Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga

A very long time ago (think thousands of years), a mysterious, wise and ridiculously brainy being called Patanjali wrote an inordinate amount of detailed material relating to yoga and other contemporary disciplines including ayuverda, the sister science of yoga, and Sanskrit grammar. No one knows much about him, or indeed if it was one person (likely to be male, given the historical context but by no means certain) or a group of contributors, and some even believe he might not have been human at all… Basically, we don’t know much about Patanjali at all, but what we do know is that ‘he’ left us with a precious text of what is possibly the most detailed and comprehensive description of the yoga path that we have; The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The scale of this work is mind-blowing and I never get bored of delving into the sutras – at every stage of my yoga journey there has always been great treasure to be found there, and as my understanding of myself and yoga deepens, so does my understanding of the sutras – it’s a text that just keeps giving!

In chapter two of the sutras, after a very heady and heavy first chapter that can get overwhelmingly deep and complex, Patanjali cuts us some slack and breaks down the yoga path into more ‘layman’s terms’ that most people can understand (seriously, chapter one is not for the faint-hearted!). As such, he breaks down the yoga path into 8 ‘limbs’. It’s important to note that, although there seems to be a linear trajectory through the limbs, it is not in truth like this. The yoga path is, inherently, non-linear – we continuously spiral through the layers of our own delusions and illusions, moving closer and closer to the truth of our souls, and so we continue to meet all the limbs in sharp relief at various points on our journey and, certainly, we need all of them to progress. None is more important than any other; mastery of each is required. That said, it is true that, with the first two limbs as an overarching exception (in many ways, the ethical code outlined within limbs 1 and 2 provide the bedrock for the whole system), there is a general journey through the remaining six limbs from the more ‘gross’, tangible physical practices, to the more subtle, intangible practices.

So, here are the 8 limbs, broken down:

  1. The yamas – the first part of the ethical code of yoga. Five negative traits that we should restrain ourselves from indulging in our lives: ahimsa, non-harming; asteya, non-stealing; aparigraha, non-possessiveness/greed; satya, truth (or, non-lying); and brahmacharya, moderation of the sense (or, non-excess).
  2. The niyamas – the second part of the ethical code of yoga. Five positive traits that we should cultivate in our lives: saucha, cleanliness; santosha, contentment; tapas, fiery determination and dedication; svadhyaya, self-study; and isvara pranidhana, humility, reverence, connection to something bigger than us.
  3. Asana – the physical postures that we do to purify and strengthen the body and tame the ego, preparing us to meet the more subtle limbs.
  4. Pranayama – learning to cultivate and harness prana (life force energy) through conscious breathing and visualisation techniques.
  5. Pratyahara – sense withdrawal. We use various techniques such as mudra, mantra, visualisations to bring our awareness away from our external sensory world and into our inner world.
  6. Dhyana – concentration. Learning to focus and still the mind using various single focus techniques.
  7. Dharana – meditation. When we drop into meditative states, merging with the object of concentration.
  8. Samadhi – merging with the oneness, union with the divine. The ‘beyond words’ experiential stuff!

My intention is to offer a series of immersive courses that will explore these eight limbs and how they play out in our own unique yoga journeys. We begin with ‘Exploring the Yamas’ 4-week immersive course, starting on 7th May for four consecutive Thursdays, 7-9pm UK time. Please get in touch via beckymay283@gmail.com if you would like more information or to book on.

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