Yoga (union of soul and Para Brahman/God) is not limited to hatha yoga nor pranayama yoga, which are only 2 of the 8 limbs of Patanjali’s teachings of philosophy. Therefore, it cannot be sufficient. It is a shame that so many schools of yoga in the US do not teach the full 8 limbs of yoga. Many of them do not even know that the teachings are spiritual practices to help one’s soul to liberation.
Philosophical roots and influences
The Yoga Sutras incorporated the teachings of many other Indian philosophical systems prevalent at the time. Samkhya and Yoga are thought to be two of the many schools of philosophy that originated over the centuries that had common roots in the non-Vedic cultures and traditions of India. The orthodox Hindu philosophies of Samkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, as well as the non-orthodox Nastika systems of Jainism and Buddhism can all be seen as representing one stream of spiritual activity in ancient India, in contrast to the Bhakti traditions and Vedic ritualism which were also prevalent at the same time. The Vedanta–Sramana traditions, and Vedic rituals can be identified with the Jnana marga/path, Bhakti marga and the Karma marga respectively that are outlined in the Bhagavad Gita.
The Eight Limbs
According to Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are:
- “Yama” — Sanskrit for “moral discipline”
- “Niyama” — Sanskrit for “moral observance”
- “Asana” — Sanskrit for “body posture”
- “Pranayama” — Sanskrit for “breath control”
- “Pratyahara” — Sanskrit for “withdrawal of the senses”
- “Dharana” — Sanskrit for “concentration”
- “Dhyana” — Sanskrit for “meditation”
- “Samadhi” — Sanskrit for “bliss”
The physical practice of yoga, asana, is only one step on the path toward a meaningful and purposeful life. These eight steps provide guidelines for moral and ethical actions, self-discipline, and personal spiritual direction. The effects of the eight limbs are cumulative, as each stage prepares you for the next.
A yama (YAH-mah) is one of a set of ethical standards that offers guidance on how we act toward others. “The Yoga Sutras” lists five yamas:
- “Ahimsa” — Sanskrit for “non-harming”
- “Satya” — Sanskrit for “refraining from dishonesty”
- “Asteya” — Sanskrit for “non-stealing”
- “Brahmacharya” — Sanskrit for “wise use of sexual energy”
- “Aparigraha” — Sanskrit for “non-possessiveness”
Similar to the yamas, the niyamas are also codes of conduct for living — only this time, what matters is how you treat yourself. A ni’yama is one of a set of moral observances toward oneself. Turning your awareness inward helps prepare you for the later, more internally focused limbs. “The Yoga Sutras” lists five ni’yamas:
- “Saucha” — Sanskrit for “purity”
- “Santosha” — Sanskrit for “contentment”
- “Tapas” — Sanskrit for “self-discipline”
- “Svadhyaya” — Sanskrit for “self-study”
- “Ishvara pranidhana” — Sanskrit for “surrender to a higher source”
Literally meaning “seat” or “sitting posture,” asana refers to a body position used in a yoga practice. Through practicing asanas, you learn discipline and concentration which are necessary for the later limbs. Moving and stretching your body also helps you prepare for long periods of seated meditation.
Although prana’yama can be translated as “restraint of the breath,” it refers to more than simply holding your inhalations. In yoga, the life force energy is called “prana.” Practicing prana’yama includes yogic breath control and regulation techniques. These exercises are intended to manipulate the flow of prana in order to bring about steadiness of mind and changes in consciousness.
Through these first four limbs, you learn to control your “outer” world of personality and senses. This emerging awareness of your true self helps to prepare yourself for the deep, inner journey of the next four limbs.
Literally meaning “withdrawal of the senses,” pratya’hara is the practice of tuning out the distractions of the outside world. Focusing your mind inward allows you to detach from the trials and fluctuations of life and see their challenges in a new light. You can view your habits and patterns more objectively, becoming aware of things the way they are, instead of reacting to the world.
Dhar’ana is the practice of concentration or complete attention. It’s the ability to focus entirely on a single point — to be completely in the moment. Once you have withdrawn your senses through pratya’hara, you can slow down your thoughts and concentrate on a single thing. Athletes often refer to this mental space as being “in the zone.” You can practice dhar’ ana by bringing your attention to a single sensation, object, or thought. Some examples include focusing on:
- Your breath
- The flicker of a candle’s flame
- An image of a deity, saint, or inspirational figure
- The repetition of a sound, syllable, or phrase
- A value or virtue, such as love, compassion, or joy
With dh’yana you turn your focus entirely inward. This is the practice of deep meditation to attain self-realization. In this second-to-last stage of yoga, you become aware of the flow of all life and existence. Unlike the single-pointed concentration of dharana, dhyana is awareness without a singular focus. Your mind becomes still and your thoughts cease. You simply are.
Literally meaning “a putting together,” sa’madhi is supreme bliss, the highest stage of meditation has three stages. Also understood as spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment, samadhi is the state in which you transcend your lower self and merge with the universe. You become aware of your connection to all living things, to your higher self, and to the Divine. The freedom, joy, and fulfillment brought forth through samadhi creates peace, internally and in the world. It is the ultimate “goal” of yoga.
Practicing the Yoga Path will improve your life. It does not have to be done excluding the other paths taught in the Bhavadgita nor the Vedic ceremonies. Sanatana Dharma, the ancient righteous path, has rich traditions for Self-Realization no matter which path or paths we take.