Someone asked me an interesting question and I thought I would write a post about it. You will be interested too, especially if you practise yoga.
“ Would you recommended that someone develop their Yoga journey via practice, or by first understanding its history? I’ve done Yoga for years, but when it comes to knowing its history and traditions, I wouldn’t have a clue. I always feel like I can’t really be into Yoga unless I really understand it. Am I just being ridiculous and over thinking it?”
My response was that it is not ridiculous at all. I understand where they are coming from because when I started practising yoga, I had a thirst of knowledge for its history, traditions, yogi masters and how a physical practice could support self-growth and spirituality.
We definitely need to practise yoga physically because every time we do, we discover something new about our body, our Self, our mind, the chi, and the lessons we face on the mat are very often a reflection of the lessons we need to learn in life.
However, asanas ( ie yoga poses, the physical practice) are only a small part of yoga, and the study of yogic texts is an incredible tool to develop your overall practise of yoga and to understand what you are practising.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Based on The Yoga Sutras, by Patanjali.
This book is a list of 196 sutras, meaning ‘threads’ (or aphorism) in Sanskrit, offering guidance on how to live a meaningful and fulfilling life. They were compiled around 400 BC by Sage Patanjali who was a grammarian, linguist, yogi and Ayurvedic doctor. Patanjali defines yoga as
Yoga is the control of the fluctuations (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind. I-2
1. Yamas (ethical standards)
The yamas are the yoga moral code of conduct composed of 5 DONTS that apply to actions, words and thoughts.
Yam means self-restraint, as in restrain your behaviour to direct your life. It is about how we behave ourselves in life towards others. The harmony between our yoga practice and other people is important for our inner journey.
- Ahimsa (non-violence, non-harming) It means practising loving kindness, compassion, gentleness towards ourselves and others. Obviously, it means not hurting others but also not hurting ourselves; for example, not pushing our physical body too hard on the mat so that we do not risk an injury.
- Satya (truthfulness) Truthfulness means sincerity. Being honest with ourselves and others through truthful thoughts, words and deeds. Saying the Truth means little speech and exercising care when speaking the Truth. It means asking yourself if what you are about to say is going to bring love or harm in the world.
- Asteya (non-stealing) Stealing is taking something that was not earned nor given. Non-stealing can apply to material things and money but also to knowledge and time. For example, be mindful of your teacher’s time when you ask several questions after a class. More philosophically, it is about not to desire for others’ possessions, qualities or status.
- Brahmacharia (continence, as in conservation of energy for spiritual growth). Often translated as celibacy, chastity or sexual continence, Brahmacharia actually means the right use of energy that leads to Brahman, the Creator in Hinduism. It is about conserving your sexual energy to focus it on the yoga path and on spiritual development. Using this energy properly is encouraged by directing it within and away from external temptations.
When walking in the awareness of the highest reality (brahmacharya) is firmly established, then a great strength, capacity, or vitality (virya) is acquired. II.38
- Aparigraha (non-coveting, non-possessiveness, non-clinging, non-greediness) This yama is about cultivating simplicity and non-hoarding. If we are too attached to material things, it is difficult to enter meditation or walk the yoga path fully. It does not mean renouncing all material possessions but rather being content with what we have and fulfilled through simple things. We should not accumulate things that are unnecessary. Living simply is the key.
2. Niyamas (self-discipline, observance)
The niyamas are internal purification, virtuous habits and the DOS. They have to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. They represent the positive actions and attitudes towards personal refinement.
- Saucha (purity) Saucha is about internal and external cleanliness: maintaining physical hygiene, eating clean food, preserving purity of thoughts. It can also mean being mindful of the people you keep in your company: are they loving and supportive? Your body is your temple and your mind is an extension or expression of it. Therefore, keeping them as pure as possible is important on your yoga journey. The kriyas (yogic cleansing techniques) are a part of saucha.
Also through cleanliness and purity of body and mind (shaucha) comes a purification of the subtle mental essence (sattva), a pleasantness, goodness and gladness of feeling, a one-pointedness with intentness, the conquest or mastery over the senses, and a fitness, qualification, or capability for self-realization. II.41
- Santosha (contentment) The second niyama is about being satisfied and content with little and simple things in life. Accepting and being happy with things manifesting in your life, as they are. It is about feeling peaceful and accepting with respect and love what you have in your life at the moment.
- Tapas (ascetism, authority, effort, discipline). Tap means to burn in Sanskrit. Tapas is about cultivating a fiery passion for our practice and burning away the impurities that are an obstacle to self-fulfilment. Through the discipline of our yoga and meditation practice, we strengthen our mind and will power; for that reason, we keep practising even when we do not feel like it.
- Swadhyaya (self-study and study of the scriptures) Swa means self and adhyay means study. It is about being a witness of Self and observing our actions and thoughts mindfully. By simply observing without judgement or attachment and by accepting yourself as you are, then, purification of the mind, body and emotions can happen. This process is supported by the reading, study and reflection on yogic wisdom texts, in order to deepen our understanding of yoga and our practice. [See the recommended books in Further reading, at the end of this post].
“Study thy self, discover the divine” II.44
- Isvara Pranidhana (devotion, surrender to Supreme Being, God or Higher Self) This niyama is about letting go of the ego, removing the Self and surrendering to God, Source or the Universe (depending on your rapport with the word God). It invites us to devote actions and rituals to honour Nature and the Divine, and offer them to humanity, as we are all one. The ego is the greatest obstacle on the journey to meditation. Consequently, when we surrender to Divine Power and let go of the ego, we can walk the yoga path more easily.
3. Asanas (physical poses)
Patanjali defined asanas as Steady and With Ease (Sthiram Sukham Asanam) and this is the motto of yogis. He was referring to seated poses such as Lotus Pose (Padmasana), Easy Pose (Sukhasana), Accomplished Pose (Sidhasana), Hero Pose (Virasana). All other asanas prepare the body for meditation. Once you attain steadiness and comfort, the real yoga begins. It is about mastering the body to be able to sit still and comfortably in meditation.
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. II.46
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
These are breathing techniques designed to control, expand and regulate the flow of breath, or chi, the vital force. Pranayama and asana go hand in hand. Pranayama is considered by yogis to be the key to extend life, as life is measured by the number of breaths we are given. The longer and slower breaths, the better it is. Those slow and deep breathing techniques allow the mind to purify and become calmer.
Through these practices and processes of pranayama, which is the fourth of the eight steps, the mind acquires or develops the fitness, qualification, or capability for true concentration (dharana), which is itself the sixth of the steps. II.53
5. Pratyahara (sensory transcendance)
It means withdrawal of the senses as objects to turn towards awareness. When practising yoga and the previous steps, you achieve a lot of purity and energy on the physical and mental level. Pratyahara is about conserving and retaining this energy, so that we can turn it inwards, to further our study of Self. We make the conscious decision to move away from the external world to become more aware internally. That decision of consciously withdrawing attention from sensory experience is the significant difference between those who experience true meditation and those who only experience physical relaxation.
Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects. II.55
6. Dharana (concentration)
It requires a lot of energy and will power to focus our concentration on one single thing. This is where the practice of yoga asana, for example balancing poses, as well as different meditation techniques such as focusing on your breath, tratak meditation, walking, the image of a deity, mantras,etc… are really useful to help us develop and strengthen our one-pointed concentration.
“When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara, the sadhaka (seeker) reaches the sixth stage, dharana. Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind has to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption.” -Iyengar
We have started developing our concentration in asana and pranayama; we became an observer in pratyahara and now we focus on concentration. Sustaining those extended periods of concentration leads to meditation.
7. Dhyana (devotion to the divine, meditation)
You may think that dharana and dhyana are the same but we move from a one-pointed concentration to a place of awareness without focus. Dhyana is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. It is a profound contemplation of Truth: the practitioner is aware of and differentiate the perceiver, the means of perception and the object perceived. This is a stage of profound meditation, where all distraction cease and the practitioner experiences a state of thoughtless awareness, stillness and peace.
8. Samadhi (perfected concentration, enlightenment)
Samadhi means ‘to bring’ or ‘merge together’. Patanjali describes this state as ecstasy. It is the highest state and goal in spiritual practice where the practitioner experiences stillness, joy, the meaning of life and becomes one with it. When the observer, the process of observing and the object being observed become totally absorbed and there is only the object left, then meditation becomes samadhi.
It is the true yoga, the union of body and mind.
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. III.3
The study of yogic texts are a huge part of the yoga practice itself to understand what you are practising. They are complementary. Reading yogic texts is tremendously helpful in expanding our practice but also in bringing it off the mat and into the world.
These 8 steps of yoga are the path to physical, mental and spiritual health, wellbeing, freedom and understanding.
Sources and further reading
The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Swatmarama
Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar
The Bhagavad Gita
Have a look at the list of readings (especially under Yoga and Meditation) I put together in the blog Library to support and develop your practice.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the Eight Limbs of yoga and how it translates into your practice. Please let me know in the comments below.
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