Introduction to Patanjali’s Eightfold Path

Posted by | Yoga 101 | October 24, 2014

The path to self-realization that is yoga is described by ancient sage Patanjali as an eightfold path in his fundamental classical philosophical work Yoga Sutras beginning in the second chapter:

Sutra 2.28 – yoga-anga-anusthanad-asuddhi-ksaye jnana-diptir-a-viveka-khyateh

By practicing the limbs of yoga, impurity is destroyed and the radiance of jnana (wisdom) leads to viveka (discernment).

Sutra 2.29 – yama-niyama-asana-pranayama-pratyahara-dharana-dyana-samadhayo stav-angani

The eight limbs of yoga are: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

These limbs are sequential steps on the path to enlightenment through yoga.

1. Yama (self-restraint)

The first limb, yama, explains the codes of ethical behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life.  Yama remind us of our responsibilities as social beings and has 5 principles:

  1. Ahimsa: nonviolence to ourselves and others
  2. Satya: truthfulness
  3. Asteya: nonstealing
  4. Brahmacharya: chastity
  5. Aparigraha: freedom from desire

2. Niyama (right observance)

The second limb, niyama, prescribes the self-discipline that molds our morality and behavior.  This code of conduct has 5 principles:

  1. Saucha: cleanliness
  2. Santosa: contentment
  3. Tapas: austerity
  4. Svadhyaya: study of one’s own self including body, mind, intellect, and ego
  5. Isvara Pranidhana: devotion

3. Asana (right alignment)

The third limb, asana (as = to sit), is where we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate.  Through a steady and comfortable sitting position, Patanjali describes that we loosen the tension in our bodies allowing us to merge our attention with the infinite.

2.46 – sthira-sukham-asanam

The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and comfortable

2.47 -prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam

The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing or loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite.

4. Pranayama (regulation of breath)

The fourth limb, pranayama, is generally described as breath control.  This master this regulation we begin to direct our energy inward to our breath as a means of expanding and extending our energy or life-force (prana = vital energy, ayama = stretch, expansion and expansion).  Patanjali encourages that pranayama should only be attempted after the asanas are mastered so that we can more easily direct our energy inward.

2.49 -tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah

Once that perfected posture has been achieved, the slowing or braking of the force behind, and of unregulated movement of inhalation and exhalation is called breath control and expansion of prana (pranayama), which leads to the absence of the awareness of both.

5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

With a comfortable and steady posture (asana), as well as with our energy directed inward through pranayama we can begin the fifth limb, pratyahara, or withdrawal of our senses.  This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings and attachment to senses.  As our mind is released from the power of the senses it turns inward and becomes passive.

2.54 -sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah

When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara.

2.55 – tatah parama vashyata indriyanam

Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions (indriyas) also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.

6 – 8. Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (mediation), and Samadhi (free attention)

Patanjali groups the last three limbs under the term samyama – the integration of hte body, breath, mind, intellect, and self.

The controlled mind that is gained in pratyahara gives rise to our abilty to intensify our attention on a single point which is dharana.

3.1 – deshah bandhah chittasya dharana

Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place, and is the sixth of the eight rungs.

When this concentration is prolonged through an uninterrupted flow, it becomes dhyana.  In dharana, we experience release, expansion quietness and peace, freeing us from attachment.  This freedom results in the indifference to the joys of pleasure or the sorrows of pain.

3.2 – tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam

The repeated continuation, or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called absorption in meditation (dhyana), and is the seventh of the eight steps.

The final limb of yoga, samadhi (sama = level or alike, adhi = over or above), is achieved when the object of meditation engulfs the meditator and self-awareness is lost.  In this state the knower, the knowable, and the known become one.  This is the final stage on the eightfold path and is ultimate fruit of yoga.

3.3 -tad eva artha matra nirbhasam svarupa shunyam iva samadhih

When only the essence of that object, place, or point shines forth in the mind, as if devoid even of its own form, that state of deep absorption is called deep concentration or samadhi, which is the eighth rung.

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