What are the eight limbs of yoga and how can you practice them in your daily life?
This is a question from last month, since it is a big question I thought I would make it this month’s topic.
The eight limbs of yoga known as Ashtanga Yoga, (ashta = 8 and anga is limb) are from the 2nd and 3rd chapter of the yoga sutras of Patanjali, a short text written on the processes of yoga and how to attain union. The sutras contain 4 chapters of approx. 50 sutras (or verses) each. It was believed to be written about 5,000 years ago, the author, Patanjali, did not actually write the material but compiled it from various resources and rishis.
The eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama = non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, brahmacharya (not being frivolous with your sexual energy), non-hoarding
- Niyama = purity, contentment, self-discipline, self study, Surrender to God
- asana = postures
- Pranayama = breathing
- Pratyahara = turning your senses inward
- Dharana = concentration
- Dhyana = meditation
- Samadhi = nirvana
How to incorporate them into your life:
The first four limbs, the tangible limbs, require work. Over time, the effort we put into the first four limbs allows the remaining four to spontaneously develop in us—no effort required. You lay the ground work with the first four limbs and enjoy the fruit of your actions as the last four develop.
The first two limbs are the yamas and niyamas—kind of like the 10 commandments. There are so many people who have written about these and all the subtle ways we are violent (from killing insects to farm animals) and stealing by sharing music . . . that I do not want to go there. Instead I want to touch briefly on some of the benefits of working toward these ideals, the yamas and niyamas give us a tangible way to live our lives, some guidance for us to rely on when necessary. Keeping these qualities present in our mind will help us live our lives closer to them—put your effort into keeping these qualities in your mind and that will help them outwardly manifest in your life.
1. Yama translates as “restraints” but it means ‘regulating yourself’ or self-restraint. The yamas are: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, not being frivolous with your sexual energy, and not hoarding (too many possessions).
As a yogi becomes more grounded in non-violence others near them naturally lose any feelings of hostility or fear. As truthfulness is achieved you learn to trust in the natural ways of the universe and lose the need to deceive, you feel comfortable with who you are what your dharma is. When non-stealing is practiced all we need plus more is given to us—all we need is provided to us! When we save our sexual energy for connection through love (and not abuse this energy) we become more vital and full of energy. When we are not wasteful, collecting “things”, and use earth’s energies wisely there is more available to us, we will feel totally secure and cared for by our providing earth, uniting with the earth—not just taking from it.
2. Niyama translates as ‘observances’ but means ‘self training’, they are: purity in body and mind, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to God.
Keeping the body and mind pure require a little effort and awareness, when the body is clean (Ayurveda recommends all kinds of “routines” for this) and the thoughts pure (with the practice of meditation) we are less attracted to impure thoughts and behaviors and feel better balance in our lives. Which leads to contentment, when we are content with our life we are spontaneously happy.
Discipline to do our practices builds heat in the body which is said to burn away the mental impurities that keep us from our practice; discipline is an important attribute to cultivate in ourselves. Self study and study of spiritual texts and books helps remind us of a Higher Energy that is there for us to connect with. Surrendering to this energy and flowing with the natural energy of the universe is the final niyama, Surrendering to God, Let Go, Let God. Stop trying to fight the natural flow of your life, trying rolling along with it, paddle downstream instead of upstream.
3. Asana – Asana or postures. Out of the 196 sutras on yoga, only three sutras talk about postures! They say your posture should be sthira-sukham; stable/steady and pleasant, and the purpose of the postures are to relieve tension from the mind and body; tension in the body leads to disease (such as heart attacks, etc.), tension in the mind leads to mental and emotional instability. The third verse states with the removal of tension and production of relaxation we suffer less and are more easily able to identify with our Higher Self.
After performing yoga postures we tend to feel more happy and refreshed, this is the difference between yoga postures and other exercise, yoga is designed to firm up the yogi physically, mentally, and emotionally. In today’s society where we get very little exercise in our daily lives, asana are even more important than years ago when we did not have so many conveniences, asana keeps the body fit and prevents fatigue and aging.
Your yoga asana should be smooth, calm, peaceful, flowing, and not obsessive; yoga prepares a student to control his body, not kill it!
4. Pranayama – Breath control. Prana is the energy that courses through our body, pra means moving and na means always. Where there is life (human, animal, plant) there is prana, all that vibrates in this Universe consists of prana (heat, light, gravity, magnetism, electricity, life, and spirit). As long as we live we are prana conductors, but our wires may be bent, blocked or broken. Pranayama and asana begin the work of keeping our prana pathways open and flowing. Prana is moved with our breath (among other methods) and when many speak of prana they are referring to our breath (although prana is more than just breath), yama is restraint, so pranayama is controlling the breath. Pranayama is described as inhaling, exhaling, retentions, and suspension (naturally occurring) of breath in various counts. The breathing we do during our Ashtanga practice is called ujjayi pranayama, it is a steady rhythmic breathing which soothes the mind and energizes the body. The sutras speak of some advanced pranayama techniques which involve holding your breath (retention) after an inhale, exhale or both. These practices are advanced and are best learned with the guidance of a teacher, in the Ashtanga method you are not taught these advanced techniques until you start 3rd series! For most of us that would be anywhere from 6-10 years of practice before our body/mind is able to handle advanced pranayama!
Working with steady, deep, rhythmic breathing (no retentions) is very beneficial to body and mind; our two life support systems in our body are our heart and lung systems; of these two systems it is most easy to control our breath, and by controlling the breath we do gain some control over the heart—for example we can slow our heart beat with deep breathing. With conscious deep breathing we bring more vital prana into our body filling us with more energy.
One of the major ways we leak energy or prana from our body is with the mind and all its “thoughts”. The mind waves (vrittis) and prana (breath) tend to move together, when our mind is jumping around with shallow thoughts the breath tends to be shallow and irregular as well. When we slow down and deepen our breath our mind slows down and stops the agonizing process of teasing us with all its thoughts—it too goes “deeper”. When the mind goes “deeper” sutra II:52 states that ignorance is removed letting our Light shine brighter. It is much easier to control the breath than the mind! So if the breath and mind follow each other, control the breath and the mind too will follow. Pranayama is thus a two fold benefit it brings energy into the body while reducing the loss of energy through our mind. Through these practices and processes of pranayama, the mind develops a “fitness”, qualification, or capability for true concentration (dharana), which is itself the sixth of the limbs, but leads naturally to the 5th limb, Pratyahara.
5. Pratyahara – prati means opposite, ahara means attraction, so pratyahara means the opposite attraction of psychic energy. Psychic energy in this case is referring to our desires, when our senses desire or become attached to something we give that “thing” power over us, objects of desire/attachment distract us from the study of our higher Self. Practicing pratyahara does not mean you can not have sense enjoyment—it means don’t let it control you, don’t let it have the power to make you happy or sad! Some also think pratyahara is controlling our “will power”—it is not, will power is the ego trying to control. A better approach than willing yourself not to have desires is to put your attention on something “Higher”, your breath for example. Remember the mind will follow the breath, so to pull the mind way from following the senses, turn to your breath; deepen and slow down your breath. And this is the beauty of our Ashtanga practice; during our practice we are listening to our ujjayi breath turning our hearing sense internal, looking toward a gazing point turning our sense of sight inward, feeling the asana on our body taking our sense of touch inward, and even by the use of incense and the lack of food smells turning our sense of smell and taste inward. When we practice our Ashtanga practice we are practicing pratyahara. Once we establish pratyahara in our personality and are no longer pulled to desires in the outer world we realize that all we need is within us. Pratyahara is our gatekeeper between inner and outer yoga.
6. Dharana – Concentration
7. Dhyana – Meditation
8. Samadhi = Nirvana, nirvana is a Sanskrit word that means “blown out”—it is referring to the ego, when the ego is ‘at rest’ we feel we are in Nirvana.
These three limbs start the third chapter of the sutras, they work together, at first sequentially, then after a LONG period of time practicing they merge and spontaneously develop together, this is known as samyama. The remainder of chapter 3 deals with samyama.
In concentration you start to think of an object (inside or outside of yourself) other thoughts interfere but you repeatedly bring your attention back to the object, in meditation you are fixated on that object—there are no other thoughts, in Samadhi you unite and become one with the object. In samyama you think of an object and become one with it instantly, this is the result of advanced meditation.
This process can work with good or bad objects—so be-aware where you place your attention! In yoga we direct our attention toward uniting with Universal Energy, feeling as if we are one with all and everything.
In the sutras, chapter 3:24-37 go on to explain the benefits of practicing samyama on different objects:
By samyama on friendliness (and the other attitudes of 1.33), there comes great strength of that attitude. By samyama on the strength of elephants comes a similar strength. By samyama on the inner sun, knowledge of the many subtle realms can be known. By samyama on the moon, knowledge of the arrangement of the inner stars can be known. By samyama on the polestar, knowledge of the movement of those stars can be known. By samyama on the navel center, knowledge of the arrangement of the systems of the body can be known. By samyama on the pit of the throat, hunger and thirst leave. By samyama on the tortoise channel, below the throat, steadiness is attained. By samyama on the coronal light of the head, visions of the siddhas, the masters can come. Or, through the intuitive light of higher knowledge, anything might become known.
By practicing samyama on the heart, knowledge of the mind is attained. The having of experiences comes from a presented idea only when there is a commingling of the subtlest aspect of mind (sattva) and pure consciousness (purusha), which are really quite different. Samyama on the pure consciousness, which is distinct from the subtlest aspect of mind, reveals knowledge of that pure consciousness. From the light of the higher knowledge of that pure consciousness or purusha (3.36) arises higher, transcendental, or divine hearing, touch, vision, taste, and smell.
What to do with these experiences? (3.38): These experiences resulting from samyama are obstacles to samadhi, but appear to be attainments or powers to the outgoing or worldly mind.
Excerpt from: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – Narrative Translation Presented by Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
So again, be-aware, even the practice of Samyama becomes a trap (a trap in that if we get “good” at it we mistake the method for the goal) and like all practices it too will eventually fall away for a natural deeper experience. As it states chapter 3 verses 7&8 all these practices are only stepping stones to the “real thing”:
Internal is seen to be external (3.7-3.8): These three practices of concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and samadhi are more intimate or internal than the previous five practices. However, these three practices are external, and not intimate compared to nirbija samadhi, which is samadhi that has no object, nor even a seed object on which there is concentration.