Yoga philosophy 101: The Yoga Sutras. Explaining the eight limbs of yoga.

yoga philosophy sutras the eight limbs of yoga

In my blog The foundations of Yoga, I explained how yoga is much more than just the physical practice. Yoga asana (the postures) is one limb of the eight limbs of yoga. The great Sage Patanjali wrote the yoga Sutra’s in which he wrote down the philosophy of yoga. Patanjali explains the internal workings of the mind and gives us an eightfold plan on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Although it is a pretty old text (somewhere between 500BC and 200BC), it is still very useful in our modern day lives. The path is called ‘Ashtanga’ which translates as ‘eight limbs’ (ashta = eight and anga = limb). In this blog I want to take you through the eight limbs of yoga. Let it inspire you to practice yoga even when you’re not on your mat.

“Just like a baby grows in the womb”

Eight limbs, not eight steps

Patanjali has a vision of wholeness. Yoga means union (link) and we learn that everything is connected. His idea of limbs is just like a baby grows in the womb, so do these limbs grow together on the path of yoga.

The eight limbs are:

  1. Yama (universal ethics)
  2. Niyama (personal ethics)
  3. Asana (body postures)
  4. Pranayama (breathwork)
  5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (absorption)

It is all about the present

A lot of times people see these as steps, as a sequence. But limbs is a better translation as we want to work on all of them. All the limbs of yoga will grow bigger, so the whole body of yoga will grow bigger. The first four limbs are more externally focused and from four on up they are more internal practices. The word steps should be taken loosely although the first four are definitely preparing for the other steps. The eight limbs are circular because they are built upon the foundation of wholeness. We don’t have to learn new things, it is all inside of us. There are only blockages, for example greed or jealousy, that have to be removed. Patanjali stresses the importance of the present moment. So do a lot of other famous spiritual writers. For example Eckhart Tolle with his book ‘The Power of Now’ and Ram Das with his book: ‘Be here now’. There is so much potency in the present moment. So buckle up and let’s dive a bit deeper into the eight limbs.

1. Yama

The Yama’s are rules of conduct. They are ethical principles that clarify our relationship to the world and everything in it. The Yama’s are not simple rules like: do this or don’t do that. They emphasize that yoga is a form of connection. That everything is interconnected. For example if I steel something from you, I am ultimately hurting myself. Through the Yama’s we are asked to keep careful watch of how our actions and thoughts create the circumstances around us. Because everything is connected, it is also a great resource to learn about our own habits, values and beliefs. From learning about ourselves we can be a better person to others. The Yama’s consist of five parts.

Ahimsa = nonviolence

Ahimsa means not causing injury to anyone, including animals, in any way. Nonviolence in word, thought and deed. This also means nonviolence to yourself. Be kind in the ways you talk to yourself and staying away from negative self-talk. Even in western science it is shown that when you are kind to yourself you can be better to others.

Satya = truthfulness

Satya means truthfulness. This means a lot more than just ‘not telling lies’. The Sanskrit word ‘Sat’ is defined as ‘true’. We should always tell the truth, not only in word, but also be truthful in thought and deed. On the other hand, Patanjali makes a point that we should not tell the truth if it causes harm to others. We still have to act with compassion (Ahimsa). A good quote from Gautama Buddha can help us as a reminder: ‘Sometimes it is better to be kind than to be right’. Again, we should look at our own actions first.

“Are we just wanting to make a point? Prove something?“

Are we just wanting to make a point? Prove something? It can be very hard but like you probably know, perception and awareness starts within. Some people are so good at pointing out the issues of other people, but are totally blind to their own. We also lie a lot to ourselves about things we don’t want to face. We also lie to others about how we are feeling. Being truthful with others starts with being truthful to ourselves. Because how can you be truthful to someone else about the fact that you are feeling down, when you don’t even want to acknowledge it to yourself? Honesty will make life easier and better. In short: carefully choose your words so they do the least harm and the most good.

Asteya = non stealing

Asteya means non stealing. But again, here it means much more than just that. It also means stealing on more subtle level, like stealing someone’s energy or sweet talking someone into something for selfish purposes. We have to be respectful of other people’s time and energy as well as our own. Asteya also means we should not be envious or begrudging. If you only want something that someone else has, that creates dissatisfaction and will lead to suffering to our own.

“using your energy for positive things”

Brahmacharya = walking in the awareness of the highest reality

Brahmacharya is often interpreted into not engaging with sexual activity. But Brahmacharya refers to all the ways that we spend our energy, not only sexual energy. How many times do we scroll on our phone at night and because of that we have difficulty falling asleep? That is wrong use of energy. So Brahmacharya is using your energy for positive things so you can continue growing. Brahmacharya is redirecting the senses from external desires towards freedom. So those dependencies and cravings do not control us but we control them.

Aparigraha = non greed

Aparigraha means non-greed and non-possessiveness. For example, we only should eat what our body needs. Of course we can still enjoy the things we eat and the stuff we own, but you’ll get the gist. Moderation is key. When we live based on greed it brings only negativity. Again we see that this Yama at first is how we treat others but ultimately it also makes our self a happier human.

2. Niyama

Niyama’s are similar to the Yama’s, only a bit more personal. They also have five sub-limbs. The Niyama’s are more an internal discipline, how to handle ourselves and to reflect on our actions and lifestyle.

Shaucha = purity

Shaucha means purity and cleanliness. The first thing that comes into mind is our physical body (external purification). We have to keep our body clean and we have to make sure the space we live in is clean, so we stay healthy. But Shaucha also means we have to make sure our insides stay ‘clean’ (inner purification). Our body is our temple. We have to eat simple and clean food, which promotes health and balanced emotional energy. We also have to make our minds pure by clearing away clutter like negative thoughts that do not serve us. We have to practice Shaucha on all levels: body, mind and speech.

“An attitude of gratitude”

Santosha = contentment

We all know that elated feeling when we hear great news. But we can also feel really low when bad news hits us. With this Niyama we learn to stay content with what we have. The Sanskrit word ‘Sam’ is translated as ‘entirely’ and ‘Tosha’ is translated as ‘satisfaction’. Thus Santosha refers to complete satisfaction, no matter which situation you find yourself in. It is acceptance of others and our own situations. With this, we free ourselves from the constant craving, of wanting something and instead it can lead us to being grateful of what we have. It’s all about that attitude people! An attitude of gratitude.

Tapas = discipline

Tapas means discipline or austerity. It means being committed to yoga and self-work. Through constant practice we will reap the benefits of the eight limbs of yoga. What my yoga teacher in India always said: ‘The effort of today is the comfort of tomorrow’. It also means accepting pain as a path of purification. Sometimes we have to work through some painful stuff in our minds in order to let them go. To do that can be hard and confronting, therefore we need discipline.

Swadhyaya = self-study

Swadhyaya means self-study and self-reflection. It encompasses the practice of truly understanding who we are through inner reflection, but also through studying yoga texts.

Ishwarapranidhana = Devotion

Ishwara Pranidhana means devotion and dedication to God (whichever or whatever that is for you), it means surrendering to your highest self. Yoga emphasizes the divine in each of us. We are all sacred beings. We want to devote ourselves to reach our highest potential. We should be grateful and cherish all that is around us.

3. Asana

Now we are moving into familiar water. The asana’s, which is the physical practice of yoga. We often translate the word ‘asana’ in to ‘posture’, but the word ‘asana’ actually means: a stable and comfortable position. This is what we want to achieve: a comfortable and stable state of mind. To achieve this, we have to train our body and sense organs so we can control them. By linking breath to movement, asana helps us to turn within. Asana practice helps us to maintain physical health and vitality and we also learn valuable lessons about our self. Such as patience and compassion. Through asana we want to create a stable body so we achieve a stable mind.

4. Pranayama

Pranayama means breathwork. Through pranayama we want to cultivate the stability of breath. ‘Prana’ is translated as ‘life force’ or ‘breath’ and ‘Yama’ means ‘control’. Through Pranayama we want to control our life energy. When you’re running ‘out of breath’, you notice yourself becoming tired very quickly. By practicing Pranayama we learn how to cultivate our breath so even in difficult situations we can control our energy. Our breath affects the mind and vice versa. When you are stressed, try to lie down and focus on deep belly breathing. Notice that your body will become more relaxed also. To quote one of my teachers in India again: ‘A long breath means a long life’.

“Tame your wild running horse (aka your brain)”

5. Pratyahara

meditation pratyahara

We have arrived at the fifth limb of the eightfold path. The first four are more outwardly focused while he last four are more internal. Pratyahara means withdrawing of the senses. We live in an era of sensory overload. Outer objects are always changing. When we focus on it too much, it only causes problems. How often does our mind wander? The analogy of a horse running wild is often used in yoga. We want to be able to withdraw from the senses so we don’t lose a lot of energy. To name an example: when we close our eyes we are able to listen better because our eyesight doesn’t give us distraction. With Pratyahara we are letting go of all the many sensations we feel, hear, see, taste and smell. Without these day-to-day life distractions our mind can be free to move into meditation.

6. Dharana

Dharana is about concentration. Our whole culture evolves around being busy with our phone and other ways to get more dopamine hits from social media. This all makes it much harder to concentrate. Dharana is about fixating the mind on one specific point. The goals is to create a ‘one pointed mind’, a state of mind in which there are no distractions. Many people think mediation is just meditation but it is broken down into more limbs. Meditation is a process with the goal of stilling the fluctuations of the mind. Pratyahara (limb five) is important because when you can switch off the distractions of the senses, it is easier to concentrate. When practicing Dharana we learn how to stay present no matter what is happening around us. It is like when you are enthralled with a good book: everything else disappears.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana means meditation. If you add Pratyahara (internalization) and Dharana (concentration) you will get into your meditation practice. After time this meditation becomes effortless and that is called Dhyana. It is the natural flow of concentration. With Dhyana you experience a deeply focused awareness. Meditation without effort.

“It will all make sense eventually”

A photo from the Jai Moni Baba Cave in Rishikesh, India

8. Samadhi

The last limb of the eightfold path is called Samadhi. It is the state of total absorption. A higher state of being, if you will. You can say it is a degree higher than what you experience with Dhyana. There are different stages in Samadhi but don’t let your eyes glaze over, I will just keep it simple. I know, this is all hard to grasp if you are reading about this the first time but it will all make sense eventually. Samadhi is a state of bliss in which you truly know and feel that everything is interconnected.

  • Thoughts are pure.
  • The ego is gone.
  • There is an awareness of the world we live in and our place in it.
  • No desire or judgement.
  • No suffering.
  • Pure awareness and harmony.

Take your time

This all sounds pretty amazing, right? But I can also almost hear you guys think: ‘How will I ever get to all of this?’. Do not stress. Most people agree that it takes a lifetime (or more) to achieve Samadhi. So we have all the time in the world, just focus on the present moment. Like I mentioned before: Patanjali shows us that the practice of yoga is not linear. It is a circular and ongoing process. You have to commit to the eightfold path to get results. All limbs work together to achieve wholeness, to find balance. For some people some limbs will come easier than for other people. Just take things slowly, slowly.

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