Everyone knows what yoga is, right? Well if you think it is an exercise of holding postures on a mat then you have only one of the 8 limbs of yoga that Patanjali delineated in India perhaps 1500 years ago. He described these 8 levels as branches on one tree, and the exercises that we think of as yoga is not the main or most important part.
So lets briefly go through these 8 levels of yoga. Yoga means union, and the root word is the same as the English yoke as when oxen are connected to plow together. The Sanskrit term for 8 limbs is Asthanga.
Limb number 1 is the yamas. These are the ethical principles, rules or morality that clarify one’s relationship to the world and all within it, everything is interconnected. The main five practices which define our personal integrity are
Ahimsa or not harming, Satya which is truthfulness or honesty, Asteya which is like the commandment thou shalt not steal, Brahmacharya which can be wise use of creative energy and the sexual impulse and Aparigraha or non covetousness or possessiveness.
The second limb are the Niyamas or prescriptive rules. They are internal disciplines that teach us to respect ourselves at all levels. They are forms of self discipline as well as reflective practices. The 5 habits to cultivate are Saucha or purity and cleanliness, Santosha or contentment and gratitude, Tapas which is discipline, Svadhyaya or self reflection and Isvara Pranidhana or devotion. So these two limbs are like the do’s and don’ts of all religions, which is structure or foundation to build our spiritual life upon.
The 3rd limb is asana or posture or the physical practice of yoga. An amazing fact, considering most yoga in the west is all about the asanas, is that of the 196 verses in the yoga sutras, a mere 2 are dedicated to poses. The real purpose of these postures was to get the body prepared for a sustained sublime meditative state, free from bodily consciousness. With a straight spine and with breath we meditate with steadiness and ease.
Next is number 4, the limb of Pranayama. This is the focus on the breath and breath control. This helps us to cultivate the prana or life force, creating a divine condition for a healthy body and peaceful mind. You can listen to my previous talk on pranayama and the breath to learn more about this science and how to practice it.
Limb 5 is Pratyahara or the interiorization of the mind, withdrawing it from the senses. We don’t have to react to what we feel, hear, see, taste and smell. Our senses are like searchlights focused outwards, when this electrical current is directed inwards we find a whole new inner world opening up. When we are free from our countless every day distractions, the mind can focus inward and is free to move into meditation.
The sixth limb is Dharana which is total concentration on one object, focusing without distraction. You might focus on God or a divine attribute, or a mantra like Aum or a candle or the flame in your heart. Sometimes you can enter a similar state when you are focused on your work, or a math problem or a musical creation. With all our cell phones and overwhelming amounts of information we are going toward a societal level of ADD, and need to relearn again how to focus on one thing. This limb of focused concentration leads to the next one.
Limb number 7 is Dhyana or meditation. It is a deeply focused awareness in which you experience the sacred. You go beyond the chattering ego mind, into the oneness of all things. You realize how impermanent the world and all its manifestations are. Research is proving that our brain actually rewires and molds itself with regular meditation, so peace can be more of a base state of our existence. This leads to a feeling of divine bliss.
The final limb, number 8, is like the sweet fruit of this tree that have grown through all the 7 foundational disciplines of yoga. It is called Samadhi, the culmination of all the other limbs. It brings you to truly knowing and feeing that everything is interconnected. The limited mind has been transcended and there is only the experience of indescribable joy. Now the liberated soul can thus enjoy pure awareness and harmony. The bliss of Samadhi is worth all the efforts of all the other limbs, the whole world is blessed by the yogi who attains this high level of consciousness.
So now you know that true yoga or union is not that sweaty practice in a gym to get great abs and a toned butt. It is a scientific process to attain God consciousness and a blissful oneness with the Universe. Enjoy climbing all the limbs of the yoga tree.