The Eightfold Path

On the journey to attain Samadhi, the ultimate and final liberation and enlightenment state, Patanjali discusses eight components, also known as ‘the eight limbs of yoga’, all equally important on the way along the yogic path.

There is a progression in developing the eight limbs of yoga, starting with Yamas and Nyamas, through to Samadhi. However, even when the practitioner has developed the latter limbs, all previous aspects remain still vitally important in order to maintain what has been accomplished.

The first two limbs are based on how we treat ourselves and the world around us. They are somewhat comparable to the 10 commandments from the Bible, with the difference that they are not presented as being imposed or forced on anyone.

Yamas (Ethical Code):

1. Non-Violence (Ahimsa): Non-harming, loving yourself and others, gentleness, justice, no pride nor fear

2. Truthfulness (Satya): Non-falsehood, being true to your nature, speaking the truth

3. Non-Stealing (Asteya): Not keeping for yourself when others lack, being simple

4. Moderation (Brahmacharya): Chastity or sexual moderation, marital fidelity or sexual restraint, moderation in body, mind and speech

5. Non-Possesiveness (Aparigraha): Not hoarding, having all that you need, feeling no loss, non-avarice

Nyamas (Personal Code):

1. Cleanliness (Saucha): Both inner and outer cleanliness, positive thoughts and actions, purity, clearness of mind, speech and body

2. Contentment (Santosa): Gratitude for what you have, tranquility, feeling no lack, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past, optimism for self

3. Fiery Cleansing (Tapas): Every painful experience is an opportunity to learn and grow, asana practice, persistence, perseverance, austerity

4. Self-Study (Svadhyaya): If you know yourself, you can truly know others, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches and actions

5. Devtotion to the Universal (Isvara Pranidhana): Contemplation and meditation on Brahman (ultimate reality, supreme consciousness, true self, unchanging reality)

The next two limbs, asana and pranayama, are what modern yoga classes place most emphasis on. This is what in many parts of the western world yoga is known to be.

Asana (Body Posture):

Asana can best be defined by the Sanskrit expression ‘Stirha Sukham Asanam’ which can be translated as ‘Asana is a steady and comfortable posture’ or ‘An Asana is what is steady and pleasant’. In other words, a posture that causes pain or restlessness is not a yogic posture. The physical postures are associated with the idea of muscle work, soothing the nerves, cleansing the internal organs and developing control over the mind. The practice of yoga aims at steadying the body in order to avoid mind distractions arising from physical restlessness.

Pranayama (Breathing Technique):

Translated from Sanskrit, Prana means ‘breath or life force’ and Yama means ‘to stretch, to control, to extend’. Pranayama is considered the bridge between the body and the mind. The action of this bridge can happen in either direction, with the mind exerting its influence on the breath, and the breath influencing the mind. When the mind is agitated through anger, excitement or sadness, the breath becomes short and erratic. By calming and lengthening the breath, we can soothe the mind and free it from restlessness. Consequently, we exercise control over the energy (Prana) of our whole body, which will further have an influence upon our entire physiology, allowing us to influence and control our emotions, feelings, thoughts, actions and therefore life story overall.

The next three steps, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana, work increasingly on disciplining the mind on the journey towards enlightenment.

Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal):

Pratyahara means ‘Sense Withdrawal’ and describes the act of withdrawing all the senses through with we interact with the world. By taking in the world through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, we are constantly distracted. When one is diligently practicing asana and pranayama and the gaze is fixed, then the rest of the world falls away, and our individual consciousness is enlarged.

Dharana (Concentration):

Dharana describes the act of concentrating on a single object for a prolonged amount of time. In a meditation or yoga class, we often use both breath and gaze as this object, but it can effectively be any fixed idea, object or repeated action the practitioner chooses. There is no judgement during this state, just observation takes place, and this state is hence referred to as ‘witness state’.

Dhyana (Meditation):

Adi Shankara in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras distinguishes Dhyana from Dharana by explaining that Dhyana is the yoga state when there is only the ‘stream of continuous thought about the object, uninterrupted by other thoughts of different kind for the same object.’ Just as in Dharana, in Dhyana there is no judgement, comparison or measurement, just pure awareness of the present moment.

Samadhi (Enlightenment):

Translated from Sanskrit, Samadhi means ‘putting together, combining with, union and harmonious whole’. Samadhi is oneness with the subject of meditation. There is no distinction during the eighth limb of yoga between the actor of meditation, the act of meditation and the subject of meditation, just pure objective awareness. Samadhi is that spiritual state when one’s mind is so absorbed in whatever it is contemplating and concentrating on, so that the soul, our inner most essence, may assert its dominance and presence over both the body and the mind. This is the ‘bliss state’ which is beyond description and not just an additional step, but the final goal of yoga.

As noted, these limbs are progressive on their path. The pathway begins by looking at how you interact with society through the Yamas and how you discipline the body through Nyamas and Asana. Pranayama is the bridge from dealing with the body to dealing with the mind. Pratyahara and Dharana work on disciplining the mind through contemplation and concentration. With the body and mind under control, Dhyana is the final bridge to Samadhi, a blissful state of supreme consciousness.