The practice of yoga is an art and science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. The foundations of yoga philosophy were written in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, approximately 200 AD in India. The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice.
In brief, the eight limbs of Patanjali are:
1. Yama: Universal morality
The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called yamas, and the niyamas. These can also be looked at as universal morality and personal observances.
The Yoga Sutra describes what happens when these five behaviors outlined above become part of a person's daily life. Thus, the yamas are the moral virtues which, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.
For example, I practice the Yamas in my practice by being compasionate about myself (ahimsa) for example not getting angry at myself for not being able to do a pose I could do the previous day, or before I birthed my child. I practice Satya by being aware of my inner dialogue of my mind, and try to be gentle with myself. Not pushing myself to do a pose by stealing (asteya) hurting another part of my body through force. I practice Brahmacharya by being conscious of what I eat, especially in the evenings before waking up early to practice yoga as not to affect my senses and overall practice in the morning. And I aim to practice aparigraha when I practice yoga (and during the rest of the day!) by focusing on what I am doing, rather than the final destination of the pose/outcome.
2. Niyama (Personal Observances)
For example, I practice the Niyamas in my practice by keeping my self and my mat clean (sauca) and also the way I think about my self and others. I aim at practicing Santosa as often as I can by seeing everything as an opportunity to learn, even obstacles such as not holding my balances, or twisting in a certain way. I use tapas to create heat in my body so that I can practice asanas that allow me to burn away the toxins from my body (and my mind!). In my practice svadhyaya by continuously studying and applying this to myself, using each experience as a way to learn so that I can better connect with my students. At times, when I finish my yoga practice I experience my understanding of Isvarapranidhana – as a full contentment with myself, where I am an ease with who I am and the universe I live in.
3. Asanas: Body postures
Asana is the practice of physical postures. It is the most commonly known aspect of yoga for those unfamiliar with the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The practice of moving the body into postures has widespread benefits; of these the most underlying are improved health, strength, balance and flexibility.
On a deeper level the practice of asana, which means "staying" or "abiding" in Sanskrit, is used as a tool to calm the mind and move into the inner essence of being. The challenge of poses offers the practitioner the opportunity to explore and control all aspects of their emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and the ethereal body.
B.K.S. Iyengar says "The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body. The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he know that He is within."
By practicing Asanas I have experienced improved overall health – physically I am stronger and flexible, but also mentally I have found a tool to aid with my stress, anxiety and depression. Whilst practicing asanas I have learned to become more accepting with myself and who I am, practicing to not judging myself harshly and in turn not judging others – overall deepening my spirituality of why I am here at this moment. Through the practice of asana I have made a deep connection between body, mind and spirit.
4. Pranayama: Breath Control
The key to fostering this expansion of awareness and consciousness begins with the control of breath (Pranayama). Patanjali suggests that the asana and the pranayama practices will bring about the desired state of health; the control of breath and bodily posture will harmonize the flow of energy in the organism, thus creating a fertile field for the evolution of the spirit. Pranayama controls the energy (prana) within the organism, in order to restore and maintain health and directs it through breath When the in-flowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out-flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of body activities are realized.
Personally, through the practice of pranayama not only have I experienced physical benefits such as improved lung capacity, it has taught me to be present in the moment by appreciating the fact I am breathing, naturally, and am alive.
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses
Pratyahara means drawing back, withdrawal or retreat. The word ahara means "nourishment"; pratyahara translates as "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses".
The term pratyahara also implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects or emotions. It can then be seen as the practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions or emotions, as we constantly return to the path of self realization and achievement of internal peace. It means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate; the senses no longer depend on these stimulants and are not fed by them any more.
Patanjali says that the above process is at the root of human unhappiness and uneasiness. In a sense, yoga is nothing more than a process which enables us to stop and look at the processes of our own minds; only in this way can we understand the nature of happiness and unhappiness, and thus transcend them both.
Over the years of my practice I have come to understand that pratyahara dose not mean a withdrawal from other people/thoughts/experiences but rather an opportunity to connect within. There are certain asanas and pranayama exercises that deliberately cover the senses. For example Pindasana is when the knees cover the ears. Rather than seeing this as an exercise to cut off the exterior world and noises, it is a form to connect with in – to hear the heart beat and and ones breath, and be at ease even when breath can be difficult and focus within.
6. Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
Dharana means "immovable concentration of the mind". The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity/object. The particular object selected has nothing to do with the general purpose, which is to stop the mind from wandering - through memories or reflective thought - by deliberately holding it single-mindedly upon some apparently static object.
B.K.S. Iyengar states that the objective is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are "all restrained and all these faculties are offered to the Lord for His use and in His service. Here there is no feeling of 'I' and 'mine'."
When I practice yoga, I practice so that I can manifest the best person I can possibly be to all humanity. At one level I may be practicing for myself, but at a deeper level I am practicing so that I can live in a contributive and compassionate way to help, support and encourage humanity.
7. Dhyana: Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
Dhyana means worship, or profund meditation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. The concept holds that when one focuses their mind in concentration on an object the mind is transformed into the shape of the object.
When one focuses on the divine they become more reflective of it and they know their true nature.
B.K.S Iyengar says "His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation – the Universal Spirit."
As we fine-tune our concentration and become more aware of the nature of reality we perceive that the world is unreal. Meditation becomes our tool to see things clearly and perceive reality beyond the illusions that cloud our mind.
At times when I practice I sense a deep connection with who I am and the universe I live in. I become appreciative of being alive, having a body that allows me to move, lungs that allow me to breath, a mind that allows me to think... and so forth, overall deepening my sense of appreciation and gratitude.
8. Samadhi: Union with the Divine
Samadhi refers to ‘union’ or ‘true Yoga’. There is an ending to the separation that is created by the "I" and "mine" of our perceptions of reality. The mind does not distinguish between self and non-self, or between the object contemplated and the process of contemplation. The mind and the intellect have stopped and there is only the experience of consciousness, truth and unutterable joy.
The achievement of samadhi is a difficult task. For this reason the Yoga Sutra suggests the practice of asanas and pranayama as preparation for dharana, because these influence mental activities and create space in the crowded schedule of the mind.
These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality. Upon understanding all eight limbs of the path it becomes evident that not one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine.
Yoga Mala, by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Yoga Sutra, By Pantanjali
Hatha Yoga Pradipika, By Maharshi Swatmarama
Light on Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar
The Eight Limbs , The Core of Yoga, by William J.D. Doran