One of the most popular and beloved pieces of yogic literature is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This profound body of wisdom lays out the primary and ultimate aim of yoga in a lovely set of guidelines known as The Eight Limbs of Yoga. The word, ashtanga, actually means “the eight-fold path,” and to really get a good feel for what Patanjali taught in the Yoga Sutras, you’ll want to take a brief journey through these eight limbs.
The first of the eight limbs is called the yamas. These consist of a set of instructions for living ethically and morally. They deal with one’s relationships with others and advise us how to live in right conduct with all sentient beings. The five yamas consist of:
The Yamas are a world unto themselves and you should definitely explore each one of them in depth to get a true understanding as to how one lives with the utmost integrity within a precious human life.
The second of the eight limbs is called the niyamas. These are a lot like the yamas – moral codes of conduct – but in the context of one’s relationship with oneself. One might call the niyamas a group of self-disciplines. Again, you’ll want to study the niyamas in depth as they too are a world unto themselves with much timeless wisdom and insight. The five niyamas consist of:
We are all familiar with the third of Patanjali’s eight limbs, it’s asana, or the physical postures that we practice in modern-day yoga. Asana is meant to be a means of bodily self-care. With asana practice we treat our bodies as the temples that they are, while also cleansing them and preparing them for meditation. (Learn more in Why We Practice Asanas.)
The fourth of the eight limbs is pranayama. These are the breathing techniques that, like asana, work to cleanse the body and prepare it for meditation. The wide array of pranayama techniques given to us by the yoga tradition teach us how to connect our bodies, our breath, our minds, and our emotions. Through pranayama we learn how to control our breath, which has many, many healing benefits on all levels – body, mind, emotions and spirit. These practices also calm and balance the nervous system, which helps prepare us to be still in meditation. (Learn more about how Conscious Breathing Will Boost Your Yoga Practice.)
This is the fifth limb of the Sutras and can be understood as a deeply profound way of turning inward. By practicing pratyahara, we withdraw our senses from the external world, taking them inward to focus on the vast world within. We practice pratyahara in order to observe our behavior from an objective viewpoint, which fosters self-awareness and self-growth.
The sixth limb is known as dharana, or concentration. This is a crucial limb, which all the previous practices help us cultivate. Focused concentration allows for meditation to come more naturally. But we must first practice the discipline of concentration and focus before sitting down to deeply meditate. In cultivating dharana, we begin to still the fluctuations of the mind, which is essential for meditation and is one of the primary aims of the entire yoga tradition.
The seventh limb of Ashtanga yoga is dhyana, which is actually the Sanskrit word for "meditation." It can also be translated as "contemplation" and is similar to dhyana, but without the focus on a particular object. In meditation, we cultivate an awareness that ultimately has no focus, but just is. By the time we reach dhyana, the mind has quieted to the point where the act of sitting in a state of meditation is effortless. In the state of dhyana, there are very few thoughts running through the mind, if any. By the time we reach dhyana, we will have come to master all of the previous limbs.
The final and eighth limb of Ashtanga yoga is known as samadhi. This is the state where one’s consciousness becomes one with the universe. It’s a state of realization that all yogis aspire to – when everything becomes still, centered and grounded in eternal awareness. Yogis have described samadhi as a state of bliss consciousness. It’s an ecstatic place, one we can all work toward. Once you’ve reached samadhi, you’ll have reached what Patanjali called the ultimate state and goal of yoga – a sort of completion of the yogic path.
Every one of these eight limbs can guide us to live more meaningful lives – ones full of purpose, love and wisdom. May you come to study them often as you journey along the enlightened path of yoga. (Read more in The 8 Limbs of Yoga.)