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Aṣṭāṅga Yoga — the eight limbs of Yoga

The path of Yoga propounded by Maharṣi Patañjali, is known as Asṭāṅga Yoga. As the name suggests, Asṭāṅga Yoga is comprised of eight limbs or aṣṭa aṅgāni. The goal of the path is Kaivalya (liberation) that results from the stilling of the mind (citta-vṛtti-nirodha) through a systematic process comprised of the eight limbs.

The eight limbs of Yoga

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥

yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni (2.29)

The eight limbs are –

  1. Yama – Literally means abstention. Sage Patañjali enlists five yamas:
    • Ahiṁsā – abstention from injuring another
    • Satya – truthfulness (abstention from falsehood)
    • Asteya – abstention from thievery
    • Brahmacarya – celibacy (abstention from indulging in the senses)
    • Aparigraha – abstention from accepting anything from another

  2. Niyama – Literally means discipline. Sage Patañjali enlists five niyamas
    • Śauca – cleanliness
    • Santoṣa – contentment
    • Tapaḥ – penance
    • Svādhyāya – scriptural study
    • Īśvara-praṇidhāna – surrender to the Supreme.

  3. Āsana – Āsana is defined as a stationary posture that can be maintained for long, comfortably. The posture must be such that it does not distract the practitioner from his impending mental union with the infinite. It is this limb of Yoga that is popularly practiced worldwide today, and is referred to as Haṭha-yoga. The Yogī who has perfected Āsana is said to never be swayed by the pairs of the opposites such as heat-cold, pleasure-pain, likes-dislikes, and so on.
  4. Prāṇāyāma – ‘Prāna’ means breath and ‘āyāma’ means both restraining and extending. The practice of manipulating breath by extending the inhalation/exhalation (pūraka/recaka) or by retaining breath within/without (kumbhaka) is referred to as Prāṇāyāma. Sage Patañjali states that mastery of Prāṇāyāma removes the veil that obscures the light of wisdom in man, and enables him to establish his mind firmly on an object with sustained attention.
  5. Pratyāhāra – Pratyāhāra is the withdrawal of the senses of perception (jṅānendriyas) and senses of action (karmendriyas) from sensory objects, by turning the mind inward. Pratyāhāra, it is stated, results in mastery over the senses.
  6. Dhāraṇa – Dhāraṇā is the fastening of the mind to a single focal point. The focal point can either be internal or external. Internal focal points are enlisted as the cakra of the navel, the lotus of the heart, the crown of the head, light at the tip of the nose, or the tongue.
  7. Dhyāna – Dhyāna is the continuous stream of cognition of the chosen focal point, uninterrupted by wavering thoughts. This is the necessary precursor to Samādhi.
  8. Samādhi – Samādhi is the final state of the Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, where the aimed object alone shines forth.

The eight limbs are further classified into two, namely bāhyāṅgāni (external limbs) and ābhyantarāṅgāni (internal limbs.) Bāhyāṅgāni comprises of what is also termed as Kriyāyoga. Bāhyāṅgāni are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇyāma, pratyāhāra. Ābhyantarāṅgāni, also called samyama, are dhāraṇā, dhyāna, samādhi. Sustained practice of samyama, states Sage Patañjali, results in wisdom (prajñāna.)

Maharṣi Patañjali describes the benefits of Aśṭāṅga Yoga as follows –

योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवकेख्यातेः ॥२.२८॥

Yogāṅgānuṣṭhānād aśuddhi-kṣaye jñāna-dīptir
āviveka-khyāteḥ ||28||

By practicing Yogāṅgās (the limbs of Yoga), the impurities of the mind are eliminated and the light of wisdom dawns by way of discernment. Discernment in turn, leads to Kaivalya (liberation).

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