Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
Maharishi Patañjali was a sage in ancient India who lived sometime between 200 and 600 C.E. His most important literary work, the Yoga Sutras, are considered to be the foundation of classical Yoga. This detailed compilation of Sanskrit verses include Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, also known as ‘The Eightfold Path of Yoga’ or ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ (not to be confused with the Ashtanga Vinyasa style of dynamic asana-focused yoga).
The Eight Limbs of Yoga offer a structured blueprint for the art of right living. Rather than being a set of rules and regulations, they are consequences of living a yogic life of self-awareness and liberation.
Yamas are restraints. They are guidelines for interpersonal relationships and how we consciously interact with others and the world around us.
- Ahimsa: Non-Violence. It’s a universal human expectation to demonstrate kindness, compassion, empathy and consideration for all living things. Ahimsa also means being kind to yourself! Negativity in words, thoughts or actions is one of the most harmful things a human being can do. So the conscious decision to prevent or reduce harm in any manner is the first of the yogic Yamas.
- Satya: Truthfulness. Honesty in speech and in action is the best policy. But sometimes, it is better to rephrase, be gentle or better yet, to not say anything at all. Speaking the truth does not give you a licence to be rude, embarrassing, politically incorrect or to offend others. Even when it may not be agreeable or familiar, being truthful while respecting other people’s views, cultures, ways of life, religions and beliefs is the idea behind Satya.
- Asteya: Non-Stealing. Taking another’s possessions, time, hospitality, ideas, attention or anything that is not freely given to you to own is stealing. Cultural appropriation, taking credit for someone else’s work or claiming someone else’s ideas as your own is stealing, just as much as blatantly snatching someone else’s money.
- Brahmacharya: Moderation. Avoiding excess in all things and conserving energy through responsible, healthy and controlled behaviour is the concept of Brahmacharya. Overindulgence in food, drink, sex or anything that you are emotionally attracted to is detrimental to spiritual development.
- Aparigraha: Minimalism. Contentment is the absence of hoarding, attachment, greed, selfishness and the desire to possess more. Get rid of what you don’t need by giving it to someone who does. Reduce clutter in your home and reduce the noisy chatter in your mind. Less is more!
Niyamas are observances. They are personal disciples or things that you consciously do for yourself.
- Saucha: Cleanliness. This doesn’t just mean keeping your outer body clean through proper hygienic practices; it also means keeping your inner body clean through a healthy diet and keeping your mind clean by dealing with negative thoughts and emotions in positive, constructive ways.
- Santosha: Contentment. Being content doesn’t mean being passive or complacent. On the contrary, Santosha directs you to have dreams, aspirations and action plans toward your goals. But through it all, be happy and grateful with what you already have. Know what you are blessed with.
- Tapas: Discipline. It’s normal to sometimes let nutritious eating habits slip, neglect regular yoga sessions or stop paying attention to posture and breathing. We are all human after all. The objective of Tapas is to discipline yourself to be enthusiastically dedicated to healthy routines for the body, mind and spirit – regardless of how you may feel.
- Svadhyaya: Self-Study. Honestly evaluating yourself and constantly seeking and absorbing new knowledge to eradicate the mundane are vital components to continuous self improvement. Push your boundaries, keep learning and know yourself.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender. Personal development also inspires a greater connection with the spiritual, or something higher. So Ishvara Pranidhana, or surrender, does not mean giving up, but rather recognizing your own higher power and allowing it to be a guiding light.
An asana is more than a physical yogic posture. It is a state of being. In fact, it is literally translated as a “seat of awareness.” In the Yoga Sutras, Patañjali describes asanas as poses that are steady, pleasant and motionless. Once it feels comfortable, effortless and blissful and the mind becomes quiet, the asana is perfect.
When you are in asana, the position of your body communicates a channel into the subconscious mind to personify the significance of that position. For example, Virabhadrasana (or the Warrior Pose) manifests the essence of bravery and strength into the mind. Sirsasana (or Headstand) builds confidence and encourages awareness. And Vrksansana (or Tree Pose) helps you stay grounded, balanced and strong. Each asana contributes to your own evolution.
Much of the yoga that is practiced in the West consists of only this limb, with little or no focus on the other seven equally-important limbs. In the same manner, much of what is seen online and in social media depicts people simply performing these poses, without actually being in asana. So it’s important to remember that a yoga practitioner’s evolution involves all facets of yoga, not just physical poses. Furthermore, asanas are not for showmanship; they are internal states.
Your state of mind is directly reflected in your breathing. The next time you feel upset, nervous or shocked, pay attention to how your breathing changes into shallow, shorter or faster repetitions. Just the same, notice how slow, subtle and deep your breathing is when you are calm, happy and at peace. Train yourself to regularly be aware of your breath, because just as your inner state can influence your breathing, your breathing can influence your inner state.
Pranayama is the control, or regulation of the breath. It is the conscious unfolding of prana, or life force. It consists of various breathing techniques and exercises that purify the mind, cleanse the channels of energy and balance the nervous system. Regular practice leads you to become more open to others and most importantly, to yourself.
Proper yogic breathing involves three areas of the body: the diaphragm, the intercostal muscles and the clavicle muscles. And each breath consists of four parts: Puraka (inhale), Kumbhaka (hold), Rechaka (exhale) and Shunyaka (suspension). Breathing exercises, such as Kapalabhati and Anuloma Viloma, engage all these elements of Pranayama.
Every limb of Yoga has an element of Pratyahara in it. This is the state of withdrawing from the five senses. By noticing – but controlling – your reaction to what you see, hear, feel, taste or smell, you allow your attention to draw inwards. In other words, when you weed out all the noise and clutter that the senses impose upon your mind, the wisdom of your true self emerges and shines.
In life, practicing Pratyahara encourages you to pause and make a conscious decision before aimlessly reacting to what you see, hear, feel, taste or smell. It develops a level of control over worldly sensory distractions that are sometimes misleading. And above all, it lays the foundation for meditation.
Dharana, together with Dhyana and Samadhi, are the final three limbs of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. They create a threefold process known as Samyama, where the mind is no longer attached to worldly things.
While Pratyahara involves withdrawing attention from the senses, Dharana directs that attention to a particular object, thought or mantra. Basically, it is conscious focused awareness on a particular point.
The focus can be on the breath, on a mantra, on an intention or even on an object such as a candle flame, mandala, deity or image. In addition to honing the powers of concentration and steady focus, the practice of Dharana allows you to be fully in the moment.
Becoming so absorbed in the object of concentration that you tend to merge with it, is Dhyana. It is flowing, unbroken focused awareness on that object. It is uninterrupted contemplation on that object without any judgement or attachment to it.
Though oftentimes referred to as meditation, Dhyana is beyond just “meditation.” Rather, it is a state of being in meditation. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is described as the Yoga of Meditation.
Samadhi is the highest goal of yoga. It is the profound state of spiritual transcendence, stillness and tranquility when you become one with your blissful and effortless flow of focused awareness. It is the purest state of being in continual connection with “what is.”
Many people don’t know what to look for, or they try too hard to achieve this state, or they want results immediately. Yet this is what prevents them in the first place! The idea is not to force anything, but to relax and let it come as it will. You see, yoga is not something you just “do;” it is a spiritual process that involves all Eight Limbs. By abiding by them, all of us can experience the pure state of consciousness, liberation and light that this science of living bestows.