The fabled Yoga Sutras of Patanjali dictates about eight limbs of yoga, every one of them provides guidance to an individual how to live a purposeful as well as meaningful life. It is up to the person to learn each of them and to incorporate them into his practice.
The “yoga” word means to connect or unite or can be called as “yoke”. The particular thing we wish to find to connect is the True self which is also known as “divine essence” or “ultimate self” and in other words atman. You might also like to think this as the human’s soul. If this way of thinking isn’t resonating with your psyche, then consider that the word yoga can also mean disentanglement or separation. The thing that is disentangling in us is from the things which is stopping us to attain freedom or the feeling free, as the prime and ultimate goal of yoga is to pave the way to and attain moksha which means freedom or liberation.
So how does one can attain this moksha or freedom through yoga? Does it mean that a person needs to spend a lot of fortune to attain it? Can one achieve it by simply touching the toes? Well, this is not the case.
As per Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there is the eight-fold path which leads to freedom as known as “Ashtanga Yoga” System or popularly called “8 Limbs of Yoga”. The word “ashta” means eight in Sanskrit while “anga” means “limb”.
Now, we will discuss these eight limbs of yoga in detail to provide you with a holistic picture of these limbs and their characteristics. Each one has a different meaning in the life and practice of each makes the person more healthy and spiritually connected to the one. So, here they are”
The first limb is Yama which refers to disciplines, vows or practices which are primarily concerned with the surroundings and environment around us along with our interaction with it. While yoga practice can indeed increase the physical flexibility and strength as well as aid in calming down the mind, it is of no use if we are still feeling rigid, weak and completely stressed-out in our daily life.
There are five Yamas which are Ahimsa which means non-violence, Satya meaning truthfulness, Asteya which is non-stealing, Brahmacharya which means right use of energy as and the last one is Aparigraha which means non-greed or non-hoarding.
Yoga is a practice of transformation of our self and benefiting every aspect of out lives, not just spending and exercising for 60 minutes on a rubber mat. If we can learn various things such as to be kind and truthful as well as use our energy in worthy pursuits, we will not only avail benefits for ourselves with these practices but also for everyone and everything around us too.
The second limb of Yoga is Niyama which refers to the duties that are directed towards ourselves but can also be taken into consideration with the actions we take towards the outside world. It comes from the Sanskrit verb “ni” which means “inward” or within.
There are five Niyamas which are: Saucha which means cleanliness, Santosha that means contentment, Tapas, which means discipline or the inherent burning desire or conversely, the burning of desire, Svadhyaya meaning self-study or self-reflection along with the study of spiritual texts and the Isvarapranidaha which means surrendering to a higher power.
Niyama is traditionally and generally practices by those people who want to travel far along the Yogic path and who are intended to build their character. Interestingly, these Niyamas are also closely related to Koshas, the “sheaths or layers” which leads from our physical body to our body’s essence present within. As you will find that when we work with all these Niyamas, we are guided by the grossest aspects of our lives to the deep truth within.
The third limb of Yoga is Asana. The physical aspect of yoga is this particular third step on the freedom’s path, and if we are being completely honest about it, the word asana doesn’t only refer the ability to perform a backbend or aesthetically impressive handstand, it means “seat”- specifically the seat that you would take for practising meditation. The only instruction of alignment that Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, that is the posture or pose should be both steady as well as comfortable.
While various traditional texts such as Hath Yoga Pradipika list different postures like Padmasana or lotus pose and Virasana, the hero pose, well-suited for meditation, this text also reveals that the most essential and important posture is the sthirasukhasana which means “a posture which a practitioner can easily hold both comfortably and motionless”.
The main notion behind is the ability to sit in a comfortable position, so we aren’t pulled by pains and aches of the body or any kind of restlessness due to an uncomfortable position. Perhaps this is a thing that needs to be considered when you do yoga next time if you always tend to go for “advanced” posture offered rather than the one which your body is able to attain. It is not about how many asanas you can do, it is about how many asanas you are really comfortable as well as steady in.
Pranayama is the fourth limb of Yoga. The word Prana means “energy” or the “life source”. This words can be used to signify the essence of life that keeps us alive or the energy in the universe that surrounds us. The Prana is also described as the breath, and by working on the breathing pattern, we can affect and mould our mind in a realistically better way.
Perhaps one of the greatest and fascinating things about this limb of Yoga is the fact that it can essentially mean two completely different things which leads use to two different directions at one point on the freedom’s path.
Pranayama can also be understood as either “prana-yama” that would mean “breath-control” or the “breath-restrain”, or it can also be understood as “pran-ayama” that would translate to “freedom of breath”, or “breath liberation”.
The physical activity associated with the working with various breathing techniques alters our mind in a plethora of ways, and we can choose calming practices such as Chandra Bhadana which is moon piercing breath, or more stimulating breathing techniques like Kapalabhati which is skill cleansing breath.
Each way of breathing will alter the state of our being, and it is all up to us whether we wish to perceive this as “controlling” the way we actually feel or freeing ourselves from our daily routine of our minds working.
The fifth limb of Yoga is Pratyahara. Pratya is a Sanskrit word which means “withdraw”, “draw back” or “draw in” and the second part is ahara which refers to anything that we “take in” all by ourselves through various senses such as sights, sounds as well as smells that we take in continuously. When we are sitting in a formal practice of meditation, this is more likely be the first think that we actually do when we think that we are meditating and we focus on “drawing in”. This practice of drawing inward can also include focusing on the way we breathe, so this limb is related directly to the pranayama too.
The phrase- sense withdrawal- can also conjure up an image of our ability to switch off our senses through concentration which is why this particular aspect of the practice is generally misunderstood.
Instead of losing the ability to smell or hear, to feel and see, the practice of pratyahara essentially changes our state of mind such that we become so much absorbed in whatever we are focussing on, that the other things which are outside of ourselves don’t bother us anymore and we are able to meditate without easily getting distracted by any such outside thing. Experienced practitioners can also translate pratyahara into their daily lives which means they are so concentrated as well as present to the moment at hand which makes things like sounds and sensation don’t distract their mind easily.
The sixth limb of Yoga is Dharana which means “focused concentration”. The word “dha” means “maintaining or holding”, “Ana” means “something else” or “other”. It is closely linked to other two limbs mentioned previously, Dharana and Pratyahara are important and essential part of the same aspect. As every stage prepares us for the next one, Pratyahara creates the stage for Dharana or concentration.
When we have successfully moved on the eightfold yoga path through asana practice, meditation as well as control of the senses, we get ready to go deeper. This is where we start with Dharana, the essential binding of consciousness to one single point.
Dharana is about fixing the mind to one particular and specific point. This can be anything internal like a body part or a chakra or something external such as a statue or any other object. It is not important that what the object we are focusing on, the main purpose is to quieten the mind with the total concentration.
When we focus our mind intensely on a single point, the rest of the mind starts to quiet down. When we are practising concentration like this, there is no or very less room for other memories, thoughts and planning that the mind often tends to get busy with.
Dhaana is quite an important step on our path to the next step that is Dhyana, or meditation. We have to be able to concentrate the mind before we start to move further. Although the last three steps on the eightfold path of yoga, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are very much interconnected. These three last steps also represent the internal yoga, the mind’s activities, and they are quite independent of the physical senses. We first will have to achieve the deep concentration of Dharana through which we can further move towards the Dhyana, the meditation and then finally to Samadhi, the union with the Whole.
Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga which is built upon asana which is the physical posture, pranayama which is the breath control, pratyahara which is the control of senses with moving of the focus to the inside, and dharna which is concentration. The word Dhyana originates from Sanskrit word “dhyai” meaning “to think of.”
Where Dharana is practised for one-pointed attention, dhyana is the ultimate state of being completely aware without any focus. At this particular stage, the mind has been quietened, and in its stillness, it produces almost no thoughts at all. The stamina and strength it takes to achieve this state of stillness is very impressive.
Dhyana involves the meditation and concentration on a focus point with the inherent intention of knowing the truth concerning to it. This deeper concentration of the mind is itself the instrument of self-knowledge where a person can easily separate illusion from the reality and then eventually reach the ultimate yoga goal, that is Samadhi, bliss or union with the Whole.
For a regular practitioner, this may sound more like very high and mighty thing to do. We often practice yoga in order to feel good, to learn a lot about ourselves and also to find the moments of peace during our daily hectic days. Finding the permanent state of bliss may seem like a bit out of our league. But do not get discouraged by this. Yoga is a way to show the way and give us the clues along with the guidelines. We can start taking them whichever seem relevant to us.
As per Yoga Sutra, the main purpose of meditation is to interrupt the normal mental activity’s fluctuations like sensory knowledge, imagination and memory. Out of these three, the memory is the one which is the hardest to quieten, and it incessantly feeds us the instances from the past along with an endless stream of feelings and thoughts.
The eighth limb of yoga is Samadhi. Most of us know the word Samadhi which means “enlightenment” or “bliss”, and this is the final and last step of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra’s journey. After we have re-organized our entire relationships with the outside world as well as our own inner world, we arrive at the finale of bliss.
When we observe the word Samadhi, we find that “enlightenment” or the “realization” doesn’t refer to any sort of floating away on a cloud in a particular state of ecstasy and happiness.
If we break the word in half, we will see that this final and last step is made up of two Sanskrit words “sama” which means “same” or “equal”, and “dhi” which means “to see”. There is a particular reason that it is termed as realization and it is because when one reaches Samadhi, he escapes from something, or floating away or getting joyful abundantly, it is more about realizing the entire life that is right in front of us.
The great ability to “see equally” along with without getting disturbed from the mind as well as without our experience of being conditioned by habits, likes or dislikes, or without any need to judge or to become attached to any given aspect, that is the actual “bliss”
There are various levels of Samadhi or different stages of connection with the One, the Divine but when the Samadhi word is used alone, it essentially refers to the enlightenment state that is the highest form of Samadhi.
Samadhi isn’t a permanent state, and like the other stages such as Dharana and Dhyana, Samadhi can’t be attained by any accident. It takes a lot of dedication as well as effort, and a person must always be willing to train his mind and go deeper inside.
However, there is one thing that one should always keep in mind that the Samadhi isn’t any permanent state. As per Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras dictates importantly, unless we are entirely ready, without any impressions like attachment, desires, aversion and habits, and with an entirely pure mind, we won’t be able to maintain the Samadhi state for long.
Once the mind becomes pure, and one truly experience the state of Samadhi, one can keep hold of and attain moksha which is also known as Mukti, that means a permanent state of being released, liberated and free.
When you have followed the journey of seven limbs of yoga, and you have been able to find the ways to deal with yourself as well as the world, move both your body along with your breath, when you have removed all sorts of external stimuli, focused the mind and also meditated, you are then getting really ready for the highest state of consciousness.
Samadhi, Bliss or the union with the Divine or the Whole and oneness with the Universe is something which can’t be explained in words. It is something that one has to experience on his own.
With this, we end our detailed discussion on eight limbs of yoga. All these limbs explore the various aspects of our body, mind and entire life. You need to get a deeper understanding to know more about getting aligned with the universe and getting associated with it.