14th February 2020
As part of my teacher training I had to write a number of academic essays about yoga which I have shared here in the blog.
This essay was written to explore the eight limbs of yoga which are referenced in the classic Yoga Sutras. In classes we typically only explore one limb – that of asana or physical posture. I also try to include time for pranayama – the control of the breath.
It is interesting for yogis to read of the other limbs though and understand more of the ancient roots of yoga.
Introduction to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of texts that form the foundation of classical yoga philosophy (Whicher, 1999, p 86). The 196 sutras, meaning ‘threads’, are short verses of essential wisdom which, “As yoga study and practice develop… takes on a deeper resonance and becomes more relevant, more revealing” (Desikachar, 1995, p 145). The sutras are organised into four chapters or pada.
The second chapter, about practising yoga, is called Sadhana Pada. Sadhana means ‘practice’ or ‘discipline’. It addresses the first five limbs (anga) – the action-focussed yoga and emphasises that effort – self-discipline, self-study and self-surrender to God – must be made to attain freedom.
Iyengar (1966, p 3) reflects on this stating that “The right means are just as important as the end in view….for the quest for the soul.”
The Sadhana Pada explores the Kleshas or obstacles to progress, and Sadhana, the discipline of yoga. The last three limbs are explored in chapter three Vibhuti Pada which is about the powers and possible achievements that may lead to a state of perfection (kaivalya) (Spence, 2019, p.3).
In this paper I will briefly describe the eight limbs of yoga, exploring the concepts they present and reflecting on the challenges they hold for my life, practice and teaching.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The eight limbs or eight fold path (Saraswati, SS 1996, p 4) are:
- Yamas – self restraints
- Niyama – self observation
- Asana – specific body positions
- Pranayama – breath
- Pratyahara – disassociation of consciousness from the outside environment
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – identification with pure consciousness
Patanjali refers to the eight limbs collectively as astanga (Desikachar, 1995 p 107). Just as a child grows limbs proportionally, the yogi practices each of the limbs in an integrated way. In our Western, yoga studio approach we have tended to emphasise asana above the other limbs. Pranayama and perhaps a degree of concentration or meditation may also be incorporated but the other limbs are often over-looked.
Yama and Niyama
The Yama and Niyama are about our behaviour toward ourselves and others – living a yogic life both internally and in the world.
(Iyengar, 1966, p 3) describes Yama as “universal moral commandments” and Niyama as “self purification by discipline”. He sees them as a way to “control the yogi’s passions and emotions and keep him in harmony with his fellow man.”
Yamas are focussed on our behaviour and how we should conduct ourselves.
Patanjali lists five Yamas:
- Ahimsa – kindness and non-violence
For me, one expression of Ahimsa is to have chosen a vegan lifestyle – one that actively avoids any form of unkindness or cruelty towards animals, and to a degree the planet.
- Satya – truthfulness
Satya is specifically about speaking the truth but as Desikachar, (1995 p98) explained “If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing”.
The Mahabharata (Dharma, 1999) simply instructs “Do not speak unpleasant truths”.
Being an ESTJ (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) I find this Yama relatively easy to live by as I tend to speak fairly plainly. The challenge for me is to hold back from the truth when it is hurtful, or to fund a kinder Ahimsa way of speaking it. As a teacher this is also true – assisting students to do well with their yoga through positive, truthful but kind feedback.
- Asteya – non stealing
As a moral code, the principle of not stealing is relatively universal. The yogic Asteya would include the concept of not stealing others’ time (by being late), not misleading through omission and, as Desikachar, (1995 p 99) reflects, not taking advantage of those who have confided in us. As teachers this could include not stealing others’ ideas – or at least crediting others for ideas we bring to the mat.
- Brahmacarya – chastity
Chastity is a common principle in many spiritual practices. It’s purpose is to keep desires in check in order to better walk in the way of God. Brahmacarya emphasises energy moderation in order that we “keep our direction and do not get lost” Desikachar, (1995 p99). As Desikachar observes, Brahmacarya does not necessarily imply celibacy rather it aims for “responsible behaviour with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth”. The challenge for me with Brahmacarya is to focus on the yogic practices above other options.
- Aparigraha – non attachment
Directly translated Aparigraha is about non seizing, or non grasping. This Yama encourages us to only take only what is necessary and not to “take advantage of a situation” Desikachar, (1995 p99).
For me Aparigraha is also about letting go of things that do not serve us such as bad habits.
Niyamas are about our inner world and are more intimate and personal.
Patanjali’s five Niyamas are:
- Sauca – cleanliness and purity
Desikachar, (1995 p 101) says that Sauca has both an inner and outer aspect.
Cleanliness is associated with keeping our bodies clean but purity is about clarity of the mind and free functioning of our organs.
I find the combination of pranayama and asana helpful in developing this inner cleanliness and particularly appreciate kapalabhati, recognised as a cleansing breath, that can be used as a warm up for formal pranayama.
- Samtosa – contentment
According to Desikachar (1995 p 101), Samtosa is accepting what has happened. For me, with a chronic back problem, Samtosa challenges me to accept my body as it is and work within its limitations rather than fighting it to do more than it should.
The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Serenity Prayer includes the line “Accepting with serenity the things that cannot be changed”. I would suggest that this is a contemporary expression of Samtosa.
- Tapas – discipline, self-control
Tapas literally means to heat the body, almost as a form of purification in order to cleanse it. We experience tapas, that build-up of heat, with more intense asanas and sequences such as the sun salutation.
Desikachar (1995 p 101), refers to tapas as keeping the body fit, paying attention to what we eat and attending to breathing patterns.
A challenge I can draw from Tapas is to only eat when hungry and to avoid eating food that is unhealthy. I have also previously, as a spiritual practice, fasted for several days and have found it helpful in terms of both focus and the time the absence of eating allows you to make for other practices.
- Svadhyaya – self study
Svadhyaya means to examine yourself but also in conjunction with a contemplation of the divine, and of scripture.
As Westerners embracing yoga we bring additional threads of our cultural and religious expressions of the divine as well as a different set of scriptures. I believe that both can be beneficial in the practice of self study. There is much that we can learn from the wisdom of seers and spiritual leaders of old. I particularly like to reflect on the tales of the Celtic saints – there are many parallels with Hindu stories.
- Isvarapranidhana – devotion or reverence
Directly translated as “to lay all your actions at the feet of God” Desikachar (1995 p 102) requires us to surrender to the divine.
Again I reflect on the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Twelve Step programme which recognises a “higher power that can give strength”. This wording reflects the many “gods” or divine entities that we may choose to follow nowadays. It is a reminder to us that we are not alone, that there is a higher, divine power that we may access.
Patanjali gives a concise definition of yogasanas “Sthiram sukham aasanam” meaning ‘that position which is comfortable and steady (Saraswati, SS 1996, p 9). They are tools to higher awareness and provide the stable foundation for our exploration of the body, breath, mind and beyond (Saraswati, SS 1996, p 8).
Saraswati, SS (1996, p 9) says that there were originally 8,400,000 asanas “which represent the 8,400,000 incarnations every individual must pass through before attaining liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Today we have a few hundred common asanas.
Many of the asanas are named after and reflect the movements of animals. The rishis (seers or sages) “understood how animals live in harmony with their environment and with their bodies… and through imitating animal postures… they could maintain health and meet the challenges of nature for themselves” Saraswati, SS (1996, p 10).
Whilst the asanas were originally developed as a means of enabling the yogi to sit comfortably in one position for an extended time (necessary for meditation), as Saraswati, SS (1996, p 5) recognises, in the 21st century for most people yoga is “simply a means of maintaining health and well-being in an increasingly stressful society. Asanas remove the physical discomfort accumulated during a day at the office sitting in a chair, hunched over a desk.”
As we have seen, Asana may be translated as “The steady and comfortable seat”. It is a “state of being in which one can remain physically calm, steady, quiet and comfortable. The mind and body are not separate entities, as the practice of asana integrates and harmonises the connection of body and mind.” (Bedford and Bold, 2016, p 346)
In the fifteenth-century Sanskrit manual on hatha yoga, Pradipika, Svatmarama says “Prior to everything, asana is spoken of as the first part of hatha yoga. Having done asana, one attains steadiness of body and mind, freedom from disease and lightness of the limbs”.
Our experience as 21st Century yogis is the release to the body and calm to the mind that an asana practice brings. In teaching it is good to anticipate this at the start of a class with a short meditative time where perhaps an intention for the class is considered and also to reflect on that calmness and intention at the end.
Pranayama is the rhythmic control of the breath (Iyengar, 1966, p 3) and by regulating the breath thereby control the mind. Patanjali sees the mind and breath as intimately connected and the activity or cessation of one affecting the other (Iyengar, 1966, p 8).
Iyengar (1966, p 24) sets pranayama helpfully in relation to the other limbs: “Emotional excitement affects the rate of breathing: equally, deliberate regulation of breathing checks emotional excitement. As the very object of Yoga is to control and still the mind, the yogi fist learns pranayama to master the breath. This will enable him to control the senses and so reach the stage of pratyahara. Only then will the mind be ready for concentration (dhyana).”
It is good practice to begin a class with a focus on the breath before integrating that with movement and asana. A specific pranayama session at the end of a class prior to deep relaxation and savasana further assists in controlling the mind – or at least lessening the chatter from the rest of our lives as we focus on a different form of breathing. A simple sequence such as the pranayama square or alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana pranayama) is a helpful tool to use to guide a class.
Ahara means “nourishment” and pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses” Desikachar (1995 p 107). Our mind becomes immersed in something other than that brought by the five senses.
Shearer (1982) describes this fifth limb as being “retirement of the senses”.
Saraswati, SS (1996, p 5) recognises that “In an age of mobile phones, beepers and twenty-four hour shopping, yogic practices make great personal and even business sense.”
For many in a class, the hour on the mat my be the only time they have in the day without a barrage of other demands and distractions. Emphasising this is a useful thing the teacher can do to gently encourage students to leave the rest of their concerns behind.
It is certainly a discipline to practice yoga in a distracting environment yet maintain one’s focus. The mind should be focussed on the breath and the senses not responsive to other stimuli. Desikachar (1995 p 108) says that “Pratyahara occurs almost automatically when we meditate because we are so absorbed in the object of meditation”.
For new practitioners, external stimuli are a frustrating distraction so in developing our practice it makes sense to seek out a quiet and neutral space without noise and visual distractions but when this is not possible perhaps reflect on achieving pratyahara despite the possible distractions.
Dhr means “to hold”. Desikachar (1995 p 109) explains that “the concept of dharana is holding the concentration or focus of attention in one direction”.
With dharana the mind focuses on a single point or object. Teachers may use a candle, flowers, music or some other device to help students focus. Alternatively a mental picture can be suggested as a focal point.
Dharana is a step away from dhyana which always preceeds it, and is described by Desikachar (1995 p 109) as “the mind moving in one direction like a quiet river”. He describes dharana as the contact and dhyana as the connection.
Iyengar (1966, p 30) uses a number of similes to describe Dhyana. He says that when oil is poured from one vessel to another, one can observe the steady contact flow. He likens this to the flow of uninterrupted concentration that the yogi achieves in the state of Dhyana.
It is likely going to be challenging to achieve the state of dharana in a short yoga class with inexperienced practitioners but reassuring students that it is fine to let the mind flow and simply to notice and allow the things that appear to pass by. The teacher should encourage students to focus again on the breath whilst ensuring that the space is as distraction-free as possible. This would include the teacher being still, not moving around or shuffling papers.
Moving on from the two previous mental states we enter samadhi described by Iyengar (1966, p 31) as “the end of the sadhaka’s quest”. It is a state where the body and senses are at rest as if asleep but the mind and reason alert as if awake. He has gone beyond consciousness yet is “fully conscious and alert”.
Desikachar (1995 p 109) describes it as “becoming so absorbed in something that our mind becomes completely one with it”.
Shearer (1982 p 4) defines samadhi as “the settled (sama) mind or intellect (dhi)” and describes the resultant state as one of “very deep rest to the entire system”.
Samadhi means “to bring together, to merge” and as such our personal identity completely disappears. We blend and become one with the object of our choice.
The figure below, taken from Desikachar (1995 p 110) explores the progression between these three states.
Reflections on the Eight Limbs
As Desikachar (1995, p 145) states in his introduction to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras “There can be no haste or exaggerated effort to gain its understanding; it must be a natural process”.
We have explored how the limbs need to grow in relation to each other and yet reflected on how, in our Western view of yoga, we have emphasised and practiced asana to the detriment of the other limbs.
It is a challenge, as a Western practitioner, alive in a time of always-on technology and more distant religious belief systems, to fully embrace all eight limbs. Developing the four-fold meditative skills of the fifth to eighth limbs is a huge challenge. None of these things come naturally to us and we are far from having them embedded culturally in our understanding.
The yamas and niyamas are easier mental constructs to consider and we can associate many of the principles with the moral and ethical principles that we have grown up with. Our challenge is to actively embrace this yogic thinking into our daily lives.
For a regular practitioner of yoga in the west, a familiarity with asana and pranayama make these limbs far more accessible and both generally feature in our personal practices.
Bringing the Eight Limbs to Teaching Practice
The challenge for me as a teacher is to meet the expectations of the student but also appropriately integrate some of the teaching and philosophy of the limbs to my classes.
Shearer (1982, p4) identifies “the settling down of the mind, to whatever degree, that right from the beginning of the path is responsible for perfecting and coordinating all the other limbs”. With this in mind we are foolish to overlook the full path by simply focusing on asana.
Students generally expect the teacher to lead them in a series of asanas. However these can be delivered mindful of yama and niyama (for instance with kindness, non-attachment, purity and with focus). It is also possible to meditate on concepts such as of contentment, reverence, discipline and more.
As I have already stated, it is also important to incorporate pranayama into the class, making time specifically at the beginning, which will also help to still the mind and also at the end prior to a time of deeper relaxation. Students should also be instructed in and reminded of the breath during the asana practice.
Iyengar calls eight limbs the “stages” of yoga and Patanjali helps us understand that yoga is a process. Recognising this as a teacher is helpful. Few (likely none) of us will ever fully embrace all eight, and students will often access the spectrum that is yoga with a single idea, limb or objective in mind. It is the role of the teacher to gently encourage consideration and exploration of the other limbs, and to be exploring each ourselves in our private practice and study.
References and Bibliography
Bedford, S. and Bold, J. (2016) Integrated Approaches to Infertility, IVF and Recurrent Miscarriage: A Handbook. Singing Dragon.
Desikachar, T. K. V. (1995) The Heart of Yoga. Inner Traditions International.
Dharma, K. (1999) Mahabharata: The Greatest Spiritual Epic of All Time. Torchlight Publishing.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (1966) Light on Yoga. 2015th edn. Harper Thorsons.
Saraswati, S. S. (1996) Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Edited by Bihar School of Yoga.
Shearer, A. (1982) The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali. Random House.
Spence, D. (2019) Introduction to Yoga Sutras. Available at: www.antifragilityyoga.com.
Whicher, I. (1999) The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga. SUNY Press.