The Eight Limb Path

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥२९॥
II.29 yama-niyamaāsana-prāṇāyāma- pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo ‘stāv aṅgāni
yama– abstentions; niyama– observances; āsana– posture, seat; prānāyāma– breath control; pratyāhāra-withdrawal of the senses; dhāranā– focus, concentration; dhyāna– meditation; samādhayah– absorption; astāu– eight; angāni– limbs
The eight limbs are abstentions, observances, posture, breath control, disengagement of the senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption.

In the “Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali”, the eight limb path of yoga is not introduced to us until the 29th verse of the second chapter. Before any mention of the eight limb path, Patañjali has told us about the path of practice (abhyasa) and dispassion (vairagyam) in sūtra I.12, and in II. 1 he starts off the second chapter stating the path of self-discipline (tapah), study (svadhyaya), and devotion to the “Lord” (isvarapranidhana) as another path. When we come to the eight limb path we see that there are different ways to approach yoga.

I like the eight limb path because it leaves no stone unturned. It shows us that everything we do, say, and think, all facets of our experience in this existence, is interconnected. Realizing this we are led into deeper insights as our practice continues to deepen.

The eight limbs are built on an ethical framework. The first two limbs, the yamas and the niyamas, build a supporting foundation of kindness and responsiveness to both oneself and within relationship to others. The next two are the physical limbs of asana and prānāyāma. These limbs allow to practitioner to open the body and discover the intricacies of the mind/body/breath relationship, allowing the practitioner to explore the realities of the universe through the tool that is ones own body, deconditioning the practitioner from the distractions and stories of the outside world. They prepare the practitioner for the next, deeper layers of the practice. In the fifth limb, pratyāhāra, the practitioner is no longer distracted by the objects of the senses, no longer attaches stories to these stimuli. The awareness no longer resides in the sense fields. The next three limbs lead into one another, can be seen as greater versions of each other. Dhāranā, occurs when the mind is concentrated on a single area. Dhyāna occurs when that concentration is constant, uninterrupted. In the eighth and final limb, samādhi, ‘the mental habit of making a constructed object and subject stops. This allows a free, unobstructed view of whatever is being observed, allowing insight into its true nature.’ (The Mirror of Yoga, Richard Freeman) We are aware of awareness itself.

These limbs help us to practice mindfulness and stay in the present moment so we can experience it fully. The eight limb path is structured in this order, the ethical framework, the physical practice, then the layers of meditation, because that is the groundwork for the practice and the flow of things, but this doesn’t mean that you cannot practice prānāyāma if you do not know what the niyamas are. If you ignore one limb you may find it difficult to progress in the succeeding limbs, however. All of these limbs can be worked on together and will actually help foster each other. The eight limb path is meant to be a well rounded path, a set of guidelines. It works wonderfully in conjuncture to other paths of yoga when they are introduced to you. If the eight limb path speaks to you, always keep in your heart, but also keep your heart open to other theories and explanations that may help you on your path.

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