The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The ancient yogis studied the many obstacles to bringing the mind under conscious control by observing their own thoughts, scientifically and objectively. The sage Patanjali compiled their findings in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text that describes the inner workings of the mind, and also provides an eight-stepped (ashtanga) blueprint for controlling the restless mind and enjoying lasting peace. Each of the eight steps or limbs is of equal value and needs to be maintained all the way along the yogic path. Yoga suggests that if you wish to reach enlightenment, the path will be a lot easier if you follow these following steps.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

1. Yamas (Ethical Considerations or Abstentions)

The Yamas are ethical considerations and are based on how we treat the world around us. There are five Yamas:

(i) Ahimsa (Non-violence)

The method made popular by Gandhi, Ahimsa means not being violent, loving yourself and others, being gentle, just, and not having any pride or fear.

(ii) Satya (Truth)

This means being true to your nature, speaking the truth, and acting as you speak.

(iii) Asteya (Non-stealing)

This doesn’t only mean not to steal but not to keep for yourself when others are lacking. It’s being simple and living simply.

(iv) Brahmacharya (Moderation)

Moderation in body, mind and speech, whether sexual moderation, moderation with food, drink or anything else. All can be enjoyed in moderation.

(v) Aparigraha (Non-covetousness)

Non-possessiveness means not to hoard or become attached to material possessions, having all that you need and feeling no loss even if you lose something or not.

2. Niyamas (Self-Observations)

The Niyamas are self-observations and are based on how we treat and conduct ourselves. There are five Niyamas:

(i) Saucha (Cleanliness)

Both inner cleanliness (positive and clean thoughts) and outer cleanliness (positive actions, body cleanliness).

(ii) Santosa (Contentment)

Feeling content and grateful for what we have, feeling no lack, and feeling at peace.

(iii) Tapas (Fiery Cleansing)

Using painful experiences to cleanse you from the inside, as these are an opportunity to let go. Can be attained through asana.

(iv) Svadhyaya (Self study)

Getting to know yourself very well, for only when you truly know yourself, you can get to know others.

(v) Isvara Pranidhana (Devotion to the universal)

Surrender of the ego; believing that there is something greater than yourself and seeing the divine in others too.

3. Asanas (Physical Poses)

The third step in this system, Asanas are physical exercises, steady poses, which are non-violent and provide a gentle stretching that acts to lubricate the joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other parts of the body. Asanas help to tone the nervous system, improve circulation, release tension and increase flexibility. When performed in a slow and relaxed manner, they are designed to develop more than just the physical body. They also broaden the mental faculties and enhance the spiritual capabilities. Asanas are designed to promote a state of mental and physical well-being and good health. This may be defined as the condition that is experienced when all the organs function efficiently under the intelligent control of the mind. Asanas have an extraordinary capacity to overhaul, rejuvenate, and bring the entire system into a state of balance.

4. Pranayama (Breath Control)

Control of vital energy. Breath is seen as the outward manifestation of Prana – the vital force or energy that flows through the physical body but lives in the Astral body. By exercising control over breathing, you can learn to control the subtle energies within the body, and ultimately gain full control over the mind. The pranic benefits, when the prana is consciously controlled, is a powerful vitalising and regenerating force. Once you are able to control the prana, it can be manipulated for self development, for healing yourself of seemingly incurable diseases, or to help you to help others. When the mind is agitated, whether angry, excited or sad, the breath becomes short or erratic. By calming the breath and lengthening it we can soothe the mind and free it from its restlessness. Each time we control the movement of the breath we are also controlling the movement of our energy.

5. Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal)

Pratyahara is when, during asana, your gaze is fixed and you are concentrating on your breath and the rest of the world falls away. It is the act of withdrawing from the various senses. It is through the senses that we interact with the world around us. By taking in the world through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we develop notions of likes and dislikes, pleasure and pain and attachment aversion. By withdrawing the mind from the senses, you detach yourself from that worldly conditioning.

6. Dharana (Concentration)

This is not to be confused with meditation. It is the contemplation of a single object in the mind. In class, we often use the breath as this object – sitting still at the beginning of the class listening to its sound, rhythm and quality. Common objects or Dharana are the scent, colour, or feel of a flower, the feel of a breeze or the sound and vibration of OM; but it can be anything the practitioner chooses. During this concentration there is no judgement, comparison or measurement to be made just the focus of the attention on that one object. This is commonly referred to as developing the witness state. Concentration of the mind

7. Dhyana (Meditation)

Rather than contemplating something, you drop the object and focus on nothing. In meditation, the object is gone but the subject remains. The rational, logical, conditioned mind is at a complete rest and just a sense of being remains. Just like in Dharana, there is no judgement or comparison to be made.

8. Samadhi (Enlightenment)

This is the super-conscious state. When that final sense of being falls away, the practitioner enters the state of enlightenment. Having completely freed themselves from the ego-conditioned mind and realising universal consciousness, they are able to experience true freedom and peace (Shanti). This is the Bliss state (Ananda) which is beyond description. Samadhi is not an additional step to take but the final goal.

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