In a previous post, we started to explore how to deepen your meditation and yoga practice with some helpful tips for improving your daily life as well. We also introduced the 8 limbs of yoga.
In this post we are going to delve deeper into the 8-limbs and how they can help us not only deepen our yoga and meditation practice, but also improve other aspects of our life as well.
Understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga
The 8 Limbs of yoga provide a wonderful framework for each of us to not only develop our body and mind but also to understand so many things in life, including meditation. The most influential text of yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Patanjali, usually dated around the 3rd Century BC. In his concise compilation, Patanjali captured the essential teachings of yoga that had previously been passed on for thousands of years.
Patanjali divides the path of yoga into ‘Eight Limbs’ – Ashtanga. (‘Ashta’ means eight, ‘anga’ means limb, hence, ‘the 8 Limbs of Yoga’). These are limbs and not, as some commentators have considered them to be, eight stages. You might find that in some books of yoga you are told that it is progressive; before you can proceed to limb number 3 you have to develop limb numbers 1 and 2. But the meaning of ‘Ashtanga’ is ‘limbs’, which would suggest that each of these limbs of yoga should be developed and nourished simultaneously. If you develop any one of the limbs, the others will be influenced. It is a little bit like a table – as you draw one of the legs, the others will follow.
In the West, what most people are exposed to with yoga is really only one of the limbs, Āsana (or the postures), or maybe a little bit of the Pranayama. But for the full experience of integration and wholeness, we need to develop all eight limbs – the complete science of yoga. The 8 Limbs will also help you understand the variety of meditation practices because there are techniques and practices that relate to all of the eight.
The eight limbs are:
- Yama – this focuses on the individual’s relationship with the wider environment and we could say it describes guiding ethical principles to help an individual become more aligned with the laws of nature governing life.
- Niyama – observances that help an individual cultivate more balance on the level of body and mind.
- Āsana – literally means a ‘posture of seat’, and the āsanas are designed to help all elements of the body feel absolutely balanced and in harmony with each other. Āsanas ultimately develop lightness of body and such a degree of comfort and ease that one can be steady in any posture. Of course, this is ideal for ensuring the attention is not constantly being drawn to discomfort in the body, but can be expansive. We can see its value as preparation for meditation.
- Prānāyāma – means the control and increase of prāna. Prānāyāma focuses on enlivening, expanding and directing the life energy, the prāna, primarily through breathing techniques.
- Pratyāhāra – is concerned with the connection between the mind and the senses. It is focused on developing the capacity to draw the senses within.
- Dhāranā – sometimes translated as ‘concentration’, it is concerned with developing the capacity to effortlessly focus the mind, and it is very much a part of the meditation process.
- Dhyāna – is a Sanskrit word often translated as ‘meditation’. When yogic knowledge went north to China as part of Buddhist teachings, ‘Dhyāna’ became ‘Chan’ (ie. Chan Buddhism, which is Chinese Buddhist thought). Then when that same knowledge went to Japan and was adapted the word ‘Zen’ was derived. So, ‘Zen’ derives directly from ‘Dhyāna’, and Dhyāna is really the sphere of transcending – moving the attention of the mind from gross layers to finer and more subtle layers.
- Samādhi – literally translates as ‘evenness of intellect’, the field of transcendental awareness, pure consciousness. Whenever we transcend thought and all sensory experience and have the experience of awareness awake within itself, we are experiencing Samādhi.
In another post we will delve deeper into each of the 8 limbs mentioned above.