- Ashley Brown
8 Limbs of Yoga
In the West Yoga has become a synonymous term to name our physical practice, but there is more to Yoga than just the physical practice. There are more Yoga practices and lineages than the Hatha yoga (physical/forced) that we all practice in the West. Because there are many tenets and ethical codes for each lineage or school of yoga I will only pull from the Yoga Sūtras of Pantañjali (YSP) as that is our basis for Western Yoga asana Teacher Training. In all of the sacred texts from India recommend staying true to the ethical code not only just for your spiritual evolution, but for the common welfare of all living beings.
I'd like to take the time to say that while I have some knowledge on this subject I am not an expert nor fluent in Sanskrit. I am using the sources and the wisdom I have in this moment. Explanations in this blog will be incomplete as translations and transliterations are limited and incomplete as well as how the content is being shared.
Pantañjali gifted us this text (Just as Matsyendranath gifted us the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP)) for the well being, self betterment, enlightenment of the human race. These sacred texts were information received by the Ancients known as Rishis (pronounced REE-She's). In deep meditation they were able to receive the messages and information of a precise technique of speech, actions, and way to detach for the higher purpose of life. To reconnect with the higher self and to God.
So what are these ethical codes that may promise a life of freedom of suffering and union with the Divine self? Before we dive in I would like to share the first two aphorisms (concise sentences) from the YSP:
1.1 Atha yogānus̀āsanam: With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga. ~BKS Iyengar
1.2 Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga~ Swami Satchidananda
To know why we are practicing Yoga is helpful. the 196 aphorisms explains why, how, and what will happen if we do practice Yoga as it is being expounded upon. A reminder that the YSP is only one way, one path, and one school to connect to the Divine.
1.) 2.30 Yamas: Moral Restraints. There are 5 Yamas in YSP, the most important (in my opinion) is the first one.
a. Ahiṁsā~Non-Harmfulness. This is in action, speech, and thought. Non-Harmfulness doesn't mean inaction (Ref. The Bagavad Gita), it is your actions are rooted in not continuing to harm others.
b. Satya~Truthfulness, not lying. I also even though it's not talking about sarcasm or complaining. I like to add these to my practice as sarcasm is hurtful and partially untrue. Complaining about the day is also looking at or cultivating the negative aspects of the day. By only looking at the negative you are stealing Joy from the positive.
c. Asteya~Non-stealing. This includes time, energy, as well as material possessions.
d. Brahmacharya~Continence, Control of sexual energies. This one is difficult to explain without going on a tangent. Essentially your subtle energies that also reside within you sexual organs (for procreation) are being drained. If both parties are uplifted by the experience it may not be as draining.
e. Aparigrahāh~Non-Hoarding or not accepting gifts. Traditionally this aphorism was meant that a yogi would give all of his possession away as they tend to lead monastic or aesthetic lives. As I live in a Western society I like think of my favorite organizer, Marie Kondo. Sometimes when we are given gifts during the holiday season some of them are great and useful, some just simply take up space. I am using this in my own practice as get rid of things in your house that are producing clutter, you have an over-abundance of, and is simply not being used. This also goes for thoughts and actions.
The yamās are a way for us to begin to control our mind with the action we choose to not partake in or our attempt to re-pattern our behaviors. This is the first limb to be mastered before āsana or even more advanced meditation.
"These great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstances."
~2.31 YSP, Swami Satchidananda
2.) 2.32 Niyamāh: Moral Observances. There are also 5 niyamāh, all are important, but the last one is the most important to me (again in my path, my opinion, and to other Bhaktas).
a. s̀auca~Cleanliness. Traditionally this has to do with the body. Your skin is the largest organ as it secretes waste, so you must purify the external form as well as the internal form through purification practices (mentioned in the HYP: Jala Neti (water cleansing), Nauli (stomach cleaning), Tratika (eye clearing), etc.). This also can be used for external space as well. You practice space, home, etc.
b. Saṅtosa~Contentment. "From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness." ~BKS Iyengar. If we have done the work already laid out (clealiness) then our hearts also become cleansed and the practitioner gains energy/burning zeal for the practice.
c. Tapah~Burning Desire. This also can be referred to as Self-Discipline.
d. Svādhyāya~Self-Study. When one studies the scriptures and the self there is a burning desire to know the Divine and/or one's chosen deity.
e. Īs̀vara pranidhānāni~Making God the target of concentration. "Īs̀vara pranidhānāni is a life of dedication, or offering everything to God or to humanity. Why do I add humanity? When we want to offer something to God, is God sitting somewhere waiting for us to give something? Where and who is God? God made the world and the world itself is God." ~Swami Satchidananda.
I understand the simple word God can have a whole story behind it, and/or nothing at all. Essentially whatever actions we do/not they are not only for ourselves, we are not the only ones affected by them. We are in a global community where our subtle actions and vibrations affect everyone (and thing) around us. An example of this that might be more tangible is you sign a contract for an apartment, as do 3 other folks, you must surrender the actions into the unknown whatever the result maybe. Trust and have faith that the outcome will be a guiding post for your life path.
3.) 2.46 āsana: Seat/Postures. In both of my versions of the YSP there is only one aphorism for asana. This is the practice we most commonly partake in here in the west. Take a moment. Ask yourself what kind of yoga do you want to be practicing. Check out my other blog on this subject to help you decide, or simply become clearer. āsanais not the goal of Yoga, it is just a tool to get us their. It is a means to and end, not the end.
4.) 2.47 Prānāyāma: Control of the Life Force. Some have come to take this as Breath work or Retaining the Breath. There isn't a fallacy there as the breath is apart of our life force; it just isn't the complete translation of the word Prānāyāma. The practices of Prānāyāma are expounded upon thoroughly in the HYP and are in fact using the breath as a vehicle to move the subtle internal energies. Again we are stilling the mind to sit in meditation and eventually reach Samādhi in this path of yoga.
5.) 2.49 Pratyāhāra: Withdrawing of the Senses. There is an actual hand position and practice in the HYP that helps achieve this. This is also a practice to master the sense organs, as they can leads us astray from the goal (i.e. smells of a delicious dinner, sounds of the city, cats meowing/walking on you) into total absorption.
You can see that the last three limbs have moved into another section/book of the YSP. This book is a little more either/ethereal or more difficult to obtain the effects/practice.
6.) 2.54 Dhāranā: Concentration. This is one pointed awareness. The practitioner brings their focus and awareness to one object, place, or thought into concentration. To me this is what the West calls Mindfulness. Bringing your awareness into one-pointed focus to gain the stillness for the next step.
7.) 3.1 Dhyāna: Meditation. "A steady, continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is meditation (Dhyāna)." BKY IYengar. It seems so close, Dhāranā and Dhyāna, that they might mean the same thing, but in fact they are not.
I will use the explanation from Swami Satchidananda to explain: "When would you know that you have really meditated? There are some signs for that. Say you come and sit for meditation at 4:30. Meditation is assigned for an hour. The bell rings at 5:30. If you feel, "What, who rang the bell this soon? I just sat down five minutes ago, then you may have been meditating. But when you feel five minutes as one hour, you are not meditating, you are still concentrating."
8.) 3.3 Samādhi: Absorption with the Supreme. Once you have practiced at a certain "level" during meditation the practitioner merges with the Divine effulgent light, becoming Self-Aware.
This thing called Yoga is so much more than just āsana (Postures/Seat). There is more work to be done off the mat than we do on the mat. There are many ways to reach Samādhi and this is just one.
Did anything stick out for you? Want to learn more? Here are the two translated versions I have referenced through this Blog:
~BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Pantañjali
~Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sūtras of Pantañjali
If you would like to put this into practice (this is the real yoga, actually doing/experiencing it) I encourage you to choose one of these limbs (1-6) and cultivate a practice and awareness for 40 days. Check back in with your progress.