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Ashtanga – Eight limbed path of Yoga

Ashtanga (means eight-limbed) is systematic path of Yoga, by Maharish Patanjali in his work “Yoga Sutra”. These eight limbs are not eight steps as usually understood. They are limbs of this particular path of self-realisation.

Yoga has focus on development and nourishment of both mind and body, thus these eight limbs are guidelines related to these areas only.

Yama

Yama are social rules. They are about your should deal with the society around you. Following these person rules for social conduct elevate your mental and moral strength.

Yamas are 5 in number. They are:

  • Ahimsa: Non-Violence
  • Satya: Truthfulness
  • Asteya: Non stealing
  • Aparigraha: Non – Covetousness (Not wanting what belongs to others)
  • Bhrahmacharya: Continence – Actions worthy of a brahma status person

Niyama

Niyamas are rules of personal conduct. They are for the purpose for inner peace and growth. They are also 5 in number.

Niayamas are:

  • Saucha: cleanliness
  • Samtosa: contentment
  • Tapas: Spiritual austerities
  • Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
  • Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God/Higher power

Asana

Asana refers to physical practice for body using steady postures. They are designed for keeping the body healthy and developing the strength for higher practices of Yoga.

With regular practice of Asana, the stability in body increases. Restlessness is removed. Such stability in body and movements is helpful for the practice of pranayama and meditation.

Pranayama

Pranayama means modulating your breath to control your prana (the life energy or life force). This is subtle practice and requires the guidance of experienced teacher to reap maximum benefits.

Our breath is the carrier of our life energy. Many of current ailments are result of incorrect breathing. Proper practice of pranayama helps in correcting breathing patterns as well as improving our overall health. You can read this article to know more about it.

Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawal of senses. We absorb information of world around us through out senses of sight, sound, touch, breathe & taste.

When you withdraw your senses, you turn your focus inwards and thus modulations of mind caused by outside information slowly ceases to be.

Dharana

Dharana means concentration. With Pratyahara, once the senses are turned inwards, the focus is now on slowing down the restlessness of our mind.

Dharana involves conscious effort to focus our mind of a single point. That single point can be chanting on our mantra, an image of a deity or on any chakra of our body. With regular practice, the mental processes slow down, awareness starts to develop.

This leads to natural state of Meditation, called Dhyana.

Dhyana

The state of meditation. Contrary to popular opinion, meditation is not an act. Dhaya (meditation) is a state. You are either in the state or you are not. This is the fine difference between Dharana & Dhyana.

Dharana is action towards the state of Dhyana. The sate of stillness and thoughtlessness.

Samadhi

As per Yoga Sutra, Samadhi is the eight and final stage of spiritual growth. It is the perpetual stage of contentment, ecstasy, blissful .. Different commentators have interpreted and commented about this stage in different ways.

As this stage is referred to something beyond the mind, words have limited capacity to explain something like this. This is an eternal state.

Grouping of these limbs

In some classical texts, these limbs are grouped together as antaranga & bahiranga practices.

Bahiranga: Bahiranga refers to outward focused practices. Yama, Niyama, Asana & Pranayama are grouped together to be called as bahiranaga practices.

Antaranga: Antaranga refers to practices which are focused inwards. Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana & Samadhi are antaranga practices.

Final Thoughts

Though it may seem like that these are steps rather than limbs, the are indeed limbs.

Because you don’t pass a step and then leave it behind to move to next step. You focus on these limbs not in stepwise manner but move gradually through each one of them.

Though some schools focus on the sequence of focus with regards to asana and pranayama. That is only till mastery on fundamental basic asana is achieved. Once that is done and you have started the practice of Pranayama, you don’t leave Asana practice.

These steps are guidelines mentioned after acute observation and analysis of human nature. How to bring it under discipline and focus your energy on growing yourself physically, mentally and spiritually.