The Role of the Eight Limbs in Contemporary Yoga Practice

Recently, a group of scientists proposed that the octopus may actually be an alien species. They say that the genetic makeup of the octopus family is so foreign from any other animal on earth that there is a good chance it has alien ancestry. They suggest that some octopus genes possibly came to earth on a meteor from another planet. 

How is it possible that something as familiar as an octopus could actually be an alien? You might say the same thing about yoga. While it is such a familiar part of life (what, after all, is more ordinary than someone in yoga pants walking down the street carrying a yoga mat?), yoga’s core philosophy is alien to many of the systems held so dear in contemporary consumerist culture. 

As yoga has been appropriated by this culture, its essential teachings have largely been ignored.

Because so many of us today conceptualize everything within a capitalist framework, fully embracing yoga’s philosophy is challenging. It necessitates relinquishing our ideas about things like status, money, and other outward signs of achievement that are core values of a capitalist society. As a result, we tend to pick apart yoga like a dead octopus, and the version of the practice we offer ends up looking more like calamari—small fried pieces of what was once a complex and gorgeous living being. As yoga has been appropriated by this culture, its essential teachings have largely been ignored.

We prioritize achieving complicated yoga poses when the truth is that yoga is focused on subduing egoism rather than emboldening it. I’m not criticizing people who love yoga just for the asana. I love asana too. But what’s with our aversion to the deeper spiritual teachings? Let’s face it: It’s hard to focus on, let alone commit to, ongoing self-reflection and spiritual study in the midst of life’s demands. As I’ve gotten older and my responsibilities have grown—raising children, making mortgage payments, etc.—I don’t usually have time to challenge my fundamental understanding of things; I’m too busy answering email and buying groceries. 

Yoga asks us to ask ourselves who we really are. Are we the mind and the constantly changing thoughts, or are we the consciousness that’s simply observing? Are we in the game, or are we standing on the sidelines watching—sometimes cheering, sometimes booing? 

One of the main sources of the yoga teachings is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, compiled approximately 2,000 years ago. In a clear and succinct way, this text describes the goal and practice of yoga. In the second book, Patanjali explains that if we cultivate discriminative discernment, future suffering is avoidable. I think of discriminative discernment as being a benevolent judge in everyday life. Learn to see what is real and what is unreal, what is permanent and what is temporary—like our constantly changing thoughts. 

Patanjali teaches that the goal of yoga is enlightenment. But what if we don’t care about enlightenment—what if we just want to reduce our suffering? Enlightenment is a concept that feels foreign or beyond reach to many of us, so giving up on it is understandable! But if we see yoga as a group of practices that directly impact our daily lives and can help remove our suffering right now, we may then be willing to dive into the fullness of yoga, embracing the complexity of this powerful practice.

Patanjali goes on to say that discriminative discernment is cultivated by practicing ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga means “eight limbs” and is the term Patanjali uses for the path or steps of yoga, also known as the eightfold path (which are described in Book 2, Sutra 29):

The eight limbs of yoga are: 

• Yama - restraints

• Niyama - observations

• Asana - posture

• Pranayama - breathing practices

• Pratyahara - withdrawing the senses

• Dharana - concentration

• Dhyana - meditation

• Samadhi - enlightenment

It’s important to note that prior to mentioning the eight limbs, Patanjali describes the obstacles (kleshas) to our enlightenment as well as the way karma works. The five kleshas are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear. Yes, the thought of moving beyond them is surely overwhelming, but Patanjali then gives us hope by explaining that “Future suffering is avoidable.” Again, enlightenment may feel unattainable, but reducing suffering seems attainable and even essential for our survival.

Of course, one of the risks of yoga is that we personalize what are actually systemic problems. How much of our suffering is caused by societal discrimination and marginalization of all kinds? Are we responsible for the racism, sexism, or homophobia that we endure? Yoga gives us tools to transform our suffering, but that doesn’t excuse the actions of those who caused the pain. And while future suffering is avoidable, changing the systems that cause suffering is also possible. 

Making yoga about our internal reaction to pain is, in the end, selfish. We have the ability to use our practice to become effective warriors for peace in the world. We can reduce our own suffering by reducing the suffering of others. Self-care and community care go hand in hand, because as much as we like to feel we’re individuals, we are also part of a collective. The personal is political.

We have the ability to use our practice to become effective warriors for peace in the world.

Yama, Niyama, and Pratipaksha Bhavana

So where do we begin? Patanjali offers the first limb of ashtanga yoga: yama. Yama is a group of five ethical teachings to guide us in how we interact with the world. They are actions to avoid: ahimsa, not causing suffering; satya, not lying; asteya, not stealing, brahmacharya, not wasting resources; and aparigraha, not being greedy. 

After offering the yamas, Patanjali inserts an interesting tool: pratipaksha bhavana (2:33, 2:34), which means replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. It can also be a process of reflecting on negative thinking, understanding that it eventually leads to suffering. 

This is an important idea, since he’s just explained that yoga is about ending suffering and avoiding future pain. For example, if you’re lying in bed at night angry about something someone said to you, the question eventually arises: Are you making the situation worse, or is that obsessive thinking actually addressing the problem? Probably it’s just reducing the quality of your sleep and negatively affecting your health—bringing certain pain, as Patanjali would say.

Patanjali inserts pratipaksha bhavana between the discussion of yama and niyama to show that the niyamas are the positive actions needed to address the challenges he just introduced. It can be helpful to view yama and niyama as a way out of suffering, rather than just ethics. 

Niyama includes: saucha, purity of mind; santosha, contentment; tapas, learning from suffering; svadhyaya, reflection; and isvara pranidhana, surrender to god (trusting the Self). 

The niyamas are all big ideas, and in some way each can be seen as a microcosm of the entirety of the yoga teachings. For example, santosha (being content with what is) seems like a kind of enlightenment, a state of total acceptance and peace. It’s also important to note that the last three, tapas, svadhyaya, and isvara pranidhana, were already introduced in the very first sutra of Book 2, the portion on practice. They are the three elements of kriya yoga—yoga in action. This is clearly how we are being told to take yoga off the mat, an essential part of the yoga teachings.

In a way, tapas sets the stage for the entire section on practicing yoga. Tapas, which can be translated as self-discipline or learning from pain, is what yoga asks us to do. Don’t turn away from the pain, but learn about why you are suffering so you can find a way out. 

Tapas is the acknowledgment that we are suffering, and svadhyaya asks us to understand why. Eventually, you find that the answer is always the same. It’s because we haven’t trusted ourselves, which is what isvara pranidhana really means—trusting our own heart, and knowing that is where our peace truly lives. 

As I mentioned before, your suffering may be the result of external forces of which you have no control. But what can you control? How can you take care of yourself in a way that fills you up and makes you stronger to face the challenges of the world? That’s what Patanjali is offering us—self-care in the form of ethical values, practical tools, and effective practices to reduce our suffering. 

Putting Asana in Its Place

Headstands are fun, but are they reducing your pain or increasing it? 

That’s the question of the third limb of yoga, which is asana, seat or posture. Interestingly, Patanjali explains that asana is a steady, comfortable pose or, in the context of meditation, “seat.” The way to practice asana, he says, is to work against the mind’s natural tendency for restlessness by meditating on the infinite (2:47). I’m not sure how often that concept is taught in most yoga classes, but it’s a powerful and intriguing directive. 

As we move our body into shapes (or sit in meditation) we can settle the mind by focusing on something: the breath, a point inside the body, a point outside the body, energy, or sensations. Focusing the mind and working on stability and stillness is how asana is practiced (nothing about extreme flexibility or strength is mentioned). 

Pranayama: Removing the Veil

After finding a comfortable seat, Patanjali offers the fourth limb, pranayama. Prana means “energy or life force,” and ayama is “expansion.” So a definition of pranayama would include working with the breath to expand or calm internal energy. 

He goes on to say that the practice of pranayama can remove the veil over the inner light, which feels like a form of realization in itself. The veil that Patanjali is referring to is actually made up of thoughts. Luckily, the breath and mind move together. So we can use pranayama to quiet the mind, and destroy that veil—the thoughts that are blocking us from experiencing the truth within.

Pratyahara

The fifth limb of ashtanga yoga is pratyahara, sense withdrawal, or moving away from external influences.

I like to think of pratyahara as vritti prevention. Patanjali told us at the beginning of Book 1 that yoga is about restraining the vrittis, or thoughts, in the mind. But where do all these thoughts come from? Through the senses. So it follows that turning our awareness within—not letting stimulus come through our ears and eyes to distract us—would help calm the mind and prepare for meditation. In fact, Patanjali ends the second chapter here. We need to practice yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara to prepare us for the next step, meditation. 

Dharana: Focusing the Mind

In the beginning of Book 3, Patanjali offers the sixth limb, dharana, or concentration. Concentration is the key to meditation in his system. This is a slightly different focus than mindfulness, which comes from the Buddhist tradition and has become synonymous with meditation in many contemporary spiritual practices. 

With mindfulness we try to step outside our thoughts and observe them. Dharana offers a slightly different direction—concentrate the mind on a neutral object, such as a mantra. Or, as Patanjali offers, on any place, object, or idea (basically anything!).

Dhyana: The Flow State

Through concentration the mind becomes focused and meditation is possible. The seventh limb, dhyana, is meditation, or the flow state. Dhyana is a deepening of concentration, in which the mind becomes completely focused on the object of meditation in an unbroken stream of thought. This flow state is described by athletes, artists, musicians, and performers of all kinds. It’s a state of mind that allows us to transcend the limitations of space and time. We are absorbed in the present moment in a way that lifts us out of the self-consciousness of ego. 

It's important to note that meditation is a natural state that is fundamental to our creative spirit. You could think of it as the way to work with your own mind. In fact, you could say that creativity is spirituality. Why do we pursue certain hobbies or the arts? Making music, painting, writing, dancing, or creating anything connects us to the energy of creation. 

It’s also interesting to consider how meditation and creativity inextricably connect to self-discipline. Without structure it’s hard to be creative. If I’m an untrained pianist, my improvisation will be horrible. But once I have some mastery over the material, through disciplined practice, I can improvise and be more creative. 

The thing is that creative pursuits don’t always work to quiet the mind. In addition, we may find ourselves in a creative dry spell, with writer’s block or uninspired to make art. But yoga is designed to cultivate this flow state. In fact, everything we do in the name of yoga eventually leads us to meditation—in one form or another. 

All the practices of yoga are essentially about quieting the mind through focus and attention. Sometimes this is done consciously, through classical meditation, and sometimes it’s a side benefit, through asana or chanting or something similar. In the end, yoga practices create the environment in which the state of meditation, dhyana, can happen spontaneously. 

Samadhi: Expansion of Consciousness

Sustained meditation is samadhi, enlightenment, the eighth limb of ashtanga yoga. For many, however, samadhi—the state of Buddha and other enlightened masters—can seem out of reach. But what if it’s not? What if samadhi is similar to where we go in deep sleep every night, and a place that spontaneously arises at moments of joy and bliss? 

My sense is that samadhi is the most natural of all our experiences. The core of our being, our heart of hearts. Samadhi is the end of separation and egoism. The end of identification with the body and mind, and an expansion of consciousness to include all other beings: universal compassion, deep service, and expansive love. 

In the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, Patanjali offers a step-by-step method for cultivating discernment and clear vision. This vision can help us see through the mist of egoism and the ways we have created separation and harm. 

While the eight limbs of yoga do not have to be practiced in order, they are all effective tools for our journey toward self-awareness. Rather than perceiving them as a step-by-step path to enlightenment, we can think of these essential aspects of yoga more as the tentacles of an octopus. Each limb radiates out from the source, and in turn, leads back to the truth.  

About the teacher

Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit... Read more

Related