14 Dec The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Last week I mentioned the eight limbs of yoga found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This week I want to introduce them to you. Let’s dive right in.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Very Brief Introduction
1. Yamas : External abstentions, or precepts to follow to be a yogic part of the world
- Ahimsa – non-harming, non-violence; don’t hurt other things.
- Satya – truthfulness, tell the truth unless it harms; if it harms, either find a way to tell it kindly or don’t say it at all.
- Asteya – non-stealing, don’t take what isn’t yours.
- Brahmacarya – celibacy, this one is pretty clear. New Age translations consider it “moderation of the senses,” which I personally like, but the Sutras are pretty clear it means celibacy.
- Aparigrahah – non-greed, don’t take more than you need.
2. Niyamas: Internal observances, or ways to act within yourself.
- Sauca – purity, cleanliness; recognizing the necessary yuck of being human (blood, guts, and the like)
- Santosa – contentment; this one reminds me of gratitude.
- Tapas – hard work, dedication; burning up your impurities through continued practice and effort.
- Svadyaya – self-study, which means study of spiritual texts. New Age translations often count self-reflection practices in here, like therapy and journaling.
- Isvara pranidhaha – If you read last week’s blog post you know all about this one. For those of you new here, it means surrender to a higher power, surrender to God, or surrender to humanity.
3. Asana: physical postures. You’ve got your warrior 1, your warrior 2…this one is about preparing your body so that it/you can sit comfortably in meditation for loooooooong periods of time, because that’s what Patanjalian yoga is ultimately about. The Sutras are a guidebook to an ascetic yoga, like meditating in a cave kind of thing. For more “householder’s yoga”, we can look to the Bhagavad Gita, which is beyond the scope of this newsletter.
4. Pranayama: literally translated as control of your life force (prana = life force), or breath control. These are breathing practices. e.g. inhale and exhale for an even length of time.
5. Pratyahara: turning your senses inward. So instead of being focused on the ball game or the conversation in the coffee shop, being focused on your internal experience. Hearing what’s inside your head, not outside. Seeing what’s inside your skin, not outside. Feeling what’s….you get it.
6. Dharana: concentration, focus on a single point. Steadying the mind on one object. The Sutras say it can be anything of your choosing. That is, it’s your chosen object of concentration.
7. Dhyana: meditation. A metaphor I like is that dharana (concentration) is like the drip, drip, drip of oil into a bowl and dhyana (meditation) is a continuous, even stream. The focus is no longer wavering or distracted. It’s a steady and unremitting focus on your object of concentration. All the previous steps prepare you for meditation. This is a different definition of meditation than you might be used to. As an aside, it seems to me that the app-based meditations are in the pratyahara and pranayama worlds, and many of them are based on Buddhism’s mindfulness.
8. Samadhi: and here we have it folks, yoga’s ultimate liberation….which comes in seven different stages. Yes, there are seven different levels of samadhi. What does it mean? Samadhi is such complete absorption on your object of concentration that there becomes no difference between the knower, the knowing, and the known. In the final stage of samadhi your ability to know anything at all dissolves itself and you simply rest in your own true nature: your purusa, pure consciousness, your soul.
Different traditions say different things about these eight limbs. Some say you master them linearly, others say you work on them out of order, sometimes focusing on one more than the other, sometimes circling back to one you’ve worked on before, often practicing them simultaneously. Remember, the Yoga Sutras are a guidebook for the committed and serious (ascetic) yogi, but there’s nothing that forbids a person from being inspired by parts of it without going all in.
I share about all this in gratitude to the ancient Indian yogis, sages, and philosophers who have passed down this tradition, in reverence to the tradition of yoga itself, and with a big thank you to Edwin Bryant, whose translation of the Sutras along with their traditional commentary has helped me understand the historic foundation of this practice within context and with respect.
Hope you’re enjoying these yoga philosophy notes! Let’s practice some asana, pranayama, and possibly achieve a bit of pratyahara and a touch of dharana in class on Tuesday and Friday this week…and always in the spirit of ahimsa!
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