During my yoga classes we are currently looking at the Eight Limbs of Yoga, taking each in more detail over eight weeks. So far we are up to week four, check back again for the remaining four.
Resource: The Yoga Book by Stephen Sturgess
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs of yoga or the eight-fold path were written by Patanjali over 5000 years ago. They offer us a guide to finding meaning and purpose in life. Over the next eight weeks we will be looking at each limb. Studying a little more in depth helps us to understand more about the yogic path and how it can help us to grow as healthy humans and evolve as spiritual beings.
The eight limbs translate to ashta-eight and anga-limb Ashtanga!
- Yama – moral and ethical restraints and social discipline
- Niyama – spiritual observances and self discipline
- Asana – postures
- Pranayama – control of life energy through the breath
- Pratyahara – mind withdrawal from the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – ecstacy, enlightened union with the Divine
The First Limb – Yama
Yama and Niyama have ten principles or ‘commandments’ within them, but a lot lighter and broader than the Christian versions. The Yama and Niyama are universal and perhaps could be seen as the foundation stones for many of the worlds religions. The Eight Limbs are not religious at all, they are guidance.
There are five Yamas around restraints and social disciplines, ways to live. Yama means restraint.
Non-violence, non-injury, non-harming, affirming our oneness with all life, by being kind, compassion and respectful to all living beings in thought, word and actions. Not causing harm or wishing harm distress or pain to any living being including ourselves or the environment. Also to not approve of another causing such harm. Ahimsa is not just non-killing, it to try to live in perfect harmlessness with positive love and respect for all life, not just in action but in thoughts and words as well. Ahimsa rises above anger, hatred, aggression, fear, jealousy, resentment, envy and attachment.
Non-lying, truthfulness, not to exaggerate, pretend, distort or lie to others, not to manipulate people for our own selfish concerns as this is against our true nature. Being honest with ourselves is the first step to self improvement and change. Its not possible to achieve self realisation or knowledge if we are sending our false messages about ourselves, we mustn’t deceive ourselves. Its still important to be thoughtful when speaking the truth to others. To live in truth you will have peace of mind, be free from fear, anxiety and worry.
Non-stealing, the main reasons people steal are insecurity, greed or because of poverty and desperation. Greed and desire are the source of stealing, desire keeps us constantly looking to the future for fulfilment rather than the present moment. We can steal material things from others but also their time, affection, emotions, attentions, ideas and thoughts, all of this goes against Asteya as it is all to fulfil our ego, ‘I’, ‘I want’, ‘I need’ and ‘I must have’.
Non-sensuality, not running after pleasure. This literally means celibacy, being completely celibate gives a person great strength and focus on his higher spiritual self. This yama suggest finding balance, not being too obsessed with the senses and gratifying them but to sit in meditation and feel the oneness of life where there is great peace. Practice the middle path, in the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna advise us to follow the path of moderation:
‘Yoga is not for those eat too much or eat too little, nor for those who sleep too much or sleep too little. But to those that are moderate in eating, sleeping, wakefulness, recreation and moderate in all their actions, yoga will bring an end to all sorrow. Those souls who have learned to discipline their mind and remain calmly established in the self, free from attachment to all desires, attain the state of union.’
Apara means ‘of another’ and agraha means ‘to crave for’, Aparigraha means ‘ without craving for what belongs to another’, or also not hoarding or accumulating.
Being attached can often mean people manipulate others through fear of losing the desired object. Problems arise when we cling wo what we think or security depends on ‘my whole life depends upon that person’, my security comes from being in this job, owning this house, being with my family’. This gives us a false sense of security by placing our power in transitory things or always wanting more. There is no need to strive to possess anything beyond the basic requirements for a comfortable life. True security is in the love in our hearts, our generosity and in giving unconditionally without demanding anything in return.
The Second Limb – Niyama
The Five Niyamas are to do with spiritual observances and self discipline.
Saucha – Cleanliness, Purity
Saucha means internal and external cleanliness, purity in thought, word and action. When we practise Saucha we are clearing and cleaning ourselves to allow more of our Light to shine through. We keep ourselves pure in mind and emotion and keep our environment ordered and clean. We treat the body as our temple. Physical cleanliness means to avoid excessive intoxicants or stimulants, to use purifying techniques like fasting, asanas, pranayama. Mental cleanliness could mean meditating and avoiding filling the mind with anything toxic like violent films, keeping company with negative toxic people etc. Environmental cleanliness means keeping our homes and workspace clean and fresh so energy can flow freely.
Santosha – Contentment
To practice Santosha we are happy and balance, content with what we have and the way things are. Living with awareness of the present moment, happiness is independent of our circumstances and does not depend on our external situation at all. We do not let our desires control us or get carried away wanting things, we are still within and calm, peaceful, we surrender to Gods will, we are non-attached to people, places or things, we live simply and we learn from our experiences.
Tapas – Austerity
Tapas means heat, inner fire, where there is heat there is also energy, which bring strength. Austerity or self-discipline destroys all impurities of the mind, said Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Austerity in yoga is not penance but to find a true balance between indulgence and abstinence. Using yoga disciplines to purify our minds and help us to selfless service to others and bring a positive contribution to life. The word yogi means one who practises meditation on the self within, who is self-disciplined, free from self-centred attachments, desires and egotism and who is contented and equal-minded.
Svadhyaya -Self Study
By study of scriptures and oneself one is united with that loved aspect of divinity, Patanjali.
Svadhyaya also means the study of scriptural texts and silent recitation of mantras. Both to be practised in a meditative and concentrated state of absorbed awareness. In self study we learn not by gaining intellectual knowledge but by standing back to observe and study the studier. We observe our thoughts, feelings, behaviour, desires, motives and attitudes we can then see the delusions, false attachments and ignorance that prevent us from realising our true nature.
Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender!
My favourite Niyama! By total surrender to God one attains perfection Patanjali. This Niyama means to completely surrender to the divine plan, to all things and to all that is happening to and around us. In complete trust that all is well and that we are being taken on a journey that will help us to evolve and grow. This Niyama has been my mantra for many years as I have worked through many challenges and I continue to live by it daily.
I give you myself, my body, my mind and heart, to do with as you see best.
Victory over mind and its afflictions can also be gained through complete surrender to God, the inner guide.
The Third Limb – Asana
Asana means posture or seat. Patanjali only discusses yoga asana in three of his many yoga sutras and he does not talk about the many different styles of yoga that we now know in the West.
Posture is an attitude in which the body is kept steady (motionless) while producing a feeling of ease.
Unsteadiness in the body or its limbs is an indication of the unsteadiness of the mind
Patanjali does not describe any particular yoga postures but just the importance of being able to hold the body motionlessly in preparation for sitting for long periods of time in meditation. If the body is restless the mind will also become restless. For the mind to become still and quiet, the body needs to be trained to make it steady with ease and comfort.
The roots of yoga come from Hatha Yoga, Ha meaning sun and Tha meaning moon. The aim of Hatha yoga is to balance, integrate and harmonise these 2 energy flows in the body, sun, male, heating, positive and moon, female, cooling and negative. When balanced they create mental calm, vitality and inner balance.. It is also the aim of Hatha to purify the physical body from toxins, waster matter and disease, to free body and mind from tensions and tao make the body strong, firm and supple. All of this is important so we can sit for many hours in peaceful meditation.
The ancient yogis created the asanas simply to allow them to master the body so it could sit in meditation for often 10 hours or more, at a time. The true purpose of the yoga postures and other yoga practices is to awaken and harmonise the inner source of energy and direct it toward the higher brain centres to expand ones awareness and consciousness.
There were 84,000 asanas originally, we now only know perhaps 100 postures.
An advanced yoga student would not necessarily demonstrate this through their challenging postures but through the inner changes that will have taken place over years of committed practice, calm, steady gaze, sparkling, aware eyes, soft, mellow, resonant voice, clear skin, strong, firm, supple body, vitality and energy, lack of restlessness in meditation in the body, concentration, positive, enthusiastic attitude, cheerfulness, physical and mental relaxation, good digestion and elimination of toxins.
An advanced yogi understands the limitations of the body and is able to be without frustration at what the body can and can not manage in the asanas, accepting that each body is different and that time and age bring many changes to the physical body.
The Fourth Limb – Pranayama
Pranayama is a sanskrit word, Prana means the subtle life force energy which runs through the body and mind, Ayama means the voluntary effort to control or direct this Prana.
Pranayama is the process by which the Prana is controlled by regulating the breathing voluntarily. The basic movements of breath are exhale, inhale and retention of the breath.
Having established a firm, steady, posture, one then regulates the life-force by natural voluntary suspension of the breath after inhalation and exhalation – this is Pranayama. Yoga Sutra 2:49
Simply Patanjali tells us to exhale and retain the breath. The Hatha yogis tell us that to hold the breath out, the mind will think of nothing at all but the fact the breath is being held out. So when we retain the exhale our minds are in suspension, it loses its fuel, it is no longer distracted and it becomes quiet.
During deep meditation, the breath naturally becomes suspended for short periods of term, it is in this interval that we find pranayama . To the meditator in deep meditation there is no sense of time, the mind is still and in that deep peace there is joy and bliss.
Patanjali goes on to describe three types of pranayama:
Bahya Kumbhaka a pause after a very slow and prolonged exhalation
Abhyantara Kumbhaka a pause after a deep, prolonged inhalation
or a prolonged pause in between the inhalation and exhalation.
Prana is the vital energy of the universe, it is known in China as Chi, Japan as Ki and in the West as Spirit. Working with the breath we are trying to still the mind, trying to control the mind and suspending mental activity and the ego. With the mind still and the breathing calm, our inner light can begin to shine more radiantly.
The Fifth Limb – Pratyahara
Pratyahara is the last of the eights limbs of yoga that deals with the body and the brain, the first 5 limbs deal with the outer phase of yoga, the final three deal with the inner phase and with changing the mind.
Pratyahara is about bringing the attention inwardly. Also known as the withdrawal of the senses, when we are focused on what we can see, what we can hear, smell or touch we are drawn out of ourselves, in this limb we are drawn to the inner.
Through the practice of asana and pranayama the mind is guided inwardly being totally aware of the breath. Pratyahara brings total attention into and within oneself.
Pratyahara is the interiorization of the mind, by reversing the senses outward attention from eternal objects to their source within (the divine self) Patanjali 2:54
By conscious interiorization of the mind, the senses function intelligently and in harmony without ego-mind interference. One acquires complete mastery over all the senses. 2:55
A true yogi is able to experience pure joy and bliss from the divine source within, they can do this consciously at will, whereas another person may need external source through the senses to experience anything close to such joy and inner peace. A yogi does not need alcohol, caffeine, drugs, television, sugar, sex or other ego neediness to experience inner peace.
Yoga nidra is one of the best techniques for experiencing Pratyahara. During yoga nidra, we are in a state of complete relaxation on all levels, brainwave patterns then start to change and slow down, from busy beta level to a deeper, slower alpha level.
Other ways to practice Pratyahara are, pranayama, various inverted yoga poses such as sarvangasana (shoulder stand) halasana (plough) and karnapidasana (ear-knee pose) which we often practice after halasana, repeating mantra and chanting Kirtan.