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8 Limbs of Yoga

Image by Chris Ensey

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the 8 fold path is called ashtanga, which translates to "eight limbs" (ashta=eight, anga=limb).

They make up a guideline on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a guide for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.

1. Yama

The first limb, deals with one's ethical views and sense of integrity, focusing on how we conduct ourselves in our lives. Yamas relate best to the old adage, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

The 5 Yamas:

Ahimsa: nonviolence

Satya: truthfulness

Asteya: nonstealing

Brahmacharya: self-restraint or abstinence

Aparigraha: non-covet

2. Niyama

Niyama, the second limb; self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals or developing your own personal meditation practice.

The 5 Niyamas:

Saucha: cleanliness

Samtosa: contentment

Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities

Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self

Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God

3. Asana

Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are required for meditation.

4. Pranayama

Roughly translates as breath control, the ability to control the respiratory process while recognising the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. Literal translation of pranayama, "life force extension," yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually has the ability to extend life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily yoga routine.

These first four stages focus on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half, deals with the senses, mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli, drawing our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves in reflection. This withdrawal allows us  observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our mental health and may interfere with our inner development.

6. Dharana

As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In the practice of concentration, preceding meditation, we learn to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. In asana and pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.

7. Dhyana

Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga; the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been silenced, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don't give up. While this may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the "picture perfect" pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress - practice practice and all is coming!

8. Samadhi

Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga, samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realise a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.

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