The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refers to the eight limbs of yoga, each of which offers guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.
The word ‘yoga’ means to connect. The thing we look to connect to is the true Self, or you might also refer to this as the soul. If that way of thinking doesn’t resonate with you, then consider that the word yoga can also mean separation.
The thing we’re breaking away from is whatever stops us from feeling free, as the ultimate goal of any yoga practice is to attain a constant state of peace.
Yoga involves Eight Basic Principles
- “Yama” means restraint and involves following characteristics such as: (Ahimsa) compassion for all, (Satya) truthfulness, (Asteya) non-stealing, (Brahmacharya) right use of energy, and (Aparigraha) non greed or non hoarding.
- “Niyamas” means observances and involves: Self-Purification (Saucha), Contentment (Santosha), Self-Discipline (Tapas), Self-Study (Svadhyaya), and Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)
- “Asanas” mean postures.
- “Pranayama” means controlled breathing.
- “Pratyahara” means withdrawal of senses.
- “Dharana” means concentration of the mind.
- “Dhyani” means meditation.
- “Samadhi” means absorption and is the state of consciousness induced by complete meditation.
The Yamas are the first step to embark on this eight limbed path to Samadhi. They are also referred to as being part of the external practice of yoga. These 5 restraints are conscious choices of right from wrong, directing our energy into a more positive direction.
The Niyamas are traditionally practiced by those who wish to travel further along the Yogic path, and are intended to build character and a more internal practice. Interestingly, the Niyamas closely relate to the Koshas, our ‘layers’ leading from the physical body and focusing within.
The next step, practicing Asana. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable. The asana that we’re practicing here is not a fancy yoga pose – it quite literally means a comfortable seat in which you can breathe smoothly and comfortably.
The fourth limb, Prana, describes the breath, and by working with the way we breathe, we affect the mind in a powerful way. Pranayama can be understood as either ‘prana-yama’ which would mean ‘breath control’, or it could be understood as ‘prana-ayama’ which would translate as ‘freedom of breath’ or ‘breath expansion’.
Pratyahara is the 5th limb along the path, where we start to embark on a much more internal journey. Instead of actually losing the ability to hear and smell, to see and feel, the practice of pratyahara changes our state of mind so that the distractions of the outside world do not interfere with our meditation and concentration.
We don’tt want to completely withdrawal and not be able to hear or feel anything – this practice at its fullest extent means to be able to be content no matter what is happening around you.
Closely linked to the previous limb; Dharana and Pratyahara are essentially the same. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all of our attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently. Focusing on the breath is a practice of dharana.
The seventh limb is Dhyani or ‘meditative absorption’ – when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation. All of the things we may learn in a book, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate.
The physical practice of meditation describes the spontaneous action of something that happens internally as a result of everything else.
Many of us know the word Samadhi as meaning ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment.’ Samadhi is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we’ve re-organized our relationships with the outside world and our own inner world, we come to the final state of bliss.
There’s a reason it’s referred to as enlightenment, or coming to a state of realization. Reaching Samadhi is not about escaping, floating away, or being abundantly joyful; it’s about realizing the life that lies in front of us.
The ability to ‘see’ without disturbance from the mind, without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes or habits, without a need to judge or become attached to any particular aspect; that is bliss.
The Traveling Yogi