The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Eight Limbs of the Yoga Sutras

These eight limbs are the Sadhana of Yoga. Literally, they are the 'means to gaining' the state of Yoga - which is unitary consciousness, not generated by thoughts. Each of the eight limbs must be seen in the context of how it helps you become free of a thought-conditioned state of awareness - to experience Reality directly instead of through mental ideals.

The eight limbs are:

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

The Yamas and Niyamas
The Yamas are five ethical constraints.  They reflect the path to an 'egoless self'. They are not commandments, but rather guides that reflect how our lives would be lived without the grasping of the ego. Once on this path, the Yamas may become an outcome of experience, rather than guidelines. The five Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa - non-hurting, non-violence, non-harming.
  • Satya - truthfulness, non-lying.
  • Asteya - non-stealing.
  • Brahmacarya - literally 'God the Teacher'. Recognising the Divine within all people and treating people even-mindedly, rather than through a filter of preference or sexual desire.
  • Aparigraha - non-grasping, non-attachment to possessions, relationships, and accumulations.

The Niyamas are five ways of practicing a constructive mental state.

  • Sauca - purity. This implies internal and external purity.
  • Santosha - contentment, acceptance of what is.
  • Tapas - 'burning' or intensity. Refers to discipline, dedication and enthusiasm without the destraction of the ego.
  • Swadhyaya - study and self-education, a contemplative, studious approach to life.
  • Isvarapranidhana - surrender to a personal form of God,. The understanding that the individual has no control over Reality. Such surrender acknowledges that we cannot manipulate the world, and it is only the ego, the 'thinking' mind, which endeavours to do so.

The Yamas and Niyamas are often referred to as the ethical teachings of Classical Yoga, however seeing these ethics as a set of rules is to mistake what the classical teachers were getting at. The ethical teachings of Classical Yoga are tools for mental transformation. They are not moral teachings.A structured set of rules is inconsistent with a state of emptiness of self. And yet, emptiness of self and a non-rule bound attitude does not mean that whatever we feel like doing is what is right.  Understanding this paradox is the realm of the Classical Yoga teacher.

Asana what is generally referred to as Hatha Yoga and Yogasana. Asana literally means 'pose' and is the physical aspect of Yoga.  When most people say yoga, most are actually thinking about the asanas for which Yoga is justly famous, and for the health aspects of flexibility and stretching. This is certainly the largest part of teaching yoga! But it is not the only part, and it is not the deepest aspect. And Asana ought to be seen in the context of the bigger discipline that Yoga is, i.e. a path towards enlightenment or Self-Realisation.  A Classical Yoga class routinely consists of forward bends, backward bends, lateral bends, twists, and inversions. It also includes Shavasana (focus on 'letting go' of the ego) and Dhyana (still mind meditation).

Pranayama can best be described as conscious breathing. The word can be divided into two parts; prana, meaning life force or vital energy, and yama, meaning extension or expansion. Pranayama by definition is therefore a practice which expands the life force energy of the body.  Most people, most of the time, are unconscious of their breathing patterns and are often breathing incorrectly for optimal health and wellbeing. Breathing in a quick, shallow manner, for example, uses only a portion of the total lung capacity, and therefore negatively impacts the level of oxygen reaching all bodily systems. Pranayama aims to regulate and correct breathing patterns to assist in the maintenance of optimal health and wellbeing. With regard to assisting us spiritually and, most importantly, helping us to attain Yoga (union).  Pranayama may focus and calm the mind, helping us to still the churning of our thoughts.

Often given as ‘restraint of the senses’, Pratyahara is not at all about refusing to have sensory experience. It is about understanding it realistically. Don’t forget that in the context of the Yoga Sutras, the Eight Limbs are intended to help us transform the mind, to make it more capable of an enlightened experience of reality. They are not moralistic and ascetic practices. Pratyahara is the remedy for mistakes that we make in understanding our sense experience, and gives us the means to stop creating a world in our head that doesn’t exist in reality. Refusing to enjoy the chocolate cake is not pratyahara. Recognising that the source of the enjoyment is in your head and not in the cake is the role of pratyahara. Refusing to project our enjoyments and dislikes on to the world is the task of the practice. But imagine how far-reaching that work is. Can you do it with your own body? Your experience at present is actually of a bottom on a chair, of the sensation of clothing and air temperature on your skin, of hands holding a mouse, of light rays on the retina. But instead of the actual, you are giving yourself the projected vision of yourself as a yogi, of a person who can judge the validity of what is written here, of being the final judge of the Yoga Sutras and the Australian College of Classical Yoga. That’s the projected image. What’s the reality?

Dharana are concentration and contemplation exercises. They might simple, such as candle gazing. They might be more difficult, such as keeping your attention focused during a sneeze. They may be contemplative, like contemplating your own death. If this sounds simplistic, then ask yourself: Who sees the candle? What consciousness is it that sneezes? Who dies? And what is it that is alive? Is the candle aware of itself as a candle, or the sneeze aware of itself as a sneeze?  The effect is always to bring you to understand that what is in your mind is the merest reflection of what reality is. Objects are empty of the meanings we project onto them. Dharana pushes away some of the habitual myths your mind finds comfortable. Because they are comfortable, the mind assumes that the comfortable state reflects reality. As you push the barriers you find that reality is different from the notions you carry around in your head. Then we get a real chance to move beyond the limitations imposed on us by a rigid mind and perhaps discover that we are empty of the meanings we project onto ourselves as well. Alarming!

Dhyana is still-mind meditation.Yogascittavrttinirodha: Yoga (union) is stopping the rolling thoughts of the mind. This is the very first statement of the Yoga Sutras. Thus, the foundation of Classical Yoga is meditation, or stillness of mind.  When Yoga was brought from the India to the West, often this was either misunderstood or else it was thought too difficult to communicate to a society that did not have any history of meditating. Anyway, it was left out. Or else 'meditation' was given as a little guided relaxation at the end of a Yoga session. This is antithetical to Yoga!Stillness eventually brings a recognition that our ordinary mind state – where we say "I", "me" – is only a product of thinking. This asks big questions about who or what "I" am. The problem is that any answer you give involves going back into the thinking-mind that gives all the trouble in the first place. Understanding this is the first step towards being able to understand what Yoga is all about.Trying to have visions and unusual phenomena is not meditation. Neither is keeping the mind active in visualisations. There is a quaint story of a Buddhist novice who was set to meditate by his master. One day he went to his master with his face shining and said (expecting a bit of a pat on the head for his high level of development),"Master! When I sit in meditation, the Buddha comes and stands in front of me!""Does he?" Replied the Master. "Well, just keep meditating, and he'll go away. "The point is that anything that comes up into the mind is irrelevant. It is to be dismissed. Just get on with the serious business of stillness of mind.

Samadhi is transformed awareness. In many spiritual environments, and in books and articles, Samadhi is often regarded as the pinnacle of achievement in Yoga, the state of enlightenment. This is obviously not quite how Patanjali sees it. What he does say obviously points to a pretty good state of consciousness! Still, for Patanjali, Samadhi is only the eighth of the steps towards yoga or unitary consciousness, and the outcome of that is Kaivalya, or absolute freedom. Samadhi can not be taught. It is a state of altered awareness, a transcendent absorption which comes from the work in the previous seven areas.