In this post I provide you with an introduction to the eight limbs of Yoga and how they create the foundation of a Yoga practice. There is much to be learnt about the eightfold path and once you get immersed in the teachings you will find that it is so rich and abundant in wisdom, and still applicable to each of us today.
In the Yoga Sutras (text written by Patanjali, an Indian sage, dating back to 200-300 B.C.E), the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb) - different to Ashtanga Yoga which we know today in the west. This eighfold path describes the 8 steps towards the final eighth limb: Samadhi - enlightenment or ecstasy.
So what are the 8 limbs of Yoga?
Yama - social and moral precepts
Niyama - personal observances
Asana - discipline of the body
Pranayama - discipline of the breath to work with our energy
Pratyahara - discipline of the sense organs
Dharana - focus the attention on one thing (concentration)
Dhyana - meditation
Samadhi - complete absorption with the object
Patanjali divided the Yamas in five sections that describe social and moral precepts, focusing on one's behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life.
Ahiṃsā - non-violence, respect for life, kindness
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - honesty, integrity
Brahmacharya - non-excess, moderation
Aparigraha - non-possessiveness
The second limb of Yoga is about personal observances and self-discipline, and is also divided into five points:
Śauca - purity, cleansing
Santosa - contentment
Tapas - work, practice
Svadhyaya - self-study, self-inquiry
Ishvara Pranidhana - surrender the fruits of your actions
The root of the word āsana 'ās' means to sit, it relates to the discipline of the body and the attitude of the person. Āsana is what we commonly know of Yoga in the west: the physical practice. Through asanas, we develop the ability to concentrate and the habit of discipline, both necessary for meditation.
It is the practice of working with the energy by means of the breath. Learning to breath consciously, making the breathe long, smooth and steady can be used as a tool for dhāraṇā (concentration) and later meditation.
It is the withdrawal of the senses, the five senses of perception (hearing, smell, touch, taste, sight) as well as the five senses of action (speech, prehention - the ability to pick up things, locomotion - the ability to move around, reproduction - sexuality, elimination - anal passage). Through the withdrawal of senses we are able to notice and review our tendencies and habits clearly.
It is the focus of the mind on one object of meditation. The object can be chosen by the practitioner and adapted as needed. It can be an image, a memory, the breathe, a candle, etc. It must be something that brings positive energy and vibrates on an equal or higher frequency to you.
After dhāraṇā, the practitioner seeks to connect and find closeness with the object, placing their full attention on the object, it is a state of full focus.
Or pure bliss, is when you become one with the object and complete absorption with the object. Their are no boundaries between you and the object, you forget the sense of who you are or who you think you are.
We talked about these in more details during our last online Yoga Philosophy course. The second module is coming up in September, stay tuned!
In the meantime, get started with your practice, learning the theory is essential but even more important is to get started with the practice: sit quietly, move and pay attention to the way you behave, your habits, your tendencies ;)