Yoga Sutras - 8 limbs of yoga

Updated: Jan 12

A tree is often used in yoga philosophy to explain the 8 limbs of yoga in the yoga sutras—a tree with 8 branches. This tree is located in Rotorua New Zealand. I love trees, and I tend to take pictures of trees.

The most beautiful tree in Rotorua

Take back "control of your yoga path" with the help of the Sutras.

There is something in the tradition of Yoga with a lot of value. Those are the Sutras, and even thus there is a lot of talk about modern yoga's "evolution", I doubt that it is taking place. People seem to "do their own thing" hereby dismissing the deeper roots of serious yoga practitioners which are not necessarily known and famous.

What is evolution anyway? Can we really claim to have evolved? Is it a term to express "superiority"? We like to think of us as Homo Deus, but is our opinion really as important as society has made us believe? What do you think?

Undoubtedly, we have heard of a lot of abuse by some eastern and western charismatic leaders, but I am not surprised. I discovered early on that charismatic leaders are not the ones who impressed me most, and we seem to live through swaying popular neo-liberal national movements that lack a deeper sense of communication, truthfulness and overall respectful handling of affairs. We have seen abuse in many power structures, and yoga certainly is not free of it, but is this yoga? Does this individualistic culture we live in really supportive the community and our planet earth?

Take back control of your yoga path with the Sutras. In times of turmoil, the sutras can be really a helpful tool.

Sutras explained: What is a sutra? A sutra is an aphorism, a thread of discourses that explain us (the Sutras' father is Patanjali) the path to enlightenment with all its obstacles. They define what yoga is and the kind of action to take to realise yoga.

The Sûtras has essentially written in Sanskrit and offer a systematic way to learn them, recite them and practice to achieve yoga. Patañjali was a notable scholar of the dualist Samkhya school.

‘He’ or ‘She’ is said to have lived around 48 BCE to 49 CE. Patanjali systemised the ancient wisdom into 196 aphorisms traditionally recited from guru (the teacher who helps you enlighten your learning) to students, and one aphorism leads to the next. It is like a continuous thread and organises yoga's ancient wisdom into a synthesized and easy to learn the way.

There are 4 chapters:

1) Samadhi Pada – the definition of Yoga and the purpose

2) Sadhana-Pada – the practice of yoga

3) Vibhuti-Pada – psychic powers

4) Kaivalya-Pada – isolation of Purusha from Prakriti, that is, liberation from rebirth

We often hear about the limbs of an eight-limbed tree about the eight stages to enlightenment (some scholars argue that Patanjali may not have necessarily added this but added later, but those eight limbs get a lot of importance, especially in yoga teacher training.

The image of a tree with 8 limbs (ashtanga) outline;

1. ‘everything that you ought not to do because it affects the wellbeing of the whole’,

2. ‘what you should ideally do’,

3. ‘what you can do with your body’,

4. ‘with your breath – the link between the body and the mind’,

5. ‘what you could do with your senses’,

6. ‘what to do with your mind’,

7. ‘how to contemplate.’

8. And finally, ‘how to reach an ecstatic state’.

Those eight stages on yoga's path give us guidelines to live a meaningful life that supports love, kindness and growth.

Here again the eight-fold paths with its Sanskrit names:

1) Yamas (our attitudes and ethical behaviour towards our environment and others)

2) Niyamas (attitude towards ourselves)

3) Āsana (physical exercises to move energy and information throughout our body)

4) Pranayama (using the breath to influence our energy level, breath – control or freedom of restricted patterns)

5) Pratyahara (withdrawing senses)

6) Dharana (meditative concentration)

7) Dhyana (meditative contemplation)

8) Samadhi (self-realisation, enlightenment or meditative absorption).

Elaboration of the eight stages of astânga yoga:

The five main Yamas (ethical principles of what you should not do and how you would like to be treated by others) and the five main Niyamas (ethical principles of what you should do) are:

Preparatory or external stages preparing you for mental peace:

1. Yamas - Can you live your life in a gentle, loving way, balanced, giving, nourishing and free? Can you give your best (tapas) without aggression (ahimsa) and be content (santosha) with the outcome? Can you do this in life on and off your yoga mat?

1.1 Ahimsa – ‘non – violence’, or how to develop kindness, which manifests in body language, thoughts, speech and actions. Ahimsa in a yoga practice takes time. Only after some time of physical practice, you may understand that non-violence means you move, bend and stretch more productively without overstretching and overbending. Sometimes we realise it too late, and we suffer from sciatica, knee, neck or other joint pain. Can you do your practice in such a way that you will not get injured? Is your practice overstimulating, too aggressive, does your heartbeat too much or are you over-breathing? How do you feel emotionally? How are the postures affecting your physiology? Through the lenses with honesty, you see how your actions affect others, and you start mindfully changing your attitude. Your sensitivity reflects itself in healing and nurturing. We can also overstimulate and get over-emotional in our practice. The nervous system can get overtaxed.

1.2 Satya - truthfulness to yourself and others, to investigate honestly, e.g. how far can your body really go? For example, how far can you forward bend? How far does your body want to bend backwards? Are you using your limbs to force yourself into a posture?

1.3 Asteya - giving and not taking what has not been given to you in an honourable way, showing gratitude and not holding back, it is literally translated as non-stealing. This includes ideas and taking credit for other people’s efforts. Give credit to people who inspire you and honour experience and the source of your inspirations. Treat your fellow yoga teachers with kindness, and don’t take their students or classes. Students will inevitably come to you or others but stay true to yoga and don’t steal.

1.4 Brahmarcarya - use the minimum energy to act in life, are you attached to what feels good and gives you pleasure? This might also manifest itself in an obsession with something, even your practice. Can you be flexible in your approach? It’s not the flexibility of your body that will change the world and do good, but the flexibility of mind.

1.5 Aparigratha - virtue of non-possessiveness, non-grasping or non-greediness. Cultivating a feeling of satisfaction and being happy and content with what there is in your life right now. Understanding that the basic needs are covered without feeling the need for more or being greedy or taking from others. Sometimes you forget that your body has aged, and you think ‘I used to be able to do that’ and you get very disappointed that you no longer can. Can you be free from those deep-seated desires and accept changes and flow with them?

2) Niyamas

2.1 Sauca – cleanliness, e.g. ensure you treat borrowed yoga equipment or other objects with care, make sure your body odour does not disturb others. Sauca gives you this aspiration to a purer diet, posture, exercise, and still the mind through meditation. You increase the circulation of blood and get rid of toxins in your body.

2.2 Santosha – be content with what you chose and find a place in which you feel happy. You have the choice to feel like you want to feel. Santosha means ‘contentment’ and ‘satisfaction’. When you do your best, be ‘content’ with the results.

2.3 Tapas – heat, perseverance and the right effort for what you do, it is the burning desire to do your best, but without ‘himsa’ to yourself or others in body and mind.

2.4 Svadhyaya – encourage to investigate and study, e.g. self-study and self-enquiry. A question here could be: is your self-investigation useful to others? Does it help others? Does it help you to be more content and feel relaxed about how life flows?

2.5 Isvarapranidhana – surrender and dedicate your efforts to a greater cause; if you are religious, you may call it devotion to a god if you are not religious. You could approach it as an approach to universal consciousness or universal love. On a subtler level, it is the inner devotion, love and expression to yourself and then to others. It is the realisation that there is a connection with everything.

Those ethical values are interrelated, so, for example, compassion underlies all your actions and sometimes telling the truth must be seen in the light of not harming etc. The fundamental idea is that most of our suffering is caused by a feeling of separateness (ever since we left our mum’s womb).

When we feel compassion and concern about every being including plants and other living entities and feel a deep connection, there is no possible way that we would cause harm, be greedy or steal from somebody, as essentially, it means stealing, harming and taking from yourself.

What is Asana practice and how it is defined in the ancient texts?

3) Āsana (posture) - Patañjali mentions very little regarding a physical practice of yoga or what you should do with your physical body. As we have mentioned above, the Sûtras are the royal path of yoga and mainly deal with the mind and meditation. However, it does give us clues of how we should feel when we move energy throughout our body and defines the word āsana. In Sanskrit, the word ‘āsana’ translates as ‘seat, manner of sitting’.

In summary, ‘sukkham’ also means happiness and one way of feeling happiness might be feeling stress-free. Can you be content and relaxed even in a stressful situation or something that is not perfect?

4) Pranayama deals with the control of breath. We can use certain techniques to still our mind and move energy throughout the body.

Higher Stages

5) Pratyahara is relating to the withdrawing of the senses. Yoga Nidra is a perfect preliminary practice to Dharana and Dhyana. In more advanced stages of yogic sleep practices, dharana and samadhi can be achieved by the relaxed mind and body.

The next three limbs (called Samyama - that is the combined simultaneous practice of Dhāraṇā, Dhyana and Samadhi).

6) Dhāraṇā (concentration of mind)

7) Dhyāna (meditation)

8) Samādhi (ecstasy or stages of meditative consciousness)

This and much more, you learn in my unique Sundara Yoga Teacher Training Program. This teacher training starts in April 2020 and is over 9 weekends and 5 full days abroad.

I am a Senior Yoga Teacher and have Trainer status with Yoga Alliance Professionals, my workshops, retreats and courses can also count as CPD hours. I offer a taster on 9 February 2020 at 4 pm. There are only limited spaces, so booking in advance is essential.

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