The Eight Limbs of Yoga

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras there is a yogic path leading to liberation known as ashtanga which literally translates to eight limbs (ashta = eight and anga = limb). The steps on the path act as a guideline on how to life a meaningful and purposeful life and show us how to behave morally and ethically as well as how to acknowledge the spiritual part of our nature.

The first limb is the Yama which deal with ethical standards, moral disciplines and integrity. There are five Yamas:

  • Ahimsa – Non-violence
  • Satya – Truthfulness
  • Asteya – Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya – Merging with the One
  • Aparigraha – Non-grasping

Secondly is the Niyama which deal with self discipline and spiritual awareness. There are five Niyamas, they are:

  • Saucha – Cleanliness/Purity
  • Santosa – Contentment
  • Tapas – Burning enthusiasm
  • Svadhyaya – Self study / Spiritual exploration
  • Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to God / Celebration of the spiritual

The third limb is the one that we are probably most familiar with – Asana – the physical postures. Through asana practice we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. The only alignment instruction that Patanjali gives for asana is that the posture should be “steady and comfortable”, the idea being that we are not being pulled by aches or pains or restless due to discomfort (something to consider if you always tend to choose the “advanced” version of a pose – ask yourself am I steady and comfortable here?).

The fourth limb is Pranayama – prana refers to energy or life source and is often used to describe the breath. It can be understood either as prana-yama meaning breath control or restraint or as prana-ayama meaning freedom of breath or breath liberation. Working with the breath will help us connect breath, mind and emotion and it is up to us as to whether we perceive this as controlling the way we feel or freeing ourselves from the way our mind usually is.

Fifth is Pratyahara – sensory withdrawal. It is directing our attention internally in order to observe habits that interfere with our inner growth. We become so focused that external things no longer bother us and we are able to meditate without becoming easily distracted.

Sixth is Dharana – focused concentration. It is the slowing down of the thinking process by concentrating on a single object. Visualisation and focusing attention on the breath are examples of Dharana.

The penultimate limb is Dhyana – Meditation. In this stage you are keenly aware without focus, the mind is quiet and still and produces few or no thoughts. The practice of meditation is not something we can actively do but rather something that happens as a result of everything else.

The final limb is Samadhi – Bliss or Enlightenment. The word samadhi is made up of two words – sama meaning same or equal and dhi meaning to see. Samadhi is not about escapism but rather the realising of a profound connection to the Divine and to all living things. It is about seeing life and reality for exactly what it is without thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, attachment, pleasure or pain governing it. Samadhi is not a permanent state – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that unless we are fully ready, without “impressions” (e.g. attachment, desire, habits) and with a completely pure mind we will be unable to maintain Samadhi for long.

The completion of the yogic path is a place of peace that which has to be experienced – it cannot be bought or owned. Only once the mind is pure and we truly experience a state of Samadhi that we can keep hold of can we attain Moksha, a permanent state of liberation.

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