What are the eight limbs of ‘Ashtanga Yoga’?

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Yoga is believed to be 10,000 years old. Sage Patanjali, in his treatise – The Yoga Sutras, classified Yoga into eight limbs (Ashta-anga) which are collectively called “Ashtanga Yoga”. The modern day Yoga of physical postures, also called ‘Hatha’ Yoga, is only one of these limbs. These move sequentially, from external to internal focus. What are these eight limbs? Let us find out.

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1. Yama 

Yama refers to ethical rules or moral codes which are prescribed for everyone. Five such codes are given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras – Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (non stealing), Brahmacharya – (Continence / Celibacy) and Aparigraha (non-hoarding or non possessiveness). They collectively are a prescription for ‘right living’ at a societal level. 

2. Niyama 

Niyam are personal disciples such as Shoucha (Purity of mind, speech and body), Santosh (Contentment & Acceptance), Tapa (Austerity), Swadhyaya (Study of Vedas, Introspection) and Eshwar Pranidhan (Contemplation of Supreme Being/ Brahman). These are focussed at the individual level. They open the gates for the saadhak (practitioner) to move on to the higher stages of Ashtanga Yoga. 

3. Asana

Asanas are the Yogic Postures and Positions which are aimed at tuning the mind and body by stretching, becoming more relaxed and stable. According to Patanjali the only rule to follow while performing Asanas is that they are “steady and comfortable” (स्थिरसुखमासनम् – sthira-sukham-asanam). Perfected gradually over time with practice, Asanas create the groundwork for higher spiritual realisation.

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4. Pranayama

Pranayam or Yogic breathing is a means to control and extend the life force (or prana). One has to consciously regulate the breath (inhalation and exhalation) which not only vitalises the gross bodies and subtle (Pranmaya Kosh) but also paves way for higher states of consciousness. 

5. Pratyahara 

Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses inwards (sense control) from external objects. Focusing on knowledge of the self, a Yogi develops mental strength which is required to keep the mind away from external distractions. This stage is a bridge between the external (bahiranga) aspect and internal (antaranga) aspect of Yoga. Pratyahara leads one to develop samyam (Self-restraint). 

6. Dharana

Dharana means internal focus with single pointed concentration. It is the holding of the mind in a fixed internal state which can be done with the help of a mantra or one’s breath. It is basically arresting the “monkey mind” which keeps jumping from one object to another. Dharana brings one to “ekagra citta” (concentrated consciousness) from a state of scattered one. 

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7. Dhyana

Dhyana refers to contemplative reflection and meditation on the object of focus  in the Dharana stage. It is moving from concentration to non-judgemental observance. At this stage the mind has been trained to remain fixed in the stage of deep concentrated meditation.

8. Samadhi 

Samadhi is the state of super bliss, the union of Jivatma and Paramatma, when one is completely absorbed. One’s individual consciousness is in union with the Universal consciousness. It is a very pure state when one is in complete knowledge of the self.  

This article is part of a series on Yoga. Read more about The Five layers of your being, Yoga for a healthy mind and Four Yogic Breathing Techniques.

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