Patanjali's 'Big 8.' Ashtanga or the 8 limbs of yoga
We’ve mentioned it before: the exact origins of yoga are somewhat unclear, even though most scholars agree it derives from ancient Vedic scriptures dating back some 4000 to 8000 years. The Rig Vedas are a series of texts and hymns written in Sanskrit constituting the earliest written record of the Indo-Aryan civilization and gathering a mixture of Hindu myth, religion, philosophical, and spiritual accounts. They are one of the most sacred books of India.
Although some of yoga’s most relevant texts and scriptures have been produced here and there throughout the centuries, Patanjali’s world-famous Yoga Sutras –scriptures outlining the ‘core’ of so-called Raja Yoga– seem to have been written around the 2nd century BD and can be credited with having transformed yoga into what it is today.
In past entries, we have referred to these Sutras only in passing; which is the reason why, in this piece today, we dive into the core of the Patanjali’s teachings to unravel the mysteries of his 8 limbs of yoga and make the Yoga Sutras a bit more understandable!
The Big 8
It may be relevant to begin by noting that the Yoga Sutras, ascribed to sage Patanjali, may or may not have been actually written by this sage alone. Word has it that the Sutras may in fact have been the collaborative effort of more than one different contributor, since Vedic learnings were passed on from generation to generation, from teacher to student, by pure and sheer memorization.
As is the case with most orally transmitted traditions, tracing back the authorship of such sources can often be tricky. So, yeah, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali basically stand as a testimony of the complexity and evolution of yogic thought throughout the centuries.
Regardless of who may or may not have actually authored this legendary piece of work, the essence of the Yoga Sutras is a progressive ‘methodology of life’ meant to deliver yoga practitioners from darkness and into light!
The path of the Sutras
In the Sutras, Patanjali describes the path to liberation and enlightenment as an 8-limbed one –thus the name ‘ashtanga,’ from Sanskrit ‘ash’ or eight and ‘tanga’ or limb. The Sutras are a structured plan or path for the student to follow, outlining basic rules of character, a code of ethics, as well as actual techniques for deeper concentration and thorough purification.
The goal the Sutras pursue is to make the spiritual evolution of the yoga practitioner attainable in this lifetime, leading students step by step into absorption into the source of life –or what we in acebe call ‘our cosmological motherboard’– through enlightenment. We know this sounds slightly ‘abstract’; so, in case you’re struggling with the language, have a look at our earlier entry on the basics of ‘speaking yogic.’
In a nutshell, the 8 limbs of yoga are nothing but 8 different preparatory stages on the path to realization, each subdivided into necessary subparts, and referring to both external practices and habits (the first 5 limbs) and inner or internal methods (the last three). Let’s dive into each one.
Yamas and niyamas
The first two limbs of Patanjali’s ashtanga are a sort of social and personal code of ethics describing essential rules of character and ethical behavior to prevent disturbances at a deeper (energetic) level and thus guarantee pureness of spirit, mind, and intention.
Subdivided into five steps each –ahimsa, asteya, satya, brahmacharya, and aparigraha for the yamas; saucha, santosha, tapas, swadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana for the niyamas– both yamas and niyamas are a series of rules of thumb for an individual’s peaceful co-existence in/with herself and the outside world.
Hence, proposing virtues like non-violence, honesty, austerity, or the pursuit of contentment through the practice of non-possessive behaviour, both yamas and niyamas have to be understood as recommendations for the individual to live a life of detachment from greed and resentment and prepare body and mind for greater introspection.
Asana and pranayama
Limbs three and four of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras require little explanation, mainly because some of our earlier entries have already clarified what they refer to in depth. And so, asana namely refers to the exercise of postural control for greater physical and mental purification –thus the variety of poses and positions so characteristic of all styles of yoga–, while pranayama aims at the control of prana (or life force) through the practice of ancient yogic breathwork. They both seek to control the fluctuations of prana through thorough regular practice so that the practitioner may be more successful on the path to inner yoga, aka.: the practice of the last three limbs.
The fifth limb of the Sutras speaks of the withdrawal of the senses, a state the practitioner can attain after s/he has successfully observed yama and niyama and has mastered the art of asana and pranayama.
Pratyahara refers to the progressive absorption of the practitioner into her/his inner world, a state in which the outer worldly senses of vision, taste, touch, or smell are temporarily suspended or de-focalized, so that awareness may better center on the perception of our inner life.
Often attained or experienced in conjunction with the practice of pranayama, pratyahara develops slowly over time as the practitioner establishes a meditative routine and learns to develop peace of mind and concentration. So pratyahara essentially liaises between the outward-centered first few limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the more inward-focused ones.
Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi
Shyam Sundar Goswami notes that “[d]harana is the sixth stage of yama (control) and the first phase of mental control or concentration” (1999, p. 57). Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi can thus be said to embody different, increasingly complex, yet also progressively simplified ways of concentration through (or relative to) meditation.
Indeed, “[h]olding [dharana] is a process of maintaining a particular form of consciousness without its transformation into another form” (p. 57); that is, dharana refers to the progressive development of an increasingly refined form of concentration. We all have some experience with concentration, so dharana is not entirely unknown to most of us, even if you have never sat down to meditate. But concentration, enhanced by both asana and pranayama, and by the eventual unfolding of pratyahara, can further develop into a deeper stage.
So dharana would be the type of high focus and concentration eventually leading us to dhyana or actual uninterrupted meditation, “a state of consciousness in which the body becomes motionless like a mountain; the senses [...] become inoperative, and, consequently, the outer world is no longer the content of consciousness” (p. 25).
In dharana, concentration is rather superficial and can be subject to the fluctuations of intellection and feeling; that is, we can lose concentration in matter of seconds. Such is the nature of our mind! Dhyana, on the other hand, is tantamount to full-on concentration. A state much more even and stable, said to be the anteroom of samadhi, or supercontrol. And supercontrol, as described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “is not a state of any kind of consciousness as we understand this word” (2012, p. 467).
Indeed, one of the main takes one gathers from grappling with the last three limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is precisely that certain things are beyond the confines of what we can know by 'rational intellection alone.' Understanding this basically requires us to accept that language, words, and any type of knowledge thus expresses has its limitations; and thus, that it may not always be possible to convey to others the nature of an experience that exists beyond the limits of what we can conceive altogether. Quite a mind-trick, isn't it?
So, samadhi is essentially “the full extension of dhyana, when perception is absolute and automatic” (Goswami, 1999, p. 26), and when knowing without knowing is all there is. It is in this state that the practitioner, the yogi, can eventually achieve liberation or ‘moksha,’ or union with the source, with the ‘motherboard.’ And thus that the trick to understanding what the Sutras are saying lies rather in personal experience of each one of the different 8 steps it tackles than anything else.
So be bold and try following the 8 limbs of yoga for yourself. You don't have to go all in at once and try all 8, just read through them, understand the point of it all, and make simple and small changes first. You can have a go, for example, and try to experience progressively deeper states of concentration through regular meditation. They say that an image is worth more than 1000 words. We at acebe say that experience is worth more than 1000 images!!