Eight Limbs of Yoga
Ashtanga literally means “eight limbs”. The Eight limbs of Yoga were compiled Patanjali Maharishi and can be found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They are part of Raja/Hatha Yoga and also known as Ashtanga Yoga (although Ashtanga Yoga today is seen as a variation of Hatha Yoga). It is called “Ashtanga” or “Eight Limbs” because the practices are broken down/divide into eight limbs to be followed be the Yogi.
The Yoga Sutra is viewed as the fundamental text on the system of yoga, yet you will not find the description of any posture/asana in the text. The Sutras are a guide for living the right life. Fundamentally, Patanjali says, you can’t just practice asanas in yoga class, feel the stretch, then go home to play with your kids, cook, watch TV, yell at your coworkers, and cheat on your taxes. Yoga is much more than that; it can help you cultivate body, mind, and spiritual awareness.
The core of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga. They are also called the eight limbs of Patanjali, because they intertwine like the branches of a tree in the forest. The Eight Limbs are not commandments, laws, or hard and fast rules (although they often sound like them). These are Patanjali’s suggestions for living a better life through yoga. The first four limbs are often referred to as “external yoga,” and the last four limbs are called “internal yoga.” The fifth limb, pratyahara, acts as a bridge between the external and internal limbs. Here are the eight limbs of Patanjali.
1. Yamas – Restraints(Universal ethics): The first of the eight limbs of Yoga are the five Yamas, which pertain to your actions, speech, and thoughts in relation to the external world, particularly with other people. The Yamas are social behavior, how you treat others and the world around you. These are moral principles. Sometimes they are called the don’ts or the thou shalt nots. The five Yamas include:
- Ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming, non-injury. Do no harm to any creature in thought or deed.
- Satya: truthfulness, honesty
- Asteya: non-stealing, abstention from theft
- Brahmacharya: walking in awareness of the highest reality, continence, remembering the divine, practicing the presence of God
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-holding through senses, non-greed, non-grasping, non-indulgence, non-acquisitiveness. Free yourself from greed.
2. Niyama – Observances (Principals of self-conduct): The second of the eight limbs of Yoga are the five Niyamas. The five Niyamas govern inner discipline and responsibility, how we treat ourselves. These are sometimes called observances, they are the practices of self-training, and deal with our personal, inner world, the do’s, or the thou shalts.
- Shaucha: purity of body and mind (internal and external)
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapah: training the senses, austerities, ascesis
- Svadhyaya: self-study, reflection on sacred words/scriptures
- Ishvara pranidhana: surrender of the ego, worship of the Divine; (ishvara = creative source, causal field, God, supreme Guru or teacher; pranidhana = practicing the presence, dedication, devotion, surrender of fruits of practice
3. Asana- Postures (Steady Pose): The third of the eight limb of Yoga is Asana, or sitting posture. The word Asana comes from the root ~as, which means “to sit”. The posture of yoga is steady and easy,” Patanjali says. The practice of Asana must be done to control the body and the mind. Patanjali and other ancient yogis used asana to prepare the body for meditation. To sit for a lengthy time in meditation required a supple and cooperative body. If you are free of physical distractions — such as your foot going to sleep — and can control the body, you can also control the mind. Patanjali said, “Posture is mastered by freeing the body and mind from tension and restlessness and meditating on the infinite.”
4. Pranayama – Breath (Control of vital energy, life force) The fourth of the eight limbs of Yoga is Pranayama, which is controlling the breath so as to make it slow and subtle, leading to the experience of the steady flow of energy (prana, life force) the the nose (nadis, Ida and Pingla), which is beyond or underneath exhalation, inhalation, and the transitions between them. Prana is the life force or energy that exists everywhere and flows through each of us through the breath.
The basic movements of pranayama are inhalation, retention of breath, and exhalation. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of days but by the number of his breaths,” says Iyengar. “Therefore, he follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow, deep breathing.” The practice of pranayama purifies and removes distractions from the mind making it easier to concentrate and meditate. When you control the breath you control the mind, when you control the mind you control your body. When the breath, mind and body are controlled meditation can be achieved.
5. Pratyahara – Withdrawing the senses: Pratyahara is the withdrawal (detaching from, block out of) of the senses (indriyas) of cognition (see, hear, smell, taste and touch) and action (moving, speaking, grasping, reproducing and eliminating) from both the external world and the impressions in the consciousness. Any time we focus our attention inward while detaching ourselves from distractions and desires we are practicing Pratyahara. This transpires through the practice of asanas, breathing techniques and meditation.
The senses are said to follow our mind in the same way the hive of bees follows the queen bee. Wherever she goes, they will follow. Likewise, if the mind truly goes inward, the senses too follow racing behind. In order to truly look inward during our practice and meditation we need to learn to leave our senses, desires, and ego behind. When you master Pratyahara, you are able to focus because you no longer feel the itch on your leg, or hear the fly buzzing by your ear or smell the food of the nearby restaurant.
6. Dharana – Concentration (Focus): is the progression of embracing or fixing the attention of mind onto upon an external object/place or an internal idea/thought while excluding and detaching yourself from all other thoughts.
“Concentration is binding thought in one place,” says Patanjali.
The objective is to still the mind, gently sliding away unessential thoughts. This can be practiced by fixing your mind on an object such as a candle flame, a flower, or a mantra. In Dharana, concentration is effortless. You know the mind is concentrating when there is no sense of time passing.
7. Dhyana – Meditation: is sustained unbroken flow of concentration, whereby the attention continues to embrace the same object or place, usually the Divine Spirit (God or higher power) to the exclusion of other sensual perception.
The goal of meditation is not unconsciousness or nothingness. It is keen awareness and oneness with the universe. In order to truly reach a state of meditation the first six limbs of Yoga must be followed.
How do you tell the difference between deep concentration and meditation? If there is awareness of distraction, you are only concentrating and not meditating. The calm achieved in meditation spills over into all aspects of your life.
8. Samadhi – Superconsciousness state: Samadhi is the deep immersion, wherein only the essence of that object, place, or point gleams forth in the mind, as if the mind were devoid even of its own form. The ultimate goal of the eight limbs of yoga is Samadhi or absolute bliss. A state that is sublime beyond description; beyond the limitations of the consciousness where the sense of ego disbands away from the object of meditation and the individual self exists in it pure nature.
This is pure contemplation, superconsciousness, in which you and the universe are one. It is the goal of all existence and what all living things strive for. Those who have achieved samadhi are enlightened beings. Paramahansa Yoganananda called it, “the state of God-Union”.