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Ashtanga Yoga, The Eight-Limbs of Yoga

In order to still and observe the mind, Patanjali presents a system called Ashtanga Yoga, or the Eight-Limbed Yoga. These limbs represent all the aspects of the system. The first two limbs that Patanjali begins with are the fundamental ethical precepts called yamas, and the niyamas. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given by yoga on how we should deal with people around us and about our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is called yama in yoga, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly is called niyama.

Yama and niyama deal with our social attitude and life style, how we interact with other people and the environment, and how we deal with our problems. These all form a part of yoga, but they cannot be practiced. What we can practice are asanas and pranayama, the third and fourth limbs of yoga, which make us aware of where we are, where we stand, and how we look at things. Recognizing our mistakes is the first sign of clarity. Then gradually we try to bring about some changes in the way we show our respect to nature or re I ate to a friend. No one can change in a day, but yoga practices help change attitudes, our yama and niyama. It is not the other way around.

The fifth limb of the system is pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects.

These five external, physical yogic practices are followed, in Patanjali's system, by the three internal limbs of yoga: dharana, dhyana (religious meditation); and samadhi. We will take a closer look at these eight-fold path of yoga.

Yama (Restraints or Abstinence)

"Yama" has different meanings. It may mean "rein, curb, or bridle, discipline or restraints" In the present context, it is used to mean "self-control, forbearance, or any great rule or duty". It can also be interpreted as "attitude" or "behavior". Certainly a particular attitude can be expressed as discipline, which then influences our behavior. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra mentions five different yama, that is, behavior patterns or relationships between the individual and the outside world. The prescribed rules are:

Ahimsa (Harmlessness): The word ahimsa literally mean not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities too. It could even mean that we must fight if our life is in danger. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considered attitude.

Satya (Truthfulness): Satya means "to speak the truth," yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, says: "Speak the truth which is pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truths. Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear. That is the eternal law, the dharma." Please note that this does not mean speak lie. Keeping quiet and saying lies are two different things.

Asteya (Non-stealing): Asteya is the third yama. Steya means "to steal"; asteya is the opposite-to take nothing that does not belong to us. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of him or her. We are to refrain from taking that which is not ours by right of consciousness and karma.

Brahmacharya (Sense-control): Brahmacharya is a movement toward the essential truth. It is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. If sensual pleasures are part of those relationships, we must take care that we keep our direction and do not get lost. Avoid relationships that makes us deviate from finding the eternal truth. On the path of serious, constant searching for truth, there are certain ways of controlling the perceptual senses and sexual desires. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth.

Aparigraha (Neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth): The last yama is aparigraha, a word that means something like "hands off" or "not seizing opportunity." Parigraha means "to take" or "to seize." Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or act greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. In addition, unearned rewards can bring with them obligations that might later cause problems.

The Yoga Sutra describes what happens when these five behaviors outlined above become part of a person's daily life. For example, as we develop ahimsa (kindness and consideration), our presence will create pleasant and friendly feelings in those around us. And if we remain true to the idea of satya, everything we say will be truthful. We will become trustworthy. In India, one's word is considered one's biggest asset. The Yoga Sutra also states that a person who is firmly anchored in asteya will receive all the jewels of this world. Such a person may not be interested in material wealth, but he or she will have access to the finest things in life.

The more we recognize and search for the meaning of the essential truth, the less will we be distracted by other things. Certainly it requires great strength to take this path. The Yoga Sutra teaches that the more faith we have, the more energy we have. At the same time we also have more strength to pursue our goals. So the more we seek the truth in the sense of brahmacharya, the more vitality we will have to do so.

Parigraha is the increasing orientation toward material things. If we reduce parigraha and develop aparigraha, we are orienting ourselves more inwardly. The less time we spend on our material possessions, the more we have to spend on investigating all that we call yoga. We will learn to enjoy what we have rather than constantly seeking things we don't have and never getting satisfied in life. It is a scientific fact that the more money and material possessions we have, the more stressful we become.

Thus, the yamas are the moral virtues which, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.

Niyama (Observances or Disciplines or Devotion)

'Niyama', a Sanskrit, word mean rules or laws. These are the rules prescribed for personal observance. Like the five yamas, the niyamas are not exercises or actions to be simply studied. They represent far more than an attitude. Compared with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal. They refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves.


The first niyama is sauca, cleanliness. Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness simply means keeping ourselves clean. Inner cleanliness has as much to do with the healthy, free functioning of our bodily organs as with the clarity of our mind. Practicing asanas or pranayama are essential means for attending to this inner sauca.


Another niyama is samtosa, modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. To be at peace within and content with one's lifestyle. Literally the word means happiness. There are occasions we work hard to get something. We get very disappointed when we don't get it. Some people will get into extreme depression as a result. Some people may even contemplate suicide in extreme cases. We do these things because we do not have the discipline of being content with what we have. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything - yoga calls it karma. In 'Celestine Prophecy', James Redfield calls this synchronicity. The real meaning of samtosa is 'to accept what happens'. God has a plan. Christians prays, 'Thy will be done.' Accept what God has given us with humility and happiness. Be happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don't have.

A commentary on the Yoga Sutra says: "Contentment counts for more than all sixteen heavens together." Instead of complaining about things that go wrong, we can accept what has happened and learn from them. Samtosa encompasses our mental activities such as study, our physical efforts, and even how we earn our living. It is about ourselves-what we have and how we feel about what God has given us. It is about our whole outlook on life. Do we look at a cup as half empty or as half full?


Tapas refers to the activity of keeping the body fit or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show. Literally it means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it. Behind the notion of tapas lies the idea that we can get rid of the rubbish in our body. Asanas and pranayama are tools we can use to keep ourselves healthy. Another form of tapas is paying attention to what we eat. Eating when we are not hungry is the opposite of tapas. Attention to body posture, attention to eating habits, attention to breathing patterns-these are all tapas that help to prevent the buildup of rubbish in the body, including excess weight and shortness of breath. Tapas makes the whole body fit and well functioning. It gives us the discipline of developing healthy eating habits and prevent us from getting high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart diseases.


The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Sva means "self" or "belonging to me." Adhyaya means "inquiry" or "examination". The word svadhyaya literally means, "to get close to something." It means to get close to yourself, that is, to study yourself. It could also mean meditation or contemplation. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and destructive tendencies.

All learning, all reflection, all contact that helps you to learn more about yourself is svadhyaya. In the context of the niyama the term is often translated as "the study of ancient texts." Yes, yoga does instruct us to read the ancient texts because we cannot always just sit down and contemplate things. We need reference points. The world is changing fast around us. We can read the Bible or a book on spiritual healing or one that is of personal significance or the Yoga Sutra. According to the Yoga Sutra, as we progress in our self-examination, we will gradually find a link with the divine laws and with the prophets who revealed them. And since mantras are often recited for this purpose, we sometimes find svadhyaya translated as "the repetition of mantras."


Isvarapranidhana means "to lay all your actions at the feet of God." It is the contemplation on God (Isvara) in order to become attuned to god and god's will. We should accept the fact that we will not always get everything we want. Sometimes we get disappointed. Things do go wrong. This is the reason why samtosa (modesty) is so important. We have done our share. We have done the best we could under the circumstances. We can leave the rest to a higher power. In the context of the niyamas we can define Isvarapranidhana as the attitude of a person who usually offers the fruits of his or her action to God in daily prayer.

Asanas (Yogic postures)

'Asana' means staying or abiding. Asana is one way in which a person can experience the unity of body and mind. Asana is defined as that which is comfortable and easy, as well as firm. In the west, asana is commonly called "posture". Yogic postures (asanas) are prescribed for the purpose of comfort and firmness during meditation and the practice of pranayama. An upright seated posture in which one can sit with comfort and no need to move is ideal for meditation.

Asana is a dynamic position, in which the practitioner is perfectly poised between activity and non-activity. There is a corresponding mental balance between movement and stillness. Indeed, Patanjali teaches that each posture reflects a mental attitude, whether that attitude be one of surrender, as in a forward-bending asana, or the strengthening of the will, through backward-bending postures, or the creation of a physical prayer with the body, as in the practice of Padmasana, the well-known lotus posture.

Yoga Sutra says that when we master asanas we are able to handle opposites. To be able to handle opposites does not mean going outside naked in winter or dressing in warm woolen clothing in summer. It means that we become more sensitive. We learn to adapt because we know our body better. We know how our body reacts in different situations.

Practically speaking, we should be able to stand for a few minutes with ease; we should be able to sit for a while easily as well. One advantage of asana practice is that it helps us get used to different situations and be able to cope with different demands. If we want to practice pranayama, for example, we have to be able to sit comfortably erect for a period of time. Asanas help us focus on the breath rather than the body during pranayama practice. If we can sit comfortably and effortlessly erect there is nothing to distract us from our concentration on the breath.

Asana is a two-way street. Once the mental attitude has been created, it can then be spontaneously expressed as an asana; if one takes on the external form of an internal attitude, soon that attitude moves through body into mind, thus creating it there. Whichever way one works, the results are the same. Asana is thus both a preparation for meditation and a meditation sufficient in and of itself.

Another advantage of asana is that it is direct. It can temporarily bring peace and quiet the mind. This quieting encourages the balancing of the mental functions of the individual, since it allows the intuitive aspects of the mind to have free play. This soothing effect on the brain has been verified by EEG data of brain during meditation. It has great healing implications.

Patanjali suggests that the asana and the pranayama practices will bring about the desired state of health; the control of breath and bodily posture will harmonize the flow of energy in the organism, thus creating a fertile field for the evolution of the spirit.

Pranayama (Breath Control)

Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Pranayama is the measuring, control, and directing of the breath. Pranayama controls the energy within the organism, in order to restore and maintain health and to promote evolution.

Pranayama gives control of breathing processes and control of vital force. When the inflowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of body activities are realized. In yoga, we are concerned with balancing the flows of vital forces, then directing them inward to the chakra system and upward to the crown chakra or thousand petaled lotus (sahasara).

Pranayama or breathing technique is very important in yoga. It goes hand in hand with the asana or pose. In the Yoga Sutras, the practices of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self discipline for the mind and the body, respectively. The practices produce the actual physical sensation of heat, called tapas, or the inner fire of purification. It is taught that this heat is part of the process of purifying the nadis, or subtle nerve channels of the body. This allows a more healthful state to be experienced and allows the mind to become calmer.

Pratyahara (Retraction of the Senses)

Pratyahara is the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Pratyahara means drawing back or retreat. The word ahara means "nourishment"; pratyahara translates as "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses." In yoga, the term pratyahara implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects.

What does this mean? It means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate; the senses no longer depend on these stimulants and are not fed by them any more. Let us look at this concept a little closely. When we see a sunset, first our eyes are drawn to it; the eyes sent a message to the brain; the brain computer will assimilate the information sent by the eyes and form the picture of the sunset. This is the way our senses function normally. But there is also the possibility that the most beautiful sunset on earth will not attract our attention, will not engage our senses, because we are deeply immersed in something else. We may be concentrating on something without any awareness of what is going around us. Normally the senses say to the mind: "Look at this! Smell this! Touch that!" The senses register an object and the mind is drawn to it at once.

In pratyahara we sever this link between mind and senses, and the senses withdraw. Each sense perception has a particular quality to which it relates: the eyes relate to the form of something; the ears to the sound, the vibration it makes; the nose to its smell. In pratyahara it is as if things are spread out with all their attractions before our senses, but they are ignored; the senses remain unmoved and uninfluenced. In effect the brain will disregard all that is received by the various sensory organs and will only accept and process the signals sent by sensory organs at the command of the brain. Now we have control over our senses rather than being controlled by them.

For example, when we are totally absorbed in the breath during pranayama, pratyahara occurs quite automatically. The mind is so intensely occupied with the breath that all links between mind, senses, and external objects that have nothing to do with the breath are cut off. So pratyahara is not a state of sleep. The senses are quite capable of responding, but they do not because they have withdrawn or detached.

When the senses are no longer tied to external sources, the result is restraint, interiorization or pratyahara. Now that the vital forces are flowing back to the Source within, one can concentrate without being distracted by externals or the temptation to cognize externals. A person experiences this state, to a degree, just before going to sleep or upon awakening. We are aware of what is going on; but, are not overly influenced by what is going outside. We can achieve a similar condition at any time of the day by practicing pratyahara. It is easy for us to "be in the world but not of it" when we learn to practice interiorization of the sense currents. We can be aware of the world (at times other than during meditation) but not be attached to it. Practicing this restraint, one soon finds that tendencies and habits are neutralized, because "needs" are abandoned. This discipline allows us to practice meditation any time any place.

Pratyahara occurs almost automatically when we meditate because we are so absorbed in the object of meditation. Precisely because the mind is so focused, the senses follow it; it is not happening the other way around. No longer functioning in their usual manner, the senses become extraordinarily sharp. Under normal circumstances the senses become our masters rather than being our servants. The senses entice us to develop cravings for all sorts of things. In pratyahara the opposite occurs: when we have to eat we eat, but not because we have a craving for food. In pratyahara we try to put the senses in their proper place, but not cut them out of our actions entirely.

Much of our emotional imbalances are our own creation. A person who is influenced by outside events and sensations can never achieve the inner peace and tranquility. This is because he or she will waste much mental and physical energy in trying to suppress unwanted sensations and to heighten other sensations. This will eventually result in a physical or mental imbalance, and will, in most instances, results in illness.

Patanjali says that the above process is at the root of human unhappiness and uneasiness. When people seek out yoga, hoping to find that inner peace which is so evasive, they find that it was theirs all along. In a sense, yoga is nothing more than a process which enables us to stop and look at the processes of our own minds; only in this way can we understand the nature of happiness and unhappiness, and thus transcend them both.

Dharana (Fixation of Attention)

Dharana is the sixth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Dhr means "to hold." Literally, the word dharana means ‘immovable concentration of the mind’. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. This is not the forced concentration of, for example, solving a difficult mathematics problem; rather dharana is a form of meditation which could be called receptive concentration.

For example, imagine a large reservoir of water used by farmers for watering their fields. There are channels leading away from the reservoir in different directions. If the farmer has dug all the channels the same depth, the water runs equally in all directions. But if one channel is deeper than the others, more water flows through it. This is what happens in dharana: we create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and the focus on this one point that we have chosen becomes more intense. We encourage one particular activity of the mind and, the more intense it becomes, the more the other activities of the mind fall away.

The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. Before retracting his senses, on may practice focusing attention on a single inanimate object. After such retraction, some inner means of focusing may help. Practices such as:

  • Rolling the eyes upward and holding them together, as if attending to a spot in the center of the forehead
  • Rolling the eyes downward, as if attending to the navel
  • Rolling the eyes forward, as if attending to the tip of the nose

are very popular in this regard. The particular object selected has nothing to do with the general purpose, which is to stop the mind from wandering -through memories, dreams, or reflective thought-by deliberately holding it single-mindedly upon some apparently static object.

When the mind has become purified by yoga practices, it becomes able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience. Now we can unleash the great potential for inner healing. If the yogi chooses to focus on a center ("chakra") of the inner energy flow, he or she can directly experience the physical and mental blocks and imbalances that remain in his or her system. This ability to concentrate depends on excellent psychological health and integration and is not an escape from reality, but rather a movement toward perception of its true nature.

Dhyana (Devotion, Fusive Apprehension)

Dhyana is the seventh limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Dhyana means worship, or profound and abstract religious meditation. It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it.

During dhyana, the consciousness is further unified by combining clear insights into distinctions between objects and between the subtle layers of veils that surround intuition. We learn to differentiate between the minds of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived, between words, their meanings, and ideas, and between all the levels of evolution of the nature. We realize that these are all fused in an undifferentiated continuum. One must apprehend both subject and object clearly in order to perceive their similarities, for a clear grasp of real identity of two apparently different things requires a clear grasp of their seeming difference. Thus dhyana is apprehension of real identity among ostensible differences.

During dharana the mind is moving in one direction like a quiet river-nothing else is happening. In dhyana, one becomes involved with a particular thing - a link is established between self and object. In other words, you perceive a particular object and at the same time continuously communicate with it. Dharana must precede dhyana, because the mind needs focusing on a particular object before a connection can be made. Dharana is the contact, and dhyana is the connection.

Obviously, to focus the attention to one point will not result in insight or realization. One must identify and become "one with" the object of contemplation, in order to know for certain the truth about it. In dhyana, the consciousness of the practitioner is in one flow; it is no longer fixed on one subject as in dharana.

Samadhi (Fully Integrated Consciousness)

The final step in Ashtanga Yoga is the attainment of Samadhi.

When we succeed in becoming so absorbed in something that our mind becomes completely one with it, we are in a state of samadhi. Samadhi means "to bring together, to merge." In samadhi our personal identity-name, profession, family history, social security number, driver's license number etc.-completely disappears. In the moment of samadhi none of that exists anymore. Nothing separates us from the object of our choice; instead we blend and become one with it.

During samadhi, we realize what it is to be an identity without differences, and how a liberated soul can enjoy pure awareness of this pure identity. The conscious mind drops back into that unconscious oblivion from which it first emerged. The final stage terminates at the instant the soul is freed. The absolute and eternal freedom of an isolated soul is beyond all stages and beyond all time and place. Once freed, it does not return to bondage.

Thus, samadhi refers to the union of the contemplating being with the object of contemplation. Here, the object of the meditation and the meditator become one. This is like the unity of process; it is like the union of function and structure. The polarity of viewer and viewed, like the polarity of opposites, is no longer relevant; the mind does not distinguish between self and non-self, or between the object contemplated and the process of contemplation. There are various stages of samadhi, depending upon whether one is identified with the object while yet conscious of the object, or whether one has transcended the object of meditation and is resting in the experience of being, without conceptual support or without support of any aspect of Consciousness.

Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi cannot be practiced. A person cannot simply sit down and say, "Right now I am going to do dharana." All the person can do is to create the right conditions to help bring about a state of dharana; For example, he or she can practice asanas and pranayama that, according to the Yoga Sutra, create favorable conditions for the mind to enter these states. In order to experience dharana and dhyana, the mind must first be in a particular condition. Allow the many things that are going on in the mind to settle so that it becomes quiet. If the mind is too busy responding to external stimuli, it cannot enter into a state of dharana. Forcing dharana when your mind is not ready for it can get you into trouble. For this reason the Yoga Sutra suggests the practice of asanas and pranayama as preparation for dharana, because these influence mental activities and create space in the crowded schedule of the mind. Once dharana has occurred, dhyana and samadhi can follow.

The perfection of samadhi embraces and glorifies all aspects of the self by subjecting them to the light of understanding. The person capable of samadhi retains his or her individuality and person, but is free of the emotional attachment to it.


Kaivalya describes the effect on the personality of being in a continuous state of samadhi. This is the state of inner freedom that yoga strives for. The word kevala means "to keep to oneself," and kaivalya is sometimes explained as isolation or aloofness. A person in the state of kaivalya understands the world so well that he stands apart from it in the sense that he is not influenced by it, although he may well be in a position to influence the world. People in kaivalya behave like normal people, but they do not carry the burden of the world on their shoulders. They live in the world, but they are not subject to it. They are not free from sensual perception or free of the body, but they are a bit different. Wherever they happen to be, they are sure of themselves. That is kaivalya. External forces have no power over a person like this, though he knows the external world very well.

According to yoga, the purpose of the whole of creation is to give us a context for understanding what we are and what we are not. When we understand that, then there is kaivalya, and prakrti has fulfilled its purpose. A person who experiences kaivalya sees prakrti, the material world, simply as it is, with no meaning beyond that.

By practicing asanas we become more flexible; by practicing pranayama we gain control over our breath. Similarly, with kaivalya: something gradually happens that is beyond our control. We cannot pinpoint the exact moment we attain that state. It is similar to the moment we fall asleep: we cannot pinpoint it. Either we miss the moment or we do not sleep.

There are two forces within us: one comes from our old conditioning, habits and experiences; the other is our new conditioning that develops out of our changing behavior. In this condition, our mind is constantly swinging between the old and the new. But when the old force disappears, the mind no longer swings back and forth. We have reached another state, and it is felt as a continuum.

These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality.