THE 8 LIMBS OF YOGA

The word “Yoga” literally means “union,” and refers to an inner state where one experiences everything as a part of oneself. Yoga means to know the union of existence by experience. Often mistaken for a system of physical exercise, the Yogic system is actually a set of tools for self-transformation that are designed to bring one to this state of union. When you know the oneness of existence like you experience the five fingers of your hand, then we say you are in Yoga. Yoga is not a practice, a particular action, or a posture – it is a way of being. When a person begins to experience everything as a part of themselves, they are in Yoga.

Adiyogi – The first yogi
In the modern world, Patanjali is widely known as the father of Yoga, but did you know that Yoga originated thousands of years before Patanjali? Over 15,000 years ago Adiyogi, the first Yogi, transmitted the science of Yoga to his seven disciples, the Saptarishis. So Yoga predates all religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. This is way before ancient scriptures such as Vedas and Upanishads were written. In fact, even the Sanskrit language had not been invented yet. In the yogic culture, Shiva is not known as a god, but as the Adiyogi or the first yogi – the originator of yoga. He was the one who first put this seed into the human mind. According to the yogic lore, Shiva attained to his full enlightenment and abandoned himself in an intense ecstatic dance upon the Himalayas. Adiyogi expounded 112 ways through which human beings can transcend their limitations and reach their ultimate potential. Adiyogi’s offerings are tools for individual transformation, as individual transformation is the only way to transform the world. His fundamental message is that “in is the only way out” for human wellbeing and liberation. Because he was the source of Yoga, Adiyogi is also called Adiguru or the first Guru.

The Adiyogi brought this possibility that a human being need not be contained in the defined limitations of our species. There is a way to be contained in physicality but not to belong to it. There is a way to inhabit the body but never become the body. There is a way to use your mind in the highest possible way but still never know the miseries of the mind. Whatever dimension of existence you are in right now, you can go beyond that – there is another way to live. He said, “You can evolve beyond your present limitations if you do the necessary work upon yourself.” That is the significance of the Adiyogi.

Patanjali – The yoga sutras
Over the generations, the science of Yoga took on a life of its own and branched off into hundreds of systems. When Patanjali came, he saw that it had become too complex and diversified for anyone to grasp in a meaningful way. So, he codified all aspects of Yoga into a certain format known as ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’. This is a collection of 196 sutras on yoga. And so, Patanjali is known as the father of modern Yoga.

“Sutra” literally means “a thread”. Or, in modern language, we can say it is like a formula. Anyone who knows the English alphabet can say “E=mc²”. But, there is an enormous amount of science behind that little formula which most people cannot understand. The sutras are like this. Out of ignorance, people have interpreted these sutras in very superficial ways and have tried to implement them in their lives accordingly. The thread is vital for a necklace or a garland, but it is not a goal by itself. No one ever wears a garland for the sake of the thread. It was for each spiritual master to put his own kind of flowers, beads, pearls, diamonds, or whatever else in the garland.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the most tremendous documents about life in the world, and also the most uninteresting. It is the driest and dullest book you could possibly read. Patanjali did this intentionally; though his mastery of language and composition was matchless, he wrote it in a way that no scholar would find it appealing. If people appreciate the literary, poetic aspects of the work, then all kinds of people would naturally read and misinterpret it. They would miss the fundamental purpose of the sutra – a formula to open up life. The sutra means something only to a person who is in a certain level of experience, and who wants to explore his consciousness. Each sutra is a method. You do not have to read all of them. If just one sutra becomes a reality within you, it will take you into a completely new dimension of experience.

There are eight ‘limbs’ to the Yoga Sutras, each describing a different aspect of the path of Yoga, and a different step on the ladder to realisation. These are commonly known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’:

  1.  YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows
  2.  NIYAMA – Observances, positive duties
  3.  ASANA – Physical postures
  4.  PRANAYAMA – Breathing Techniques
  5.  PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal
  6.  DHARANA – Focused Concentration
  7.  DHYANA – Meditative Absorption
  8.  SAMADHI – Bliss or Enlightenment

1. YAMA
The word ‘Yama’ is often translated as ‘restraint’, ‘moral discipline’ or ‘moral vow’, and Patanjali states that these vows are completely universal, no matter who you are or where you come from, your current situation or where you’re heading. To be ‘moral’ can be difficult at times, which is why this is considered a very important practice of Yoga. Remember that the word ‘Yoga’ means ‘unity’, ‘wholeness’ or ‘connectedness’. There’s no mistake that the Yamas come first; after all, if you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself. The Yamas traditionally guide us towards practices concerned with the world around us, but often we can take them as a guide of how to act towards ourselves too. There are five Yamas in Patanjali’s Sutras:

  1.  AHIMSA – Non-violence
  2.  SATYA – Truthfulness
  3.  ASTEYA – Non-stealing
  4.  BRAHMACHARYA – Right use of energy
  5.  APARIGRAHA – Non-greed or non-hoarding

2. NIYAMA
The second limb, Niyama, refers to internal duties. The prefix ‘ni’ is a Sanskrit verb which means ‘inward’ or ‘within’. Niyamas are traditionally practised by those who wish to travel further along the Yogic path and are intended to build character. Interestingly, the Niyamas closely relate to the Koshas, our ‘sheaths’ or ‘layers’ leading from the physical body to the essence within. As you’ll notice, when you work with the Niyamas – from Saucha to Isvararpranidhana – you are guided from the grossest aspects of yourself to the truth within. There are five Niyamas in Patanjali’s Sutras:

  1.  SAUCHA – Cleanliness
  2.  SANTOSHA – Contentment
  3.  TAPAS – Discipline or burning desire or conversely, burning of desire
  4.  SVADHYAYA – Self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts
  5.  ISVARA PRANIDHANA – Surrender to a higher power

Both the Yamas and Niyamas are guidelines and not meant to be rigid rules, but rather principles to contemplate and integrate into your life in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to you. Their ultimate purpose is to cultivate inner peace, well-being, and positive relationships with the world around you.

3. ASANA
The physical aspect of yoga is the third step on the path to freedom. The word asana here doesn’t refer to the ability to perform a handstand or an aesthetically impressive backbend, it means ‘seat’ – specifically the seat you would take for the practice of meditation. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable.

While traditional texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika list many postures such as Padmasana (lotus pose) and Virasana (hero pose) suitable for meditation, this text also tells us that the most important posture is, in fact, sthirasukhasana – meaning, ‘a posture the practitioner can hold comfortably and motionlessness’. The idea is to be able to sit in comfort so you’re not ‘pulled’ by aches and pains or restlessness due to being uncomfortable.

4. PRANAYAMA
The word ‘Prana’ refers to ‘energy’ or ‘life source’. It is the very essence that keeps us alive, as well as the energy in the universe around us. Prana also often describes the breath, and by working with the way we breathe, we affect the mind in a very real way. Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Pranayama is the fact that it can mean two totally different things, which may lead us in two totally different directions at this point on the path to freedom….

We can interpret Pranayama in a couple of ways. ‘Prana-yama’ can mean ‘breath control’ or ‘breath restraint’, or ‘prana-ayama’ which would translate as ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion’ or ‘breath liberation’.

The physical act of working with different breathing techniques alters the mind in a myriad of ways – we can choose calming practices like Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) or more stimulating techniques such as Kapalabhati (shining skull cleansing breath).

Each way of breathing will change our state of being, but it’s up to us as to whether we perceive this as ‘controlling’ the way we feel or ‘freeing’ ourselves from the habitual way our mind may usually be.

5. PRATYAHARA
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 andsmells 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.

The phrase ‘sense withdrawal’ conjures up images of being able to switch our senses ‘off’ through concentration, which is why this aspect of practice is often misunderstood. Instead of actually losing the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that we become so absorbed in what it is we’re focussing on, that the things outside of ourselves no longer bother us and we’re able to meditate without becoming easily distracted. Experienced practitioners may be able to translate pratyahara into everyday life – being so concentrated and present to the moment at hand, that things like sensations and sounds don’t easily distract the mind.

6. DHARANA
Dharana  means ‘focused 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, we must withdraw our senses so that all attention is on that point of concentration. In order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently.  Tratak (candle gazing), visualisation, and focusing on the breath are all practices of dharana, and it’s this stage many of us get to when we think we’re ‘meditating’.

7. DHYANA
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 class are merely techniques in order to help us 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. Essentially; if you are in a state of allowance, thoughts come and go,… you realise your are not your body and you are not your thoughts.

Dhyanalinga @ Isha Yoga Center Coimbatore : ‘The meditation machine’ consecrated by Sadhguru for the purpose that whoever visits naturally becomes meditative.

8. SAMADHI
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.

Breaking the word in half, we see that this final stage is made up of two words; ‘sama’ meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ meaning ‘to see’. There’s a reason it’s called realisation. It’s because reaching Samadhi is not about escapism, floating away or being abundantly joyful; it’s about realising the very life that lies in front of us. The ability to ‘see equally’ and without disturbance from the mind, without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes or habits, without a need to judge or become attached to any particular aspect; that is bliss. Seeing life as it is

This stage is not about attaching to happiness or a sensation of ‘bliss’, but instead it’s about seeing life and reality for exactly what it is, without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain fluctuating and governing it. Not necessarily a state of feeling or being, or a fixed way of thinking; just pure ‘I – am-ness’. There’s just one catch though – Samadhi isn’t a permanent state…. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras importantly tell us that unless we are completely ready, without ‘impressions’ such as attachment, aversion, desires and habits, and with a completely pure mind, we will not be able to maintain the state of Samadhi for long: Once the mind is pure and we truly do experience a state of Samadhi we can keep hold of, we attain moksha, also known as mukti, meaning a permanent state of being liberated, released and free.

Sources : Isha Foundation, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

The methods and technologies of how to experience that which is beyond the physical is what is known as the science of Yoga.

SADHGURU