8 Limbs of Yoga
A secret to a meaningful life.
Yoga isn’t just a 4-letter word; it is a universe of wellness/ spiritual discipline with its roots buried deep in our mind, body and spirit. While the practice of Asanas or the physical poses preceded the understanding of yoga, it also alienates the concept from the source of its conception, i.e. its morals, ethics, philosophies and foundation. Focusing on the idea of connecting with your true self or soul, the idea of separation from the world and yourself to be free and attain freedom or liberation (moksha). In the Yoga Sutras, Maharshi Patanjali unfolds the eight paths of yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga for a meaningful and purposeful life. Ashtanga usually means ‘eight limbs’(ashta=eight, anga=limb). These are the basic guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Focusing on morals, ethical conduct and self-discipline, these Ashtangas focuses on your health and helps with the spiritual nature of our lives. While the first four stages of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga focuses on refining our personalities, connecting with our bodies and developing awareness towards ourselves, these help us for the other four stages which focus on our senses, mind and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Yama is the first limb of the eight paths of Yoga. Concerning the world around us and the way we interact with it, Yama deals with an individual’s ethical standards and sense of integrity. Yama focuses on how we conduct ourselves and our behaviour because yoga isn’t just about the time we spend on our yoga mat, but a practice of transforming and benefitting every aspect of our lives, including the people around us. The five Yamas are:
Brahmacharya: continence/ right use of energy
Aparigraha: non covetousness/ non-greed or non-hoarding
Niyama, the second limb of yoga, focuses on our actions not only to ourselves but also towards the outside world. Niyama focuses on self-discipline and spiritual observances. The five Niyamas are
Tapas: spiritual austerities or discipline or burning desire, or conversely
Svadhyaya: the study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God or higher power
This stage of yoga takes its practitioner inwards, to the truth that is somewhere deep within us.
The third limb of yoga are Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga. Yoga believes that your body is the temple of your spirit. It needs to care to embrace and explore our spiritual growth. The practice of asanas helps us develop a habit of discipline and the ability to focus. Both of which are crucial for meditation. While there are many asanas in yoga, at this stage, the asanas can be any posture that the practitioner can hold motionlessly and comfortably. The idea is to be able to sit comfortably and focus.
Our fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama, it revolves around the yogic practice of focusing on our breaths. In Sanskrit, the word Prana means vital life force and Yama means to gain control. Understanding the connection between our breath, mind and emotions, this fourth path consists of techniques mastering our breathing. This is because Yoga believes that by controlling your breathing, one can not only rejuvenate the body but also extends our life span. By controlling our breathing we can choose to calm our mind or use it as a technique to cleanse it, freeing it from the habitual way our mind may usually be.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb focuses on sensory transcendence. The word Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and ‘ahara’ refers to anything we ‘take in’ by our senses. Conscious effort to draw awareness away from the external world and detaching from our senses, only to focus on our internal self. This practice allows individuals to step back and look at themselves objectively and notice things that prove to be stopping them from growth.
Freeing us from the outside distractions, Pratyahara prepares us for the next level, Dharana, or concentration. The sixth stage of yoga takes us on the journey of concentrating on our inner distractions. Preceding the practice of meditation, Dharana teaches you to slow down the thinking process and concentrate on one single mental object, this can be a specific energy center in the body or an image of a deity or a silent repetition of sound.
Dhyana, which means meditation or contemplation, is the seventh stage of Ashtanga yoga. It focuses on an uninterrupted flow of concentration. While Dharana and Dhyana may seem similar, they are two distinct stages divided by a fine line. On one hand, Dharana practices one point of focus, Dhyana is the ultimate state of being aware without focus. At this stage, the mind is calmer and practices stillness, hence producing fewer thoughts or none at all. While it may sound simple, or should I say ‘do able’, the strength and stamina needed to practice this stillness are difficult to attain, if not impossible. We need to remember that yoga is a process and every stage has its benefits.
Patanjali describes this eighth and the final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy, meaning Samadhi. Transcending the self through meditation, the practitioner creates a profound connection with the divine, a connection with all living things. With this realization comes the blissfulness of being at one with the universe. This stage isn’t about happiness the way we know it, but about the bliss of seeing ourselves and the world around us for what it is, and not without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes or preconceptions.
While this might not sound like something you would be looking for in your life, but Patanjali’s yogic sutra describes that this yogic path is what deep down every human being aspires to attain, i.e., peace. This ultimate stage of enlightenment in yoga cannot be bought or possessed, it is a journey that needs to be experienced on your own.