Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga

The Eight Limbs

Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is the path outlined in the sacred text of Classical Yoga the Yoga Sutras. It refers to eight branches or angas (limbs).

Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Includes:

  1. Yama, moral restrictions
  2. Niyama, disciplines
  3. Asana, physical postures
  4. Pranayama, control of the breath and energy
  5. Pratyahara, the withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana, concentration
  7. Dhyana, meditation
  8. Samadhi, the blissful state of union between subject and object

1. Yama—Moral Restrictions

Yama means “control” or “restraint.” It involves five guidelines for interaction with the “external” world: ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-theft), brahmacharya (control of the sexual energy), and aparigraha (greedlessness). Yama is also the name for the Vedic god of death.

2. Niyama—Moral Disciplines

Niyama means “[moral] restraint” or “discipline.” It involves five guidelines regarding the interaction with the “inner world”: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (asceticism), svadhyaya (spiritual study), and ishvarapranidhana (devotion to the Lord).

3. Asana—Yoga Postures

An asana is a “posture” (in particular, a yoga pose) or “seat.” This is the aspect of yoga that is most familiar to those in the West. Yet, perhaps less understood is that the practice of asanas is not only for the benefit of the physical body, but also for cultivating a deep meditative state in which the body, mind, and soul are brought into a beautiful state of harmony. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines asana as “a stable, firm, and comfortable posture” (2:46), and that “the practice of asana is accompanied by the dissolution of effort and meditation on the infinite.” (2:47) Thus, asana refers to a physical posture in which aspirants stay and meditate on their Supreme Nature.

In each asana we can open certain chakras (energy centers), and thus, we come into resonance with energies that exist in both the microcosm and macrocosm. As we learn how to use the asanas to awaken the universal energies within, we can also work on developing certain psychological aspects, such as determination, forgiveness, creativity, and intuition.

4. Pranayama—Control of the Breath

Pranayama refers to the regulation and control of energy through the breath, the expansion of the vital energy, and the extension of the breath. Etymologically, pranayama means “awareness and extension of prana.” It is the fourth rung of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga and an important part of Hatha Yoga.

Once a solid asana practice has been developed, pranayama is the next stage to be pursued on the path toward yoga. Patanjali describes pranayama as the regulation of inhalation, exhalation, and retention. However, pranayama is more than mere breathing exercises, as it requires constant awareness and concentration to control the otherwise irregular breathing patterns.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2:16) states, “As lions, elephants, and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in graduation measured according to one’s capacity and physical limitations.” An ability to restrain the breath with awareness is the most important feature of pranayama.

Shankaracharya offers a purely spiritual explanation of pranayama: “Emptying the mind of all illusions is the true rechaka, exhalation. The understanding ‘I am atman, the eternal spirit’ is the true puraka, inhalation. Maintaining this faith without cease is the real kumbhaka, retention. This is the true pranayama.” This highest form of pranayama is metaphorically called jnana yoga pranayama.

5. Pratyahara—The Withdrawal of the Senses

Pratyahara means “to pull away from” and refers to the idea of pulling the senses away from their objects of desire, withdrawing them inward and developing a deep sense of internalization. In the Yoga Sutras (2:54), pratyahara is described as a stage in which: “Along with the interiorization of the consciousness, through detachment from the external objects, the senses act in a similar way.”

With pratyahara, we learn to develop control over the senses. It involves the reorientation of the senses from an external to internal flow, allowing us to become aware of our own desires, fears, and thoughts. The energy that was given to the senses in the seeking of pleasure is regained and focused on the calming of the mind. In meditation, we generally do not pay enough attention to this stage of withdrawal from sensorial stimulation.

However, in Hridaya Meditation, it has a fundamental role. Through the accumulation of the psycho-mental energies that pratyahara induces, we create the basis for a superior stage—the intense sublimation of the accumulated energy in aspiration, mystical yearning for God, love for God, and, finally, spanda (the Sacred Tremor of the Heart).

Sometimes, pratyahara is wrongly translated as “sensorial inhibition.” Pratyahara does not mean an inhibition of the energies, but a different way to orient them.

6. Dharana—Concentration

“Concentration,” dharana, is the sixth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. It is one of the internal stages. The word dharana comes from the root dhri, meaning “to hold.”

In the Yoga Sutras (111:1), Patanjali describes concentration as “the binding of consciousness (mind) to a single place.” This “place” may be physical (a material object like a candle flame or flower), energetic (a chakra, energy center, or nadi, energy channel), or a repeated mental thought, image, sound, light, or mantra. Concentration can be inward or outward and the practice can be performed with the eyes open or closed.

Dharana is more than just mental concentration. It is the total absorption of the mental energies in a single point. This ability to focus with unwavering attention is essential to attain the next two stages, dhyana (meditation) and samadhi. Without single-pointed focus, we will never gain control over the mind, and will find it impossible to maintain prolonged periods of mental stillness. The mind is naturally dynamic, and our awareness is easily captured in the constant cycles of thoughts and emotions. Concentration requires a constant effort to bring the mind back—again and again—to the object of attention.

Echoing the Indian sages, Georg Feuerstein says, “Whatever we place our attention on, that we become.” Through repeated practice of dharana, the mind becomes attuned to a constant stream of peace, eventually becoming one with it, as peace and stillness are revealed as the very essence of our own nature.

7. Dhyana—Meditation

Once the mind has become one-pointed, focused, and able to remain in dharana (concentration) with only one object in its attention, we open naturally to dhyana (meditation, contemplation). In dhyana, the flow of attention on a gross or subtle object continues spontaneously and without force—we have moved from effort to effortlessness, and the object of concentration is now an object of deep fascination.

In the Yoga Sutras (3:2), Patanjali describes meditation as the “constant flux of renewed attention,” or “the single flow of ideas in that state of concentration.” While in concentration the object had to constantly be brought back to mind, in meditation the object and all of its aspects appear automatically, as our attention is constantly renewed without effort. When meditation occurs, it is as if we have “fallen in love” with the object of concentration. Then, we rest in harmony and peace, as the object appears spontaneously and effortlessly in our mind again and again.

In the beginning, this state may only occur for a short period of time. But, the more we continue to practice, the more easily the state of meditation will arise and the longer it will remain. When the undying fascination in the object of attention becomes a natural state, it naturally leads to the final stage on the path of Classical Yoga, samadhi.

8. Samadhi—Union between Subject and Object

Samadhi, “to place together,” refers to the state in which the subject (the meditator) and the object (of meditation) merge into one. It is the ecstatic condition in which the limited sense of individuality fades away. According to Patanjali, it is also the last stage in the process of samyama (direct knowledge through identification). Therefore, samadhi is the ultimate step before final liberation, or yoga (union with God).

Learn more about Ashtanga Yoga in the Hridaya Yoga Retreat: Module 1 Intensive.