamas are concerned with the world around us and our interaction with it. They are our moral compass. By considering these aspects on the yoga mat, and on the course, all of our decisions and actions can come from a more considered, aware, and higher place, enabling us to become more authentic athletes.
The Yamas are further divided into five principles: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha.

Ahimsa means non-violence. Ahimsa can be interpreted as: not physically harming others, ourselves, or nature; not thinking negative thoughts about others or ourselves; and making sure that what we do and how we do it is done in harmony, rather than causing harm. On the mat, ahimsa means never pushing yourself to the point of pain. It means being kind to your muscles and joints. On the course, ahimsa means being gentle with yourself and others. Listen to what your body is telling you; don’t ignore the signs of an impending injury. Don’t purposely elbow or cut off fellow competitors. Don’t force training partners to keep an unreasonable pace. Don’t choose runs/terrain that is dangerously harder than you or your training partners can handle.

Satya is truthfulness, but it’s more than just telling the truth. Our thoughts, emotions and moods are interchangeable, yet these are the things that create our own truth. In yoga we work on creating a little space so that we can realise that we are not just our thoughts. On the mat, satya means being honest with yourself about how a pose feels, and whether you should back off or go deeper. On the course, it means being honest with yourself; stop or slow down when you feel pain. Be honest with others. Let your training partners go ahead if you feel tired; make sure you are appropriately body- marked for your category.

Asteya means non-stealing, but like the other Yamas and Niyamas, it means so much more that that. Asteya arises from the idea that we are not good enough or that we don’t have enough. It arises from the lack of faith in ourselves. On the mat, asteya looks like not grasping for things that are beyond our personal resources; don’t attempt poses beyond our capability. On the course, we practice asteya by not cheating. If race rules prohibit outside assistance, follow them. Respect others’ property and space, including transition areas at multisport events. On and off the mat, we practice feeling as though we already have enough and we already are enough within ourselves.

Brahmacharya is often translated as celibacy – and is often considered irrelevant in our modern culture. Brahmacharya is more modernly interpreted as right use of energy, meaning, directing our energy away from external desires and instead, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves.
On the mat, brahmacharya looks like staying within your personal limits. On the course it means pacing yourself using self-control.

Aparigraha means non-greed, non-possessiveness, and non-attachment. This important Yama teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment and to let go when the time is right. On the mat we practice this by being happy with where we are; don’t compare your poses with those of the more flexible. On the course, don’t covet a podium finish; instead, give your best performance and don’t overreach your abilities. Don’t compare your equipment with that of others— don’t envy others’ skis or bikes!

Niyamas

The Niyamas are the second limb. They are our moral principles of self control; the way we treat ourselves. They are intended to help us build character. The Niyamas are divided into five principles; saucha, santosa, tapas, svadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana.

Saucha is commonly translated as cleanliness, but it’s more than just physical cleanliness. It also refers to any habits we have picked up that no longer serve us. On the mat, practice saucha by keeping your mat, body and mind clean. Treat your mat as a temple, and don’t drag your figurative dirty laundry to your practice. On the course, keep your body clean, well nourished, and free of drugs.

Santosa often translates as contentment. We have all harboured the thought “I’ll be happy when/if….” Santosha encourages us to accept and appreciate what we have and what we are, right now. On the mat, practice santosa by being happy with yourself as you are. Instead of powering through inflexibility or resenting illness or injury, appreciate your body the way it is. On the course, practice contentment with the way things play out in a training session or a race. When things don’t go the way you planned, accept them anyway and find happiness in that contentment.

Tapas can be translated into ‘discipline’ or ‘burning enthusiasm’. This Niyama helps us cultivate a sense of self discipline, passion and courage. Tapas has many meanings and how it’s expressed in you can be different to someone else’s experience. Essentially, it’s our inner wisdom that we sometimes ignore and it’s the fiery passion that feeds our sense of purpose! On the mat; use your enthusiasm for your sport as you approach yoga. Devote yourself to learning the practice. On the course; embrace discipline and hard efforts for their beneficial effect. Tapas also refers to internal heat, like that of lactate thresholds and vo2 max.

Svadhyaya literally means one’s own reading or self study. Practicing self reflection, observation, and study of the self makes us more aware of the things we do that harm us, plus the things that serve us, bringing us in closer contact with our true self. Svadhyaya also encourages us to further educate ourselves in whatever inspires and fascinates us, deepening our own knowledge. On the mat; observe your area of tightness and your progression in the poses. Track your mental and emotional reactions to the work you do in asana and meditation. On the course, keep a training log. Note your physical performance in workouts and races as well as your mental and emotional process. This log will be useful for reflection.

Ishvara pranidhana means surrendering to a higher power, or more simply, letting go of our expectations. Do your best, be authentic and life live fully, but let go of the story and of your expectations. On the mat, bring your devotion to the mat by finishing each session with a prayer of gratitude. On the course open yourself to something bigger than you. Be a channel for grace.

Asana

Asana is the third limb of yoga, and by far the most popular in modern times. It should be noted though, that this is the third limb, not the first, meaning that in order for us to practice proper asana, we should have a grasp of the yamas and niyamas beforehand. They are the foundation which we apply our asana to. Asana literally means seat. While we may associate asana to a wild backbend or fancy arm balance, the only direction from the yoga sutras is ‘sthira sukham asanam’ meaning a steady and comfortable pose is asana. Asana is the vehicle to ready our physical body to meditation. If meditation is our sport, asana is our physical training.
So how do we translate this for our athletic selves?
On the mat, we can get fancy in our poses but it’s the comfort and preparedness that comes within our physical bodies that is more important. On the course; attention leads to efficiency. Have a plan, train regularly and it will yield gradual results. Haphazard training does not. Know how to train and why.

Pranayama

Pranayama is the fourth limb. Prana in sanskrit translates to life force energy. Yama means control. Simply, pranayama means controlling our breath therefore our life-force energy. This word can also be translated in another way prana-ayama, meaning breath freedom or liberation. Changing our breath will change our state of being. It’s up to us as to whether we perceive this as controlling the way we feel or freeing ourselves from the habitual way our mind may usually be.
On the mat; stay focused on your breath as you move in and out of the poses and as you hold them. Even when still, the breath brings constant motion to the body.
On the course; know your breath and it’s habits, and return to a calm, neutral breath whenever possible. Notice when your breath is uneven and difficult, and continually question whether your level of exertion is appropriate in that moment. In training, know what your best breath is and practice maintaining this steadiness.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the fifth limb. This aspect of practice is often misunderstood as sense withdrawal. Pratya means withdraw; ahara means our senses or anything we take in. Instead of actually losing the ability to hear, smell, see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become so absorbed in what it is we’re focussing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us and we’re able to meditate without becoming easily distracted.
On the mat practice pratyahara by making your mat your world. Don’t pay attention to the people beside you in class– and certainly don’t compare your poses with theirs.
On the course; associate your mind with your own body, not with what’s happening around you. In this way, you ignore the distracting information your senses gather from the outside environment and pay attention instead to what’s going on inside your body.

Dharana

Dharana is the sixth limb. When translated Dha means holding or maintaining and Ana means other or something else. Dharana is closely linked to the previous limbs; dharana and pratyahara are two sides of the same coin. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so our attention can be put on that one point of concentration. Dharana means focused concentration; bringing all five senses on one single object or point of focus. Notice a trend here? We need to practice all five limbs leading up to dharana in order to make this single- pointed focus happen. The purpose of Dharana is to control the mind. On the mat; pay attention to the form, your breath and the mat. With this focus, allow all mental chatter to go quiet. On the course; devote complete attention to technique, marshalling all your effort to keep your form together, while wasting no energy. This is dharana in motion.

Dhyana

Dhyana, the seventh limb, is meditative absorption – when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation. Meditation means being connected to one’s true self. In this state, you focus deeper inward and are able to observe the true self without interference of the mind and senses.
On the mat; always keep your awareness in the present moment. This is where your next movement will come to you without conscious thought.
On the course; focus on the here and now, and when the mind begins to disassociate, bring your attention back to the form and breath.

Samadhi

Samadhi is the deepest state of meditation, where we are free from the illusions of time, space and reason. After we’ve reorganized our relationships with the outside world and within, we come to the finale of bliss.
When we break the word in half to translate samadhi, it is made up of sama and dhi. Sama means same or equal and dhi means to see. Reaching samadhi is not about floating away or being abundantly joyful, it is about realizing the very life that lies right here in front of us. It is Connection with universal Self. Everything comes together and feels effortless. The culmination of Bliss + physical well-being.
On the mat; be open to flashes of connection fostered by asana, pranayama, and meditation. On the course; samadhi happens when you recognize the connection between you and the elements of your environment. Savour the blissful moments when everything comes together, even if they are fleeting. Effortless motion. Fulfillment of human potential. Being connected to the world and friends. Why we do what we do.

Maybe you are already implementing some of these techniques without knowing what they were. Maybe you have had glimpses of bliss on the course; pure happiness in your sport. Like any goal setting, it’s helpful to have a map, a plan. Now that you know all the limbs, it’s easier to create the blueprint for your own blissful journey, whichever sport you choose. Get out there and enjoy yourselves.

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