The Eight Limbs of Yoga

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The practice of yoga is an art and science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualised beings  connected to the whole of creation. In short it is about making balance and creating equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, approximately 200 AD,  describes the inner workings of the mind and the art of living. and provides an eight-step blueprint for controlling the restlessness of mind and body so as to enjoying lasting peace.The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order.

Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding.      

In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follow:

1.      Yama :  Universal morality

2.      Niyama :  Personal observances

3.      Asanas :  Body postures

4.      Pranayama :  Breathing exercises, and control of prana

5.      Pratyahara :  Control of the senses

6.      Dharana :  Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness

7.      Dhyana :  Devotion, Meditation on the Divine

8.      Samadhi :  Union with the Divine

Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama. Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves.The yamas are broken down into five “wise characteristics.” Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, “they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful.”

They are as follow:

I. Yamas (Universal Morality)

1.      Ahimsa – Compassion for all living things The word ahimsa literally means not to injure. I like to think of it also as not to show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way. Ahimsa is more than just lack of violence. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities in life too. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm.

2.      Satya – Commitment to Truthfulness Satya means “to speak the truth,” yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. It also refers to discovering your own inner Truth and to live it out in your daily life.

3.      Asteya – Non-stealing  Steya means “to steal”; asteya is the opposite. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of him or her.

4.      Brahmacharya – Sense control  Brahmacharya in the east is mostly associated with abstinence or celibacy. However, this applies strongly if your are a monk, but most people practicing yoga in the West are people in relationships or marriages. Therefore in the West I like to think that Brahmacharya suggests that we should form right relationships with others, even our sexual partner, that foster our understanding of the highest truths.

5.      Aparigraha – Neutralising the desire to acquire and hoard wealth Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or act greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. The Yoga Sutra describes what happens when these five behaviors outlined above become part of a person’s daily life. Thus, the yamas are the moral virtues which, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.

II. Niyama (Personal Observances)

Niyama means “rules” or “laws.”  These are the rules prescribed for personal observance. Like the yamas, the five niyamas are not exercises or actions to be simply studied. They represent far more than an attitude. Compared with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal. They refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves as we create a code for living soulfully.

1.      Sauca – Purity“Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” my yoga teacher Sri Durga devi used to say. Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness simply means keeping ourselves clean. Inner cleanliness has as much to do with the healthy, free functioning of our bodily organs as with the clarity of our mind.

2.      Santosa – Contentment Another niyama is santosa, modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. To be at peace within and content with one’s lifestyle finding contentment even while experiencing life’s difficulties for life becomes a process of growth through all kinds of circumstances. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything – yoga calls it karma – and we cultivate contentment to accept what happens.

3.      Tapas – Disciplined use of our energy Tapas refers to the activity of keeping the body fit or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show. Literally it means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it.

4.      Svadhyaya – Self study The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Sva means “self’ adhyaya means “inquiry” or “examination”. Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya.

5.      Isvarapranidhana – Celebration of the Spiritual Isvarapranidhana means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” It is the contemplation on God (Isvara) in order to become attuned to god and god’s will.  

III. Asanas (Body postures)

Asana is the practice of physical postures. It is the most commonly known aspect of yoga for those unfamiliar with the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. For more information see my article on Blog about Asanas.

IV. Pranayama (Breath Control)

Pranayama is the measuring, control, and directing of the breath. Pranayama controls the energy (prana) within the organism, in order to restore and maintain health and to promote evolution. When the in-flowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out-flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of body activities are realised. In yoga, we are concerned with balancing the flows of vital forces, then directing them inward to the chakra system and upward to the crown chakra.Pranayama, or breathing technique, is very important in yoga. It goes hand in hand with the asana or pose. In the Yoga Sutra, the practices of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self discipline for the mind and the body, respectively.

V. Pratyahara (Control of the Senses)

Pratyahara means drawing back or retreat. The word ahara means “nourishment”; pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” In yoga, the term pratyahara implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects. It can then be seen as the practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions as we constantly return to the path of self realization and achievement of internal peace. It means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate; the senses no longer depend on these stimulants and are not fed by them any more.

VI. Dharana (Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness)

Dharana means “immovable concentration of the mind”. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction.  “When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara, the sadhaka (seeker) reaches the sixth stage, dharana. Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind has to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption.”In Dharana we create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and the focus on this one point that we have chosen becomes more intense.

VII. Dhyana (Devotion , Meditation on the Divine)

Dhyana means worship, or profound and abstract religious meditation. It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. The concept holds that when one focuses their mind in concentration on an object the mind is transformed into the shape of the object. Hence, when one focuses on the divine they become more reflective of it and they know their true nature. His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation – the Universal Spirit.

VIII. Samadhi (Union with the Divine)

The final step in the eight-fold path of Yoga is the attainment of Samadhi. Samadhi means “to bring together, to merge.” In the state of samadhi the body and senses are at rest, as if asleep, yet the faculty of mind and reason are alert, as if awake; one goes beyond consciousness. During samadhi, we realize what it is to be an identity without differences, and how a liberated soul can enjoy pure awareness of this pure identity. The conscious mind drops back into that unconscious oblivion from which it first emerged. Thus, samadhi refers to union or true Yoga. There is an ending to the separation that is created by the “I” and “mine” of our illusory perceptions of reality.

These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality. 

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