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Yoga on and off the Mat: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs of Yoga

You often hear people saying, ‘I do yoga’ or asking, ‘have you done yoga today?’, as if it is some kind of activity with a defined start and an end. Most people would be referring to asana practice when they talk about yoga in this way. But yoga is a much deeper practice than the series of postures or asanas that the West often reduces the practice to. Yoga is both the aim, the realization of the blissful state of Samadhi, and also the means by which to realize it- your toolbox for awakening. So, while yoga as a practice has one ‘doing’ or undertaking certain disciplines or yogic practices … your yoga practice (sadhana) in fact never ends; each moment of your life is an opportunity to practice yoga.

Patanjali’s yoga sutras, often referred to as the ‘bible of yoga’, is the seminal spiritual guide to the eightfold path of yoga (ashtanga yoga). Asana is the third limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Of the 196 yoga sutras, asana is mentioned only three times. This indicates that asana in fact forms just a small part of a much richer yoga tradition. These limbs of yoga were intended to be mastered sequentially to a degree, yet they are also intrinsically interwoven and thus they should be practiced simultaneously. This hints to the idea that most Western students of yoga may be missing something integral before we even step on to our mats.

I do think that there are many positives to how the popularity of asana practice is slowly drawing the world into yoga. This is because I firmly believe that what happens on the mat begins to subtly catalyze change in people, whether intended or not… yoga has a magic and inexplicable mystery of her own! However, we are at risk of missing out on the incredible depth and significance of yoga by not embedding what we do on the mat within the wider spiritual philosophy of yoga and building upon the firm foundations of our Yamas (the first limb of yoga) and Niyamas (the second limb). Asana practice will only take you so far along the path and without the guidance of these first two limbs we are even at risk of not practicing asana the way it was intended: ‘through asana the sadhaka [practitioner] comes to know and fully realize the finite body, and merge it with the infinite- the soul’ (B.K.S. Iyengar)

Yamas (ethical principles or self-restraints) and Niyamas (personal observances) offer transformation and liberation off your mat and the promise of a more conscious and kinder world. Have you ever had the experience of finding such immense peace and relief on the mat, only to find the bliss erased by some difficult encounter or one of life’s heavy stresses later on after your asana class? Yes, we have all been there! It is in those moments of difficulty that we can turn to yoga’s deeper practices to make sense of our place in this world and to have the tools to keep bringing ourselves back to a state of equanimity.

While I am a long way off from that elusive state of equanimity - ha-ha! I find the practice of the first two limbs immeasurably helpful in my day to day life, and it is to the Yamas and Niyamas that I will turn for the next few blog posts. But first, let’s briefly reflect on what the yoga sutras are, who Patanjali was and broadly paint a picture of what the eight limbs of yoga entail. Entire theses could be and have been written on each of these points, so forgive the swift and necessarily incomplete treatment of this rich subject. I will share just a taste of my limited knowledge on the subject in the hope it lights a fire for your own spiritual self-study (Svadhyaya, our fourth Niyama).

So, what are the yoga sutras and what is known of their author- Patanjali? There are differing accounts regarding when the Sutras were composed but the yoga master Patanjali was thought to have lived between 500 and 200 BCE. The whole system of yoga however is not wholly attributed to Patanjali but rather we can say that the sutras made an extraordinary contribution to the written transmission of an ancient, spiritual and predominantly orally transmitted system. While the origins of yoga are subject to intense debate and a fair dose of mystery, various historians have noted that its development dates back to 5000 or even some would argue 10,000 years ago.

The word ‘yoga’ is first found in the Rig Veda, thought to have been composed sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE and have been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BCE. There is also clear evidence of yogic practice in the Upanishads; composed between 900-300 BCE. Yoga also embraces much of the Sankhya system of Indian philosophy emanating from the great sage Kapila; thought to have lived sometime in the 1st millennium BCE. So, although by no means the only authority on yoga, Patanjali’s yoga sutras has come to be regarded as a comprehensive study of the nature and forms of yoga and offers a practical guide for the Sadhaka to follow the eight limbs of yoga.

Much of what we know about Patanjali is drawn from myths and passed down through oral tradition. In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar notes that “He is referred to as svayambhu, an evolved soul incarnated of his own will to help humanity. He assumed human form, experienced our sorrows and our joys, and learned to transcend them. In the Yoga Sutras he described the ways of overcoming the afflictions of the body and the fluctuations of the mind: the obstacles to spiritual development”. So, in essence Patanjali, takes on a somewhat mythical and otherworldly form associated with enlightened beings and sages, like the Bodhisattvas of Buddhism, who choose to reincarnate out of compassion to serve humanity and guide others to enlightenment.

The Yoga Sutras contain within them a comprehensive guide to awakening through the yogic path. It contains 196 yoga sutras which are condensed ‘threads’ of wisdom. in other words, they are summarized forms of more elaborate spiritual teachings historically passed down in oral form. The yoga sutras are divided into four chapters or ‘padas’. The first chapter, ‘Samadhi Pada’ is committed to exploring what yoga or ’samadhi’ is.

Yoga is defined in sutra 1.2 as ‘yoga cittavrtti nirodhah’: Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations/movements/disturbances in the consciousness. Samadhi is a joyful state of calm where union between body, mind and soul and all of existence is experienced. It is a final state of meditation where the process of concentration, the object being concentrated on and the mind engaging in concentration are merged in union, so that the meditator experiences his soul with absolute clarity. Samadhi is the state of ultimate spiritual realization and the final limb of the eight limbed path. In this sense yoga is samadhi and samadhi is yoga. Yoga is thus both a method for awakening and awakening itself.

Having defined and explored what yoga is in the first chapter, the second chapter ‘Sadhana Pada’ investigates the means or the dedicated practice by which you can achieve Yoga or samadhi. It is the practitioner’s outward yoga journey. This chapter introduces Kriyayoga, the yoga of action, which outlines the various disciplines to reach the state of Samadhi. Within this chapter are the parts of the eight limbed path that can be actively practiced: limbs one to five. These are:

  1. Yamas (ethical restraints): ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (moderation/ continence/ connection to the divine), aparigraha (non-attachment/ non-possessiveness).

  2. Niyamas (personal observances/ spiritual disciplines): sauca (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study and study of sacred scriptures), Isvara pranidhana (surrender to the divine/god)

  3. Asana: ‘Asana means posture, the positioning of the body as a whole with the involvement of the mind and the soul’. It is the journey of continued practice (abhyasa) with reflection and mindful observation, so that effortful practice of asana is transformed to effortless effort. Asana is a means to live intensely in the present moment, preparing the mind and body for concentration, meditation and full absorption in the latter limbs of yoga. Asana is the means to cleanse the body and unite it with mind and soul.

  4. Pranayama: 'Prana’ means ‘life force’ and ‘ayama’ means expansion, so pranayama is the expansion of life force through the control of the breath. ‘The practice of pranayama removes the veil of ignorance covering the light of intelligence and makes the mind a fit instrument to embark on meditation for the vision of the soul. This is the spiritual quest’- B.K.S. Iyengar.

  5. Pratyahara: this is sensory withdrawal. Yoga sutra II.54 describes it as ‘withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara’. The previous four limbs prepare the practitioner for pratyahara, whereby the mind becomes calm, undisturbed by sensory gratification and ready for meditation and thus Pratyahara forms the firm foundation for dharana, dhyana and samadhi, the last three limbs of yoga.

After having laid out the external quest or practices of the yogi(ni) in ‘Sadhana Pada’, the third chapter ‘Vibhuti Pada’, describes the internal quest of the yogi(ni), crystallized in the final three limbs of yoga. It also discusses the powers or states of being that the yogi(ni) can achieve through their dedicated practice and the obstacles that seekers of yoga are likely to encounter and what practical disciplines can overcome these. The inner quest or ‘antaranga sadhana’ includes limbs 6, 7 and 8:

6. Dharana (concentration): Dharana is a very focused attention or concentration on a fixed point within or outside of the body as a means to condition the mind to remain steady and to eliminate its fluctuations.

7. Dhyana (meditation): ‘the difference between dharana and dhyana is that dharana is more concerned with the elimination of fluctuating thought-waves in order to achieve single-pointed concentration; in dhyana, the emphasis is on the maintenance of steady and profound contemplative observation’.

8. Samadhi (total absorption): ‘when the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost. This is samadhi’. Samadhi is not a limb that can be practiced, it is the natural state achieved through your efforts in the other limbs of yoga, up until meditation. Sri Swami Satchidananda notes “in meditation you have three things: meditator, the meditation, and the object meditated upon. In samadhi there is neither the object nor the meditator. There is no feeling of ‘I am meditating on that’ “. It is a profound state of harmony, absorption or liberated bliss.

The final chapter ‘Kaivalya Pada’, describes the subtlest aspects of the quest for the soul, for freedom and emancipation . This chapter is about the path of renunciation, detaching oneself from worldly objects and desires. But Patanjali is also keen to emphasize how yogis who have reached the highest reaches of yoga can continue to serve humanity while still maintaining a state of untainted peace. In this way, yoga is not only a gift of liberation for the individual but for all of humanity.

If you would like to find out more about the Yoga Sutras I would suggest getting hold of both of the translations by B.K.S. Iyengar in his ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ and Sri Swami Satchidananda’s ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’. I personally find it useful to have the two different perspectives as an aid to unravel the subtleties of the sutras. I won’t lie to you, the sutras are not easy reading! They are not the kind of books that you pick up and race through with ease, or that you read once and then say you are ‘done with them’ and then move on. Rather, approach them slowly and patiently, keep coming back to them and reflecting on them and you will see how their wisdom starts to unfold as your yoga practice continues to evolve.

May your yoga path be blessed, with love, Namaste, Brittany.

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