The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explain that there are eight limbs of yoga.
1. The eight limbs of yoga are defined as, yamas (abstinences), niyamas (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahra (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption).
2. Yamas – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.
This first limb refers to vows, disciplines or practices that are primarily concerned with the world around us and our interaction with it. While the practice of yoga can indeed increase physical strength and flexibility and aid in calming the mind, what’s the point if we’re still rigid, weak and stressed-out in day-to-day life?
There are five Yamas:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (right use of energy
- Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding)
Niyamas – Positive duties or observances
The second limb, Niyama, usually refers to duties directed towards ourselves, but can also be considered with our actions towards the outside world. The prefix ‘ni’ is a Sanskrit verb which means ‘inward’ or ‘within’.
There are five Niyamas:
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (discipline or burning desire or conversely, burning of desire)
- Svadhyaya self-study or self-reflection, and study of spiritual texts) and
- Isvarapranidaha (surrender to a higher power)
3. ASANA – Physical postures
The physical aspect of yoga is the third step on the path to freedom. Asana means ‘seat’ – specifically the seat you would take for the practice of meditation. The only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this asana is “sthira sukham asanam”, the posture should be steady and comfortable.
4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing Techniques
The word Prana refers to ‘energy’ or ‘life source’. It can be used to describe the very essence that keeps us alive, as well as the energy in the universe around us. Prana also often describes the breath and by working with the way we breathe, we affect the mind in a very real way.
5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal
Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part “ahara” refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds and smells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a formal meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’. The practice of drawing inward may include focusing on the way we’re breathing, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama too.
6. DHARANA – Focused Concentration
Dharana means ‘focused concentration’. “Dha” means ‘holding’ or ‘maintaining’, and “Ana” means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Closely linked to the previous two limbs; dharana and pratyahara are essential parts of the same aspect. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently.
7. DHYANA – Meditative Absorption
The seventh limb is meditative absorption. When we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation, this is when we’re really meditating. All the things we may learn in a class, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate, the actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can actively do, but rather it describes the spontaneous action of something that happens as a result of everything else. Essentially; if you are really meditating, you won’t have the thought ‘oh, I’m meditating!’
8. SAMADHI – Bliss or Enlightenment
This is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we’ve re-organized our relationships with the outside world and our own inner world, we come to the finale of bliss. When we look at the word samadhi though, we find out that enlightenment or realization does not refer to floating away on a cloud in a state of happiness and ecstasy. This stage is not about attaching to happiness or a sensation of bliss, but instead it’s about seeing life and reality for exactly what it is, without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, pleasure and pain fluctuating and governing it. Not necessarily a state of feeling or being, or a fixed way of thinking; just pure ‘I – am-ness’.