Ashtanga Yoga: Ashta means eight; anga means limb. The limbs of yoga are likened to the limbs of a tree or the human form as each is an aspect of the greater whole.
The eight tree-limbs of yoga are a system of practices outlined in the ancient Indian text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These eight limbs provide a framework for living a purposeful and meaningful life, and they are:
- Yama: The first limb of yoga is the practice of yama, which consists of ethical principles and guidelines for how to interact with others. The five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy or moderation), and aparigraha (non-greed).
- Niyama: The second limb of yoga is the practice of niyama, which consists of personal disciplines and observances. The five niyamas are saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
- Asana: The third limb of yoga is the practice of asana, which refers to the physical postures practiced in yoga. Asana helps to develop strength, flexibility, and balance in the body, as well as focus and concentration in the mind.
- Pranayama: The fourth limb of yoga is the practice of pranayama, which refers to the regulation of the breath. Pranayama helps to control and balance the flow of prana (life force energy) in the body, which can lead to greater physical and mental well-being.
- Pratyahara: The fifth limb of yoga is the practice of pratyahara, which refers to the switchover from attending to the objects of perception to perceiving itself. It is often translated as the withdrawal of the senses from external stimuli. Pratyahara helps to develop concentration and inner awareness, and prepares the mind for meditation.
- Dharana: The sixth limb of yoga is the practice of dharana, which refers to concentration. Dharana involves focusing the mind on a single point, such as the breath, a mantra, or an image, and helps to develop mental discipline and control.
- Dhyana: The seventh limb of yoga is the practice of dhyana, which refers to meditation. Dhyana involves sustained concentration on an object or concept, and can lead to a state of heightened awareness and spiritual insight.
- Samadhi: The eighth and final limb of yoga is samadhi, which refers to a state of complete absorption and union with the object of meditation. Samadhi is considered the ultimate goal of yoga, and represents a state of spiritual liberation and enlightenment.
The first limb of yoga, yama, consists of ethical principles and guidelines for how to interact with others and the world around us. These principles are considered essential for leading a fulfilling and purposeful life, and they provide a foundation for practicing the other limbs of yoga.
The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa: Ahimsa means without violating natural order; it is often translated as non-violence or non-harming. It is the practice of treating all living beings with compassion and kindness, and avoiding violence or harm in thought, speech, or action. This is the foundation principle of all of yoga and the other Yamas and Niyamas – in a certain way it can be said that all of the other practices naturally flow from this one. This principle extends to all beings, not just humans, and encourages us to act in ways that promote peace, love, and harmony in the world.
- Satya: Satya means truthfulness or honesty. It is the practice of speaking and living in accordance with the truth, and avoiding deception or falsehood in thought, speech, or action. This principle encourages us to be authentic and genuine in our interactions with others, and to strive for clarity and understanding in our relationships.
- Asteya: Asteya means non-stealing or non-covetousness. It is the practice of respecting the property and possessions of others, and avoiding theft or dishonesty in our dealings with them. This principle also includes avoiding excessive materialism or greed, and cultivating contentment and gratitude for what we have.
- Brahmacharya: Brahmacharya traditionally referred to celibacy or sexual restraint, but it can also be interpreted as moderation in all aspects of life; specifically it means a chaste mind. It is the practice of using our energy and resources wisely, and avoiding excess or indulgence in any area of life. This principle encourages us to live in balance and harmony, and to cultivate self-control and discipline.
- Aparigraha: Aparigraha means non-greed or non-possessiveness. It is the practice of letting go of attachment to material possessions, and avoiding excessive accumulation or hoarding of wealth or resources. This principle encourages us to live in simplicity and with a sense of detachment, and to prioritize our relationships and experiences over material goods.
By practicing the yamas, we develop a strong sense of ethics and morality, and foster deeper connections with others and with the world around us. These principles guide us in our interactions with others, help us live in harmony with our environment, and promote a greater sense of peace, love, and compassion in the world.
The second limb of yoga, niyama, consists of personal disciplines and observances that help us cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world. By practicing the niyamas, we can develop greater self-awareness and self-control, and create a strong foundation for our spiritual practice.
The five niyamas are:
- Saucha: Saucha means cleanliness or purity. It is the practice of keeping our body, mind, and environment clean and clear of impurities. This principle encourages us to take care of our physical health, maintain a clean and organized living space, and cultivate mental clarity and emotional balance.
- Santosha: Santosha means contentment or satisfaction. It is the practice of finding happiness and fulfillment in the present moment, rather than constantly seeking external sources of pleasure or happiness. This principle encourages us to cultivate a sense of gratitude and acceptance for what we have, and to find joy in the simple pleasures of life.
- Tapas: Tapas means austerity or discipline. It is the practice of cultivating self-discipline and self-control in all areas of life, including our thoughts, speech, and actions. This principle encourages us to develop inner strength and resilience, and to pursue our goals and aspirations with determination and focus.
- Svadhyaya: Svadhyaya means self-study or self-reflection. It is the practice of examining our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and seeking to understand ourselves on a deeper level. This principle encourages us to cultivate a sense of self-awareness and introspection, and to continuously learn and grow throughout our lives.
- Ishvara pranidhana: Ishvara pranidhana means surrender to a higher power or divine consciousness. It is the practice of recognizing and honoring the divine presence within ourselves and in the world around us. This principle encourages us to cultivate a sense of humility and reverence, and to trust in the universe and its inherent wisdom and guidance.
By practicing the niyamas, we cultivate greater self-awareness and inner strength, and develop a deeper connection with ourselves and with the world around us. These principles can guide us in our personal growth and spiritual development, and help us live a more meaningful and purposeful life.
The third limb of yoga, asana, refers to the physical postures practiced in yoga. Asana is an important aspect of yoga practice, as it helps to develop strength, flexibility, and balance in the body, as well as focus and concentration in the mind.
The practice of asana involves moving the body through a series of postures, or poses, while coordinating the breath. Each pose is designed to target specific areas of the body and promote specific physical and mental benefits.
Six common types of yoga asanas are:
- Standing poses: These poses help to develop strength and stability in the legs and core, and improve balance and posture.
- Seated Forward folds: These poses help to stretch the hamstrings and lower back, and promote relaxation and stress relief.
- Backbarches: These poses help to strengthen the back and improve spinal flexibility, as well as open the chest and promote energy and vitality.
- Twists: These poses help to improve digestion and detoxification, as well as stretch the spine and open the chest and shoulders.
- Inversions: These poses, which involve turning the body upside down, help to improve circulation, boost immunity, and promote mental clarity and focus.
- Relaxation Poses: These poses foster restoration and repair. Additionally they can be used for Meditation and Spiritual Awakening practices like Yoga Nidra.
By practicing asana, we develop greater physical strength, flexibility, and balance, as well as improve our mental focus and concentration. Regular asana practice also helps to relieve stress and tension in the body and promote a greater sense of calm and relaxation.
The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, refers to the practice of regulating and controlling the breath. Prana, or life force energy, is believed to be present in the breath, and by controlling the breath, we can regulate and balance the flow of prana in the body.
Prana literally means motion; in this light the practice of pranayama is the practice of directing energy flow.
Pranayama techniques involve various types of breathing exercises, including slow, deep breathing, rapid or shallow breathing, and breath retention. Each technique has its own unique benefits and can be used to promote specific physical and mental effects.
Some common pranayama techniques include:
- Ujjayi breath: This is often called ocean breathing because the sound that’s made resembles the sound of the ocean. This technique involves breathing in and out through the nose while constricting the back of the throat, creating a whispering or hissing sound. Ujjayi breath helps to calm the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote relaxation.
- Kapalabhati (breath of fire): This technique involves rapid, forceful exhalations through the nose, followed by passive inhalations. Kapalabhati can help to increase energy and vitality, improve digestion, and clear the mind – Kapalabhati means ‘shining skull’
- Bhramari (humming bee breath): This technique involves inhaling deeply, and then exhaling while making a humming sound like that of a bee. Bhramari can help to reduce stress and anxiety, calm the mind, and promote relaxation.
- Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing): This the only true pranayama – all other breathing practices prepare the body-mind for this. This technique involves inhaling through one nostril, holding the breath, and then exhaling through the other nostril. Nadi shodhana can help to balance the flow of prana in the body, improve mental clarity and focus, and reduce stress and tension. This balances the two hemispheres of the brain and it directs the pranic energy to flow through the central channel called the Sushumna.
By practicing pranayama, we improve our respiratory function, reduce stress and tension, and promote physical and mental well-being. Pranayama is often practiced in conjunction with asana, meditation, and other aspects of yoga practice, in order to achieve the full benefits of the practice.
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, refers to the switchover of focusing on the objects of perception to giving attention to the perceiving itself. It is the switch from doing to being or what can be describes as the switch from the external journey to the internal one.
Pratyahara is often translated as the practice of withdrawing the senses from external stimuli. In yoga philosophy, it is believed that the senses are constantly seeking out new stimulation, which can distract the mind and prevent it from achieving a state of inner calm and concentration.
Pratyahara can also be described as the practice of being aware of being aware. By focusing on the process of perception, we begin to develop a deeper understanding of how our senses and mind work together to create our experience of the world. This helps to reduce our attachment to external stimuli, and develop a greater sense of inner calm and detachment.
Some common techniques used in the practice of pratyahara include:
- Sensory deprivation: This involves creating an environment with minimal sensory input, such as by practicing yoga in a quiet, dimly lit room, or by using a blindfold or earplugs.
- Visualization: This involves creating mental images or visualizations that help to focus the mind and withdraw from external distractions.
- Mantra repetition: This involves repeating a specific sound or phrase, known as a mantra, in order to focus the mind and withdraw from external stimuli.
By practicing pratyahara, we foster greater concentration and inner awareness, and prepare the mind for meditation. This helps to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mental clarity and focus, and promote overall well-being. Pratyahara is often practiced in conjunction with other aspects of yoga practice, including asana, pranayama, and meditation, in order to achieve the full benefits of the practice.
Ultimately, the practice of pratyahara is about developing greater control over the mind and senses, in order to achieve a state of inner awareness and concentration. By giving attention to perceiving itself instead of the objects of perception, we develop this control and cultivate a deeper understanding of our inner selves.
The sixth limb of yoga, dharana, refers to the practice of concentration. In yoga philosophy, it is believed that it is the nature of the mind to mind, which means that it is naturally prone to distraction and requires training in order to develop greater focus and discipline.
Dharana involves focusing the mind on a single point, such as the breath, a mantra, space, or an image. By directing the mind towards this point, we can begin to develop greater concentration and control over our thoughts and emotions.
Four common techniques used in the practice of dharana are:
- Tratak: This involves gazing at a specific object, such as a candle flame or a point on the wall, in order to develop concentration and focus.
- Visualization: This involves creating mental images or visualizations that help to focus the mind and develop concentration.
- Mantra repetition: This involves repeating a specific sound or phrase, known as a mantra, in order to focus the mind and develop concentration.
- Welcoming: This is connected to Pratyahara as it is the practice of abiding as Being that welcomes all that appears as it is; it is a space or openness that at this stage ids being established.
By practicing dharana, we develop greater mental discipline and control that helps to reduce stress and anxiety, improve mental clarity and focus, and promotes overall well-being. Dharana is pillar of Samayama [more on this later]..
The seventh limb of yoga, dhyana, refers to the practice of meditation. While dharana involves focused concentration on a single point or aspect of being, dhyana involves sustaining that concentration over an extended period of time, often leading to a state of heightened awareness and spiritual insight.
In the practice of dhyana, the goal is to quiet the mind and focus the attention on a specific object, concept or being itself. This can involve focusing on the breath, a mantra, an image, space, or even an abstract idea or concept.
Through sustained concentration, we cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Dhyana helps develop a sense of inner peace and equanimity, as well as promoting greater clarity of thought and emotional balance.
Four common techniques used in the practice of dhyana are:
- Mindfulness meditation: This involves paying attention to the present moment, without judgment, and focusing the mind on the breath or bodily sensations.
- Loving-kindness meditation: This involves cultivating feelings of love and kindness towards oneself and others, and can help to reduce negative emotions like anger and resentment.
- Chakra meditation: This involves focusing on the seven energy centers, or chakras, in the body, in order to balance and align the flow of energy in the body.
- Insight Meditation: This form of meditation is like the practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga as each limb is attended to individually and collectively.
By practicing dhyana, we develop a greater sense of inner peace, clarity, and spiritual connection. It is practiced in conjunction with dharana as one of the pillars of Samyana.
The eighth and final limb of yoga, samadhi, refers to a state of complete absorption and union with the object of meditation. This state is often described as a transcendental state of consciousness, where the individual becomes fully absorbed in the object of meditation and experiences a sense of oneness with the universe.
Samadhi is considered the ultimate goal of yoga, as it represents a state of spiritual liberation and enlightenment. It is believed to be a state [ultimately is is a non-state] of ultimate realization and union with the divine, where the individual transcends the limitations of the ego and experiences a profound sense of interconnectedness with all of creation.
There are different stages of samadhi, each with its own level of depth and intensity. The first stage is called savikalpa samadhi, where the individual experiences a temporary state of unity with the object of meditation, but still retains a sense of individual identity.
The second stage is called nirvikalpa samadhi, where the individual experiences a complete dissolution of the ego and a merging with the object of meditation. This is considered the highest state of samadhi, and represents a state of ultimate liberation and spiritual realization.
While samadhi is considered the ultimate goal of yoga, it is important to note that it is not something that can be achieved through effort or willpower alone. Rather, it is an understanding, insight, that arises naturally through sustained and dedicated practice of all the limbs of yoga and it combines with dharana, and dhyana to complete the three pillars of Samyana.
In essence, the practice of samadhi is about letting go of our attachment to the external world, and cultivating a deep sense of inner peace, harmony, and oneness with all of creation. It is a profound spiritual realization that can be experienced by anyone, regardless of their religious or cultural background.
Samyama is a term used in yoga to refer to the practice of the last three limbs of yoga – dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption). In this practice, the three limbs are combined to create a state of total attention, where the mind becomes completely focused and absorbed in the object, concept or space of meditation.
The practice of samyama is considered a powerful tool for developing spiritual insight and understanding, as it allows the practitioner to penetrate deeply into the nature of reality and gain a profound understanding of the workings of the mind and the universe.
Through the practice of samyama, the practitioner develops the ability to sustain a single-pointed focus of attention for an extended period of time, which can lead to a range of benefits, including increased mental clarity, heightened intuition, and a greater sense of inner peace and harmony.
Overall, the practice of samyama represents a powerful tool for cultivating greater awareness, understanding, insight and connection with the world around us, and it helps us to live more fully in the present moment with a sense of profound purpose and meaning.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are listed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
The definition of yoga is given in the second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Here is a translation of that sutra:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”
In Sanskrit, the sutra is written as “Yogas chitta-vritti-nirodhah.
This sutra is considered one of the most important in the Yoga Sutras, as it defines the nature and purpose of yoga. According to this sutra, the ultimate goal of yoga is to quiet the mind and bring about a state of inner stillness and peace, which leads to greater self-awareness and a deeper connection with the universe.
The sutra suggests that the mind is constantly in a state of flux, with thoughts and emotions arising and passing away. Through the practice of yoga, we learn to control and quiet the fluctuations of the mind, and in doing so, we gain greater control over our thoughts and emotions, and ultimately achieve inner harmony and balance.
In this light the second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a fundamental statement about the nature of yoga and it provides a framework for understanding the various practices and techniques used in the discipline.
Overall, the eight limbs of yoga limbs provide a systematic and comprehensive approach to achieving the state of mind described in Patanjali’s second sutra, which is characterized by a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind and a state of inner stillness, peace, and unity with the universe. In short that practice can be stated as: Be Still and Know.
Be Still and Know
“Be still and know” is a phrase that is often associated with the practice of yoga, and it represents the idea of cultivating a state of inner stillness and awareness through the practice of yoga. In this context, yoga can be defined as the practice of developing the ability to be still, both physically and mentally, and to cultivate a deep sense of inner awareness and knowing.
Through the practice of yoga, one learns to quiet the mind, focus the attention, and develop a deep sense of presence and mindfulness. This state of inner stillness and awareness allows one to observe the workings of the mind and the world around them with greater clarity and insight, leading to a greater understanding of oneself and the nature of reality.
In essence, the practice of yoga is about developing the ability to be still and know, to cultivate a state of inner peace, clarity, and wisdom that can guide us on our journey towards greater health, happiness, and fulfillment in life.
The Yamas and Niyamas set a foundation for the practice of yoga by providing ethical principles and personal disciplines, which help to cultivate a sense of mindfulness and awareness in daily life.
The Asana Practice, which consists of physical postures, is primarily associated with the body and helps to develop strength, flexibility, and balance.
Pranayama, the regulation of breath, serves as a link between the body and the mind, as it helps to balance the flow of prana (life force energy) in the body, which can affect mental well-being.
Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses from external stimuli, helps to shift the focus from the external world to the internal world, and prepares the mind for meditation.
The last three limbs – Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi as Samyana – involve a deepening of concentration and meditation, culminating in a state of complete absorption and union with the object of meditation. Together, they can be seen as a practice of total attention or mindfulness that flowers as a sense of inner peace and spiritual insight.
2 thoughts on “Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga – Ashtanga Yoga”