The 8 Limbs of Yoga | Ashtanga

 In Yoga Sutras

The 8 Limbs of Yoga | Ashtanga

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras serve as a comprehensive foundation to explore yogic philosophy and belief, yogic lifestyle and yogic practice. The collection of Sutras known as Ashtanga, the 8 Limbs of Yoga, are one example from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that show how the yogic system is designed and functions. 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that by practicing the following 8 Limbs, or Steps, we can free ourselves from the burden of our Ego (Smita), dissolve the desires that follow Attachment (Raga), move beyond our Aversions (Dvesa) and release ourselves of Fear (Abhinivesha). By freeing ourselves from these obstacles (Kleshas) we experience an underlying peacefulness which in turn helps us to understand the world around us.

Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide a step by step approach for self realization. Each Limb or Step is progressive; cultivating one Limb will help in the mastery of the next Limb.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:

  1. Yama                      Restraints
  2. Niyama                 Observances
  3. Asana                     Posture
  4. Pranayama         Regulation of breath
  5. Pratyahara          Sense Withdrawal
  6. Dharana                Concentration or Meditation Practice
  7. Dhyana                  Absorption or Meditation Experience
  8. Samadhi                Bliss

Yama – Restraints

The Yamas are part of the ethical and lifestyle practices of Yoga. They are:

  • Ahimsa Practicing non-violence in all ways both externally and internally
  • Satya Practicing truthfulness of word, thought and action
  • Asteya Not stealing, not wanting, building a level of trustworthiness 
  • Brahmacharya Cultivate moderation in all aspects of your life as the extremes disturb the mind.
  • Aparigraha Non-possessiveness, non greediness

Niyama – Observances

The Niyamas are the second part of the ethical and lifestyle practices of Yoga. They are thought to be more internalized than the Yamas. They are:

  • Saucha Cultivating Purity goes beyond the cleanliness of the body to our thoughts/desires.
  • Santosha Contentment within the present moment.         
  • Tapas Self Discipline that allows for personal growth. There is something gained by learning.
  • Swadhyaya Self Reflection and study of sacred texts.  (Swa = Self Yaya = investigation)
  • Ishvarapranidhana  Absorption into the Self. Simply be calm, allow the mind to clear & see what you discover.

Asana – Posture

While Yoga Posture and Asana practice seem to be the most well known of the 8 Limbs, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras does not go into very much detail on Yoga Postures. It does, however, give us important guidelines for how to use the body during our practice.

Yoga Asana (Postures) should be both Steady (Sthira) and Comfortable (Sukha.) When performing a Yoga Asana, the practitioner should cultivate a sense of relaxed effort. Once the practitioner finds calm, they should meditate on the infinite. When Yoga Asana is mastered the practitioner is no longer disturbed internally by the thoughts or externally from outside disturbances.

Pranayama – Breath

The Yoga Sutras show us how to use the breath as a tool to not only prepare for meditation but also to experience a sense of what meditation feels like.

The Yoga Sutras tell us that the mind is calmed by controlling our exhale and inhale. We can always calm the mind by stopping and observing the four parts of our breath. 

  • Inhale
  • Breath Held In
  • Exhale
  • Breath Held Out

As you become more comfortable with your breath you can begin to lengthen each part of the breath. By practicing Pranayama the mind becomes fit for meditation.

Pratyahara – Sense Withdrawal

When we practice Meditation or Asana our mind becomes focused on the activity at hand. Our mind withdraws from the senses that aren’t being used. After we have practiced meditation or Asana for some time the senses recognize on their own when it is time to practice and also withdraw, following the lead of the mind.  It is said that the practitioner is no longer concerned with the stimulation stemming from the senses.  As a result of Pratyahara, control of the senses follows

Dharana – Single Pointed Meditation

Now that we have practiced the previous 5 Limbs it is time to move into our meditation practice. Since the goal of yoga is to calm the mind we must identify how to do just that.  During our Dharana practice we fix the mind on one object. We call this a Single Pointed Meditation and this is the part of meditation where we are practicing. In Dharana we are using our will power, awareness and mindfulness to focus on one thing.  That one thing could be our breath, it could be a candle, a drawing, a flower, a sound, a point in your physical or energetic body or anything else that you can focus on.

Dhyana – Sustained Awareness

When beginning to focus on our Dharana concentration practice we may still notice disturbances of the mind or the senses. Through practice we learn to steady the mind and during this sustained awareness of our practice we shift our conscious awareness from a state of Dharana (Concentration) to a state of Dhyana (Sustained Awareness aka Meditation.) Dhyana is the experience of being in meditation. In this experience we may still be practicing but we are no longer focused with the same energy of concentration. We are simply in the present moment within our meditation.

Samadhi – Bliss

Our meditation practice and the experience of Dhyana open our eyes to our True Nature (Svarupa)  If you remove the business of the mind, the senses and the emotions that follow, you find that beneath the surface is tranquility. The never ending tasks and thoughts disturb the natural peace that is already there.  The natural peace that is our inner nature is known as Samadhi or Bliss.  The Yoga practitioner enters states of Samadhi by moving through their Yogic practice.

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