Yoga has always been a path to reach the enlightenment state where you can enjoy eternal bliss. The complete path of attaining enlightenment consists of eight systematic and practical practices of yoga. These individual practices in whole derived a system called 8 limbs of Yoga.
Indeed, the practice & discipline of yoga transcended through the teacher to disciple orally for many years. Then Maharishi Patanjali came into the picture in 2nd century BCE. He codified all the previous teaching & his experience over yoga in 196 sutras (aphorisms) containing in a book called Yoga Sutra.
8 Limbs of Yoga (came out of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra) is the step-by-step guide for a yogi to bring awareness inwards to realize the True-self through Samadhi or Enlightenment (final step of eight limbs).
Yoga Sutra and the 8 limbs
Patanjali’s famous book ‘Yoga Sutra’ is the eye-opener over the relation among body-mind & soul constituents.
According to Yoga Sutra body and mind are two layers. After transcending these two layers, we encounter with the soul. Once we experience the Soul, we are ready to merge with the Supreme-Soul. It is the ultimate source of Pure-consciousness hence we realized the True-self at this stage.
In the path of realizing the true-self, a yogi has to face many obstacles. There comes a new experience out of every obstacle in the way. Yoga Sutra elaborates these experiences (in the form of 8 limbs of yoga) through which one would have to go in the path of self-realization.
8 Limbs of Yoga Chart [infographic]
The path of self-realization is supported under eight pillar of practices, which we called eight limbs of yoga. It comprises the moral, physical, spiritual & practical aspects of yoga practice. We can’t understand the higher practices in this path until we have purified ourselves through the beginning steps.
Let’s start following these 8 Limbs of yoga one by one from the beginning.
1. Yama (Social Ethics)
Yama, first in 8 limbs of yoga, is simply the teachings that emphasize on our relationship to the outer world. It consists of a list of moral vows, on following which a person should self-restraint. It’s the reason Yama also called the list of don’t do practices.
The practice of Yama prepares yogi to control his behavior towards the outer world. Yama is the moral and ethical standards in yogis life that make a firm foundation for higher practices of yoga.
The necessity of Yama in Yoga
Yoga is the journey of directing awareness outward to experience the True-self inward. Before we begin to control thoughts patterns of inward (our-self) through yoga practice, we must first overcome outward thought patterns. These outward thought patterns keep our awareness into the outer world. Yama helps us to get out from these external world patterns using these five practices called 5 Yamas.
- Ahimsa (Non-harming) – Ahimsa is the practice of non-harming other living beings not only physically but mentally and emotionally also.
- Satya (Truthfulness) – Satya is the practice speaking the truth, precisely what we are experiencing something. A lie saying is something when you know it’s untrue, but you consciously say it.
- Asteya (Non-stealing) – Asteya is the craving for something that is not yours, material or immaterial.
- Brahmacharya (Celibacy) – Brahma means Supreme & Charya means Habits. Brahmacharya is the attitude of yogi when their habits oriented towards the supreme. Sometimes brahmacharya also referred restraining of sexual desires.
- Aparigraha (Non-coveting) – Aparigraha is the practice of not possessing something which is the result of your lust, fear & attachment.
2. Niyama (Observances)
Niyama deals with a set of concepts for self-discipline and spiritual purification of body & mind. Regular practice of Niyama makes it easier for a yogi to go through the journey of yoga and spend a healthy, purposeful life.
The necessity of Niyama in Yoga
As Yama makes yogi to control over outer world patterns, Niyama prepares yogi to control the inner thoughts & actions. Until we clear our inner thoughts & behavior, we can’t make space in our inner-self for asana (3rd limb) practice.
The practice of these 5 Niyamas helps us to control over inner thoughts & our daily habits to bring awareness in.
- Shaucha (Cleanliness) – Shaucha is the practice of keeping clean our body, mind & anything which is part of our lives. Cleanliness is not only about physically taking a shower or broom but also purifying our thoughts.
- Santosha (Contentment) – Santosha is the state of absolute satisfaction when a result of an activity or situation doesn’t affect yogis mood. Complete satisfaction is the one which not dependent upon circumstances taking place around us.
- Tapah (Austerity) – Austerity is the ability of a yogi to continue in the path of self-realization regardless of whatever s/he experiences good or bad, hard or easy.
- Svadhyay (self-study) – Svadhyay is the consistent inquiry of self to realize the weakness and mistake of our own. This weakness provides an opportunity to grow while mistake allows us to learn.
- Ishvara pranidhana (Surrender to God) – Surrendering to God is the practice of devoting the outcome of a result or every work to the supreme power.
3. Asana (Physical Posture)
Asana, the 3rd limb of yoga, is the beginning of practical aspect in the 8 limbs of yoga. It is the stillness of body & mind in any position.
Patanjali’s idea about asana was that asana is a naturally occurring & is an unforced state of stillness 2. Although Patanjali described only meditative posture in Yoga Sutra. We practice many twisting, bending & lifting types yoga pose in modern yoga; these were not part of ancient yoga.
The necessity of Asana in Yoga
Our body and mind usually wandered according to a position in which we are. Sometimes our body remains stills, then mind wandered. The practice of asana gives our body & mind a right to control over this wondering awareness. Hence we drive the awareness more in with further practices of next limbs.
4. Pranayama (Breathing techniques)
Pranayama is the practice to take control of the Prana – Life-force. It consists of different exercises of breath which allow us to move, hold or expand Prana in different regions of the body. Pranayama uses breath as a tool to play with Prana, with Prana awareness moves.
The necessity of Pranayama in Yoga
Prana is vast energy lies within & outside the body. Pranayama gives us control over this enormous energy by inhaling the atmosphere’s Prana (Fresh energy) & exhaling inner Prana out. With the help of Prana, we can direct awareness) into different parts of the body.[alert-note] First four in 8 limbs of yoga are considered the external cleansing practice of mind and body. If there are some defects in performing these 4 limbs, it can be corrected by adopting the right method of preparation.
However internal cleansing practices (next four) are not correctable easy and harmful for the mind if not appropriately performed under the guidance of experienced Guru. Pranayama practice works as foundations for internal cleansing practices. [/alert-note]
5. Pratyahara (Turning Inward)
‘Praty’ means against & ‘Ahara’ means external influences taken from outside.
Pratyahara means making yourself secure against external forces that drive our awareness inside out (although we intend to drive awareness in). This provides a medium for a practitioner to go deeper in internalized consciousness.
Pratyahara is the bridge between external cleansing practices and internal cleansing practices. One can’t jump directly from asana to meditation, so pratyahara is that bridge that connects the outer body to the internal one.
The necessity of Pratyahara in Yoga
The practice of pratyahara withdrawals senses from external influences. These external influence inputs in the human body through five senses – taste, touch, sight, hearing, and smell. When with the practice of pratyahara, the mind gets control over five senses, sensations from each sense reach several centers in the brain according to our wishes. In this way, the mind becomes the king 3 of 5 senses (Indriya).
Pratyahara is a vital step to make yourself calm in meditative practices & to drive awareness in our body without affecting external influences.
6. Dharana (Concentration)
The method of Dharana is what most of the people experience when they sit for meditation. Dharana is a state of mind where it is less fickle than any other time Or Mind at this stage stopped bouncing uncontrollably from one point to the other point. Tratak (candle gazing), focusing on a mantra (sound) or breathing are some examples of Dharana practice.
The necessity of Dharana in Yoga
If you want directly jump into the hours of meditation, it’s not possible without the practice of Dharana. As slowly your practice of dharna sustained for more extended periods, you bring awareness into the more deeper level to meet up with True-self.
7. Dhyan (Meditation)
At this stage, our body & mind becomes entirely still (mind comparably less even). Meditation is the stage where our mind & body wholly absorbed into the focus & unaffected from the external influences ( in deep meditation).
We can’t force our-self to come into the meditation, but it’s a naturally occurring state. If you’re thinking ‘wow, I’m meditating’ during your practice, it’s not meditation. Meditation is when you can able to find a gap between 2 consecutive thoughts, a gap of nothingness for an extended period.
The necessity of Meditation in Yoga
In deep meditation, we experience the existence of Soul (True-self) within us. Meditation allows us to fully aware of our present moment & feel this awareness at it’s extreme.
8. Samadhi (Pure Bliss)
Samadhi is the final step in 8 limbs of yoga to the way of experiencing the Self-realization. Up to this stage, we have been established a control connection with the outer & inner world through different practices.
Samadhi is the state where the mind stops modifying any incoming or present thought & we start feeling the unmodified experience. One thing Patanjali mentioned in Yoga Sutra about Samadhi is that ‘Samadhi isn’t a permanent’ until one wholly detached from the desires, fear or any worldly attachments.
The necessity of Samadhi in Yoga
Samadhi for a more extended period is the key to self-realization experience & once a person feels this ecstatic experience s/he liberated from the death-birth cycle. This phenomenon is called moksha…& This is the yoga, merging with Supreme-Soul.
- Foundation of yoga [source]
- Ancient and Modern Perspectives of Asanas [source]
- Control of Senses (Indriyas) [source]