Patanjali and The 8 Limbs of Yoga As I mentioned in my first blog post (‘The Origins of Yoga’) the physical practice we do each time we unroll our mat and hop on to it, is actually the smallest part of what we know as yoga. There are lots of ways to practice it and the 8 Limbs of Yoga, written by the Indian sage Patanjali, is the most well-known explanation of this. Patanjali was an Indian sage who wrote a number of Sanskrit works. The most famous of these was a piece called the Yoga Sutras (sutra means verse), which has become a classical yoga text. In it, he discussed the 8 Limbs of Yoga. This work is so important that most teacher trainings have it on their reading list and a good teacher training course also takes time to discuss it and help students understand it, because it’s not easy! Patanjali is thought to have lived sometime between the 2nd century BC and 400 AD. The Yoga Sutras was his organisation of the work of the sages that came before him into one text and has really stood the test of time. According to him, yoga had 8 different limbs that the practitioner has to master to achieve enlightenment. I don’t think the aim for many people practising yoga today is enlightenment, but by learning and thinking of these limbs in our daily lives, we can live a more meaningful and purposeful life.
The limbs are: 1.Yama- This refers to our interaction with the physical world around us. There are five Yamas- non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, how we use our energy and non-hoarding. A code of ethics if you will, and a guide on how to interact with the world. Basically- how to be a good person to those around you.
2. Niyama- ‘Ni’, the prefix to ‘Yama’, is a Sanskrit word that means ‘inward’. There are five Niyamas- cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and giving way to a higher power. So the Yamas concern our interaction with the world around us, and the Niyamas are concerned with how we treat ourselves. This time- how to be a good person… to yourself! 3. Asana- This is the name for the poses and movements we do in class. Patanjali believed the whole point of the asanas was to be able to sit steady and comfortably to practice meditation. It’s not about the fancy headstands, splits, and big backbends- it’s simply about movements that allow us to sit at peace for a while. There’s a lot of backlash going on at the minute against some Instagram and online Yogis because of this ‘showing off’- whilst I agree to some extent, I also don’t believe that we shouldn’t be aiming towards more difficult poses as we progress our practice, as long as we do it in the right way. If we only ever to stick with the same few poses, then how do we improve? But that’s a discussion for another post! 4. Pranayama- The fourth limb. It refers to the breath work we do throughout the class. The word Prana also means ‘energy’ and can refer to the energy that makes up the very universe around us! Pranyama is working with our breath to learn to observe it, to control it, and over time, free it. And in the process, hopefully freeing our mind as well. 5. Pratyahara- This limb concerns the focus on our bodies and what’s happening within ourselves in meditation. As we draw our mind inward, we also tend to focus on the breath here, thus linking Pratyahara to the limb of Pranyama. 6. Dharana- Dharana means ‘focused concentration’ and is linked to the previous two limbs. In particular, Pratyahara. If we can withdraw our senses through Pratyahara as we focus intently, we are more likely to keep our concentration focused, and less likely to become distracted. 7. Dhyana- This is the limb for meditation. It links in with the three that have come before, as the practitioner moves towards the final limb, which is… 8. Samadhi- If you have mastered this limb, then congratulations! You have achieved enlightenment! Well, not quite. But Patanjali considered this limb to mean the yogi had attained a blissful form of meditative absorption- the practitioner has transcended through the aches and pains of their body and is purely focused inward. So once again, I am only at the beginning of my teaching journey, and this blog post is by no means perfect, but I hope it has helped you to see that yoga is not just about what happens to you physically on the mat. It takes in a mental aspect too, and how we carry ourselves off the mat in our day to day lives. As I’ve said before, not everyone who practices is aiming for that big ‘a-ha’ meditative moment, and that’s perfectly fine. Not everyone is aiming to check off all of the Yamas and Niyamas either. And that’s fine too. But I do believe that when we practice yoga consistently, we start to embody a lot of the limbs unconsciously- when you feel better in your body, you treat it better. You treat people around you better. It’s a knock on effect that can only ever be a positive thing. What do you think?