With yoga being a widely accepted form of physical activity, it is no question that a lot of people have already become familiar with the term. If you are practicing yoga, you have most likely encountered words such as asana and pranayama which refer to the poses and the breathing techniques. However, yoga is much more than that. This ancient art introduced in India 5000 years ago aims to promote a better way of living. Way back 2000 years ago, Patanjali created the Yoga Sutra which outlined and defined the philosophies and the eight limbs of yoga.
The sutras or writings of Patanjali describe eight limbs or eight parts of yoga. According to his writing, practicing each of these limbs will help the person improve his discipline in life. Overall, the goal of yoga is to create a union between mind and body which then forges a connection with the divine. Once you achieve this, you reach the path of self-realization, where you are fully aware of yourself.
The first two limbs of yoga are based on ethical aspects which are called yamas and niyamas. These two deal with the aspects of morality towards the universe and towards one’s self. It describes how a practitioner’s attitude should be towards the people around him and his attitude to himself. The outward attitude is called the yama while the personal or inward observances is called the niyama. These two relate to how a person should use his energy in his relationship both inward and outward.
The concept of yamas is divided into five branches- ahimsa, satya, asteya, brachmacharya, and aparigraha. You might be familiar with the word ahimsa which refers to being compassionate not only to people but towards all living things. The word itself literally means not to show cruelty or bring harm to any creature. But aside from the aspects of non-violence, ahimsa also encourages you to be kind, friendly and thoughtful towards all that lives.
Satya deals with being committed to the truth. It teaches you to communicate honestly in order to bring peace and harmony in your relationship towards other people. However, the teachings under satya also warn people that speaking the truth with negative consequences is not desirable.
Asteya teaches you not to take anything that does not belong to you or in simpler terms, “do not steal.” The concept of asteya is not only exclusive to material things. It can also include stealing information, taking advantage of someone else’s personal secrets, and being inconsiderate of other people’s time. Brachmacharya talks about sense control and is usually associated with abstinence to sexual activity. It does not necessarily promote celibacy but rather utilizing sexual energy to connect spiritually. The last of the yamas is aparigraha which basically teaches people not to be greedy of material things. It also deals with the disengaging of one’s self to impermanent things and to believe that change is constant in a person’s life.
The second limb of yoga is the niyama or personal observances. Just like the yama, the niyama follows five teachings that are applicable towards one’s self. Niyama teaches sauca, santosa, tapas, svadhyaya, and isvara pranidhana. Sauca deals with the values of cleanliness and purity in both inner and outer aspects. Physical cleanliness in terms of hygiene, and keeping a healthy and clear mind are taught in sauca. Aside from that, it also reinforces the concept that physical cleanliness is not enough and that a person should also be free from negative emotions such as anger, hatred, pride, greed, lust, delusion and passion.
Santosa or contentment teaches the idea of being modest and being content with one’s self. In order for a person to be at peace, one should be content even when going through difficult stages in life. Tapas literally means “to heat the body” with the purpose of cleaning it. It promotes the concept of being disciplined in the use of energy by designing a life with an ultimate goal of creating a connection to the Divine.
Svadhyaya deals with inquiry or examination of one’s self leading to self-reflection and discovery. It teaches the idea that one should practice intentional self-awareness, to be centered, non-reactive and the ability to dismiss negative or disturbing tendencies. Lastly, the niyama of isvara pranidhana teaches the concept of celebrating the spiritual aspects. It teaches you that the Creator has a role in your being and that you should set time to attune yourself with this omnipresent force.
The third limb is known as asana. As a yoga practitioner, you are most likely familiar with the term asana since you are doing it in every yoga practice. this limb refers to the performance of the poses. On a physical level, following the postures improves the body’s alignment and provides health benefits, flexibility and stability. On a deeper, philosophical level, asana teaches the idea that the poses help in calming the mind and bringing one’s self into awareness. The body and the postures become the agent of harmony towards the forces that affects your life
The fourth limb is called pranayama or breath control. In pranayama, you are taught how to direct, control and measure your breath. By inhaling and exhaling, one creates an environment that relaxes and balances the body. It is very important in yoga and is always paired with the asana. According to the Yoga Sutra, the combination of these two limbs creates the highest form of self-discipline and purification for both body and mind.
The fifth limb is called pratyahara. Pratyahara teaches the concept of withdrawal or disengaging one’s sense to the material world. As you stop your attachment towards these external objects that stimulates your senses, you are no longer dependent on these material things. Once you develop the ability to create restraint, the external forces cannot distract or tempt you.
The sixth limb, called dharana, reinforces the idea that one should be able to focus or concentrate on one direction. One can reach dharana when the asana, pranayama, and pratyahara are successfully performed. It requires deep contemplation for you to focus on one point rather than letting your mind wander into different directions. This can become possible when you disengage from your ego and offer all of your faculties to the Divine.
The seventh limb, dhyana, creates the perfect environment of contemplation. It teaches the concept that once you direct your focus to the Divine, you start to become more reflective of its nature. You can then start to differentiate yourself, your perception and what you are contemplating on a deeper level. As you realize that the only reality is the Divine, your mind becomes clearer and you have reached Moksha or liberation.
The last path of yoga is the attainment of Samadhi. Here, the body and the senses are put at rest, but the mind and the logic are fully active. As you reach samadhi, you have gone beyond consciousness and your soul is liberated. As samadhi is the union or the merging of the Divine, it is referred to as the true Yoga. Here, the illusions of the unreal world are totally erased and you will experience truth, bliss and consciousness.