About 200 BC the Indian sage Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras . This authoritative work provides a framework for a systematic approach of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines eight aspects (Eight Limbs) of yoga. Especially these “Eight Limbs” are an invaluable guide to yoga practice. Today, numerous yogi’s from all over the world use them to integrate yoga into their every day lives.
The Eight Limbs are:
Let’s walk through the Eight Limbs now.
Yama (moral restraints)
Being in harmony with the world around you and everyone in it, is very important. It is pretty difficult to work on your spiritual development if you are constantly busy dealing with conflicts. In order to live in harmony and peace with the world, Patanjali recommends a number of restraints. These are: non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, (sexual) self-control and non-covetousness. To put it simple, the Yamas focus on proper behavior or conduct.
You can live up to the Yamas very strictly, and still have no peace of mind at all. That’s why Patanjali asserts that a yogi should cultivate some inner qualities as well. These are: purity, contentment, dilligence, introspection and awareness of the divine. To say it briefly, the Niyamas focus on the right attitude or mindset.
So to summarize, the Yamas have more to do with peace with the world, whereas the Niyamas are mostly aimed at peace within yourself.
Asana (body posture)
Patanjali notes that the (meditation) posture should be both stable and comfortable (Yoga Sutra 2.46). If the posture isn’t stable and comfortable, bodily sensations will distract you and thus hamper meditation. Although patanjali stresses the importance of good posture, he didn’t give any more specifications about it. However, it is understood that you are free to choose any sitting posture that suits you well, as long as a straight spine is maintained. A straight spine aids proper breathing and it is believed that it enhances the flow of subtle energy (prana) in the body.
There is no evidence that physical yoga exercises were systematically practiced in Patanjali’s days. But by pointing out the importance of good posture, he did sow the seeds for the development of the physical yoga practice we know today. Yoga exercises were designed to acquire suppleness and a good overall physical condition. Both are needed for maintaining a meditation posture for a longer period of time.
In a broader sense this Limb can be interpreted as the recognition of the important role of the body in wandering the spiritual path. The body has to be both disciplined and respected.
Pranayama (mastering of the energyflow)
There is a constant exchange of energy (prana) between you and the cosmos. This exchange happens mostly through breathing. A consistent practice of breathing exercises promotes an optimal prana-flow. That’s why so much emphasis is laid on breathing in yoga practise.
Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
The mind can be very much preoccupied by stimuli received by the senses. Being able to detach yourself from your senses is vital when you are a yoga practitioner. In yoga philosophy, the senses are sometimes compared to a span of horses. If you fail to drive these sense-horses properly, you will hopelessly be dragged away by them.
The better you are able to detach yourself from your senses, the better you are able to focus your mind. When walking the spiritual path, you have to deal with all kinds of distractions. A strong ability to focus enables you to cope with this.
Patanjali wrote “Yoga is the cessation of the fluxuations of the mind.” (Yoga Sutra 1.6). The mind leaps from thought to thought, like a monkey jumps from branch to branch. This thought-jumping is what Patanjali refers to when he speaks about “fluxuations of the mind”. We all know from experience how these fluxuations can keep us from inner peace. The good news is that it is possible to cease these fluxuations. To achieve this, meditation is recommended. It’s not about banning all thoughts by force, meditation is simply allowing your mind to calm down. The mind is pretty much like jar with muddy water – if we leave it unstirred, the mud sinks and the water becomes clear.
Samadhi (enlightenment or harmony with the True Self)
The ultimate goal of yoga is fully realizing that you’re one with everyone and everything. This is what is called enlightenment..
Enlightenment brings about a state of bliss that goes beyond understanding. We all have probably seen glimpses of this. It’s the moments you feel a deep sense of connection. You may have felt this when having a meaningful conversation with a dear friend, when hearing a bird sing, when making love, watching a beautiful sunset on the beach or seeing your child smile for the first time. The deep sense of connection may also occur spontaniously, without any apparent cause.
To be honest, I don’t know if you can attain a permanent state of enlightenment, but I do know that moments of bliss occur more often as you practise yoga for a longer period of time. This is my personal experience and I’m sure that most, if not all, yogi’s feel the same about this.
Ladder or tree?
The Eight Limbs are often thought of as rungs on a ladder. The idea is that you have to master one step at the time before you can move on to the next one.
Personally, I’d rather think of the Eight Limbs as the branches of a tree. You have to foster each branch simultaneously (although sometimes you may give a particular branche a little more attention). In this view progress in yoga is more like growing a tree than climbing a ladder.
Just useless theory?
People often seem to consider theory to be just useless ballast. In their opinion theory makes things unnecessary complicated. Of course, in the end it comes down to action, but that doesn’t make theory superfluous. Good theory is like a good roadmap; it helps you to find your way on unknown terrain. Walking the spiritual path isn’t easy, the road is full of pitfalls. With the Eight Limbs as your guide, you have a good chance to evade them.
When I learned about the Eight Limbs for the first time, I wasn’t particularly interested in them. Eventually I began to appreciate their value as a structural framework for yoga practice more and more. I found out that they really help me to fully integrate yoga in my life.
Exploring the Eight Limbs
This article is of course just a brief introduction. If you wish to learn more; numerous commentaries on the Eight Limbs have been written over the ages. So look them up on the internet and in the library/bookstore. Ponder on the Eight Limbs and seek opportunities to discuss them with fellow yogis.
I hope you will find great use in the Eight Limbs!