For most people the word “yoga” (योग) brings to mind the image of a yoga model that appears on the cover of a yoga magazine in a pose that is almost impossible to get into for an average practitioner. Yoga is commonly practiced as a routine which helps in improving physical fitness and sometimes as a means to stress management. There is growing awareness that yoga can be effectively used as therapy in treating a variety of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions etc. Those who have been practicing yoga for a while can attest to the physical and physiological benefits that the practice brings.
While all the above mentioned benefits of yoga are certainly desirable, most people are ignorant about the true meaning and purpose of yoga which is “the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind”. This brief and succinct definition was provided to us by Sage Patanjali, more than three thousand years ago, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (योग सूत्र)
. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has provided a very scientific and practical exposition of the philosophy and practice of yoga. One very important section of the book describes what is commonly called “Ashtanga Yoga” (अष्टाङ्ग योग)
or the Eight Limbs of Yoga which provides practical guidelines for achieving the goal of yoga, i.e., controlling the mind.
Most of the yoga as it is practiced today, called Hatha Yoga, includes physical postures (asanas) and some breathing techniques (pranayama). As you can notice from the eight limbs which are listed below, asana and pranayama are only two of these eight limbs and help establish a strong foundation toward achieving the objectives of yoga. However, to develop a fully integrated practice of yoga and achieve the final objectives of yoga, one needs to include in their routine all the eight limbs of yoga in some form.
Eight limbs of yoga
The eight limbs or yoga are:
(self restraints): The yamas are guidelines for how to interact with the outside world at a social level. The five yamas are:
(non-violence): not hurting any living being – plant, animal, human, including yourself, through action, speech or thought
(truthfulness): Speech and mind conforming to reality as seen, inferred or heard
(non-stealing): Taking something not belonging to you is stealing; to forsake any such desire is asteya
(abstinence): controlling the sense organs ; Vyasa, in his commentary, adds that brahmacharya must include refrain from the 8 forms of sexual indulgence
(non-hoarding): having no possessions besides what is needed for bare sustenance
- Ahimsa (अहिंसा)
(observances): The niyamas represent guidelines for self-discipline. The five niyamas are:
(cleanliness): External cleanliness through soap/water etc. and taking pure foods; internal cleanliness through making the mind-field sattvic (pure) by removing anger, pride, arrogance, jealousy, greed, delusion etc.; and Cleanliness of environment (non-pollution)
(contentment): Being contented with what we have in all situations, under all circumstances (not constantly complaining)
(austerity): Making the mind and body strong enough so one can resist pairs of experiences like heat/cold, pain/pleasure, hunger/thirst etc .
(study of the scriptures and self-study): Developing an understanding of self through the study of ancient scriptures which are known to contain the ultimate truth
Ishwara pranidhana (ईश्वर प्रणिधान)
(surrender to God): Surrendering your ego in favor of Ishwara (God). Patanjali defines Ishwara as a special Purusha who is untouched by the afflictions of life, actions and the results and impressions produced by these actions.
- shoucha (शौच)
(posture): Asana refers to the seated posture which should be steady and comfortable so the yogi can sit and meditate for long periods of time.
(breath control): Pranayama, which literally means stretching or expansion of prana, the vital life force, involves breath control and helps train and prepare the mind for dharana (concentration).
(sense withdrawal): Through pratyahara one gains the ability to withdraw the senses from their objects thus achieving perfect control over the senses.
(concentration/focus): Dharana involves focusing the mind on a single object of concentration for long periods of time.
(meditation): When there is an uninterrupted flow of the mind toward the object of focus, the yogi enters the state of meditation.
(total absorption): Finally when even the self-awareness of the mind disappears and only the object of meditation shines through, it is called the state of samadhi. It is only in the highest stage of “Samadhi”, called the “nirbeeja Samadhi” (seedless Samadhi) when the mind is fully under control and brings the yogi to a state of perpetual peace and tranquility
Together, yamas and niyamas provide an ethical and moral code to be followed so the aspiring yogi can establish an adequate moral foundation for his/her spiritual journey.