The Eight Limbs of Yoga

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Photo by Tiago Rosado

Here in the US it’s easy for us to think that yoga is just a bunch of postures, because that’s what many mainstream classes here focus on. But did you know that yoga offers much more than just a physical practice? Ashtanga is what the Indian sage Patanjali called the “eightfold path to enlightenment” described in his Yoga Sutra, of which asana (or physical postures) is only one. The 196 aphorisms of the Yoga Sutra were compiled around 400 CE as a guide to spiritual liberation. The original purpose of yoga was to train the mind to enable clear seeing:

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah.
Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam.

Yoga is the mastery of the activities of the mind-field.
Then the seer rests in its true nature.
– Yoga Sutra 1.2-3

The postures (asana) we are familiar with from our yoga classes is a practice from just one of the eight stages along the path. I find it very interesting – maybe telling even – that here in the US we tend to skip over some very important first steps involving ethics and virtuous behaviors, jumping instead right into the physical practice. By exploring the various stages and practices of Ashtanga we can see that it provides a strong scaffolding and a systematic process for freeing ourselves from the habits and patterns that cause suffering.

1. Yamas – ethical restraints, respect for others

Ahimsa – non-harming, non-violence in thought, speech and action.

The Metta Center for Nonviolence defines non-violence as “the force unleashed when desire to harm is eradicated.” Ahimsa is not a passive or weak practice. It arises organically from a sharp, trained mind that is fully aware and present. It’s practiced through strength of will and self-discipline and it has the power to change hearts and minds.

We only have to think about the recent global economic crisis to understand how we are all interconnected. On a subtler level, the human body contains a collection of microorganisms, some of which we cannot live without. In fact, the organisms of the gut biome are so crucial they are considered by some to be another organ of the human body – what appears to be other is actually us. If one believes in the interconnection of all things, to hurt another is to hurt oneself and vice versa. Along the same lines, one’s non-harming intentions ripple out and affect those around us.

We can cultivate ahimsa in our daily lives by being more aware of the subtle ways in which we harm ourselves or others. Do we use harsh words in conversation or in our own self-talk? Do we think about ways to get even or harbor ill-will for those we feel have wronged us? Is the health of the Earth and its creatures in consideration as we consume and discard products? With practice, non-harming can become habit, sending beneficial ripples far and wide.

As one becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility. – Yoga Sutra 2.35

Satya – non-lying, truthfulness, speaking, thinking and acting, inwardly and outwardly, in a manner that is free from distortion, pure of obscuration, and reflecting what we understand to be reality.

Satya is a practice of honesty with self and others. We have many notions of truth and much of the time it seems to depend upon perspective. What appears to be true to one person is not always the case for another. The senses are limited and can be fooled. Emotions are changeable and often result from distorted thinking. So how can we recognize truth and put it into practice?

We can start by finding stillness so that we can awaken to inner knowing – a subtle phenomenon that is difficult to describe and can only be fully understood through direct experience. A mindful movement practice can settle the body, preparing us for meditation during which we cultivate deeper powers of concentration, clearer perception, and insight. In our daily lives we can do our best to stay curious and remain open to whatever arises, both internal and external. We can welcome information from the senses, observing thoughts and emotions while acknowledging their limitations. We can move beyond judgments of wanted, unwanted, pleasant and unpleasant, so that we can see things as they truly are rather than as we prefer them to be.

When one is firmly established in speaking truth, the fruits of action become subservient to him. – Yoga Sutra 2.36

Asteya – non-stealing in intention (non-coveting in thoughts and speech) as well as in action or deed (not taking what belongs to others without permission), renouncing subtler forms of taking, such as cheating, deception and manipulation.

The root cause of stealing is a sense of lack. The emotions of desire, want, desperation, craving, and greed drive the action of grasping after what is desired. There is a lack of faith in oneself to provide what is needed and a lack of compassion for others’ wellbeing. When we aren’t mindful, our emotions override our higher values or allow us to rationalize taking without permission. We can even steal from ourselves. We can cheat ourselves out of opportunities, deceive ourselves, and manipulate situations preventing ourselves from evolving and growing. For instance, we can squander our time with meaningless distractions or rob ourselves of a moment by not being present.

The best way to practice asteya is to cut off its causes at the root. One of the antidotes to craving is compassion. Through the practice of compassion generosity increases and we become more concerned about others wellbeing. Understanding the impermanence and emptiness of all things is also useful in practicing asteya. Realizing that no object has intrinsic value in and of itself – its value is in the stories and concepts we create about it. In addition, nothing lasts forever – neither the temporary state of want we experience nor the pleasure of possession of any object. All things change in time, so stealing can only provide a temporary sense of relief. However, the harmful effects of stealing can ripple out far beyond the initial victim. We can also practice asteya by cultivating an attitude of abundance, focusing on what is here already. Knowing that we are “enough” brings with it the courage and strength to follow a more virtuous path with persistence and devotion.

When non-stealing (asteya) is established, all jewels, or treasures present themselves, or are available to the Yogi. – Yoga Sutra 2.37

Bramacharya – non-excess, moderation.

Bramacharya means practicing moderation and balance, taking the middle path rather than swinging between extremes, using self-restraint, and freeing the mind from domination by the senses. Bramacharya requires us to see the bigger picture. It asks us to be conscious about what we attend to and trade the temporary, short-term enjoyment of external sensory pleasures for true internal joy. Practicing bramacharya helps liberate us from the cycle of grasping, clinging, and aversion. Rather than allowing our energies to be depleted by things that are transient, meaningless, or that do not truly serve us, we conserve inner resources for pursuits that take us further on the path of higher consciousness.

A person with a disciplined mind benefits from controlled senses. Pleasures and difficulties can be fully experienced as they come and go, without grasping, clinging or aversion. By practicing bramacharya, we are better able to focus energies on our chosen path. Through moderation of the senses, one travels mindfully in higher-consciousness rather than careening blindly down the limited path of the senses.

When brahmacharya becomes stable one gains great energy and power. – Yoga Sutra 2.38

Aparigraha – non-hoarding, non-possessiveness

In practicing aparigraha, we aspire to be free from attachment in word, thought, and deed. This includes not striving after, accumulating and clinging to unnecessary things. When we practice aparigraha, we keep only what is needed and no more. This applies not only to material things like money, possessions, and gifts, but also with intangibles such as pleasurable feelings, validation, attention, assistance, accomplishment, power, and control.

The belief that our possessions will keep us safe or happy is a delusion. Disappointment, unwanted outcomes, illness, injury and death happen at every socioeconomic level. Research shows that material wealth is correlated with happiness only to the point at which we no longer have to struggle – when our basic needs are met. In addition, people who organize their lives around a consumer mindset report lower levels of life satisfaction and personal wellbeing. Excessive material pursuits can have destructive effects on relationships and the environment, which ultimately impacts us all. Research also shows that giving brings more lasting happiness than self-indulgence.

Although it can be frightening at first to think about letting go of things we’ve been conditioned to believe we need to be happy, much freedom can be found in the releasing. By letting go of things that no longer serve us, we make more space for what is useful and helpful. Only through the direct experience of letting go can we discover that we already have everything needed inside of us, just waiting to be uncovered.

When one is steadfast in non-possessiveness or non-grasping with the senses (aparigraha), there arises knowledge of the why and wherefore of past and future… – Yoga Sutra 2.39

2. Niyamas – observances, virtuous habits, self-respect

Saucha – purity of body, speech and mind

There are factors in one’s internal and external environment which can become hindrances to one’s spiritual path – these are what we might consider to be the “impurities”. In order to help clear the path, we can set an intention to free ourselves as much as possible from these distractions.

The body can be purified through maintaining cleanliness and engaging healthful activities. Purity of speech means, as best we can, speaking the truth with kindness. Through silent reflection and the cultivation of calm abiding and understanding (such as when we practice mindfulness and meditation), we develop purity of mind.

We can also be mindful of the purity of our environment, keeping the space around us simple and clean, maintaining the tools of our practice with loving care, and spending time with others who support and further our journey.

Through cleanliness and purity of body and mind comes a purification of the essence, a goodness and gladness of feeling, a sense of focus with intentness, the mastery and union of the senses, and a fitness, preparation and capability for self-realization. — Yoga Sutras 2.41

Santosha – contentment

Santosha is such a powerful state of mind that embodies contentment regardless or circumstances. Its practice cultivates a joyful and serene mind that is free from craving. It’s quite a skill to be able to accept uncontrollable circumstances we find ourselves in. When we open to experience, rather than denying it or pushing it away, we are more capable of responding with wisdom. We learn to be satisfied with no more and no less than what we really need. We cease to be distracted by appearances and that which is impermanent, instead taking comfort in what is already available within each of us.

Being content regardless of circumstances doesn’t mean we passively resign ourselves to mistreatment. Rather, it means we are better able to see things as they are, abiding calmly with whatever arises with an open mind. It is from this vantage point that we are better able to respond. When we don’t expend all our energy pursuing the things we think we want or trying to change others or our uncontrollable circumstances, we have more space to look inward, know ourselves and direct our attention toward the greater good.

From an attitude of contentment (santosha), unexcelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained. – Yoga Sutra 2.42

Tapas – self-discipline

Tapas is an inner fire that fuels our journey through the path. It burns away impurities or obscurations, removing obstacles. It can be helpful to imagine tapas as the heat emanating from the friction that is generated when we work against our unhelpful habits and conditioning.

Cultivating tapas does not necessarily mean doing more or working harder just to serve the ego (our desired image of ourselves). Rather, tapas requires the exertion of “right effort” to realize our higher intentions. This may be the gentle or shortened practice that we take when life presents us with obstacles. When we heed the inner wisdom that encourages us to take practice even when we are really busy or we are feeling down or a little under the weather, we are cultivating tapas. It may also mean being mindful of the substances we put into our bodies in order to better serve our practice. Or, it may mean sitting a bit with discomfort rather than avoiding or distracting ourselves from it.

When we have cultivated the inner fire of tapas, the practice doesn’t feel like a chore, an obligation, or something we dread. Over time and with consistency, an implicit trust in the benefits of practice emerges. This drives devotion, which is the natural result of this deep understanding.

Through self-discipline or training of the senses (tapas), there comes a destruction of mental impurities, and an ensuing mastery or perfection over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions – Yoga Sutra 2.43

Svadhyaya – self-study, self-reflection

Through self-study, we discover our true nature. Who are we behind all the stories we create and the ideas we internalize about ourselves? Discovering who we truly are emerges from a growing understanding of what we are not.

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Photo by Madison Lavern

Through meditation and self-reflection we gain insight into our conditioning and habits. We begin to understand the ways in which we cause ourselves and others to suffer. Through asana we engage in observation and get direct feedback from the body, breath and behavior. We see that we are not our bodies or what we think, feel or do. An exploration of wisdom teachings imparts us with the knowledge of great teachers throughout the ages. We benefit from what they learned through their own self-study.

Gradually, with patience and devotion, we shine the light of awareness into all the dark corners, chasing away delusion and illuminating reality. Obscurations are cleared to reveal our eternal essence which was there all the while, just waiting to be discovered.

Study thy self, discover the divine. — Yoga Sutra, 2.44

Isvarapranidhana – surrender to and acceptance of ultimate truth

Isvarapranidhana might be interpreted as surrendering the ego to a higher purpose; a willful acceptance of what is rather than living out the stories we tell ourselves. It can also mean dedicating oneself to a teacher or yielding to a higher source. Through practice, individual self-interest takes a back seat, offering the fruits of thought, speech, and action to the greater good. Over time we develop a sort of inner compass that more consistently guides us from a place of love, compassion, and interconnection.

It’s mistaken to think of this type of surrender as a passive giving up. Rather, it’s an active and intentional choice to accept and allow, rather than resist or struggle against, that which is already here. In a sense, when we practice isvarapranidhana we are bowing to an inner knowing that is difficult to describe, but unmistakable when it’s experienced. By surrendering to what is true, timeless and eternal rather what is wanted or assumed, we open ourselves to possibility, being less constrained by the limitations of bias and conditioning.

From a special process of devotion and letting go into the creative source from which we emerged (ishvarapranidhana), the coming of samadhi (oneness with the object of meditation) is imminent. – Yoga Sutra 1.23

3. Asana – postures, harmony with physical body

Yoga reconnects us with our bodies. Our culture makes it easy to live almost entirely in our heads or in the external world of other people and things. The messages we receive from society and the media can lead us to dislike our bodies, which may result in a disregard for or even abuse of our physical forms. Yoga asana (postures) help bring us back into our bodies and appreciate what they are capable of.

The body is inextricably connected with the mind and its sensations are often the first clue that something attention-worthy is happening inside us. Certified Ashtanga yoga teacher David Garrigues said, “Yoga has been [a] slow, intensely physical process of waking up to what is most alive within me…” When we are aware of what our bodies are telling us, we can make space to consider and respond wisely.

In addition, the body offers very concrete and tangible phenomena to observe with curiosity. Even the seemingly simplest of asana require a coordination of balance, flexibility and strength, so yoga motivates us to treat our bodies with more attention and care in order to nurture our practice. We enjoy the effects of our practice and we want it to continue.

The posture (asana) for yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable, and this is the third of the eight rungs of yoga. The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing or loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite. From the attainment of that perfected posture, there arises an unassailable, unimpeded freedom from suffering due to the pairs of opposites (such as heat and cold, good and bad, or pain and pleasure). – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2.46 – 2.48

4. Pranayama – control of breath, harmony with life force

Breathing is an automatic process, yet it is absolutely necessary for life. The way we breathe affects everything – how we think, feel and behave. When unexamined, the breath tends to take on habitual patterns that can contribute to suffering. Practicing pranayama is a method of becoming more familiar with breathing patterns and learning to influence them. By becoming more conscious of breathing, we may notice when the breath is constricted or unbalanced and make changes as appropriate.

Through pranayama, we gain access to the central nervous system. We can use pranayama to train ourselves to regulate heart rate and blood pressure, and to heat, cool or relax the body, bringing ourselves into greater balance. The practices allow us to influence functions that are typically automatic. In this way, we can use the breath as a vehicle driving attention to typically unconscious aspects of being. This state of energetic equilibrium prepares us for subsequent stages of ashtanga, including concentration and meditation.

Once harmony with the physical body has been achieved (asana), through interruption of the movement engendered by inhaling and exhaling you attempt to harmonize your energy (pranayama). Exhalation, inhalation, retention, technique, time and number must be very precisely regulated over a lengthy period. The fourth pranayama technique ultimately transcends breath retention after exhaling or inhaling. The veil covering the light of the true self then vanishes. – Yoga Sutra 2.49-52

5. Pratyahara – mastery of the senses, harmony with emotions

During pratyahara, we practice disengaging from the external world of people and things and focus on the internal experience of the mind itself. The practice of pratyahara is not a suppression of sensory input. Rather, it is a “letting go” of attachment to external stimuli, including associated memories, images and sense impressions. We no longer seek out or engage with information gathered through the senses, though we do still register its presence.

With training, the senses are said to follow the mind. So, when the mind turns inward, the senses come along with it. However, when the mind is untrained, it can seem the other way around. Our lives feel driven by the senses, constantly distracted and directed by desires and aversions.

Pratyahara lays a foundation for deeper levels of concentration and meditation. When we are no longer distracted by the senses, we are better able to practice single pointed concentration. Therefore, we can become more fully absorbed in meditation. This eventually leads to clearer seeing and a connection with the true self.

Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs, so when one withdraws the senses from the sense objects, one’s wisdom becomes steady. – Bhagavad Gita

6. Dharana – single pointed concentration, harmony with thoughts

Dharana involves training the mind to remain fixed on an object of concentration, such as the breath, sounds, body sensations, a mantra, deity, or idea. Cultivating single pointed concentration prepares the mind for meditative absorption. Dharana practice channels the energies of the mind away from distractions, providing a firm foundation from which reality can be experienced.

When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame of a candle in a windless place – Bhagavad Gita

7. Dhyana – meditative absorption

When longer periods of undistracted focus come more easily, we are ready to move into the next limb of yoga. The senses become quiet. Only the mind is active, submerged in a deep stream of stable consciousness. Over time, discursive thought, stories and concepts fade into the background. Narrative, memory, and ego fall away and only awareness of being and object remain. This continuous flow of concentration is called dhyana. A feeling of rapture or joy arises, evolving into a state of equanimity and a sense of boundlessness. Through the clear seeing and knowing resulting from dhyana, we begin to get a glimpse of our true nature  – we connect with pure consciousness, limitless and fathomless.

Meditation is sustained concentration, whereby the attention continues to hold or repeat the same object or place. – Yoga Sutra 3.2

8. Samadhi – union of meditator and object, recognizing our true nature

In Ashtanga, when observer, act of observing, and object of observation collapse into oneness during meditation, this is samadhi. Experiencing samadhi results from devoted practice of the various stages of the eight limbs of Ashtanga over a long period of time. Only when concentration can be sustained for a prolonged period without distraction, can the deep stillness and insight of meditation happen. Only when meditation can be sustained with sufficient intensity for clear seeing, can the circumstances be ripe for samadhi. The practices build upon one another and the practitioner matures throughout the process, gaining skill and wisdom.

Even though samadhi is the final limb of Ashtanga, it is not the end of the path. Instead samadhi is yet another tool with many of its own stages. The highest stage of samadhi is said to be effortlessly achieved and sustained – a state of luminous clarity. With diligence and devotion, may your yoga practice one day bring you to highest samadhi!

When only the essence of that object, place, or point shines forth in the mind, as if devoid even of its own form, that state of deep absorption is called deep concentration or samadhi, which is the eighth rung. – Yoga Sutra 3.3

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