“Yoga anga anushtanat ashuddhi kshaye jnanadi Apthiraviveka khyatehe’’ (II Sutra 28) – By the sustained practice of the eight limbs of yoga, the impurities are destroyed and the light of wisdom, discrimination shines forth.”
The birth of yoga originally comes from the Vedas (ancient Hindu scriptures), which date back between 4,000 to 5,000 years. Vedic knowledge was passed down from teacher to student through perfect memorization in the way of verses and poems. But it wasn’t until the second century B.C. that a sage named Patanjali outlined what is known today as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
As yoga practitioners we are taught that yoga is an art and science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Hence the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which can be translated into “yoking” or “union. What is often omitted is the reason why it’s in our interest to make this happen.
According to Vedanta, everything started with purusha, which is pure being. You can also refer to purusha as divine essence, state of perfection, or infinite love. Within purusha, there is no suffering because there is nothing material and thus, no dichotomy. When purusha creates, that creation becomes known as prakruti. Everything we know and understand is prakruti. However, being a part of prakruti, we then forget that our essence is purusha. The process of “remembering” is found through chitta, which is the evolution of consciousness. Therefore, if we gather all the pieces of ourselves—mind, body, soul, spirit, emotions—we are more inclined to remember that we come from pure awareness.
Because we are prakruti, we suffer. Our desires, needs, expectations, and forgetfulness all cause us to suffer. Yogis throughout time have pondered the question as to how we can transcend human suffering. Patanjali is no different. He created the Eight Limbs of Yoga as a template to help us transcend the confines of our ego and to reach self-realization.
The word sutra means “to thread or weave”. The Sutras (or writings) of Patanjali are divided into four sections or padas. The practice of yoga comes from section two called the Sadhana Pada. Ashtanga means “eight” and refers to Patanjali’s eight limbs or branches of yoga. Each branch, when practiced, is designed to help the practitioner live a more disciplined life with the goal of alleviating suffering.
Patanjali’s goal for us is that through these practices, we can still the mind and merge into oneness with the divine. When we awaken to divine essence, we are able to live fully from a place of authenticity. We are able to discern who we really are and what our purpose is. We don’t have to look to the exterior to determine right from wrong, all the answers are found within.
In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:
- Yama : Universal morality
- Niyama : Personal observances
- Asanas : Body postures
- Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
- Pratyahara : Control of the senses
- Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
- Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi : Union with the Divine
The practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is referred to as practicing raja yoga, or the Royal Path. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding.
Sources: What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga, by Michelle Fondin, The Chopra Centre The Eight Limbs of Yoga, by William J.D. Doran