You have probably practiced countless yoga poses and maybe even yogic breathing techniques, but did you know that the purpose of yoga is realizing the true essence of what we are?
The origins of Yoga date back to pre-Vedic Indian traditions or even earlier times. It is thought that yoga started when people began questioning what or who they truly are. The yogic knowledge was passed down orally from teacher to student for thousands of years until a sage named Patanjali outlined the path of Ashtanga in the "Yoga Sutras" around 2000 years ago.
Ashtanga literally translates to "Eight Limbs" that guide the practitioner on how to still the fluctuations of the mind that produce the sense of a separate “I” (false ego) which results in suffering. The goal according to Patanjali is to transcend the confines of the ego and realize our oneness with the Divine. Then, we truly attain yoga which means "to unite, to yoke".
Each of the eight limbs covers a different aspect of yoga: From the outer limbs that focus on the physical body and one's interaction with the external world, to the inner limbs that focus on developing one's internal world.
The first limb sets the practitioner on the path of liberation through right intention. Yama means “to restrain, to rein in, to control”. To be able to focus and direct the mind where we want, first we need to rein it in, and this is done through Yama.
Yama is very often explained as yogic morals and ethics, but this is not entirely accurate. Yama is first of all the mindset essential for meditation. Remember that Yoga’s goal is not to change your behavior, but to reveal your True Self. Becoming a "better person" and changing our actions and reactions happens naturally on the way to, and most notably after the goal is attained.
The five Yamas are Ahimsa (Non-Violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-Theft), Brahmacharya (Alignment with the Divine) and Aparigraha (Non-Attachment).
By living life in accordance with the Yamas, our mind becomes less caught up in worries and regrets about our actions, allowing us to be fully present and focused.
Niyama means “observance, beneficial habit or activity”. These are mindsets and activities directed towards our mind, body and spirit that one should adopt in order to be successful in Yoga.
There are five Niyamas: Shaucha (Purity), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Austerity), Svadhyaya (Spiritual Studies and Self-Reflection) and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine).
ASANA (Physical Yoga Postures)
Derived from the Sanskrit root as (to sit down), Asanas originally referred to sitting postures for meditation. In fact, most of the yoga postures you practice in a modern yoga class were invented much later!
Instead of describing a flawless handstand or impressive backbends, the most important pose according to Patanjali is Sthirasukhasana - a "posture that is steady and comfortable". When the Asana is perfected - we can hold it comfortably and motionless - we are no longer distracted by the body and external conditions that might be uncomfortable for meditation.
In your next yoga practice, rather than pushing your body into physically demanding and advanced postures, maybe focus on finding your personal Sthirasukhasana.
PRANAYAMA (Breath Restraint)
The word Prana refers to the "Life Force Energy" within us, the very essence that keeps us alive. It manifests in the body as breath, thus making breathwork one way to control, expand and direct this energy. Pranayama utilizes breathing to influence the flow of Prana in the Nadis (energy channels) of the energy body.
How we breathe plays an essential role in the body: Our mind is linked to the flow of life energy within our physical body. By directing this flow, we are able to influence the mind and reach a state of calmness. Pranayama provides the tools to go beyond one's boundaries and attain a higher vibration.
We have all experienced how rapid, shallow breaths quickly send the Sympathetic Nervous System into overdrive, resulting in feelings of stress and anxiety. Taking deep breaths, on the other hand, effectively energizes the body and calms the mind. There are different breathing techniques from calming breaths such as Nadi Shodana to activating breaths like Kapalbhati or Bhastrika Pranayama.
PRATYAHARA (Withdrawal of the Senses)
Pratyahara means "withdrawal of the senses". We make the conscious effort of turning all five senses inward, for example by focusing on the breath. It is the last component of Ashtanga Yoga that precedes the actual meditation practice and it bridges the external focus of the previous limbs and the internal focus of the following.
Often misunderstood, Pratyahara does not describe a state where we are no longer able to see, hear, smell, taste or feel things. It rather refers to a changed state of mind where the sensory input we receive does not reach its respective center in the brain and therefore is no longer experienced as a distraction. Pratyahara is an essential step to prepare the mind for the following three limbs.
Dharana means "single-pointed concentration". After drawing the senses inward, away from outer distractions, we now deal with the distractions of the mind itself.
We direct all of our attention to one single thing - for example on the breath, an image or a chakra - establishing mental contact with the object of meditation. If the mind is distracted and other thoughts appear, we simply bring our attention back to our chosen point of focus.
By focusing our awareness, we slow down the thinking mind. The goal of Dharana is to achieve uninterrupted single-pointed concentration. This is the stage many of us reach when we believe we are meditating.
The seventh limb - finally - is meditation or contemplation. Even though it might seem very similar to Dharana, there is a fine difference. In Dharana we actively focus on something, Dhyana naturally happens when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation. At this stage mental contact has been established and connection begins.
No matter how hard we try, the actual practice of meditation is not something we can force or push to happen. The mind will naturally calm down and settle into keen awareness without focus.
The final stage of Ashtanga is Samadhi which can be translated as enlightenment, liberation or self-realization. It is the ultimate state of yoga (union, oneness) when the practitioner’s mind is absolutely absorbed by and thus becomes one with the object of meditation.
Samadhi effortlessly follows Dharana and Dhyana when there is no distraction and one is not holding to their opinions or beliefs. When Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are all applied to one’s essence (True Self, Soul), its eternal unconditioned nature is revealed and one achieves Self-realization.
If you want to learn more about the Eight Limbs of Yoga, check out our Yoga Teacher Training Courses! We go deep into yoga philosophy and learn how to apply the teachings of Patanjali in our own lives.