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The 8 Limbs of Ashtanga

Ashtanga translates as eight limbs. Asta meaning eight and Anga meaning limb. Ashtanga is the ancient system of yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In his text dating back almost 2,000 years, Patanjali codifies the practices of yoga by outlining the eight limbs of yoga, all which are interconnected. Through the practice and understanding of all eight limbs, the impurities of the body and the mind will be destroyed, and thus all obstacles to realising the true self will be removed. Though the limbs should be approached individually and step by step, in practice they should consciously be threaded together and allowed to grow simultaneously. In doing so each limb will blossom like eight petals of a lotus flower.

  • Yamas: abstinences
  • Niyamas: observances
  • Asana: posture
  • Pranayama: breath expansion
  • Pratyahara: sense withdrawal
  • Dharana: concentration
  • Dhyana: meditation
  • Samadhi: absorption

Asana practice must be established to ensure the correct practice of Pranayama. Asana practice is important for the development of the Yamas and Niyamas and in turn proper Asana and Pranayama practice is not possible without the Yamas and the Niyamas. These are the four externally oriented limbs that turn our awareness inward and away from the distractions of the external world to prepare us for the last four internally oriented limbs. Pratyahara is the fifth limb, which bridges the lower external limbs to the higher internal limbs. Once the first limbs are firmly rooted, the higher limbs spontaneously arise and evolve with time.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga can also be categorised as Hatha yoga and Raja yoga. Hatha yoga comprises of the first five limbs, which are externally oriented and purify and balance the body, nervous system, and mind of the practitioner in preparation for Raja yoga, or higher royal yoga. The last three limbs (Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi) can be described as Raja yoga, and are the internal practices and meditation that lead us to the realisation of higher consciousness.

Growth between the eight limbs must be simultaneous so one’s practice can be homogenous and balanced. The ancient sage Patanjali describes the eight limbs in his Yoga Sutras as follows:

Yamas: abstinences

There are five yamas that regulate our inner behaviour and thus how we interact with the external world. They are non violence, truthfulness, non stealing, celibacy, and non possessiveness.

Ahimsa - non violence. This means to be non violent in word, thought, or action. “Becoming established in non violence, those around cease to be hostile.” YS 2.35

Satya - truthfulness. To be truthful in both words and actions and to follow a path that is true and honest. If you speak the truth your words become powerful and you become aligned with truth. “By being truthful, whatever action you take will be successful.” YS 2.36

Asteya - non stealing. To not steal the property, wealth, work of ideas of others. “When one is established in non stealing, all jewels present themselves.” YS 2.37

Brahmacharya - abstinence. Living a lifestyle conducive for attaining higher truth and restraining from multiplying our desires to retain energy for spiritual development. “When celibacy is established, vitality is attained.” YS 2.38

Aparigraha - non possessiveness. To not be greedy and to not grasp or seek to possess things or ideas. “One who overcomes posessiveness and a grasping mind, he will gain knowledge of the past, present and future.” YS 2.39

Niyamas: observances

There are five niyamas that function as the values with which we interact with ourselves. They are purity, contentment, self discipline, self study, and devotion to the Divine.

Sauca - purity. Maintaining internal and external purity by keeping the mind, body, and environment clear and clean. “From cleanliness, an aversion to one’s own body and contact with the bodies of others arises.” YS 2.40

Santosha - contentment. To be happy with what we have, which leads to inner joy. “From contentment, one gaines supreme happiness.” YS 2.42 Tapas - self discipline. Through tapas the body and senses are purified, resulting in clarity and spiritual power. “By practicing self discipline, impurities are destroyed, then the body and the sense organs will gain spiritual strength.” YS 2.43

Svadhyaya - self study. To engage ourselves and further our studies. Self study will result in the experiential realisation of the chosen scriptures, discipline, and deities. “While practicing self study, we totally submerse ourselves inn the deity that we have chosen.” YS 2.44

Isvara pranidhana - devotion to the Divine. To surrender everything to the supreme being, dropping the sense of ego or doing and see that all action is done with the intention of the Divine. “By surrounding to God, one will attain Samadhi.” YS 2.45

Asana: posture

Asana means to sit comfortably and steadily. Through the practice of posture we purify the body in preparation for transcendence. “Posture should be stable and comfortable.” YS 2.46

Pranayama: breath control

By controlling the breath the mind comes under our control. Through the practices of pranayama we expand and purify the pranic body. Pranayama practice will destroy the veil over the inner light, a new clarity and perspective emerges, and the mind becomes fit for meditation. “Thus, begins the slowing of the unregulated movements of inhalation and exhalation by means of extension and expansion of breath.” YS 2.49

Pratyahara: sense withdrawal (independence from external stimuli)

The binding of the senses and retuning the senses from the external world to the mind. When pratyahara has arisen then we are prepared for concentration. "When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyahara.”YS 2.54

Dharana: one pointed concentration

The focus of the mind on a single object, such as a mantra, or the deep concentration on the chakra centres to bring the subconscious mind under complete control. “Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” YS 3.1

Dhyana: meditation

Effortless continuos concentration where the mind is under complete control and there are no disturbing thoughts. “Dhyana is the continuos flow of cognition towards that object.” YS 3.2

Samadhi: super conscious state, self realisation, absorption

The state in which the individual consciousness is dissolved in the pure cosmic consciousness. "Samadhi is when that same meditation shines forth as the object alone and the mind is devoid of its own reflective nature.” YS 3.3

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