Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga: Ancient Spirituality for Modern Life
If you are reading this post then I would guess that you are like me in at least one respect… you have a longing, or at least a curiosity, for something spiritual in your life.
(And if you aren’t reading this post then I guess you won’t even see these words, so I don’t know why I’m writing this sentence. But anyway…)
Whether you’re young or old, you’ve probably felt a need for something more fulfilling, more meaningful, to understand why you are here, what’s the reason for it all.
You want some spiritual nourishment, but you’re completely turned off by institutionalised religion. Maybe you sense that there is some truth in religion but it has been mixed up and buried under so much dogma that you wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.
So what do you do if you want spirituality in your life, but not religion?
Well that’s where yoga comes in. More specifically Patanjali.
I know… it’s a strange, foreign-sounding name. But that’s only because it’s, well, foreign. Unless you are from India, in which case it’s probably a very familiar name for you. Patanjali was a mystic and yogi master in India, and lived around AD 200. He set out the principles and essence of yoga philosophy in a practical system, which is easy to understand and apply to daily life.
His “Yoga Sutras” are a collection of short aphorisms which explain the theory and practice of yoga philosophy. And since it is exactly just that, a philosophy, it has really very little, if anything, to do with religion. That makes it ideal for someone like me or you, who wants a practical and fulfilling way to have more spiritual connection.
Within Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a small(-ish) section called the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which is what I want to talk about today.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The true goal of yoga is union with your divine essence. The path of yoga is all about balance. Balance in the postures, balance in health and nutrition, balance in emotions, and balance in every aspect of your life.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are a comprehensive, yet simple, system of putting into practice the principle concepts of yoga. They comprise a combination of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual observances, which lead to balance and peace. The ultimate aim of the Eight Limbs is to progressively merge oneself with the spiritual essence within. Whether you call that essence God, Universe, Higher Consciousness, Nature, or whatever, is not the subject of the eight limbs. Hence you can adapt this system to whatever spiritual or religious beliefs you have. And therein lies the beauty of the Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Yama: Universal morality
- Niyama: Personal observances
- Asana: Physical postures
- Pranayama: Control of the prana, or life-force, through breathing exercises
- Pratyhara: Control of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation, devotion
- Samadhi: Union with the Divine
Each of these limbs are equally as important as the other. The idea is not to follow them sequentially, but to practice them simultaneously. In so doing you set the conditions for a balanced and rounded personal growth.
Ancient Spirituality for the Modern World
The Eight Limbs of Yoga represent thousands of years of ancient wisdom, tried and tested down through the ages by great spiritual masters. You know that stereotypical image of emaciated ash-covered ascetics sitting cross-legged in mountain caves? Well those are exactly the kind of characters who pioneered the exploration of consciousness. Throughout history, in different cultures and traditions, these noble sages forsook the world to go beyond the frontiers of human understanding in the search for the answers to existence.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to strip off your clothes, cover yourself in ash and lock yourself in the bathroom, imagining it to be a mountain cave! Although I’m tempted to tell you to do that just for a laugh, visualising what the reaction of your spouse and family would be.
No, on the contrary the Eight Limbs of Yoga lend themselves perfectly to being adapted to the busy way of modern life.
Each of the eight limbs are intended as a general guideline for practice. They can be tailored to the individual needs of anyone, regardless of your lifestyle or beliefs.
The Modern-Day Yogi
Believe it, you really can become an adept yogi. Even when you are rushing from A to B with a kid in one hand, your iPad in the other hand, your other kid tucked under your other arm, (don’t worry about dropping your kid, but whatever you do, don’t drop your iPad!) and the phone wedged between your shoulder and ear.
The Yamas are guidelines about basic universal ethics and will help you to get clear on your personal values. When you are clear on those things you can make better choices, using the Yamas as a reference point to guide you along your path like a compass. The first immediate benefit is a sense of peace of mind, which can instantly reduce your stress.
The Niyamas will help you to create powerful habits of self-discipline for balancing and harmonising the energies in your life. These personal observances can be adapted to your level of practice. You can develop some simple daily or weekly routines that bring greater physical, emotional, and mental health. When you have established a routine that you are happy with, you will rapidly develop more self-esteem and self-confidence, which will rub off on to those around you.
This is traditionally practiced as the yoga postures. If you take up yoga classes you will dramatically improve your physical well-being, and will feel great with more energy to run around in your busy schedule. However, Asana doesn’t have to be the traditional yoga postures. It can be any kind of physical exercise that you enjoy, from working out in the gym to playing tennis. The essence of Asana is to train your physical body so that you feel comfortable living with it.
Learn to use your breathing to control the life-force that you absorb from the air around you. In its simplest form, it just means learning to breathe correctly. In today’s high-stress culture many people have lost the ability to breathe properly. They end up with the bad habit of shallow breathing, using only the upper part of their lungs. This has a lot of negative consequences, such as lack of sufficient oxygen, stagnant lower lung, increased tension in the chest and shoulders, and an overall feeling of more stress. With correct breathing, using the complete area of diaphragm, lungs, and chest, you increase your supply of prana, or life-force. You also get more oxygen, which improves your energy levels, and concentration.
Develop more control over your senses. Instead of being a slave to your desires, you become the master of your senses. You will cultivate stronger will-power, to avoid excessive indulgence in unhealthy binges. You can still enjoy the senses, but you will be able to do so with moderation. Enjoying that glass of wine, or that piece of chocolate cake, or a steamy night of passionate love-making, without going to unhealthy extremes. In so doing you will value and enjoy it more.
Through Dharana you can improve your mental skills of concentration. It is traditionally, and most simply, practiced through meditation. However, meditation is not for everyone. In fact any activity you are engaged in can become a practice in concentration. By giving your full attention to what you are doing, you are training your mind in Dharana. The benefits are of course that you will be able to concentrate better on your work, your projects, and indeed any activity. Even interacting with your spouse or your kids can become Dharana, when you give them your full attention.
This is the state of meditation. It arises as a natural consequence of Limb 6, Dharana. When you are fully focused on something, giving your full concentration over a sustained period of seconds or minutes, it becomes meditation. This can happen in any moment, with any activity, if you are fully giving your sustained attention.
I bet you thought meditation had to be something you do when you sit still for 20 minutes in the morning or evening, right?
Wrong! The modern day yogi has little time to sit still for 20 minutes twice a day! Instead you can make any activity your meditation. All you need to do is focus 100% on it. Playing with your kids can become meditation, if you are totally present. Don’t let your mind wander off and start thinking about what you are going to prepare for dinner, or what someone said to you an hour earlier. Keep bringing your thoughts back to the present moment. Hold your attention on what you are doing and it will become meditation.
Basically this is absorption with the essence of the object of your concentration. At its lowest level samadhi is achieved when you are so totally absorbed in something that you lose track of time and what’s happening around you.
At a higher level samadhi is when you are so concentrated that there is only one single thought wave in your mind… the object of your concentration. When all other thoughts subside, the true essence of the object of your concentration shines forth. Then you realise that the essence of that object is something spiritual. It is not an intellectual realisation, but more of an experience. You feel the external form of the object evaporating, revealing an underlying spiritual reality which feels more permanent and real than the impermanent outer form.
With practice you come to an understanding that this spiritual essence is the same within everything. It is always the same underlying reality behind the outward appearance of everything in this physical world. As you become more proficient in the practice of Samadhi sooner or later your awareness merges with that essence, and even the single thought wave in your mind evaporates. When this happens you become one with the divinity within you. Your awareness expands beyond the individual “you” and you experience the joy and bliss of universal consciousness.
This level of Samadhi is more easily achieved when you do indeed sit still for 20 minutes, and withdraw your attention from the external senses. Nevertheless, with a little practice anyone can experience varying degrees of Samadhi whilst engaged in everyday activities.
There’s no need to lock yourself in the bathroom!
You don’t have to give up the pleasures of life to be a spiritual person. In fact I would say that spirituality is about enjoying every facet of human experience. Within the tried and tested framework of the Eight Limbs of Yoga you can craft your own unique spirituality. Through this non-religious system of spiritual training and practice you can develop that inner connection with your divine Self, and still go on doing all the normal things that people do.
So please don’t lock yourself in the bathroom, stark naked and covered in ash, and expect to have a spiritual awakening. The only awakening you will get is a verbal slap (if not a physical one!) from your spouse when you come out!
Photo credit: Heron Evening Meditation© by Alice Popkorn
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