As a yoga teacher, you may have studied texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Sutras, and the Upanishads.
While you continue to explore the rich teachings of these texts, it’s possible you feel the pull to start sharing them with your students.
So, where do you begin?
How can you start to confidently weave the important lessons of yoga philosophy into your classes without overwhelming your students?
The 8 limbs of yoga (also known as ashtanga yoga) is the perfect way to introduce yoga philosophy to your students.
Nestled within the second book of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the 8 limbs contain important teachings about enhancing the quality of your relationships, honouring your physical and energetic bodies, turning inwards, and experiencing a sense of interconnectedness with the universe.
The 8 limbs include – yama (social ethics), niyama (personal practices), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control/expansion), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), all culminating in the final state of samadhi (union).
By connecting your students to the other limbs that are often overlooked, you can enable them to have a more enriching yoga experience, which will naturally flow into their life off the mat.
Building Your Confidence to Teach the 8 Limbs
In order to teach something effectively to your students, it is important to first explore it in your own practice.
There are a variety of techniques that you can use to do this, which can be applied to teaching the 8 limbs of yoga, as well as other concepts such as the chakras, koshas, and other ancient texts and teachings.
Step 1: Assess Your Familiarity with the 8 Limbs of Yoga
Determine how well you know the 8 limbs of yoga and whether you need to explore further. If you have only ever learned the 8 limbs through self-study, I highly encourage you to find a teacher you can work with to deepen your own understanding of them, or find another yoga teacher friend that you can discuss them with.
It is always helpful to hear various perspectives of the 8 limbs and discuss them in the context of real-life applications (e.g., what are some of the different interpretations of ahimsa, the first yama?
How can you can apply this teaching to your daily life?).
You may find it useful to explore books such as Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, Living the Sutras by Kelly DiNardo and Amy Pearce Hayden, and Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates. All of these authors share teachings focussed around the 8 limbs of yoga through the lens of their own personal experience and yoga practice.
Step 2: Define Each Limb in Your Own Words
To authentically share the 8 limbs of yoga with your students, you should be able to describe them in your own words. Take some time to reflect on what each limb means to you.
Exercise: Write out the name of each limb on a piece of paper and define them for yourself. Write a few sentences for each and include reference to any examples that you find useful from books, discussions, or lessons. Let this be a living document that you continue to update as your knowledge on this topic expands.
If you are new to teaching the 8 limbs of yoga, practice sharing the concepts with family and friends.
See if you can share the teachings with them in a simple to understand way and ask for feedback on whether anything was unclear or too complicated for them.
Step 3: Reflect on Your Own Experience with the 8 Limbs
Remember that you were once in the shoes of your student.
Somewhere along your journey, you heard about/read about the 8 limbs of yoga for the first time. The best way to help your students is to remember how have you experienced the 8 limbs yourself.
Take some time to journal about the following:
- What is your experience with each limb?
- In what ways are you currently living/practising the 8 limbs?
- Which limbs have you connected to the most?
- Which ones do you want to explore further?
- How can you integrate the 8 limbs more into your yoga practice?
Once you have assessed, defined, and reflected on your own experience with the 8 limbs, you will likely feel much more confident and even inspired to share these teachings in an authentic way with your students.
While you reflect, here are a few ideas that you can use to start incorporating the 8 limbs into your classes or building on what you already teach right now.
Create a Class Series or Workshop Themed Around the Yamas & Niyamas
There is a lot to unpack in the first two limbs. You can either use the yamas and niyamas to inspire themes for individual classes or create a workshop so that you can discuss all of the sub-limbs with students more deeply.
Some examples of individual class themes for the yamas may include:
- Ahimsa (non-harming) – kindness/compassion; affirmations
- satya (truthfulness) – honesty in your yoga practice; honouring your body
- asteya (non-stealing) – self-acceptance; self-love
- bramacharya (non-excess) – be present; let your energy be in your practice
- aparigraha (non-grasping) – letting go of expectations
Explain the themes in simple terms so that your students can begin to understand them. There are even resources available to teach the 8 limbs to children.
If you are teaching beginners try not to overwhelm them with information or Sanskrit terminology, and if you are teaching advanced practitioners, reflect on what you can offer to build on their current understanding.
To allow your students to integrate the teachings into their life off the mat, offer reflection questions at the end of your class or workshop (e.g., if your theme is ahimsa your reflection question may be – notice how you speak to yourself and others over the next week? where in your life can you invite in more kindness and compassion? Write down a list of 5 affirmations you will use this week.)
Let Your Students Know That There is More Than Asana
You likely already share postures with your students, so expand your teachings by starting your class with a mini lesson or story that weaves in the 8 limbs of yoga.
Explain the benefits of asana (strength, commitment, focus) and how they prepare the body for a longer seated meditation practice.
You may even introduce some of the other limbs that you will be teaching in your class (e.g., pranayama, dharana) to increase their awareness of the importance of these practices.
Pranayama is the practice of controlling our breath, but also allowing it to expand.
Since the respiratory system is the backdoor to the nervous system, breathing practices can allow your students to shift to the parasympathetic nervous system, so they can get the rest they need while also beginning to turn their awareness inwards.
Take time in your class to intentionally share a pranayama practice and explain the benefits to your students. For example:
Sama Vritti Pranayama
- Description: Equalizing the length of the four paths of the breath (inhale, suspension, exhale and retention); often taught in a 4-4-4-4 pattern
- Benefits: Balances the flow of energy in the body, increases focus and concentration
Guide Your Students Through an Experience of Pratyahara
Guided relaxation and yoga nidra (yogic sleep) are some of the best ways to introduce the concept of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) to your students.
Yoga nidra can be a powerful and healing practice for many, but can also trigger others. For this reason, it is important to be trained in, understand, and practice yoga nidra yourself prior to sharing it with your students.
If you are not familiar with yoga nidra, and unsure how to guide your students into relaxation, you can try this guided relaxation script by Nishala Joy Devi.
Explain the Progression from Dharana to Dhyana to Samadhi
While the first five limbs relate to external experiences, the last three limbs move the journey further inwards. Since the progression between each of these limbs is very subtle, they are best taught as a unit.
The experience of samadhi is very personal, however it can be helpful to explain the progression between the final limbs to your students before they begin their meditation practice.
This provides them a roadmap for their inward journey.
Start by inviting your students to practice dharana (concentration). Offer them an object of focus (e.g., a mantra, the breath, sound, a physical object).
Invite them to come back to this object of focus anytime thoughts or distractions come into their awareness. The rest will happen naturally, when the student is ready.
With time and focus, dharana will naturally turn into dhyana (meditation). A state of quiet observation and flow that exists without need for the object of focus.
Ultimately, the practice of dhyana will culminate in samadhi - the stage at which the practitioner dissolves the individual identity (I, me, mine) as well as the object of meditation and simply exists in the meditative state, feeling one with all that exists in the universe.
Some describe it as a feeling of absolute peace and bliss.
Remind your students that samadhi can only be reached when they surrender to the process, they cannot force their way into experiencing it. It will happen in its own time, when they are ready.
Samadhi is a state, it is not permanent, and our focus as practitioners should be to return there time and time again through our yoga practice.
Remember that you don’t have to teach everything.
As a yoga teacher, you are often planting a seed for your students to become curious enough to start to explore on their own.
Plant the seeds, nurture them, and allow your students to absorb and live the teachings of the 8 limbs of yoga in their own way.