The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Philosophy of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

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Meditation is part of yoga's eight-limbed path.. HIKARU VISION/Moment/Getty Images

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are thought to have been authored by around the year 250 CE. Although they make little direct mention of yoga asana practices, they are often cited as the philosophical basis for modern postural yoga. The sutras outline eight “limbs” of yoga. (The Sanskrit word for eight limbs is Ashtanga.) Each limb relates to an aspect of achieving a healthy and fulfilling life, and each builds upon the one before it, outlining a path for the aspiring yogi to follow.

The directives move from basic and even mundane aspects of daily life toward the lofty reaches of enlightenment. You may be surprised to discover that only one of the limbs is concerned with the performance of yoga postures. The advent of the primacy of the physical hatha side of yoga is actually a fairly recent development in yoga's long history.

The eight limbs are as follows:

1. Yama:

The five yamas are moral directives intended to guide the practitioner's behavior towards others. They are:

  • Ahimsa: Nonviolence towards others. Ahimsa is often cited as an argument for choosing a vegetarian diet.
  • Satya: Truthfulness.
  • Asteya: Not stealing from others. Though this probably had a literal meaning originally, it has been extended to mean not putting others down to build yourself up.
  • Brahmacharya: Chastity. Whether this means celibacy or simply controlling one's sexual impulses is open to interpretation.
  • Aparigraha: Not coveting what others have.

2. Niyama:

While the yamas direct one's behavior towards others, the niyamas describe how to act ethically towards oneself. Together, these two sets of rules were meant to guide one to a righteous lifestyle. Here are the niyamas:

  • Saucha: Cleanliness. Again, probably a practical meaning originally but has a modern interpretation keeping your intentions pure.
  • Santosa: Contentment with oneself.
  • Tapas: Self discipline. Having the commitment to sustain a practice. 
  • Svadhyaya: Self study. Having the courage to look within yourself for answers.
  • Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to a higher power. Whether that is a deity or the acceptance that the world is governed by forces outside of our control is up to you. 

3. Asana:

The practice of yoga postures, although it should be noted that in the time of Patanjali the word asana meant seat. The poses known at the time were probably seated positions intended for meditation. The development of what we would recognize as modern yoga postures happened much later.

4. Pranayama:

The practice of breathing exercises. Choosing to control the breath for specific effects.

5. Pratyahara:

The withdrawal of the senses, meaning that the exterior world is not a distraction from the interior world within oneself.

6. Dharana:

Concentration, meaning the ability to focus on something uninterrupted by external or internal distractions. Dharana builds upon pratyahara.

Once you can ignore external stimuli, you can begin to direct your concentration elsewhere. 

7. Dhyana:

Meditation. Building upon dharana, your are able to expand your concentration beyond a single thing so that it becomes all encompassing.

8. Samadhi:

Bliss. After you have achieved dhyana, the transcendence of the self through meditation can begin. The self merges with the universe, which is sometimes translated as enlightenment.

Sources:

Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar, 2005.

Yoga: The Iyengar Way, Mira Silva and Shyam Mehta, 1990.

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton, 2010

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