An Introduction to the Eight Limbs

8 limbsWe began our journey at the “Living Yoga Blog” with a look at the key principles of Yoga, followed by an overview of each of the major branches and techniques.  In the next several weeks, we’ll shift our approach a bit, exploring some of the subtler concepts but in greater detail – getting a little narrower in focus, as it were, so we can go a bit deeper – starting with an overview of one of the central teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “The Eight Limbs.”  Today we’ll discuss their place in the Sutras and take an introductory look at each of the limbs, finishing with a discussion of how they can be used in our practice, before following in the next several articles with a more in-depth examination of each.

 The Place & Purpose of the Eight Limbs

If you’ve practiced yoga for a while, you’ve doubtless heard of the eight limbs, but you may not be familiar with the exact role they play in the Sutras or how they evolved.  By having a greater sense of their purpose and function, we can better understand them individually as well as apply them as a group, so we’ll start today with a bit of context.

To begin, if you’ve had a chance to explore the Yoga Sutras, you know Patanjali frequently adopts what could be called an “expansive” approach, beginning with a relatively simple concept and gradually adding layers for those who could benefit from a better understanding of the concept or more concrete techniques for bringing it to life.  For example, at the start of the Sutras, Patanjali describes the techniques of Yoga with the simple concepts of practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya), going on to define practice simply as “effort toward steadiness of mind.”

At this point, if we were sufficiently primed and ready, this brief description might be all we need.  However, Patanjali realized most of us could use a little more guidance.  For that reason, from here he then goes on to describe the basic forms of meditation we can use to steady our minds.  Again, if we happen to be at a particular state in our personal growth, this description of meditation alone might suffice.  But once more, Patanjali realized most of us have a hard time simply jumping into meditation and could use a little more guidance and support in order to be ready.  It is for this reason he then goes on to provide a series of eight interconnected components or what are known in Yoga as the ashtanga or “eight limbs” which are designed to support and assist us in preparing for and building a meditative practice.  In turn, if we keep this goal in mind, it can help as appreciate some of the nuances of each of the limbs, as well as clarify things in times when a particular practice can be taken multiple ways.

A Brief Overview 

Given this goal of preparing ourselves for meditation, it becomes clear the general structure and flow of the eight limbs evolve from the Yogi’s realization that it is hard to center the mind when our bodies and emotions are out of balance, and also hard to assist the body in becoming healthy if our life itself is out of harmony.  In this way, the eight limbs can basically be seen as a progression from outer to inner, moving from action and attitude ultimately toward the culmination of our meditation practice in one-mindedness.

Of course, the most “external” level of our lives is how we act toward the people around us, with a close second being how we think about people and events.  The Yogis realized it’s hard to have peace of mind if our actions and attitudes are out of harmony such as engaging in dishonesty or jealousy, so the eight limbs begin with the yamas and niyamas, a set of ten ethical principles we can use to help keep both our behavior and mindset more peaceful.

After speaking of conduct and outlook, the Yogis then went on to observe, even if our treatment of others is good and kind, if we aren’t taking equal care of our selves, meditation is difficult.  For that reason, the next limb is asana or the physical postures of yoga through which we help our bodies become more easeful and calm.  In turn, this naturally leads to the more internal and subtle practice of breathwork or pranayama, through which we further calm the body, the nervous system, and the mind.

This brings us to our fifth limb which can be seen as something of a “turning point” between body and mind, and that is pratyahara or guidance of the senses.  In pratyahara we are actively cultivating the ability to guide the senses from their usual focus on external stimuli toward inner awareness.  Superficially, this might seem like a minor step, but if you’ve tried meditation you know it actually can be quite difficult – one of the reasons why the Yogis considered it every bit as significant a component as the postures or breathwork.  After pratyahara comes our three final limbs, which actually can be seen as three stages of meditation itself: dharana, our initial effort toward concentration, dhyana or sustained concentration – what most of us think of when we think of “meditation” – and finally samadhi or “one-mindedness,” the undivided and completely present state we might call the ultimate goal of meditation.

Again, in the next several articles, we’ll explore each of the limbs in greater detail including a look at each of the ten yamas and niyamas separately, but today we’ll conclude by talking a little bit about how the limbs interconnect as well as how we can use them in our own, personal work….

“Developmental” vs. “Interdependent” Focus…. 

Perhaps the subtlest yet most important thing to understand about the eight limbs is how they relate to one another and in turn how that can apply in our own practice.  To begin, again the limbs are presented in a specific order because the latter pieces naturally build on the earlier ones – for example, the Yogis realized it is basically impossible to calm the mind if we are filled with thoughts like anger or envy.  For this reason, we definitely need to be certain we are not neglecting the earlier limbs if we hope to truly master practices like meditation of even the physical postures.

But that much said, the Yogis also realized we don’t have to master the earlier stages in order to benefit from practices like breathwork and meditation – in other words, while it’s important to understand the earlier stages must be addressed if we hope to ultimately succeed with the subsequent practices, it would be an equal mistake to think we can’t practice pranayama or concentration until we have fully mastered contentment or all the asanas.  In fact, the Yogis realized the limbs work in both directions – that is, just as a more balanced life and body can assist meditation, so practices like meditation and pranayama can support our efforts to live a more ethical, compassionate life.

Further – and perhaps even more importantly – the Yogis realized all the limbs have room for constant growth, which means “perfection” is not really a valid concept or goal.  If we wait until we are “perfect” at non-violence before we work on the other stages, it’s going to be a bit of a wait….  They also realized it’s common for all of us to experience period of progress as well as “slipping backwards” in all of the areas of practice – one more reason not to get discouraged let alone slow our efforts in other limbs.  Simply put, if we were to hold off until we felt “perfect” in all the early areas, we would deprive ourselves of our chance to grow as well as missing out on a lot of life.  So while we want to be sure not to ignore the early branches in pursuit of the “higher” goals, we definitely can work on all limbs at the same time, each in the degree and way that works for us right now….

 Applying the Eight Limbs in Our Own Work 

This leads to the topic of how we can apply the eight limbs in our own practice.  Much like the branches of Yoga themselves, the eight limbs offer a powerful framework for building self-awareness and refining our personal program.  Perhaps the greatest benefit comes from the interdependent nature of the eight limbs we’ve been discussing.  We know a business is made up of connected parts and its success depends on how each department performs – if the orders branch is not communicating demand to the factory or customer service is not expressing client issues, manufacturing and design can’t do their job.  In this way, because each of the limbs contribute to our growth on the whole, when we find ourselves struggling in one area, often identifying and addressing challenges with other limbs can help – for example, if we’re struggling with breathwork, we might realize more meditation could help, or if challenged with asana, we might see it’s because we’re comparing ourselves with others, an issue explored in the yamas.  In this way, by increasing mindfulness of the various pieces of our practice and how they impact one another, we can gradually identify areas that are less developed and bring them to a more balanced level, dramatically enhancing our personal growth as well as the quality of our lives as a whole.

A further benefit of the eight limbs has to do with the fact personal growth can often be overwhelming.  Simply put, there are so many aspects to living a productive, rewarding life that at times we can feel unsure what to address.  The eight limbs offer a more manageable way to break our practice into segments – especially if, as discussed above, we use them to reflect on areas where we sense the greatest room for improvement.  Again, this can be especially beneficial when feeling overextended or unsure – by allowing ourselves to focus on a simple, solid practice, such as “contentment” or “truthfulness,” we’re often able to move past that overwhelmed state and return to a state of enthusiasm in our efforts to grow and evolve….

 In Our Next Article…

Again, taken together, the eight limbs provide a wonderful opportunity for self-study and evolution – by clarifying areas of strength and room for improvement and building our awareness of how the different parts of our practice interconnect, we can greatly enhance our growth.  Again, in our next several article, we’ll explore each of the limbs in greater detail, starting with an overview of the yamas and niyamas.  Until then, once again wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”


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