The concept of eight limbs of Yoga, also known as Patanjali’s eight-fold path is commonly referred to within yoga communities. I would describe it more as a methodology than a theory since it represents eight different practices. The ultimate goal of yoga according to Patanjali is to “restrain the mind from taking various forms”. That of course, needs a lot of explanation and proper translation of Sanskrit terms like Chitta and Vrttis. I will do it next time. Let’s focus on eight components of yoga.
Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras, a series of 194 aphorisms, probably in 400 CE. And his work is the first written mention of the eight limbs and it goes like this:
Yoga Sutra 29, chapter II
Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi, are the limbs of Yoga.
The first component deals with ethics and our behavior to the environment, people and other beings on the planet. As Patanjali wrote there are five Yamas: non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greediness. This ethical standard is universal and can be practiced by everyone irrespective of gender, nation, country or race. Yamas as ideas are comprehensible for the standard human mind and no special yogic mental technics are needed to follow them. Yamas are not religious commands, as Milan Polasek says “(yamas) ..are more about looking at ourselves in mirror…to see our true selves, nothing to pretend…it’s about self-improvement and discipline..”
Yamas in Sanskrit
(Yoga Sutra 30, chapter II)
The second limb deals with internal qualities related to ourselves. Attitudes we adopt toward us. “Internal and external purification, contentment, discipline, study, and worship of God, are the Niyamas,” wrote Patanjali in 32nd Sutra.
Niyamas in Sanskrit
Sauca: Purity – physical and mental
Santosa: Contentment with one’s life
Tapas: Disciplined use of our energy
Isvarapranidhana: Celebration of the Spiritual, sacrificing all to Isvara (God)
The best-known yogic activity, the physical practice, is, on the contrary, mentioned briefly in 46th sutra, chapter II as follows:
Posture is that which is firm and pleasant.
Patanjali didn’t describe any particular posture in his Yoga Sutras, only mentioned its quality. But there are other historical documents like The Hatha Yoga Pradipika written by Swatmarama in 15th century CE, which describes 15 asanas and other physiologic procedures. Another thirty-two postures were described in The Gheranda Samhita, a Hatha text, in the 18th century.
Various breathing exercises for controlling prana, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “life force,” “energy”. Again, Patanjali, titled as the father of Yoga Philosophy, does not provide any particular breathing exercises, just a few more general sutras regarding pranayama. The Hatha Pradipika dedicates one out of four chapters only to pranayama methodology. There are around fifteen breathing practices.
It states that as a posture becomes established, by breath control, the Yogi gets steadiness of mind.
(Yoga Sutras 49 – 52, chapter II)
Milan Polášek, respected Slovak yoga teacher and author of many books on yoga, includes pratyahara – control of the senses, together with the rest three components into a group called mental exercises. For religious people, the more suitable term could be spiritual practices.
Nevertheless, pratyahara is a practice of sensual withdrawal from the external world. By conscious observation of particular sensations, we draw our awareness into our body and mind. Deepening process of introspection.
Pratyahara exercises are mental, based on scrutinizing of eyesight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.
Dharana means concentration. Patanjali described it as holding the mind on to some particular object. Dharana exercises use observation of energy movements among chakras, drishti (glimpse) at certain point or yantra (a geometric image, a diagram acting as a tool for contemplation) in front of us or japa, the meditative repetition of a mantra or a divine name.
Dhyana represents meditation practices. Patanjali explained the term as a constant flow of consciousness. The Gheranda Samhita describes three types of meditation, each of them based on visualization – a meditation on form, a meditation on light and meditation on kundalini or point.
The final destination of yoga practitioner.
As salt being dissolved in water becomes one with it, so when Atma and mind become one, it is called Samadhi.
(chapter 4 Hatha Pradipika)