In a sacred text known as "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," compiled around 400 C.E. in India, we find a clear description of the nature of consciousness and a non-sectarian path to the realization of our divine nature. The Sutras are credited to a sage named Sri Patanjali and they offer us a lifetime of possibilities for improving our state of being. A core section of the Sutras is known as the "eight limbs of yoga." These are essential practices that all students and teachers of yoga should be familiar with.
"Through the practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the distortions of individual perception are destroyed and the light of true wisdom brings clarity of consciousness." Sutra ii.28
Also known as Ashtanga yoga (ashta meaning "eight" and anga meaning "limbs"), these eight facets of practice interconnect and overlap in both our inner and outer lives. The limb that most people today are familiar with is asana, or postural practice. However, it is the intertwining of all eight that leads us to clarity of consciousness, the place of inner peace and joy. As the sutra above states, by practicing the eight limbs, intuitive wisdom dawns and we realize our inner radiance.
Yamas are the moral qualities necessary to reconnect us with our Soul nature. They include peacefulness, truthfulness, generosity, self-control and appreciation. Foundational to our well-being, these practices make our lives more comfortable and spiritually fulfilling.
The second limb is comprised of the niyamas, observances that help us to integrate our inner and outer experience and create a more harmonious life. They include purification, contentment, right effort, self-reflection and devotion. As a result of cultivating these, we can expect to feel more whole, balanced and free.
Asana is the practice of right posture to create a stable physical body that can sit at ease in meditation. Although the most accessible of the limbs, asana was never meant to be practiced alone as simple exercise. Designed as a means to an end, asana creates health in the physical body enabling it to be quiet and support the mind in doing the same. When body and mind are quiet, consciousness can transcend identification with the physical and remember its Divine nature.
The control and management of the subtle life force currents is pranayama. After stilling body and mind, we are meant to direct the prana or life force at will and move into subtler realms of awareness. (Read more about the practice of pranayama here.)
The practice of internalizing the senses is pratyahara. By unplugging from outer stimuli, giving the senses some down time, we overcome attachments and desires and move closer to the inner domain of pure awareness. This is an essential step toward the ability to meditate.
Dharana is the practice of single pointed concentration. Once the senses have been controlled and withdrawn, we choose an inner point of focus. Dharana is the practice of training the mind toward a point of devotional attention that envelopes our whole being.
Once the mind and body have been stabilized and focused, then the state of stillness or meditation can be achieved. Here consciousness flows continuously inward rather than outward, and peace is experienced. This is dhyana, or meditation.
The ever-present, ever-fresh bliss that is experienced when individual consciousness is reunited with the Universal Consciousness is samadhi. There are many levels to samadhi, some lasting only momentarily. When the final stage is reached, consciousness has been mastered and the soul merges again with its Source.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga provide a complete path of practice and a lifetime worth of study. Each one holds many layers of meaning and opportunities for growth that deepen exponentially as our consciousness brightens.