The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The first four stages of Patanjali’s ashtanga (8 limbs) yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves. The fifth to eight limbs deal with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Yama: Relates to one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity. Through Yama we focus on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life, with attention to ensuring our behaviour towards others reflects the way we wish others to behave towards ourselves.
Yama encompasses five basic tenets:
Niyama: Relates to self-discipline and spiritual observances. It emphasises the importance of regular performance of activities which nourish our spirituality.
The five tenets of Niyama are:
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God (or a force greater than yourself)
Asana: The postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. Yoga views the body as a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. The practice of asanas assist us to develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, supporting our capacity for meditation.
Pranayama: (“life force extension”) Refers to techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process, whilst recognising the connection between breath, mind, and emotions. Pranayama is believed to rejuvenate the body and extend life.
Pratyahara: Refers to withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During this stage we make a conscious effort to draw our awareness inwards, and away from external stimuli. In this state we remain highly aware of our senses, whilst at the same time detaching from them. The practice of pratyahara provides an opportunity to step back and view ourselves from a more objective standpoint, and re-assess ways in which our current lifestyle (and life direction) can be improved upon.
Dharana: Once we have developed inner awareness and attention through the above limbs, we are able to engage in Dharana (Concentration). Dharana teaches us to slow the thinking process through concentration on a single mental object, such as a specific energetic centre in the body, an image, or silent repetition of a sound.
Posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses assist in development of this stage. In asana and pranayama attention is directed to our actions, whilst our attention travels to fine-tune postures and breathing techniques. In pratyahara we learn to observe the inner self; and now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point, with extended periods of concentration naturally leading to meditation (Dhyana).
Dhyana: Meditation or contemplation – the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Where dharana practices attention on a single point, dhyana is a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind is quieted and able to be still, producing few or no thoughts at all.
Samadhi: Enlightenment. The point at which the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. This stage encompasses realisation of profound spiritual connectivity, and interconnectedness with all living things. This experience is said to bring about feelings of peace beyond understanding, and bliss in being at one with the universe. A sense of joy, fulfillment and freedom that cannot be bought or possessed, but maintained through ongoing devotion.