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Eight Limbs of Yoga :: Source Enlighten

Eight Limbs of Yoga

Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the eight limbs of yoga. Each limb provides us with guidance on the methods to live a life with purpose and to become enlightened.

So what does the word yoga mean? When most people hear the term yoga, they immediately think of putting their body into different positions. But there is more to yoga than this. The actual term “Yoga” means union with the Divine or yoke. Asanas or yoga postures is only one branch of the eight limbs that is practised in order to reach the eighth stage of Samadhi. The practice of each limb is equally important for anyone practising the eight limbs of yoga. Each limb teaches us to disentangle from whatever is preventing us from feeling free. As the ultimate goal of yoga practice is to attain liberation.

There are 8 steps that form part of the Ashtanga Yoga System.

The first limb of yoga

Yama is the first limb of yoga, which is universal morality and moral discipline. In this limb, it is important to practice the right conduct and to treat others the way you that you would like to be treated.

There are five Yamas in total which are:

  1. Ahimsa – compassion for all living things
  2. Satya – commitment to truthfulness
  3. Asteya – Non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya – sense control
  5. Aparigraha – neutralise the desire to acquire and hoard wealth

The second limb of yoga

Niyama is the second limb of yoga and is the practice of spiritual observances, meditation and prayer. The Niyamas are about the attitudes that we adopt about ourselves and they are connected to the Koshas, our ‘sheaths’ or ‘layers’. These layers connect from the physical body to the spirit within.

There are five Niyamas and they are:

  • Saucha – purity and cleanliness
  • Santosha – practice contentment
  • Tapas – disciplined use of the body
  • Svadhyaya – self-study and the study of spiritual texts
  • Isvarapranidaha – surrendering to the divine

The third limb of yoga

Asana is the third limb of yoga, which means posture. This limb is the practice of moving the body into physical postures to develop your concentration and to prepare your body for meditation. There are 84 fundamental Asana postures in total.

The postures also make the body more flexible and fluid, so that we become more flexible in life. The practice of the Asana postures ensures that our body is in sync with the celestial cycles and the solar system. When practising the Asanas we must keep in mind the alignment instruction provided by Patanjali, “sthira sukham asanam”. Which means that the posture should be steady and comfortable.

The fourth limb of yoga

Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga which is the practice of breath control. The aim of Pranayama is to recognise the connection between our breath, mind and emotions. Pranayama goes hand in hand with yoga Asanas and is a practice of purification. The practice produces a sensation of heat or tapas in the body, and it is this heat that purifies the Nadis, or channels in the body.

The practice of breath control can also help us to control our thoughts. For example, a person who tends to be more anxious will usually have shallow breath. Through breath control we can encourage extending the breath and relaxing both the mind and body.

The fifth limb of yoga

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga, which is sense withdrawal, that is a withdrawal from the senses and attachments to external objects.

Pratya means to ‘withdraw’ and ‘draw in’. The second part ‘ahara’ denotes to things that we take in, such as lights, sounds and smells. The practice of drawing inward may include focussing on the way we are breathing when we meditate through following the breath.

Sense withdrawal does not mean switching off the senses, it means that you are able to change the state of your mind to the point that you are aware of sights, sounds, and smells, but they will not distract you. You become concentrated and fully in the present moment. Those that are successful in Pratyahara are not as easily influenced by external events and thus are more content.

The sixth limb of yoga

Dharana is the sixth limb of yoga which means an immovable concentration of the mind. The purpose of Dharana is to hold your point of attention in one direction, instead of allowing your mind to wander in different directions of memories and thoughts.

When we break the meaning down we see that Dharana means ‘focussed concentration’, whilst Dha means ‘holding’ and Ana means ‘something else’. So that we are able to focus on an object fully it is important to draw our senses inward. Through the practice of Dharana, we learn to steady the mind and focus our attention on one point of experience.

The seventh limb of yoga

Dhyana is the seventh limb of yoga which means to worship and religious meditation. Dhyana is about attaining an uninterrupted flow of concentration, awareness and stillness of the mind. Dhyana involves concentrating on a point of focus with the intent of knowing the truth about it. As this is the final stage before Samadhi, it is only attained by very experienced spiritual practitioners. When practising Dhyana you become totally absorbed in the focus of your meditation.

The eighth limb of yoga

Samadhi is the eighth and final state of the eight limbs of yoga. Samadhi means a union with the Divine and it is in this state that the spiritual practitioner transcends the self and becomes merged with the Divine. During the state of Samadhi, a connection is felt with all living beings, the senses are at rest, yet the functioning of the mind is active.

If we break the words down we can see that ‘sama’ means ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘dhi’ means ‘to see’. Meaning that we see things as equal when we reach Samadhi. With this realisation comes peace. It is important to note that this ultimate stage of yoga is not bought nor owned but only experienced. The ability to see all things equally, free from judgments and attachments of the mind is bliss.

Samadhi is not a permanent and we can only maintain this liberated state if our minds are completely ready and a pure. We will not be able to maintain Samadhi if we are still holding onto old habits and attachments.

Attaining Samadhi is difficult, and it is this reason why the yoga sutras recommend the practice of each limb. If we practice Asana and Pranayamas then we will be prepared for Dharana. Once Dharana has occurred then Dhyana and Samadhi will follow.

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