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The 8 Limbs of Yoga Explained – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

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Are you looking to deepen your yoga practice and experience a more profound sense of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being?

If so, you may need to take your practice beyond the physical asana and discover the transformative power of the 8 Limbs of Yoga.

In this article, we will explore each of the 8 limbs in detail, examining how they can be applied to modern life and how they can help you achieve greater peace, balance, and harmony.

History of 8 Limbs of Yoga

History of yoga india
History of 8 Limbs of Yoga

The 8 Limbs of Yoga is a concept that originated in ancient India and is attributed to Sage Patanjali, who compiled and codified the Yoga Sutras around 200-400 BCE.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga consist of a series of steps, or “limbs” or disciplines that are intended to lead the practitioner towards a state of complete self-awareness, spiritual liberation, and enlightenment.

These eight limbs are often considered as a practical and holistic approach to yoga, as they encompass all aspects of human existence, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

The Sanskrit name of 8 Limbs of Yoga is what inspired the style of Ashtanga. Directly translated from Sanskrit, ashtanga (अष्टाङ्गयोग) literally means “eight” (aṣṭā) and “limb” (aṅga).

What is the purpose of 8 Limbs of Yoga?

Overall, the purpose of the 8 Limbs of Yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras is to help individuals live a meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilled life, while also attaining spiritual liberation and inner peace.

Of course, this is an oversimplified definition. In reality, finding spiritual liberation and enlightenment is not as easy. It is a long process, a process that could last a lifetime.

Another way to define the purpose of the 8 Limbs of Yoga is to free oneself from the ego. This onerous task, challenging by default, may be even more difficult in the context of the modern world.

8 Limbs of Yoga in modern context

While the promise of enlightenment through comprehensive and holistic approach sounds incredible, applying the principles outlined by the 8 Limbs of Yoga to modern existence can present certain challenges.

One challenge is the fast-paced, busy lifestyle that many people lead. With work, family, and social obligations, finding time to practice yoga and engage in the eight limbs can be difficult.

Additionally, the constant bombardment of technology and media can make it challenging to withdraw the senses, as required by the fifth limb of Pratyahara.

Another challenge is the cultural and societal norms that may conflict with certain aspects of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. For example, the Yama of non-possessiveness may conflict with societal expectations of material success and accumulation.

Similarly, the Yama of celibacy or continence may conflict with cultural expectations of sexual behavior. This sutra is an excellent reminder that certain philosophical aspects may be up for an interpretation with modern context in mind.

Furthermore, the commercialization and commodification of yoga can also be a challenge. Yoga has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and the focus on physical yoga postures or Asana often overshadows the other limbs of yoga. This can lead to a superficial or incomplete understanding of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and their transformative potential.

Finally, the Eight Limbs of Yoga require a certain level of commitment, discipline, and self-reflection, which can be difficult for some individuals. The path to spiritual liberation is not easy, and it requires a willingness to confront one’s own limitations, fears, and attachments.

Despite these challenges, the Yoga Sutras cemented the 8 Limbs of Yoga as a timeless and transformative system that can help individuals navigate the complexities of the contemporary world and achieve greater balance, peace, and fulfillment.

With dedication and persistence, the Eight Limbs of Yoga can be integrated into modern life, leading to a deeper and more meaningful experience of yoga.

5 ways to Incorporate Eight Limbs of Yoga into Modern Life

  • Prioritize your practice. Set aside a specific time each day for yoga, even if it’s only for a few minutes. You can also try to integrate yoga into your daily routine, such as practicing Pranayama (breath control exercises) during your commute or practicing mindfulness during your daily tasks.
  • Create a supportive environment. Surround yourself with people who support your practice and share your values. Join a yoga community or find a yoga buddy who can motivate and inspire you.
  • Adapt the system to your lifestyle. Remember, the Yoga Sutras, including the Eight Limbs of Yoga, were defined a long time ago. It is important to interpret the guidance in a way that applies to your lifestyle and cultural background.
  • Seek guidance and support. If you’re struggling with the Eight Limbs of Yoga, seek guidance and support from a yoga teacher or spiritual mentor. They can help you navigate the challenges and offer personalized advice and support.
  • Cultivate self-discipline and self-reflection. The Eight Limbs of Yoga require a lot of commitment and soul-searching, both of which can be developed through regular practice. Set achievable goals and monitor your progress, and reflect on your experiences and insights.

Breakdown

Naturally, something as profound as finding enlightenment and banishing your ego doesn’t happen overnight.

This is why the path to enlightenment had been broken down into eight steps, or “limbs”, each one outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Yamas

The 8-step transformation starts with the Yamas. Yamas are ethical guidelines or principles that form the foundation of yoga philosophy and practice.

The Sanskrit word yama is derived from the root word yam, which means “to restrain,” “to control,” or “to discipline.” The Yamas are thus principles that help individuals to restrain or control their thoughts, words, and actions, and to cultivate ethical behavior and spiritual growth.

This five main guidelines, or Yamas, are:

  • Ahimsa
  • Satya
  • Asteya
  • Brahmacharya
  • Aparigraha

Ahimsa

The principle of Ahimsa emphasizes non-violence, non-harming, and compassion towards all living beings, including oneself, animals, and the environment.

Ahimsa begins at the thought process and translates into words and actions through emotional work.

At its core, Ahimsa is about cultivating a deep sense of empathy and kindness towards all living beings, and recognizing the interconnectedness of all life.

It is important to note that the empathy and kindness should also be extended to oneself as well as others.

When you practice nonviolence, you lead by example. If you can apply the principle of nonviolence to every aspect of your life, others might be inspired to practice Ahimsa as well.

Satya

The concept of Satya is usually defined as honesty or truthfulness. Satya is about cultivating integrity and authenticity within oneself.

It encourages practitioners to make a conscious effort to be truthful with themselves and others, and to act with honesty and transparency in every interaction of their daily life.

To practice Satya, you must learn to be mindful of your words and actions, and avoid dishonesty or deception in all forms.

Sometimes it can be difficult to face the truth, but being honest is the only way to face your shortcomings and create an opportunity for personal growth.

It is also important to note that truthfulness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. Even if the truth is difficult or painful, it can still be delivered in a mindful and compassionate way.

Asteya

Asteya emphasizes the practice of non-stealing or non-coveting of others’ possessions or resources. The core principle of Asteya is being mindful of your desires and impulses, and recognising behaviors that stem from greed or entitlement.

Non-material things like ideas, intellectual property, or credit for certain actions can all be “stolen”. It is also possible to devoid someone of joy, optimism, positive energy with negative comments or even certain body language.

In addition to promoting greater integrity and ethical behavior, practicing Asteya can also help to create a more just and equitable society.

Brahmacharya

Brachmacharya is rooted in the belief that we should practice self-restraint and do everything in moderation. It has traditionally been interpreted as moderation from sexual indulgences but this principle can be translated to all different areas of our lives.

In essence, Brahmacharya is about avoiding behaviors that distract or detract from our spiritual growth. It encourages practitioners to act with integrity and self-restraint, and to avoid excess or imbalance.

It is especially important in this day and age, when you have instant gratification of buying things, and endless content at the tips of your fingers. 

When you stop giving into the urge of instant (and excessive) pleasure, the planet benefits along with you.

Aparigraha

Aparigraha is the principle of non-possessiveness or non-greediness. It teaches us to share what we have with others, without expecting anything in return, especially those who are less fortunate.

Aparigraha is about creating a sense detachment from material possessions and worldly desires. It encourages individuals to act with humility and simplicity, and to avoid behaviors that lead to accumulation of unnecessary possessions or attachments. 

Not only can you improve someone’s life with a simple act of sharing, you also cleanse your soul by severing the connection to the material things.

Niyamas

Niyamas are the second limb as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. They refer to a set of personal ethical observances or self-disciplines that are recommended for those who practice yoga.

You may notice that etymologically, the concepts of Yamas and Niyamas mirror each other. The term niyama is built upon the same root (yam, “to restrain”), along with ni which means “to bind” or “to regulate”. Together, these words signify a set of self-regulating practices that help yogis to live a more meaningful and purposeful life.

The five observances, or Niyamas, are:

  • Saucha
  • Santosa
  • Tapas
  • Svadhyaya
  • Isvarapranidhana

Saucha

Saucha is the first one of the five niyamas in yoga philosophy, and it refers to cleanliness or purity, both internally and externally.

It involves keeping the body and environment clean, as well as maintaining a pure mind and emotions. Saucha can also translate to cleanliness of the space around us, for example our home or work space.

By creating space and time for your thoughts, your body, and your surroundings to be pure, you can see things more clearly.

Santosa

Santosa refers to contentment and satisfaction. Through Santosa we learn contentment and acceptance of our surroundings and circumstances. A part of this means that we seek happiness from within ourselves rather than seeking it externally.

Instead of relying on other people, places, or possessions to create happiness for us, Santosa teaches us find appreciation and contentment in what we already have.

Now it is more important than ever to recognize the need for santosa. In a world that revolves around financial and social status, practicing santosa can help those who practice it overcome negative emotions such as jealousy and greed, and lead to a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Tapas

Tapas is the principle of self-discipline which allows us to live a meaningful and purposeful life and achieve our goals. It also refers to perseverance in the pursuit of spiritual growth.

Unlike the things we do for survival, self-improvement takes discipline. The changes that need to happen for us to improve can only happen if we actively pursue them.

Tapas can be applied to many aspects of life, including physical, mental, and spiritual practices, such as yoga, meditation, and self-study. By practicing Tapas, we can develop greater self-control, focus, and determination.

Following through on commitments is not always fun or pleasant, but it is invaluable in your pursuit of your true self.

Svadhyaya

Svadhyaya is the yogic principle of self-study. Without this component of the yoga practice, many other aspects would be impossible.

It involves introspection and contemplation in order to gain a deeper understanding of one’s true self, including thoughts, emotions, and behavior patterns. Practicing svadhyaya allows you to act in a reflective and thoughtful manner.

Svadhyaya can be applied in many ways, for instance you may read sacred texts, take up journaling, and practice meditation.  

By incorporating self-study into your practice, you can be more mindful and less impulsive, which makes it easier to work on other Yamas and Niyamas.

Isvarapranidhana

Ishvarapranidhana is the concept of surrender to a higher power or divine consciousness. In order to achieve that, you must recognize and honor a force greater than yourself, and let go of the ego and personal will in order to connect with this higher power.

This Niyama can be interpreted as a surrender to God, or an abstract higher power; but it can also be to the Universe or our higher selves.

To some practitioners, Isvarapranidhana is equivalent to trust. In some situations, you have to trust people around you, in others you have to trust the process, or an overarching plan of the Universe.

Although a concept of surrender can be daunting, Isvarapranidhana is not akin to blind faith. Instead, it’s a result of trusting your instincts, and the way you develop those instincts is through self-study and contemplation.

Asana

Asana is one of the best known limbs of yoga. It refers to physical postures in yoga that are practiced in order to bolster physical and mental health, improve muscular strength flexibility, and gain strength.

Translated from Sanskrit, asana means “seat”, in reference to the time when yoga practice mainly consisted of meditation in a seated position.

As the discipline of yoga developed, the concept of Asana evolved along with it. Guides and practitioners realized the significance our physical body plays in our path to self-improvement. Now Asana refers to individual yoga poses, as well as physical practice as a whole.

Pranayama

Pranayama is the practice of manipulating the breath to increase our energy levels. It is composed of two concepts, prana (“life force”) and ayama (“control” or “expansion”).

The practice involves various techniques that help regulate and control one’s breathing. Breath control is a great way to find focus, improve your endurance, increase lung capacity, and deepen certain poses.

The breaths are cyclical by nature, which is a beautiful metaphor for the yogic journey and life as a whole.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is interpreted as withdrawal or sensory transcendence and involves the practice of consciously detaching oneself from external stimuli in the present moment and turning the focus inward.

Pratyahara is seen as a crucial step towards achieving higher levels of meditation and spiritual growth, as it helps to quiet the mind and reduce distractions.

Unfortunately, withdrawing from your own senses is not easy. The way we evolved, we are wired to observe and react. However, if we want to develop further and not be a slave to our urges and emotions, we must learn to step back. 

Dharana

The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana, or concentration. The purpose of Dharana is to develop a one-pointedness of mind and achieve a deep state of focus, which can lead to higher levels of meditation and spiritual growth.

In the context of yoga, dharana is essential and versatile. It helps you find concentration to get into the right mindset to practice. It keeps you focused to stay in balance, to power through difficult poses, and to continue breathing every step of the way.

Without the ability to concentrate, many aspects of the practice would be unattainable.

Dhyana

Dhyana is another aspect yoga is famous for, even if many practitioners know it by a different name. Dhyana is the practice of meditation, which allows us to explore our inner self and calm an over active mind.

Meditation allows us to go on a journey of self-discovery. It doesn’t mean that everything you’ll on this journey is positive, and this is where Satya plays a big part.

We must truthfully accept what we learn about ourselves, even if it’s unflattering or painful, because that is the only way to move forward.

Samadhi

The eighth and ultimate limb of yoga is Samadhi. It refers to a state of profound meditative consciousness, in which the individual experiences a complete merging of the self with the object of meditation or the divine.

The purpose of samadhi is to achieve a state of spiritual transcendence and union with the universal consciousness, leading to a profound sense of inner peace, bliss, and liberation from suffering.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”

– The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 6, Verse 20.

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