Patanjali taught in the Yoga Sutras that the mind can serve as either the gateway or a barrier to spiritual liberation. The mind holds the key to enlightenment, but is restrained by distraction and physical attachment to the physical world. It is only by renouncing that world and the ego, by following the eight-limbed path of yoga, that one can achieve union. Asana, or the physical aspect of yoga, but is the focal point for many in Western culture. In reality, however, it is only one of the eight limbs.
The eight fold path in the Yoga Sutras is called Ashtanga Yoga (ashta = eight; anga = limb). The eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga are guidelines for how to live a life with morals and meaning, to ultimately reach the goal of yoga (“yoga” = “to yoke” or “to unite”, in the sense of to unite ourselves with our highest nature).
According to Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are:
The first limb is Yama, which is comprised of a list of ethical standards and correct behaviours:
- Ahimsa, or non-violence
- Satya, truthfulness, in word and thought
- Asteya, non-stealing
- Brahmacharya, abstinence
- Aparigraha, non-possessiveness
Niyama, the second limb, is based on spiritual practice and self-discipline. As with the yamas, there are also 5 niyamas
- Saucha, cleanliness
- Samtosa, contentment
- Tapas, spiritual austerities
- Svadhyaya, studying sacred scriptures as well as one’s self
- Isvara pranidhana, surrender to God
Asana, literally meaning “seat”, is the physical practice of yoga. To look after the mind, one must also care for and have respect for the body. By practicing asana regularly, it is possible to develop the skills of concentration and discipline, which are essential for meditation.
Pranayama is often defined as breath control, but it can be directly translated as “life force extension”. Therefore, by practicing pranayama via meditation or asana, and acknowledging the link between breath, life and the mind, it is believed possible to extend life itself.
The fifth limb refers to sensory withdrawal or transcendence. By withdrawing from life’s distractions and external stimuli, it is possible to direct one’s attention internally.
Dharana can be translated to mean “concentration”, and is almost a follow-on from pratyahara. The previous limbs of physical posture and breath control brings the attention inward and allows self-observance – now, in dharana, concentration can instead be focused on one’s mind. This is the prelude to…
Dhyana, contemplation or meditation, is prolonged concentration without interruption. It is similar to dharana, only rather than focusing on a single object, dhyana is the state of meditation without focus – the mind is quietened with little or no thoughts.
This is the ultimate stage of yoga – enlightenment, where the meditator merges with their point of focus, and instead realises a deep connection to the Divine – a connection with all living beings.