Updated: Jul 21, 2022
I often get asked questions about the holistic side of the Yoga practice, I like to think of Yoga and it's multifacets as a giant jigsaw puzzle... it only starts to become clear once you've put a few elements together. Once you complete the first jigsaw however, you begin to discover that there are puzzles within the puzzles, different dimensions and wide ranging theories and philosophy from countless lineages and periods in Yoga's history.
As a key foundational knowledge base however, it is vital to understand the 8 limbs of Yoga (and 5 limbs of Hatha Yoga) as featured in Patanjali's Yoga sutras (sutra being a thread of knowledge, a rule, a teaching, or book).
So here are the 8 limbs of Yoga:
1 - The Yamas
The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (There are 5 Yamas to learn and practice).
2 - The Niyamas
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. (There are 5 Niyamas too).
3 - Asana
Postures aka 'poses' ie the physical aspect of the practice; the one we are so obsessed with in the west, to the detriment of all the other 7 limbs.
4 - Pranayama
Pranayama can be understood as either ‘prana-yama’ which would mean ‘breath – control’ or ‘breath restraint’, or it could be understood as ‘prana-ayama’ which would translate as ‘freedom of breath’, ‘breath expansion’ or ‘breath liberation’. The physical act of working with different breathing techniques alters the mind in a myriad of ways – we can choose calming practices like Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) or more stimulating techniques such as Kapalabhati (shining skull cleansing breath). There are many deeper layer of understanding of Prana too.
5 - Pratyahara
Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, ‘draw in’ or ‘draw back’, and the second part ahara refers to anything we ‘take in’ by ourselves, such as the various sights, sounds andsmells our senses take in continuously. When sitting for a formal meditation practice, this is likely to be the first thing we do when we think we’re meditating; we focus on ‘drawing in’. The practice of drawing inward may include focussing on the way we’re breathing, so this limb would relate directly to the practice of pranayama too.
6 - Dharana
Dharana means ‘focused concentration’. Dha means ‘holding or maintaining’, and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. Closely linked to the previous two limbs; dharana and pratyahara are essential parts of the same aspect. In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration, and in order to draw our senses in, we must focus and concentrate intently. Tratak (candle gazing), visualisation, and focusing on the breath are all practices of dharana, and it’s this stage many of us get to when we think we’re ‘meditating’.
7 - Dhyana
The seventh limb is ‘meditative absorption’ – when we become completely absorbed in the focus of our meditation, and this is when we’re really meditating. All the things we may learn in a class, online or from a teacher are merely techniques offered to each person in order to help them settle, focus and concentrate, the actual practice of meditation is definitely not something we can actively ‘do’, rather it describes the spontaneous action of something that happens as a result of everything else. Essentially; if you are really meditating, you won’t have the thought ‘oh, I’m meditating!’…. (sound familiar?).
8 - Samadhi
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga, samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the "peace that passeth all understanding"; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.
So there you have it. A broader but also simplified version of an holistic Yoga practice. As ever, please comment, or leave a forum post if you'd like to discuss, or have any questions regarding this topic.