The Eight Limbs are not just a method of purifying the body and mind but a deepening path, beginning with simple moral disciplines, moving towards transcendence of the material world, and ending in union with the divine.
The original Sanskrit sutras or threads were verbal lessons to be memorized and expounded on by a teacher. Many gurus have translated the sutras with their own commentary; a tradition in India. One of my favorite translations and commentaries of Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras was written by Sri Swami Satchidananda, whose simple, lucid explanations are clear, open and pure.
Here is the original Eight Limbs reference in Patañjali’s Sutras:
II.28. yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhi kṣaye jñāna dīptirā viveka khyāteḥ
This awareness shines resplendent with the light of intelligence, when the inner psychic impurities that becloud the vision of truth have been eliminated by the intelligent practice of the “limbs” of yoga.
II.29. yama niyamā ‘sana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo’ṣṭāv aṅgāni
Discipline, observances, posture, exercise of the life-force, introversion of attention, concentration, meditation and illumination (at-one-ment) are the eight limbs of yoga or the direct realization of oneness. Hence, these limbs should all be practiced together, intelligently, so that the impurities of all the physical, vital and psychological limbs may be eliminated.
—Translation by Swami Venkatesananda
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
1.Yama (Restraints or Abstinence)
Ahimsa: Refrain from violence
Satya: Refrain from Lying (Truthfulness)
Asteya: Refrain from stealing
Brahmacharya: Refrain from lust (reckless sex, rage, vengeance)
Aparigraha: Refrain from Hoarding (Sense control)
2. Niyama (Observances or Disciplines)
Tapas: Sustained Practice (Discipline/Heat)
Svadhyaya: Self Inquiry
Isvarapranidhana: Surrender to God
3. Asana (Seat or Posture)
Through abiding in the asanas, stillness is cultivated. Asanas prepare the body and mind for deeper levels of meditation by activating charkas; esoteric energy centers in the body which effect spiritual, physical and emotional health. Through balance, asanas and transitions, stillness and movement, mind and body, masculine and feminine, sun and moon are integrated.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
Prana means “lifeforce” and yama means “cessation,” while “ayam” is to expand. So Pranayama means control of the life force through cessation and expansion of the breath. Prana is the subtlest energy of the body and is equivalent to chi in Taoist systems of thought. Prana is the ascending energy connected with vitality and apana is the descending energy connected with elimination. Through inhalation, exhalation and retention, heat (jathara agni) increases expanding shakti, the vital life force. Pranayama ignites the kundalini or the serpent power which resides in the spine and moves upward to the crown chakra or thousand petaled lotus (Sahasrara.)
5. Pratyahara (Retraction of the Senses)
Pratyahara is withdrawal of the consciousness from external objects. The luminous flow of consciousness is turned inward. This is a natural process that occurs whenever the consciousness withdraws from the outer world such as going to sleep or awakening. In yoga, the physical body and breath are used as a point of meditative focus so that the senses can withdraw from outer objects.
6. Dharana (Fixation of Attention)
In dharana, the consciousness is extended toward an object and held with steady concentration. This absorption with an object occurs naturally when you read a book or do something you love or place your attention on something that fascinates you. Patanjali described this process as streaming the consciousness towards an object with fractional breaks in the flow like drops of water.
7. Dhyana (Absorption of Attention)
In dhyana, the consciousness is extended toward the object with undistracted absorption. Patanjali described this process as streaming the consciousness towards an object like oil, in an unbroken flow. As this level of meditative absorption is achieved, the witnessing consciousness is able to distinguish between the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the object perceived. As integration with the object progresses, the true nature of the object is revealed.
8. Samadhi (Integration of Consciousness)
A non-dualistic state of consciousness in which the ego is transcended and the consciousness of the perceiver becomes one with the perceived. In the final stage of Samadhi all attachment to the material world and all karma is dissolved as the illusion of physical incarnation is transcended and the soul unites with God. If the enlightened being remains incarnated in physical form the condition is called Sahaj Samadhi.
There are different levels of Samadhi.
- Laja Samadhi (Deep meditation or trance)
- Savikalpa Samadhi (Release from desire)
- Nirvikalpa Samadhi (Release from Illusion)
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