Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga
Ashtanga literally means '8 limbs' (ashta=eight, anga=limb) or the 'eight-fold path' and is the main work of the ancient yogi Patanjali, called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The eight steps are a step-by-step guide to help us to live a balanced life of self-awareness through all the layers, or koshas, of our body and mind. They guide our values and morals, help us address our physical health as well as encouraging our spiritual self-study - and its all set out as a progressive pathway.
1. Yamas - the controls
The Yamas are the very first steps along the path of yoga and self-awareness. They help us to question; "how am I living?", "What are the choices I am making?". These "don't do's" address our ethical standards and behaviours. Think about these as; "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: intelligent contact with the world via the senses
- Aparigraha: not coveting or wanting
2. Niyamas - the observances
These are the "do's" in life. They address our self-discipline and our spiritual practices. For example, have I got a consistent personal meditation practice, do I enjoy regular contemplative walks, attend yoga classes, say grace before a meal, attend church or temple services etc.
- Saucha: purity
- Tapas: regular spiritual practice
- Santosa: contentment
- Swadhyaya: self-study and of the sacred scriptures
- Isvara pranidhana: connecting to deepest part of yourself
3. Asana - postures
This is the one that is often perceived as 'going to a yoga class'. Asana means seat—and when we're sitting we are settled and stable. Movement is really important to help the flow of energy through the body and mind, crucial for any of the other limbs.
4. Pranayama - control of the breath
This fourth limb consists of techniques designed to gain control over the breath—creating a positive control of our life force. Pranayama is said to rejuvenate the body and help us live a healthy long life.
These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses
Pratyahara, supports us in giving the senses a rest! They are switched on all the time through everything we see, hear, smell and experience of the world. When we consciously draw in the senses we allow them to cleanse, purity and become more refined, so that we can then experience the world with even more beauty and awareness. This can help us especially with things like our habits. Take a step back and observe yourself from a bit of a distance.
6. Dharana - concentration
Having drawn our awareness inwards in pratyahara we can now start to become more aware of our mind. The first stage of meditation is called concentration. This is where we take time to focus on an object outside of ourselves, for example, a beautiful flower. Practise focusing on something that inspires beauty and reverence, for example looking at the sky can create a feeling of expansion and joy.
7. Dhyana - meditation
Meditation is when your mind begins to settle and becomes an uninterrupted flow of concentration. Dhyana is a state of being - of not thinking or engaging. The mind becomes quiet and focused inward. To help you get into this place, focus your awareness internally through awareness of the breath, your thoughts or even the feeling of stillness. All these bring your mind inward.
8. Samadhi - total alignment
Deep meditation as a consequence of the cumulative effort of dharana and dhyana can result in samadhi. This is the experience of bliss, lightness, alignment and total joy. This is the experience of total one-ness with who you truly are.