The 8 Limbs of Yoga

by Brandon Closson

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

By: Brandon Closson

Patanjali wrote The Yoga Sutras a few hundred years before Jesus was born. At this time in history, Buddha had arrived in the world and was gaining popularity. Buddhism and other religious or spiritual movements across the globe were becoming more solidified in their doctrine or dogma or orthodoxy. Hinduism up until this point had really just been a blend of cultural identities but lacked a widely understandable list of rules or practices to follow. We will explore one school of thought that rose out of this moment in history: Ashtanga Yoga. 

Hindu Orthodoxy

In order to compete with the succinct documents from other spiritual movements, Hindu saints, sages, priests and philosophers began to create what we now call the six schools of Hinduism. These are the closest things we have to “Hindu orthodoxy” as all of them regard the Vedas as a primary source of truth, where as Buddhism and Jainism have rejected parts of the Vedas.

I think in Western society we feel disdain when we hear of things like the Catholic Church or any huge and powerful institution ignoring their own “rules” previously set in stone (quite literally set in stone in the Ten Commandments). We see these people who gain power and then flagrantly change rules as hypocrites.

In Hinduism, there is no point in time when someone says “here are all of the rules, they will not change and if you do not follow them you are not Hindu”. There is no institution. Outside of a few outliers, insistence on one way of being just never happens in Hindu and Vedic literature because one of the infinite themes of the Vedas is to begin and build upon a collective, experimental spiritual journey, not end one.

Adding to the Vedas, commenting on spiritual texts and teaching people new skills in modern times to harness the power of the Spirit is not in any way against the texts that came before your own. Like anything in Hinduism, there really is no concrete, dualistic Right and Wrong that are completely defined. Like everything in life, what is good and what is bad are on incredibly complicated spectrums. Good and Bad are not unchangeable truths or principles.

Patanjali and the 8 Limbs of Yoga

The six schools of thought in Hinduism began to blossom and one of these was Patanjali’s School of Ashtanga (8 Legs or Limbs) Yoga. Patanjali was a sage who dedicated his life to furthering the techniques of Yoga practice in daily life to seek the ultimate goal of liberation of the individual into Universal Consciousness. He wanted to give people clear instructions on how to use the tools within themselves to explore higher planes of consciousness.

His efforts were placed in creating categories, rituals and list of principles inside each form of Yoga to help the Yoga student progress in their spiritual journey. He split the word Yoga into 8 “limbs” or practices. This is called the Ashtanga School of Yoga Philosophy.

Asana is one of these 8 limbs. It means postures and is the part of Yoga that we all see most in the West: exercising through poses, stances and controlled breathing. In the Mahabharata, an Indian epic that is part of Vedic literature, Yoga is mentioned 900 times but less than 10 are about Yoga as exercise. So let’s check out all 8 types of Yoga defined by Patanjali.

1) Abstinences

Abstinences are the “do nots” of Yoga or things you should stay away from. These include:

  • Violence against ANY creature
  • Dwelling in Falsehoods or not being Truthful in your words or actions
  • Stealing from others
  • Being consumed by sex or desire (this is like sexual addiction and it is important to point this out because the Vedas are known to celebrate sexuality and its expression)
  • Being consumed by the need to be rich (again, being rich is great and celebrated in the Vedanta but to have it be your primary motivator will make the spiritual journey much more difficult)

Hinduism celebrates living life to the fullest: eating delicious food, having fulfilling and passionate sex with consenting partners, and getting rich enough to give yourself and your family what is needed to both survive and enjoy life. What Hinduism does not support is having any of these pleasures be your one motivation in life.

If desires are your primary motivators, you are not in violation of a specific rule and you do not deserve punishment. Instead, the rishis realized addiction to anything, not just drugs, will eventually ruin your life. You become the subject of your own desires and are always beholden to those cravings. To release yourself from those desires and then enjoy Sex and Food and Pleasure outside of the confines of cravings is to practice Yoga.

2) Observances

Observances are the “dos” of Yoga. These are different virtuous habits or observances to be followed to make progress in the Spiritual world. These include:

  1. Clarity of mind, speech and body
  2. Accepting others and accepting your own circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them; optimism for yourself and your life
  3. Persistence and self-discipline
  4. Study of the Vedas and study of self
  5. Contemplation of God and/or the Godhead

Trying daily to include these principles in your thoughts and actions will lead to better living, an idea that can almost universally be agreed upon. Being a clear-minded student of the Universe is being a person who practices Yoga.

3) Postures

We know Asana, or yoga postures, very well. It permeates our media, our gyms and our strip malls. Popular poses like Downward Dog have at least been joked about by everyone in America. For now, we will say this is the form of Yoga we know today as exercise. Asana deserves its own article in the future. I will say now that Patanjali does not actually give any specific poses to do when practicing Asana but does say any pose that causes unsurmountable pain is not a Yoga pose.

4) Control of the Breath

Our breath is our lifeline to the Eternal Breath of the Universe. Breathing occurs in us automatically without any effort on our part. But we can also choose to control Breath and in doing so we gain more control over our own bodies and are better equipped to harness the power of the Shared Breath Within All.

The basic breathing practice we all know is breathing in, pausing, and breathing out. Changing the speed and pauses in breathing and experimenting with their patterns is a vital aspect of performing Yoga.

5) Withdrawal of the Senses

This is a practice of taking away focus and sensory experiences from external objects and just existing in the freedom of your inner world. It is not closing your eyes to the world but instead closing off of all mental processes to objects outside of your own body.

Withdrawal of the Senses reminds me of sensory deprivation tanks and how we now know through science that these tanks can trigger hallucinogenic experiences by cutting off all sensory experience. This scientific discovery is proof there is something “magical” about turning off the 5 Senses and this magic is, once again, Yoga.

6) Concentration

The “one-pointedness” of mind is one of our favorite parts of Yoga because it is where Crystals fit in! Maintaining complete focus is vital to meditation and Yoga. Using a Crystal can be helpful. By using the Crystal as an object to focus on when you have trouble keeping your thoughts from drifting during Meditation, you can greatly accelerate your journey on the path of Yoga.

7) Meditation

We all have an idea of what this is and will in the future explore methods with meditation in your own daily life. I have always been afraid of meditation and felt like I would never “achieve” it. I am beyond relieved to say I have felt the fruits of meditation in my life now and it is extremely accessible with the right teacher. The most important idea from Patanjali on meditation is that it is the closest form of Yoga to the final limb of Yoga which is divine connection to Universal Consciousness or God.

8) Absorption (Samadhi)

Samadhi is the spiritual state you reach when you become one with meditation. You completely dissolve your own identity and the “meditator” (you) becomes one with the object of meditation. Absorption is a trance-like state in which there is only oneness with all of Life and Beyond. Together we will explore the 8 Limbs of Yoga one by one in future articles to reach this blissful state of Eternal Unity of All.

Summary

Yoga is exercise but Yoga is also more than that. I think we do our best to include the other 7 limbs of Yoga into the Yogic posture exercises we practice, but I also believe knowing how Yoga was defined thousands of years ago can help us become better at it. Knowledge is power.

Stay tuned as we continue to dive deeper and deeper into the complicated experiments of the Spiritual Realm and how they can give you power in the Material World through tools like meditation, objects (Crystals) to aid in meditation and the ability in all of us to completely lapse into the Milky White Ocean of Universal Consciousness.