Eight Limbs of Yoga – A Guide and Modern Review
“Ashtanga Yoga” – Introduction to the Eight Limbs Of Yoga And Their Applications In Modern Life.
Ayurveda and Yoga have an intimate relationship with each other. Ayurveda is a holistic approach to life that is adding values to people’s lives for more than 5000 years. According to Ayurveda and Hindu philosophy, the ultimate goal is to escape from this miserable cycle of birth and rebirths. Yoga Darshan (School of philosophy) is one of the six traditional schools of Hindu philosophies 1. It enables us to achieve a higher level of consciousness and spiritual well being.
Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga: The Eight Limbs Of Yoga
Maharshi Patanjali is considered the father of modern Yoga and the founder of Yoga philosophy. Yoga is a very underrated term generally perceived as a system of physical therapeutics just like physiotherapy. But, that is not true, Yoga is a much broader concept beyond this physical body. “Yoga” is the set of practices to be done to achieve higher consciousness.
Yoga generally means union of the Atma (soul) with the Paramatma (divine soul) 1. It is a method used by ancient Indian sages to achieve a higher level of consciousness.
According to Maharshi Patanjali, Ashtanga Yoga consists of eight limbs. Each limb of Ashtanga Yoga is equally important and helps to attain a higher level of consciousness successively. The intense practice of Ashtang Yoga leads to a higher sense of self-realization and consciousness. The eight limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga) 2 are briefly introduced here. Also, we will discuss how they can be applied in the modern world.
1. Yama – Self Discipline
The very first limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Yama. It is how we direct ourselves with the outer world. Ashtanga Yoga has described five Yamas, which will help us to add values and ethical morals to our lives. Conducting them will help us stepping towards higher consciousness and the true reality of self-awareness.
The five Yamas described in Ashtanga Yoga are given below with their brief description 3:
1. Ahimsa – Nonviolence
2. Satya – Truth
3. Asteya – Nonstealing
4. Brahmacharya – Abstaining the Senses
5. Aparigraha – Non-Possessiveness
Thus, one should start by conducting the good-conducts of self-discipline (Yama) as described above. It is the very first step towards a positive life leading to spiritual and mental well being.
2. Niyama – Self-maintenance
Niyama is the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The Niyama means to maintain yourself in a specific manner. Following the five Niyama described in the Ashtanga Yoga will help you to attain more Sattvic life. The following five Niyamas are described in ancient texts 3:
- Sauch – Cleanliness
- Santosh – Satisfaction
- Tapas – Austerity
- Svadhyay – Study Of Holy Scriptures
- Isvara Pranidhana – Devotion of the lord
One can attain physical, mental as well as spiritual wellness by following the above-mentioned Niyamas. The Yamas and Niyamas are a very important part of the Ashtanga Yoga as it teaches us to live a life that is healthy to us as well as to society. Following Yama and Niyama will lead you to a higher version of yourself. Things change when you look at them from a selfless perspective.
3. Asana – Posture
Asana is nothing but your body Posture 3. Patanjali referred to Asana in Yogasutra II/46 as
“Sthira sukham asanam’’
Meaning the Yogic posture should be firm and comfortable. One can practice the postures after following the Yama and Niyama. Asana is often misinterpreted as Yoga itself. But, that is not true. Asana is just a normal comfortable position of the body. The main idea here is to sit in a comfortable posture so that we are not distracted by any kind of aches or uncomfort in the body due to bad posture.
Sitting in Asana will help you to enlighten your inner soul and to escalate it to another level.
4. Pranayam – Breath Control
Pranayam is the fourth step of Ashtanga Yoga. Yoga believes that breathing is the bridge between one’s body and mind. One can control his mind by controlling his breath. There is an intimate relationship between one’s mind and breathing pattern. One can observe fast breathing while in an angry mood.
There are different types of Pranayam according to the breathing pattern involved. Yoga believes that Pranayam is the first step toward concentration and meditation. It is physically, mentally as well as spiritually beneficial. It fills our soul, mind and body with new and fresh air.
One can practice pranayam every day sitting in a silent atmosphere to attain the utmost mental and spiritual wellbeing. It is also found beneficial in diseases such has Asthama, COPD, etc. to improve lung functions and helps to cope up with the conditions such as stress, anxiety etc.
5. Pratyahara – Control Over Senses
The Pratyahara is one of the eight limbs of Yoga which is generally ignored or forgotten by many of the practitioners. The word “Pratyahara” means to take control of the senses. Just like the turtle withdraws its limbs into the shell, one should withdraw his / her interests from all the worldly things to attain higher consciousness 4.
Our Indriyas (Senses) are 24×7 in contact with the outer world, which diverts our mind elsewhere. Therefore, the senses act as a hindrance in the achievement of self-realization. We should try to control our senses as much as possible to make our inner spirit independent of this physical body.
The Senses can be controlled in the following ways 4:
- Right intake of impressions
Just like healthy food is essential for a healthy physical body, healthy impressions on the senses are essential for a healthy mind. We should be aware of what we’re pursuing and should take control of it. Consciously or Sub-consciously, we let unwanted and unhealthy impressions in our mind through our senses.
We can not control the sensory impressions but we can definitely deal with them through meditation just by ignoring their effects.
- Sensory withdrawal
Sensory withdrawal is another tool to practice the Pratyahara. It refers to cutting off all the ways of sensory perception. There are several ways in which you can do that. For example, Yoni Mudra involves the blocking of sensory openings in the head using fingers.
Another method to do that is to take your attention away from the senses. Directing attention towards the inner self helps in taking consciousness to the next level.
- Focus on Uniform Impressions
Another way to cleanse our mind by focusing on uniform impressions such as the patterns of the clouds, the ocean, the flowing of the river, the flying birds etc. Just like our digestive system, our mind also gets tired of processing lots of unwanted impressions.
Thus, focusing on uniform impressions helps us to cleanse our mind to heal from the derangement caused by continuous impressions.
- Creating Positive & Inner Impressions
This is the simplest way to control our senses by creating & positive inner impressions. Positive impressions can be made by creating a decent atmosphere around like meditating in the natural environment. Inner impressions can also be created by deep mediations and concentration.
By keeping control over the senses, one can eliminate the unwanted sensory impressions and can attain a higher level of consciousness.
6. Dharana – Concentration
Dharana is the sixth limb of Yoga. In the Sanskrit language, “Dharana” means to concentrate on something and to avoid all other things. It is the step, in which Yogis prepare themselves for the Samadhi. However, it can also be applied in daily life to increase the concentration and stability of the mind.
One can try concentrating on something like an idol, stone, lamp etc. to get started with. The more you concentrate, the more you get deep down inside you.
7. Dhyana – Meditation
Dhyana (Meditation) is slightly a different term than Dharana (Concentration). According to Maharshi Patanjali, the constant flow of similar mental modifications in Dharana is termed as Dhyana. Thus Dhayana is built on the Dharana.
Meditations can be performed on daily basis. It is beneficial for physical, mental as well as spiritual wellness. It is also known to cure some mental issues such as anxiety, restlessness, depression, etc. Meditation acts as a bridge between mind and soul. Meditation, when done regularly, can lead you to a new level of consciousness and spirituality.
8. Samadhi – Deep Absorption
Samadhi is the final stage of Yoga when the practitioner attains such a deep state of meditation that it losses the sense of its own identity. It is the complete oneness of the practitioner, his mind and his soul. The thinker thought process and the thought altogether fuse with the subject of thought.
It is the phase when the Yogi discovers the true self. However, the concept of Samadhi can not be applied in our day to day life but we must try to understand and study ourselves completely to attain mental as well as spiritual well being.
“You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises,~Sharon Gannon
which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.”
References for Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Tatya, Tookaram, ed. The Yoga philosophy: being the text of Patañjali, with Bhoja Raja’s commentary. Theosophical Society, 1885.
- Richards, T. Anne. “The path of yoga.” Contemplative practices in action: spirituality, meditation, and health (2010)
- Sahu, Saroj Kumar. “Definitions of Astanga Yoga of Maharshi Patanjali.” ODISHA REVIEW (2020): 38.
- Frawley, David. “Pratyahara: the forgotten limb of yoga.” (2010).