The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The term Astanga translates to eight limbs. Patanjali was a sage in Hinduism who authored a number of Sanskrit works. The most well known are the Yoga Sutras of Patanajali, a collection of 196 Indian sutras or aphorisms (sutra literally translates to ‘thread’) on the theory and practice of yoga. These ancient texts were compiled prior to 400 CE and is one of the most translated Indian texts.
This writing conveys what he coined the eightfold path, or astanga. The eight steps are a guide for moral and ethical conduct and self discipline, creating a comprehensive path leading to samadhi.
This first limb addresses ethical standards and personal integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. These are sort of ‘golden rules’, morals that have withstood the test of time and most can be recommended by most people, yogis or not.
The Five Yamas
Ahimsa - nonviolence
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - brahman (god) charya (to move or follow) This yama has several different meanings depending on the context, but generally means “right use of energy”
Aparigraha - non-grasping, non-covetousness
The second limb provides an outline for self-discipline and spiritual observances.
The Five Niyamas
Saucha - cleanliness
Samtosa - contentment
Tapas - often translates as heat, austerity, or discipline
Svadhyaya - study of the sacred and one’s self
Isvara Pranidhana - surrender to God
Asana means seat or posture, and the asanas practiced in hatha yoga comprise the third limb. Patanjali viewed the body as a temple of spirit, and caring for it an integral part of spiritual growth.
Pranayama is breath control. This fourth limb consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process and use that to have better access to our body, energy, mind, and emotions. It is believed that pranayama rejuvenates the body and actually extends life itself.
The term pratyahara is composed of two words. Prati means “against” or “away”. Ahara means “food” or anything we take into ourselves from the outer world. This limb is about sensory withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and into the internal.
Darana is concentration upon a single point. Extended period of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
The seventh astanga limb is meditation, or the uninterrupted flow of concentration. There is a fine line of distinction between dharana and dhyana. While dharana focuses on a single point, dhyana is a state of being keenly aware without focus.
Patanjali describes the eighth limb of astanga as a state of pure ecstasy. When one reaches samadhi, the meditator merges with their awareness and transcends the Self altogether. A profound connection to the Divine is realized and an interconnection of all living things is felt.
Whether studying Patanjali’s eight-limb path for casual research, for personal practice, or any other reason, there is definitely some timeless knowledge conveyed. His methods of finding health and peace are tried and true by many, and whether or not you’re looking for ‘enlightenment’, you may find some wisdom in his writing.
This was a very brief overview of Astanga. For more in-depth study I highly recommend Ekhart Yoga.