I find myself going back to The Eight Limbs each time I speak of how captivated I am by the practice of yoga. The beauty of yoga lies in its all-encompassing reach to life – penned in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, speaking of an eightfold path to a meaningful and purposeful life.
Yama: the five moral restraints
The yamas can be thought of as the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is worth noting that the five yamas not only applies to how we treat others, but also to how we treat ourselves.
Ashimsa: nonviolence (kindness)
Brahmacharya: sexual moderation
The niyamas are all about self-discipline – such as developing a consistent practice, being aware of how we live life on a daily basis and extending gratitude.
Tapas: heat, austerity
Isvara pranihana: surrender
This third limb is undoubtedly the most popular aspect of yoga – coming to your mat, doing poses. It is also worth noting that the yamas and niyamas were deliberately placed before asana, as the physical practice of asanas is not the end goal, but a means to develop discipline and concentration.
Literally translated into ‘control of life force’, pranayama refers to breathing exercises. It offers us techniques to gain control over our respiratory system and connect the mind, body and emotions. Breathing deeply brings more oxygen and prana (life force) through the body, keeping the body young and mind balanced.
Unlike the first four limbs, the fifth to eighth limbs requires one to move in a step-by-step manner. The eighth limb cannot be achieved without first achieving the fifth to seventh.
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
The practice of pratyahara teaches us to be in uncomfortable situations yet be unaffected by the external environment. We experience external events as pleasure or pain, like or dislike via our five senses. While these experiences drive us to achieve our dreams, create meaningful interactions, gain wisdom and experience life fully, it becomes problematic when we get overly attached to these stimulus that we become unable to pause, turn inwards and reconnect with ourselves. Pratyahara is about turning inwards by not seeking out or responding to external stimulus.
Dharana is the process of achieving concentration, where the mind works on focusing only on one activity or thought. An object is selected and attention is focused on it – it could be the breath, a candle flame, a picture or a mantra. At this stage, the mind is constantly wondering to other objects and we have to repeatedly bring the mind back to the chosen object to train and tame the distracted mind. Over time, the mind reaches a state where periods of concentration exceeds that of distraction.
Dhyana is the state of single-pointedness of the mind, where there is a sustained concentration for longer periods of time. This is a more mature level of dharana and is similar to ‘flow’ in psychology or ‘being in the zone’.
Samadhi is the state of enlightenment, where the mind and the object of concentration unites into one. The object being focused on disappears, boundaries between the object and mind disappears and oneness is experienced. Self-awareness is lost and the meditator becomes completely absorbed by the object of concentration.
In yoga practice, the breath is of utmost importance as it offers us a point of focus to still the mind and connect with our inner world. Asana practice is done to prepare the body and mind for pranayama and ultimately journey through the last four limbs. By controlling the body and breath, one is able to control and still the mind, achieving peace, clarity and calmness.