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The Eight Limbs of Yoga: Patanjali’s Pathway To Bliss Explained

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Whether you’re completely new to yoga or have been practising for years, its likely you’ve heard in at least one class that yoga is ‘not just exercise’. Of course, some forms of yoga can be physically demanding and help build incredible strength, but alongside the sweating and stretching, there’s a hint of something else, something deeper, and something steeped in ancient wisdom.

With a growing mainstream focus upon yoga’s physicality, more people are practising yoga and becoming involved in their local yoga community, benefiting from the movement and postures, breath regulation and sense of wellbeing and one-ness the practice can provide. However, with yoga as a more accessible and modern practice, the ancient roots of yoga itself seem to be slowly fading amongst new generations of practitioners, meaning the deep philosophical wisdom we once knew and benefited from is becoming blurred and lost all together.

Why Learn Yoga Philosophy?

It may at first seem that studying something so ancient, and at times obscure, is irrelevant in a modern and forward-thinking world, where yoga practices are coupled with mindfulness, mind-body medicine and progressive understandings of anatomy. With all this new information and exciting advancement, why would we want to look back at something cocooned in dogma and Sanskrit language?

One reason is that philosophy gives context. It shows us why the practice came to be in the first place, what was happening in the world at the time of its origin, and where the meanings of yoga postures are derived. It gives us a glimpse into a time long ago when the gods and goddesses were part of everyday life, where devotion to yoga was so strong it was written about in thousands of texts and hundreds of languages. Most importantly perhaps, is that these ancient texts show that even people thousands of years ago sometimes also felt lost, sad, alone, stressed, overwhelmed, and that they needed yoga just as much as we do now.

The 8 Limb Path

Patanjali – thought to be an ancient scholar whose scribes wrote the many sutras – is one of a multitude of ancient sages who compounded incredibly important and long surviving texts on spirituality and philosophy. The ‘eight limbs’ outlined in the text The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a required read on most Yoga teacher training programmes) are said to be a little like a road map, guiding us towards Samadhi, often thought of as bliss or enlightenment. These eight limbs could be seen as steps or rungs on a ladder, each step deepening the yogic practice. It’s important to understand that this particular yogic philosophy is just one of many philosophies, others including Buddhism and Tantra, both of which are equally as rich and fascinating.

Starting with morals and guidelines, and moving through various practices, techniques and states of meditation, the practitioner is said to eventually come to rest in the last limb of bliss, Samadhi. It’s a long way to the top if you want to be enlightened though, so let’s get started by learning the limbs….

1. Yama

Thought of as moral vows and observances, the five yamas (including non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, right use of energy, and non-greed) are universal and apply to everyone and everything. No matter where a person is from, their social status, current life situation or past experience, these five morals apply to them, us, and everyone around us. These yamas could be thought of as ‘restraints’ or small disciplines we can all practice in order to simply be good people. In turn, these small disciplines create a ripple effect, cultivating a more harmonious society and more peaceful world.  In James Mallinson and Mark Singleton’s recent translation of the Yoga Sutras, entitled Roots of Yoga, they comment on how these morals or yamas are also included in far older texts than Patanjali’s, showing how important and revered these simple daily vows are.

2. Niyama

The prefix ‘ni’ indicates that these five particular observances are more about how we work with ourselves, how we turn our awareness inward to our own actions, and how these actions might in turn effect those around us.

Whist the yamas are universal, the niyamas are reserved for those who want to deepen their self development and spiritual growth. These five personal practices include cleanliness and purity of mind, body and environment, contentment, discipline and acceptance of discomfort, self reflection and surrender.

3. Asana

Often now referring to the multitude of postures practised in a yoga class, the word Asana essentially really means ‘seat’, or a particular posture taken for meditation. Within the practice of Asana, it is said that the posture for meditation should have the qualities of ‘steadiness and ease’; stable enough to be able to sit for a prolonged period of time, and relaxed enough so the breath can flow freely.

Over the thousands of years since the origins of the phrase Asana, hundreds of physical postures and movements have been created in order to help clear and revitalise the body and mind, removing both subtle and physical ‘blocks’ or difficulties. In turn, removing these blocks paves the way for a steadier and easier meditation practice. It is the many yoga postures we practise today (most of which have only existed for about fifty years) which combine to create our modern understanding of ‘asana’. There’s nothing wrong with referring to movement practices and postures as ‘asana’, if we know their intention is to cultivate the qualities suited to meditation.

4.     Pranayama

Various breathing techniques existed long before yoga postures, and were used as a way to change the practitioner’s state of mind. From the gentle practices of alternate nostril breathing, to the more vigorous Kapalabhati and long retentions of breath, these powerful practices are an important part of yoga. The Buddha is even said to have practised extended breath holding, and in pre-modern India, all physical yoga practices were primarily concerned with breathing techniques.

An underestimated aspect of yoga practice, pranayama has the ability to impact the physical and subtle aspects of us on a deep level, and with many modern breathwork practitioners like Wim Hoff gathering scientific evidence of how much positive potential pranayama has, it’s worth making this an integral part of your yoga practice.

5.     Pratyahara

In a world of stimulants, distractions and never ending social media notifications, sensory withdrawal is both difficult and more necessary than ever. Originally, this practice was intended to draw the practitioner’s awareness deeply into themselves, so they were virtually transported away from the world around them, and able to focus for meditation.

The five senses of smell, sound, sight, touch and taste all give life a richness, but they can also drag our awareness in all directions. Focusing on a meditation practice or simply being present within a conversation can be made all the more difficult by an uncomfortable seat, strong odour or the beeping and buzzing of a mobile phone. Of course, the yogis didn’t have to deal with Facebook and Instagram back in the day, but they did have their own relationship problems and worldly worries. A pratyahara practice helps draw awareness inward, temporarily quietening the senses and using that energy instead for meditation. These senses are of course not actually changed, but our intention to control and direct them inward means we aren’t pulled around by them as much.

6.     Dharana

The hovering moment of meditation, whereby the practitioner holds their object of meditation steadily, whether the object be the breath, a mantra, a symbol or a visualisation is known as dharana. It can be easy to move in and out of dharana and back into the thinking mind – you may notice this happening when you suddenly ‘realise’ you’ve been meditating, and are subsequently pulled out of that very meditative state. Dharana and pratyahara work hand in hand; the ability to quieten the senses is aided by a focus such as a mantra or object, but the ability to focus intently and connect to that object requires a withdrawal of the senses.

7.     Dhyana

This state of meditative absorption is where you’re at when you’re completely in the zone and unaware of anything around you. This aspect of the eight limbs is not something we can actively practise, but something acquired over a long period of time. The prefix ‘dh’, indicates an understanding or connection to something, and in the immersive state of dhyana, we are truly connected to that aspect of meditation.

8.     Samadhi

Seen by many as enlightenment or bliss, this too is a state we can move in and out of. Free flowing consciousness is a great example of a Samadhi state, when we’re unaware, totally focused on one thing, and totally content in that moment. You might experience multiple moments of Samadhi each day, and the more of them we experience through meditation and daily action, the closer we come to freedom and liberation, also known as Moksha.

Through much learning and contemplation, it is my understanding that the word ‘Samadhi’ doesn’t necessarily bring about a firework display of happiness and bliss, but a quiet and humble contentment available to everyone. The Sanskrit prefix ‘sama’ means ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and as mentioned, the ‘dh’ refers to an understanding or connection. With this new definition, we can come to see that the ‘end goal’ of Samadhi isn’t about floating away on a cloud of bliss, but really about having an equal understanding, a contentment and equanimity with life itself. Really, Samadhi is the continued development of being ok with things as they are right now, and this is something humans have indeed practised for thousands of years.

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