The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The yoga sutras are the first know written record of yoga, they form the foundational texts on which all forms of yoga are based. They were written by Putanjali in approximately 3000BC in Sanskrit the language of the ancient Vedic civilisation. Although he wrote the sutras it is widely accepted that yoga existed well before Putanjali and that he was a great exponent of the already ancient science.
Today yogis still often use the Sanskrit terms for yoga asanas or postures and other elements of yoga such as pranayama or breath control. The word sutra translates to mean thread, on its own a single thread has limited strength and use but when it is woven torether with other threads they support each other and become a fabric of great strength which has many applications. This is how the yoga sutras can be viewed.
Within Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the eight limbs of Yoga. It is the eight limbs of yoga that provide a moral and ethical code that can be applied to yoga and to life in general. They also provide insight into why yoga was first practiced and can help us understand the depth and power that yoga still holds today.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are…
1. Yama - Restraints.
There are five separate restraints. These reflect how you behave towards others and are as follows:-
Ahimsa – not be violent or to cause injury to others.
Satya – to be truthful, not telling lies.
Brachmacharya – not to waste sexual energy, celibacy would be practiced by many, when this is not possible one should behave honourably with their intended partner.
Asteya - not to steal, to not be jealous and to behave honourably when working towards goals and aspirations.
Aparigraha – to be honourable and not except gifts or bribes.
2. Niyama - Observances.
There are five personal observances and are reflected as part of your level of self respect. They are as follows:-
Saucha – purity both internal and external, personal hygiene and pure thoughts.
Santosha – contentment. To be content with yourself and the position you currently hold.
Tapas – austerity.
Swadhyaya – the study of religious scripture.
Ishwara-pranidhana – to surrender the ego and worship the lord, or to surrender to your higher self.
The yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) form a moral code of conduct and help clear the mind and conscience for undisturbed asana, pranayama and deep meditation.
3. Asana - steady pose.
There are thousands of asnas. Regular asana practice promotes a healthy mind and body.
4. Pranayama - Control of Vital Energy.
Regular pranayama practice helps clear the mind. Learning to control the breath enables one to cope with many situations, develop patience, handle pain, relieve anxiety and prevent the mind from wandering. It also helps bring the practitioner into the current moment of time.
5. Pratyahara - Withdrawal of Senses from Objects.
The practice of pratyahara helps prevent one from being distracted, eventually one can control one’s mind so as not to relive various moments in time by connecting with a smell, taste, feeling etc. Again this practice helps the practitioner to remain in the current moment of time helping to achieve deep meditation.
6. Dharana - Concentration.
Dharana is to be able to concentrate, to keep the mind focussed on an external object or an internal thought and exclude all other thoughts and not permit the mind to wander.
7. Dhyana - Meditation.
Whilst meditating the mind should be focussed, free from past, present or future thoughts.
8. Samadhi - Super Conscious State / Enlightenment.
Samadhi is a powerful state that cannot be achieved by everyone. It is a state of extreme bliss that transcends space, time, feelings and emotions.
As with a woven fabric, the eight limbs of yoga support each other. The idea is that once the yamas and niyamas are mastered it is then possible to fully focus on asana practice and fully commit to the physical postures. Practicing the yamas and niyamas will prevent impure thoughts, acts of greed or emotions that might detract from the physical practice of yoga.
Asana practice will strengthen the body and mind to enable the practitioner to focus on pranayama practice and will therefore not be distracted by aches, pains or poor health. Pranayamas and asanas together will strengthen body and mind making it possible to focus and begin to develop the skill of pratyahara. Once pratyahara is mastered dharana can then be conquered. Asana, pranayama, pratyahara and dharana together will enable undisturbed meditation – dhyhana. As dhyhana strengthens and meditation sittings last longer due to strength of body and mind eventually samadhi may be reached. However we must remember that samadhi is a powerful state and that we are not all destined or ready to reach Samadhi.
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