By Bhavan Kumar
The ideal Yoga practice is a delicate balance between science and art, creating a union between mind, body, and spirit. The practitioner uses the body and breath to nurture an awareness of individual and unified focus. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali describes the foundations and framework of Yoga philosophy from before 200 A.D. The sacred text offers a description of the innermost workings of the mind and provides an eight-part practice for controlling mental restlessness and cultivating unshakeable peace.
At its core, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describe eight Ashtanga, or “limbs,” of Yoga which provide the proper structure for yoga practice. Each limb correlates to a practice for achieving a healthy and balanced life. Mastery of the eight limbs eventually provides spiritual fulfillment and connection to the divine.
The eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are briefly described below. The first five limbs are considered “external aids to Yoga.” The final three limbs are considered “internal aids to Yoga.”
1. Yama: includes five guidelines for moral and ethical behavior towards others, also known as universal morality or ethical social behavior. Restraint and abstention from wrong acts, sometimes known as “the Commandments.”
*Ahimsa – nonviolence, harmlessness.
*Satya – not lying, truthfulness.
*Asteva – not stealing, includes more than just physical acquisition of material property.
*Brahmacharya – not lusting, to be without desire.
*Aparigraha – not coveting.
2. Niyama: includes five guidelines for moral/ethical behavior towards self. Right observances, sometimes known as “the Rules.”
*Saucha – cleanliness, internal and external purification.
*Santosa – contentment, a state of mind wherein all conditions are considered just and correct.
*Tapas – sustained practice, “fiery aspiration.”
*Svadhyaya – study of self, close scrutiny of the causes of desires, aspirations and feelings.
*Isvara Pranidhana – surrender to God, the attitude of the lower self toward the God within.
3. Asana: proper practice of yoga postures. Right poise, while maintaining correct physical, mental, and emotional attitude.
4. Pranayama: proper practice of breathing exercises and regulation of the breath, including the control, regulation and suppression of the vital forces of the body.
5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses (exterior reality does not distract from one’s internal reality).
6. Dharana: concentration (internal and external distractions do not cause loss of focus). Fixation (centering) of the mind.
7. Dhyana: meditation (builds upon Dharana, concentration is no longer of a single focus but is all-encompassing). This creates the capacity to use the mind as desired, to transmit higher thoughts, while processing ideas and concepts to the mind.
8. Samadhi: bliss (builds upon Dhyana, self-transcendence through meditation. Merging of self with Universe, or enlightenment). To engage in contemplation concerning the realm of the soul. Eventually produces full illumination.
The eight limbs of Yoga provide a strong framework and logical pathway toward the attainment of divine union. It is important to remember that these eight limbs of Yoga do not refer to something accomplished on one plane, or another, but to simultaneous activity and the practice of all these methods at once as they refer to the physical, mental, and emotional bodies. This allows a natural state of total health and integration.