Although there are many branches to the tree of yoga, from devotional methods to more intellectual approaches, from schools that emphasize service toward others to those that focus on physical purification, Patanja Sutras, clearly defines an eight-limbed path (ashtanga) that forms the structural framework for whatever emphasis upon which an individual wishes to concentrate.
The Yoga Sutras, or “threads,” consist of four books produced sometime in the third century before Christ. Such was the clarity of Patanjali’s vision of wholeness that he consolidated the entirety of yoga philosophy in a series of 196 lucid aphorisms. Each thread of the Yoga Sutras is revealed as a part of a woven fabric, with each aphorism merely a mark or color within the whole pattern.
The threads, however, begin to make sense only through a direct experience of their meaning. This is not a linear process but rather an organic one in which colors and markings gradually become more clear until a pattern forms. And this pattern that Patanjali weaves for us is a description of the process of unbinding our limited ideas about ourselves and becoming free.
The eight limbs of yoga are traditionally presented as a hierarchical progression, but this linear progression toward an idealized goal tends only to reinforce the dualistic idea that yoga is something to “get.” It may be more helpful to imagine the eight limbs as the arms and legs of a body–connected to one another through the central body of yoga just as a child’s limbs grow in proportion to one another, whatever limb of practice we focus upon inevitably causes the other limbs to grow as well. People who begin yoga through the limb of meditation are often later drawn to practice more physical postures. Those who are drawn to vigorous physical practice later find themselves being drawn into the quieter, more meditative practices just as each limb is essential for the optimal functioning of your body, every limb of yoga practice is important. Growth in practice happens naturally when a person is sincere in her wish to grow.
The eight limbs emanating from a central core consist of the following:
- Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our family, and our community.
- Asanas: Dynarmic internal dances in the form of postures. These help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system and refines our process of inner perception.
- Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help us to develop constancy in the movement of prana, or life force.
- Pratyahara: The drawing of one’s attention toward silence rather than toward things.
- Dharana: Focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.
- Dhyana: Sustaining awareness under all conditions.
- Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence.
(Excerpted with permission from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness.)