The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Who is Patanjali?

Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras was left for us by the great sage Pantanjali around 400CE. This article discusses the eight limbs of yoga and are referred to as ashtanga. Ashta means eight and anga means limbs in Sanskrit hence the eight limbs of yoga.

What is yoga?

Yoga means union with the supreme and it was shared to us in the Bhagavadgita by Sri Krishna Bhagawana. Yoga can also be meditation, breathing, postures and concentration which can lead you to Samadhi which is the union with the divine. Yoga is for God realisation. See the diagram to the left which can be found in the Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

What are the eight limbs of yoga?

The Eight Limbs of Yoga are core principles and can be seen as steps on ladder that lead you towards enlightenment.

1. Yamas

Yamas are moral and ethical considerations to help guide you, these are the dont’s in life. There are five yamas:

  • Ahimsa – Nonviolence to all things – practice nonviolence in thought, word and deed; practice love for all including yourself.
  • Satya – Truthfulness – tell the truth always, such a simple principle but very hard for some to do.
  • Asteya – Non-stealing – do not steal even in non-material ways.
  • Brahmacharya – Chastity and fidelity, no unfaithfulness – use your energy properly and with the right intention; excessive or overindulgence is not advisable.
  • Aparigraha – Non-coveting, no greed – everything you have is enough, be happy with what you have as there is always someone with less than you.

Clearly these are the basic morals and ethnics one should have. All religions talk of this and we all deep down have these imbedded in us but from time to time we break these logical principles. It is for us to be strict with ourselves so this becomes as normal as breathing is for us, then only then can you move on to the next stage.

2. Niyamas

The Niyamas are what you should do and these practices create the right self-disciplines.

  • Saucha – cleanliness both in your surroundings but of more importantly in your mind. If you put rubbish in your mind (for example, watching horror movies, speaking foul words, listening to aggressive music) then your mind will be like a bin, full of things that need to be thrown out.
  • Santosha: Be content and accepting with what you have. You are have what you have for many reasons, be happy with it and learn to look at what is inside you as that is the true prize.
  • Tapas: Self discipline and perseverance. Spiritual meditation practices.
  • Svadhyaya: The study of the right kind, spiritual scriptures that teach you about your true self, the Upanishads, The Bhagavadgita, The Brahma Sutras etc
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: faith in the supreme and surrender to Brahman.
3. Asana

Asana refers to the physical postures and seating positions. In Sanskrit asana means seat. The term asana refers to the ancient yogic tradition of taking a seat close to your guru and also the offering of the seat to the guru. The purpose of this seat and correct posture is to align yourself properly for meditation however it is essential to be comfortable or you will struggle to keep focus for long, therefore it is better to seat your self comfortably. The body will become used to postures as time progresses – do not push yourself too soon.

4. Pranayama

Pranayama means all kinds of breathwork or more literally control of your breath. Breathing is the only bodily function that you perform consciously and unconsciously; it can be both voluntary or involuntary. By consciously controlling your breath by using different breathing techniques, you can influence your mental and physical state. Prana is your life force and controlling your breath is the control of your life energy. In China they use the word Chi instead of Prana, and pranayama is the control of this life energy.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing from your senses from the objects outside in the world. At this stage you must not want for the distraction of the world even when you have to be fully immersed in it for family or work etc. Therefore, you must withdraw the desire for worldly objects by controlling your senses. You can continue to do your job or be part of a family but by being in control of what the senses need and do not need you will find peace and calmness.

6. Dharana

Dharana is the practice of intense concentration and focus. Today the buzz word is mindfulness where you concentrate on one thing at a time. For example when you eat your meal, in Ayurveda it say’s to concentrate on your food whilst eating instead of being distracted by devices, TV etc and the nutrition will absorb much better – try it today and see the benefit in just a few weeks. This practice trains the mind in stillness and focus. Here it is also very important to have your focus on what you are trying to achieve with Yoga, and as mentioned above the purpose of yoga is unity with the supreme, therefore stay strong and keep that focus at all times.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana Yoga or Raja Yoga is meditation and meditation is required to quieten and control the mind thus becoming the master of the senses. For an untrained mind our senses becomes its master. These senses which are seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling are always moving outwards to the take pleasure in the objects of the senses. Dhyana is when you see the mind and all the distractions but the difference now is you are now in control of the distractions which will inevitably arise in the mind. With the help of the previous the six stages you will be able to sit still and observe your thoughts in a peaceful state.

Only once we have the control of the mind can we look to achieve the next stage which is the final objective, Samadhi.

8. Samadhi

Samadhi are states of a meditative consciousness which are above and beyond normal intellect and mind. There are three types and stages of Samadhi which are:

  • Savikalpa Samadhi is the lowest of the Samadhi’s where you will transcend all activities of the mind and you will for a short period of time lose all human consciousness .
  • Nirvikalpa Samadhi is a higher state of awareness and the next stage of Smadhi where you go beyond both the ego and mental impressions and only consciousness remains.
  • Dharmamegha Samadhi is the final stage of samadhi. At this stage you are beyond even the desire for enlightenment and is given to you or revealed to you by your true self.

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Why do we need the 4 yogas?

In today’s world where life is so fast paced and there are so many distractions for the mind it has become even more difficult to feel the peace within. We are all divine beings, but we have unfortunately lost touch with the spiritual side of life and have become accustomed to the material side of life.

Today’s age talks more of mental illnesses than ever before, perhaps because it wasn’t so widely discussed in the past but also it is clear the impact of the technology, social media, material possessions etc, on our minds. The senses are drawn outwards to these objects and jump from one to another like a monkey jumping from one branch to another. It is has become second nature not to have time for the mind to reflect and relax but instead to engage in more distractions at the touch of a screen (cannot even say button any longer). We cannot seem to sit still for very long without feeling the urge to fill that quietness.

The mind then finds it extremely difficult to be calm and for you to be in control of it.

The ultimate effect of this is that we lost touch with the peace within and covered it within outer objects. When we journey inwards towards that peace we will find that bliss that is our own true nature and always was and always is. It has never changed but has only been covered just as the beautiful butterfly begins its journey as the ugly slow land based Caterpillar. The Caterpillar believes this is who it is until one day deep within it becomes the amazingly free airborne butterfly. The Caterpillar from birth is always destined to be the butterfly as it has all the cells to do so but it is prevented from doing so just like we are preventing ourselves from finding our true nature because we cover our true selves with the illusion of the body and mind complex.

When we discover this true self our minds are at peace this blissful state becomes more aware to us, to the mind itself. From here we journey deeper within, beyond the waking state of the world and its objects, beyond the dream state of the mind, the dream world and its dream objects and then even beyond the causal state, which is the place where the mind stops and there is only consciousness. However, we still need to go further, beyond the causal state, we need to go again to the state of consciousness but this time we are aware of consciousness and this is the fourth state or in truth the only real state called Turiya meaning fourth.

If you are longing for this peace within and want to begin this journey or take up where you left off either from studies/ experiences from earlier in this life or perhaps even from a previous life. You will find it may come easy to you if you have previous exposure to this in previous lives even if you know very little in this current form.

As the lord Sri Krishna himself has recommended and other great swamis like Vivekananda we need to action the four Yoga’s (Yoga meaning union with the supreme) Karma, Bhakti, Dhyana, Jnana.

We first need to purify the mind before we can add to it just like if we pour clean water into a dirty glass then the water will not be clean or clear and therefore we must first cleanse the mind and body.

We can do this in the following stages:

  1. KARMA YOGA: To begin with, we can start with Karma yoga which is service to or for others. This is great place to start because by doing Karma Yoga it will purify ones mind by offering help to others in anyway we can whilst not expecting anything in return, not even gratitude. This clarity and peace of mind can help all of us in todays frantic world. However it is important to note you can begin with any of the 4 yogas. At True Veda, we would also suggest healing of the body and mind through Ayurveda, hatha Yoga (asanas), pranayama etc at this stage. If the body can feel at ease through Ayurvedic treatment and yoga, then it will be easier for you in the next stages as there will be less distractions and discomfort. Read more on Karma Yoga here
  2. BHAKTI YOGA: There is a great benefit to ones own life experience, when you have filled the heart with the love of God. There is great peace, bliss and happiness when there is pure love for the lord. The love for Bhagwana is permanent and will never leave you and therefore it is of great importance to feel the lord within your own heart at any stage of your journey. This should be done in your own homes, but it is also recommended and important to be in the company of other spiritual seekers at a Mandir during Satsang (a gathering of other spiritual people) as the energy created in worship benefits us all. Read more on Bhakti Yoga here
  3. DHYANA YOGA: We next meditate on the formless (Nirguna) or the form (Sirguna) of Brahman (God). This further settles and purifies the mind along with the other yoga’s. Meditating and stilling the mind can have great health benefits to both the mind and body. In Ayurveda we believe as much as 90% of disease stems from the mind and our thoughts. The world we see is based on the mind we have, if we are depressed we will see a dark and dreary world, whereas when we are happy all is beautiful. Even though a happy mind sounds good, unfortunately more often than not, around the corner could be some harder times thus leading to a depressed an sad mind. Therefore it is important to still the mind so that it isn’t affected by happiness or sadness but instead it is always blissful. In meditation we leave behind all the many distractions of the waking world and turn our focus inwards to the light of the bliss and peacefulness. Read more on Dhyana Yoga here
  4. JNANA YOGA: Again, like Dhyana, Karma or Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga can be practiced at any stage of your journey. Jnana means knowledge, and learning the true knowledge of the self is the ultimate goal of humankind. It is truly a wasted life if we do not begin this journey of knowledge. This knowledge of the self and along with Bhakti (the love of god) will free you from all fears and none more so than the ultimate fear of death. Once you are free from this, then you are truly free from within, free while living, you will become a Jivan Mukta. Learn the true knowledge of the self and set your true-self free! Read more on Jnana Yoga here

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