Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a text that covers many aspects of life, beginning with a code of conduct and ending with the goal of yoga, a vision of one’s true Self. The Pantajali’sYoga Sutras is probably the most authoritative text on yoga, dating back some 2000 years. It defines yoga as a focusing of the attention to whatever object is being contemplated to the exclusion of all others. Yoga isn’t only about postures, or meditation, it is a way of life, or religion. In this influencing scripture there are eight steps to awakening or enlightenment through yoga. These eight ashtanga or limbs of yoga are: yamas, niyamas, asanas, pranayama, pratyahara,dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
This first limb usually refers to vows, disciplines or practices that are primarily concerned with the world around us, and our interaction with it. While the practice of yoga can indeed increase physical strength and flexibility and aid in calming the mind, what’s the point if we’re still rigid, weak and stressed-out in day-to-day life?
There are five Yamas,
- Ahimsa (non-violence
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non stealing)
- Brahmacharya (right use of energy)
- Aparigraha (non greed or non hoarding)
Positive Duties or observances
The second limb usually refers to duties directed towards ourselves, but can also be considered with our actions towards the outside world.
There are five Niyamas,
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (discipline or burning desire or conversely, burning of desire)
- Svadhyaya (self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts), and Isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power)
The physical aspect of yoga is the third step along the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Whether you’re in a Hatha, Vinyasa, Yin or Ashtanga Class, Asana is the limb you’ll be practicing..
Asana simply put is “to take a comfortable seat” and it dates back to the very beginning of Yoga. The original Yogis had to sit for hours sometimes days on end to Meditate so a series of postures or “Asana” was derived to condition the body in order to sit more easily whilst meditating.
Pranayama is the extension and control of one’s breath. Practicing proper techniques of breathing can help bring more oxygen to the blood and brain, eventually helping control prana or the vital life energy. Pranayama also goes hand in hand with various yoga asanas. The union of these two yogic principles is considered as the highest form of purification and self-discipline, covering both mind and body. Pranayama techniques also prepare us for a deeper experience of meditation.
Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part ahara refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds and smells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a formal meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’. The practice of drawing inward may include focussing on the way we’re breathing, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama too.
Dharana means ‘focussed concentration’. Dha means ‘holding or maintaining’, and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Closely linked to the previous two limbs; dharana and pratyahara are essential parts of the same aspect. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently. Visualisation, and focussing on the breath are all practices of dharana, and it’s this stage many of us get to when we think we’re ‘meditating’.
The seventh limb is ‘meditative absorption’ – when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation, and this is when we’re really meditating. All the things we may learn in a class, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate, the actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can actively ‘do’, rather it describes the spontaneous action of something that happens as a result of everything else.
Bliss or Enlightenment
Many of us know the word samadhi as meaning ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment’, and this is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we’ve re-organised our relationships with the outside world and our own inner world, we come to the finale of bliss.