Ashtanga refers to the eight limbed path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The word Sutra translates to “thread”, which means each Sutra is considered the thread of meaning upon which teachers add his/her own “beads” of experience/example for their students. These Sutras are divided into four sections:
1. Samadhi Pada (Portion on Contemplation)
2. Sadhana Pada (Portion on Practice)
• First five steps of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga
3. Vibhuti Pada (Portion on Accomplishments)
• Last three steps of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga
4. Kaivalva Pada (Portion on Absoluteness)
It is unknown when Pantanjali lived, but studies suggest the date of the Sutras range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D. Since then, his Sutras are the base for different types of meditation and Yoga. Patanjali’s yoga is typically known as Raja Yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. As mentioned above, within these Sutras are eight limbs (also known as eight-folded path) which act as guidelines to the path of internal purification, living a meaningful/purposeful life, bringing attention to one’s health, providing moral and ethical conduct/self-discipline, and heightening spiritual aspects. The first five act as external aids, and the remaining three act as internal aids.
The Eight Limbs:
1. Yamas – self restraints
2. Niyamas – self observances
3. Asana – practice of postures
4. Pranayama – breath and movement system
5. Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
6. Dharana – concentration
7. Dhyana – awareness without focus
8. Samadhi – blissful awareness & enlightenment
1. Yamas (Controls, Restraints)
Yamas deal with our behavior, ethical standards, and means to regain balance in life. These act as guides to manage one’s own desires and to create healthy relationships within the world. Practicing the Yamas, we create a healthier, holier and peaceful life. Our relationships improve and we reduce the draining of energy when we lead a false and/or unconscious life.
The yamas consists of five parts:
• Ahimsa (non-harmful)
• Satya (truthfulness)
• Asteya (non-stealing)
• Bramacharya (moderation in all aspects)
• Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
Ahimsa (non-harming, nonviolence)
To practice Ahimsa, one will choose to limit their cause of pain in physical violence, verbal violence, and hatred toward self and others. Observe thoughts as well; what we think about ourselves and those around us is almost as powerful as any attempt to physically harm someone or something. Cultivate awareness in actions, even those of others, and practice acceptance of being without judgement. Protecting ourselves does not violate ahimsa. Practicing the attitude of nonviolence/nonharming (towards self and those around us) reduces insecurity with others, lessens the fear of dying, and brings forth peacefulness and trust.
Satya (expressing and being in harmony with truth)
To practice Satya, we choose to be truthful in speech, thoughts and deeds. Decrease the amount of being untruthful and honor true thoughts and feelings. Choose words wisely and speak with the intentions of being truthful. When one remains truthful with self and others, they become in harmony with who they really are. This is because one has been heard and understood, causing the soul to develop a sense of comfort. This process grows by encouraging others to act the same, and will help with our relationships and modern day living. Start by communicating lovingly and truthfully and practice forgiveness of self and others.
Asteya (not taking what is not ours)
Asteya roots out the subconscious beliefs that causes greed or hoarding in actions. It teaches us to believe what we need in life is already within us. We become self-sufficient and no longer desire something outside of ourselves. To practice asteya is to practice not taking more than we need but what is freely given to us, nor steal someone elses’ properties such as their objects or even their talents. Respect the talents of others without feeling jealous or envious. Begin a Gratitude Journal to list all of the things you are grateful for each day.
Brahmacharya (moderation in all things)
To practice Bramacharya, one would choose to bring a moderation in all things – to eat consciously, avoid obsessing over food, materialistic needs, and energy of sexuality to maintain a monogamous relationship and to use all of this energy to create, to find, and to joyously express our inner self/Dharma (life path). By control of the self, the conservation of energy is transmuted to the energy in helping one to achieve the higher limbs dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Bramacharya is a reminder to use our energy wisely to live a truly fulfilling life.
Aparigraha (non-possessiveness, non-greed)
In Aparigraha, we choose not to become envious of what another person possesses, or even what their title is in life. We limit our comparing of self to others, finding contentment and acceptance with our own life and possessions. Practice letting go of attachments to things such as grudges, materialistic goods, and harmful substances.
2. Niyamas (Self Observations)
Niyamas extend the ethical guidelines of the yamas, except yamas deal with restraints while niyamas deal with our actions or attitudes to live free from attachments that cause suffering and separation from the whole.
Niyamas also consist of five parts:
• Saucha (purification)
• Santosha (contentment)
• Tapas (austerity)
• Svadhyaya (self-observance, self study)
• Ishvara-Pranidhana (devotion)
Saucha deals with purifying our thoughts, eating consciously, choosing a wholesome and pure diet such as vegan/vegetarian diet or eating in moderation and low in perservatives, acids, pesticides and caffeine. Maintaining clean, sanitary, healthy habits to keep yourself (internally and externally) including your environment clean. It has been discovered that impurities in these areas adversely affect our state of mind. Practicing the asanas (postures) in yoga, breath work practices (pranayama), and meditation helps to cleanse the body and purify the mind. Keeping a pure, clean environment (food, drinks, entertainment, friends) help in not adding any external impurities back into our body.
Santosha is accepting and making the best of what is. We remain content, which means neither to like nor dislike. When we are not content in our life, our energy dissipates and we become aggravated, anxious and stressed. Bring attention to where energy is wasted – thoughts, for example. Are they consistently debating over likes and dislikes? Worrying over the future or the past? Remaining unsatisfied with the present moment? In Santosha, we practice remaining calm and content, even through success and failure. Live mindfully in the present moment. Emotional pain comes from resistance to what is.
Tapas (Austerity, to burn old mental impression)
Tapas builds our will power and personal strength, in-turn helping us become more dedicated to our yoga practice. Our will conflicts with the desires of our mind, creating an ‘internal fire’ to burn our mental and physical impurities. In Tapas, we transform and enable conscious awareness and control over our impulses or poor behavior. We change something in our life, most often something we do not want to change, but that will improve and better ourselves over time. This could be eliminating negative habits, addictions or substances, enforcing a healthy diet, bringing determination to pursue healthy daily yoga practices and enthusiasm in spiritual path.
Svadhyaya (Self-observance, self study)
“Studying the nature of the Self.”
Svadhyaya is studying ourselves through contemplation of life lessons. We learn from our mistakes, flaws, and weaknesses. As we examine our actions we begin to see our conscious and unconscious motives more clearly. In Svadhyaya, one may study spiritual texts as a guide to our internal world, where our true self remains. It is studying and seeing who we are in the present moment, including the connection we have with the divine. To practice Svadhyaya, read and listen to inspirational teachings, reflect upon life with acceptance (if needed, self help books or classes), and practice conscious awareness on and off the yoga mat throughout the day.
Ishvara-Pranidhana (Surrender, devotion)
Ishvara-Pranidhana is the devotion of practice to a higher power. We let go of our egos and acknowledge that we are all connected. When we open ourselves to the universe, we are able to connect with others around us. Ishvara-Pranidhana is simply asking to look outside of ourselves, trust that there is a greater plan, a purpose, and begin to let go of fears and worries.
Asanas are the physical postures practiced in yoga to improve health, strength, balance, flexibility, and self awareness. Originally, Asanas were created to prepare the body for sitting in a meditative posture for long periods of time. This is the most commonly known part of the eight limbs. The challenge of these poses can create an opportunity for the practitioner to control and explore their thoughts, emotions, faith, concentration, and more.
Asana helps to bring the mind completely still, making it easier to practice meditation. It is very important to concentrate on the breath flow (pranayama, which is the fourth limb), when going through asana or sequence. Controlling the breath and postures makes the energy flow through the body peacefully, also bringing about the desired state of health.
Some classes will base their poses on strengthening, stretching, or healing a certain area of the body (such as lower back pain, menstrual problems, shoulder injuries, etc).
Pranayama, in Sanskrit, is “extension of the breath”. This also refers to the control of the breath. One may practice a number of breathing exercises as a separate technique and/or integrate pranayama into their daily yoga practice (for example – inhale when the chest is expanding, exhale when the chest is contracting). Here, we gain connection between the breath, mind, body and emotions. Pranayama is extremely beneficial in preparing the mind for meditation.
Pratyahara is withdrawal of senses from attachment to external objects. Withdrawing the senses helps us to become present in the moment without any filters. We have the opportunity to step back and direct our attention internally – observing our cravings and unhealthy habits. When we meditate, pratyahara occurs almost instantly because the mind and senses are so focused on the meditation, not on external objects. Without pratyahara, we will not be able to meditate.
Pratyahara is built through yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama only then to be utilized in dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is the pivotal movement on the aspirant’s path.
Dharana challenges one to single-pointed concentration and focus, which is necessary to reach the final limb, Samadhi. One will fix the mind into an object. As the thoughts begin to wander; do not judge, criticize, or analyze. We learn to let these thoughts go and pull the mind back to the object once more. This focusing develops control of the distractions of the mind. When the gaze is still, the mind is still.
Dharana (previous limb) practices single-pointed concentration, however, Dhyana is a state of being aware without focus. Dhyana is most commonly known as meditation. At this point, the mind is quiet and still, raising perceptions/insights about self and others. It is not required to meditate for long periods of time in order to receive any beneficial results, although that is a goal to work up to. With daily practice of even 10-15 minutes quietly observing thoughts with non-judgement, we learn to connect on a deeper level and feel less stressed, anxious, or worried.
Here, one reaches a stage of enlightenment which can neither be bought or possessed, only experienced. The mind and the intellect stop and experience the truth, joy and serenity. Since Samadhi can be difficult to achieve, it is crucial to perform all stages in the eight limbs in order to progress to this final stage.