Thousands of years ago a great sage called Patanjali, wrote down "The Eight Limbs of Yoga". They guide us today.
No one limb is more important than the other. In fact without practicing one element yoga is incomplete. For example, practicing to withdraw the senses helps us to focus on the breath work. With good breath work comes improved balance in physical practice.
Yama has to do with our community and how we interact with it. It is practiced all the time, on AND off the mat. The 5 yamas are: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-hoarding.
Practice Tip: Pick one yama per week and try and practice it. Not just in action, but also in thought and the words you use.
Niyama is more concerned with the self. The 5 niyamas are: cleanliness, contentment, spiritual purification, study of sacred texts, and devotion to one's higher power.
Practice Tip: Pick a niyama (or part of one) and try to practice it. For example, cleanliness - spring clean your cupboard. Or for study, Google: the Upanishads, the Vedas or Bhagavad Gita and just read a page.
Asana is the physical side or postures. It's through asana that we dissolve tensions, build strength, eliminate toxins, increase mobility and circulation.
Practice Tip: Practice for 10mins each day any poses that come to mind. Completely absorb yourself in them.
Pranayama is your breathing. It encourages the life force (prana) and there are many forms. We learn that a long slow outbreath helps us to control our anger and frustration (sometimes disappointment and sadness too).
Practice Tip: In a comfortable seated position Inhale 5 counts, Hold 5 counts, Exhale 8 counts, Hold 2 counts (Repeat as often as you like).
Pratyahara is the withdraw of the senses. In these days of technology we are bombarded with stimuli. Stimuli which constantly stimiulate our senses of touch, taste, sight, hearing, and smell.
By practicing pratyahara we try not to process the stimuli and therefore turn our gaze from the outer world and to the inner world of the mind. It's described as being like when we read a book. We are able to use our peripheral vision and hearing when we read a book, but being so absorbed in the story, we don't acknowledge external sights, sounds and feelings unless we are called or distracted away from the book.
Practice Tip: Close your eyes and listen to every sound that you can in the room, outside and in your body. Once you have acknowledged a sound, put it behind you and move on to the next until you exhaust them. Then try to focus on the Ajna Chakra (third eye in the center of your forehead) without distraction by sound, sight, touch, taste or smell for 1 minute.
Dharana is focus or concentration. Focus is like a muscle on the body, the more you use it the stronger it becomes. Dharana is the opposite of distraction. It induces a calm, centered, and still mind.
Practice Tip: Set a timer for 1 minute. Pick a word and repeat it out loud over and over. Let your mind focus on the repetition. It is normal for your mind to wander off, but practice and patience will help you stay focussed. Examples of words you could use: Shanti (peace), love, happiness, joy, calm.
Dhyana is meditation or total absorption into the object upon that which is being focused on.
Practice Tip: Followed after dharana just let the repetition go and drop deep into stillness and silence. If the mind gets pulled out of silence go back to repeating the mantra slowly and internally until your mind comes back to stillness.
Samadhi is absolute, ecstatic transcendence moving beyond time, form and space. It's the goal of bliss aspired to by all yogi. It is the supreme state of consciousness.
Practice Tip: Following dhyana take a long deep shavasana and let your self surrender and open up to the infinite and the eternal.
It is often difficult to conceive these latter limbs of yoga. They can seem elusive. Don't force them. Time and regular practice often invoke a curiosity to explore further limbs, and in so doing further develop your yoga.