The Yoga Sutras are teachings that, for centuries, have served as a guide to check our progress in the path of Yoga. They can illuminate our spiritual journey by helping us forget our personal selfishness, broaden our minds, and make us better masters of our body, mind, and senses.
Thousands of years ago, Patanjali, a realized yogi considered the father of modern yoga, summarized the yogic teachings in a compendium known as the Yoga Sutras — texts originating from spiritual traditions.
The story tells us that Shiva, the first yogi, transmitted to seven sages knowledge about humanity as a total mechanism of the human body, mind, and consciousness. Years later, Patanjali assimilated the vastness of this information and compiled it in a system for everyone to understand it in a meaningful way.
Sutra means "thread." To better understand it, we can see a sutra as a tool or formula to follow. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali contain the Eight Limb Path of Yoga.
"The Yoga Sutras are an absolutely brilliant piece of work compared to any of the scriptures on the planet talking about life and beyond." ~ Sadhguru
The purpose of the Eight Limbs is to reach samadhi, but the ultimate goal in our process of transformation is to rise above the duality of life (matter and spirit) and attain oneness through the liberation of the Spirit— nirbija-samadhi. This is the highest state of samadhi, or spiritual bliss and self-realization, in Yoga and Buddhism.
The Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga in a nutshell.
The eight limbs refer to moral principles that prepare a practitioner for the profound inner work that lies ahead; provide instructions on how to breath and withdraw from sensory stimulation; and outline the way to reach a deep meditative state and ultimately achieve samadhi — a pure and complete state of concentration that leads to ecstasy or enlightenment.
Yama: ethical disciplines
Niyama: rules of conduct
Pranayama: restraint or expansion of the breath
Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
The Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga explained.
1. Yama: ethical principles
Yama refers to one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life.
There are five Yamas:
2. Niyama: rules of conduct
Niyama refers to self-discipline and spiritual observances. For example, maintaining a clean body and mind, not acquiring a lot of material possessions, being grateful for what we have, developing our own spirituality, attending temple or church services, saying a prayer before meals, maintaining meditation practices, or taking contemplative walks alone.
There are five Niyamas:
Tapas: spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God/higher energy
3. Asana: postures
Yoga philosophy sees the body as a temple and the home of our spirit. Yoga postures help us connect to our body and spirit and develop discipline and concentration, both of which are necessary for meditation.
4. Pranayama: restraint or expansion of the breath
Pranayama, the "life force extension," includes powerful breathing techniques designed to master our respiratory process and understand the mind-body connection — the powerful relationship between our breath, mind, and emotions.
Yogis believe that pranayama rejuvenates the body and can even extend our life span. We can practice pranayama as an isolated technique performing a number of breathing exercises, or integrate it into a daily hatha yoga routine.
5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
During this stage, we observe ourselves. We practice being aware of our senses while at the same time cultivating detachment from them. We consciously direct our attention internally and draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli.
For example, we sit in a comfortable place with our eyes closed and mentally step back feeling our breath going in and out of our body. We watch our thoughts but don't attach to them — we let them go; we observe them as they rise and fall like waves on the ocean.
This practice of withdrawing our senses and going inward, allows us to objectively observe cravings or habits that may be affecting our health and interfering with our spiritual growth.
6. Dharana: concentration
Having eliminated outside distractions through the practice of pratyahara, we are ready for the next stage — dharana, or concentration. Here we deal with the distractions of the mind confining it in a well-defined space, focusing our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation (dhyana), the next stage on the Eight Limb Path.
Because the mind was made to wonder, concentration is a difficult task to accomplish. The goal of Dharana is to learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a point or mental object, for example, a candle light, our breath, a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or listening to a soft and consistent sound.
In the previous stage of pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point, like a laser beam.
7. Dhyana: meditation
Meditation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration and achievement of stillness. At this stage, the mind has been quieted and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be the same, there's a a fine line of distinction between them — dharana practices one-pointed attention, while dhyana is a state of being aware without focus.
It takes inner-strength and practice to go from single-focus concentration to a state of stillness. But don't give up; remember that yoga is a process and every stage provides benefits and propels us to the next level in our Yoga practice.
8. Samadhi: absorption
This is the pure and complete state of concentration that leads to ecstasy. At this stage, we merge with our point of focus and transcend the Self altogether. Some people believe that samadhi leads to enlightenment; others believe that it is enlightenment itself — the perfect state of nirvana.
Those who achieve samadhi have expressed a feeling of profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things, and being at one with the Universe. This is the experience of what many yogis call a sense of bliss.
Although samadhi may seem an unattainable goal beyond our dreams, it is the mind's ultimate state of being. For a Yoga practitioner, it is of profound spiritual significance. However, even though we may not attain this ideal state of enlightenment, we still benefit at every stage of our Yoga path.
At InnerWellbeing yoga classes, we focus on Asana and Pranayama. We also offer classes on other aspects of Yoga practice and spirituality, sometimes under the heading “Beyond Asana.”
-Sri Swami Satchidananda. (2013).The yoga sutras of pantajali.
- Siha Founation (2018). Patanjali: the father of modern yoga.