04 Aug Patanjali and the Eight Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga (or to better translate, the eight aids to yoga) as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras comprise a framework which can help us on the path to achieving the state of yoga, that state of fully present, fully aware bliss. We will now explore each of the limbs in a bit more detail. But first, it should be stressed that the eight limbs need not necessarily be followed rigidly in the order described as though they were a shopping list. In fact, it is hard to believe that anyone could approach them in this way. Rather, an individual can focus on any one of the eight limbs of yoga at any time or can work on them simultaneously.
1. Yamas (universal truths)
First there are five yamas which describe our attitude towards things and people outside ourselves:
Ahimsa (non-violence): This means not doing harm to other sentient and non-sentient beings and ensuring that our thoughts, words and actions are acts of kindness and compassion to both ourselves and other beings. We often focus on this quality in Yoga Nature classes.
Satya (truthfulness): This means living a truthful life that does not harm others.
Asteya (non-stealing): Not taking anything that has not been freely given. This includes both the material and non-material. For example, not stealing people’s ideas or sharing information that has been given to you in confidence.
Brahmacharya (sense control): Literally celibacy, but we can read this to mean more generally moderation of the senses, that is, avoiding over-stimulation and over consumption of any kind.
Aparigraha (living a life free from greed): Taking only what is necessary, not being over possessive and not exploiting others. Living a simple life within our means.
2. Niyamas (studying of the self)
There are next five niyamas which describe our attitude and how we behave towards ourselves:
Sauca (cleanliness): Keeping both the body and one’s environment clean. Through practicing yoga, pranayama and meditation both the mind and the body are kept pure and clean.
Santosha (contentment): Being happy with what we have and our lifestyle even when things are difficult.
Tapas (austerity): Literally means to heat the body and therefore keep the body cleansed and fit. Forms of tapas include watching what we think, say, eat, breathing patterns and body posture.
Svadhyaya (self-study): getting to know yourself through a combination of study of scripture along with self-reflection or self-examination.
Isvarapranidhama (devotion): Surrender of the fruits of our practice to something higher than ourselves, however we may conceive that.
3. Asanas (physical postures)
This limb is what many people today recognize yoga as being. Traditionally meaning a ‘steady and comfortable’ posture, asanas today are comprised of a set of physical exercises which stretch the body leading to increased flexibility, strength and stamina in body, mind and spirit. Asanas are of great benefit to us. They can enable a person to become attuned with the needs of the physical body, the mental & emotional mind and the needs of the spirit. With time the practice ends up being a meditation leading to self-reflection and an increased awareness which then begins to bring harmony to the individual, the family, the community and eventually the wider world.
4. Pranayama (breath control)
This is the limb where we learn to control the breath through the use of specific yogic breathing techniques including retention techniques at the top and at the bottom of the breath. Through linking the breath to the static, dynamic and flowing yoga postures and sequences we become aware of an increase of energy, a cleansing and strengthening of the central nervous system and the mind becoming calmer and more focused. Through these pranayama techniques we become increasingly aware of the flow of prana (energy) in and out through the body.
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses from the attachment to external objects. By practicing asana, pranayama and meditation the practitioner becomes so inwardly focused that outside events and attachments are not a distraction anymore, leading to self-realization and internal peace.
6. Dharana (concentration)
Dharana means developing a single pointed mind, a mind which does not jump from one thought or activity to the next. By practicing the steps described above a practitioner begins to develop dharana and thus a great peace begins to settle within and meditation can begin. Indeed by doing asana and pranayama a practitioner’s practice becomes a type of dharana where in certain moments it is possible to discover great stillness and concentration within an asana and breathing technique.
7. Dhyana (meditation)
Dhyana is the practice by which there is constant observation of the mind. Observing whether the mind is processing the past, thinking about the future or, ideally, experiencing the present moment. Through the constant observation of the mind a practitioner begins to sharpen the mind and concentration leading to a greater understanding of the self and also experiencing the unity of the universe.
8. Samadhi (enlightenment)
Finally, we have Samadhi. This is the ultimate aim of Patanjali’s yoga. It is where a person is in complete harmony, where there is no more jumping from one thing to the next and the person is not attached to emotions or external objects. An individual flows with life and what it brings knowing that even the most challenging situation contains some sort of opportunity for development. The individual at this point resides in ananda, that state of pure bliss.