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A Yogi's To-Do List
On Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga
Practitioners of yoga are called yogis, and yogis love lists. Even the popular definition of yoga offers an explanation in list format. Yoga: union or yoking of body, mind and breath (toward a common practice, which in turn unites the practitioner with her or his best self.) Yogis love questions almost as much as they love lists. Why practice yoga? What does yoga do for me? How do I practice yoga? How do I become a yogi?
Approximately 2000 years ago, give or take 400 years, a sage named Patanjali offered a response, and codified what many consider to be the first how-to manual on the practice of yoga. This manual, called the Yoga Sutra, is one of the most widely referenced yoga texts among yoga schools, likely due to its attention to detail coupled with its level of succinctness: this Sanskrit text is a long list of short aphorisms. What does this manual teach the practitioner to do? (i.e. Why practice yoga?) Patanjali says in Sutras 1.2 and 1.3 that yoga completely calms the fluctuations of the mind, enabling the yogi to see clearly and to rest fully within her or his essential, whole and peaceful nature.
So, how do we become yogis? By practicing yoga. And how do we do that? We make a to-do list. In the second portion of the text, Patanjali offers a list of eight elements that an aspiring practitioner must cultivate in order to reach what Patanjali considers the desired goal of yoga: the calming of the mind and the return to essential, peaceful nature. This list is known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga. Because this list is so popular, many yogis have taken a stab at their own translation of the text. Through the wisdom of the larger community, combined with my own thoughts on the matter, here is the list and a translation of 8 criteria for being and becoming a yogi. If this list leads you to more questions, you’re on the right track.
8 Limbs of Patanjali’s yoga
1. Yama: outward observances
Yama often translates as “restraint”, but the yama(s) (yes, Patanjali gives a list of 5 yamas) are invitations to external observances, or outward practices, that promote peace and harmony in life—in interactions with the outer world of social and environmental circumstances. In Yoga Sutra 2.31, BKS Iyengar translates the yamas as “the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and [social circumstance].” They are as follows:
Ahimsa: non-harming, affirmatively translated sometimes as compassion for self and all others.
Satya: truthfulness, in thought, word and action
Asteya: non-stealing. Nischala Joy Devi’s sutra translation offers asteya as a concept of “abiding in generosity.” She says when we practice asteya, we remember we are greater than our material wealth, and we have what we need within.
Brahmacarya: energy conservation. This yama has many translations, but one translation that may apply well to our day and age would be “wise use of energy,” that is, learning to safeguard energy, and to choose our battles. One example in yoga practice would be to pace yourself when taking a long class, so you’re able to maintain your strength when the body becomes tired.
Aparigraha: non-grasping, non-hoarding, or non-attachment. This yama could also mean, again, using Devi’s affirming language, “resourcefulness” or “abundance,” i.e. the ability to recognize and cultivate gratitude for one’s own resources.
2. Niyama: inward observances
Patanjali offers a list of 5 niyamas as well. Niyamas are inner observances and actions that improve one’s self and one's immediate environment.
They are as follows:
Sauca: cleanliness. Sauca is cleanliness not only of one’s body and surroundings, but cleanliness of mind. Think of it as what philosopher Dr. Douglas Brooks calls cleaning out "the junk drawer of consciousness.” Sauca can help the practitioner get rid of unwanted collections of thoughts.
Santosha: contentment. Santosha is the practice of contentment, practice being the operative word. Sometimes life is difficult, and it’s hard to remember the feeling of contentment. Santosha is the process of looking for the good, or of counting one’s blessings regardless of the circumstances that arise.
Tapas: literally “heat;” energy of transformation, specifically self-transformation. Self-transformation can happen in numerous ways. Tapas can be the process of breaking a sweat in yoga practice, which signifies physical efforts that promote a healthy and fit body. Tapas also refers to any effort the practitioner makes that promotes health, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Philosopher Chase Bossart says, for example, that an action of tapas may be having that difficult but necessary conversation with a loved one that, while challenging and emotional, will improve the relationship.
Svadhyaya: literally “study of texts,” but often translated as self-study. Let’s combine these two translations and call svadhyaya the process of taking great teachings so much to heart that they become a part of the practitioner, which provides insight on becoming a consummate observer of the all aspects of one’s self.
Isvarapranidhana: surrender to the fullness of self. Isvara is a word for god in Sanskrit, but has come to have additional connotations meaning best or highest expression of self. Pranidhana means “placement under the fullness.” Isvarapranidhana could translate to the process of placing or holding consciousness fully upon one’s ideal embodiment of self. Yoga helps us embody our ideals.
3. Asana: posture, seat.
The most commonly known of the eight limbs, the word asana means “seat,” or “to find a steady and comfortable seat.” Interestingly, Patanjali does not comment extensively on the practice of asana. He does, however, offer general advice, in Sutra 2.46. He says, "sthiram sukham asanam." As world class yoga teacher and practitioner Judith Lasater translates, Abiding (sthiram) in ease (sukham, sweetness) is the practice of yoga postures (asana.) Others translate this sutra as the process of holding a paradox in the body. Here are some other translation examples:
Asana practice should be firm, but pleasant. Asana is effortful effortlessness. A good asana (yoga posture) yields steadiness and sweetness within the body. A good pose is one that stretches and strengthens simultaneously, in all the ways the body needs, in order to create optimal physical alignment.
4. Pranayama: to extend (ayama) one’s vital life force (prana).
In other words, pranayama is the process of understanding and utilizing the wisdom of the breath. Studies have shown that deepening the breath calms the nervous system as well as the mind. By deepening and evening the breath, yogis for centuries have experienced less physical stress and less mental chatter.
5. Pratyahara: to turn awareness inward, to withdraw sensory information from external stimuli.
Some scholars posit that Patanjali wrote the 8 limbs in a specific order because one limb creates the circumstances necessary to make the proceeding limbs more easily accessible. For example, it’s easier to to draw awareness away from external sensory information when the mind and body are calm from the effects of asana and deep breathing. When the yogi is less distracted by external circumstances or random thoughts, she or he is more easily able to concentrate on a desired idea.
6. Dharana: concentration.
Here again Patanjali outlines a natural progression from one limb to the next. Dharana is the process of bringing the mind to a single point of focus and holding it there. Remember, the word yoga means to yoke. Dharana yokes or harnesses the faculties of the mind toward undivided concentration.
7. Dhyana: meditation.
When able to concentrate on a single point of focus (be it the breath, a posture, or the highest ideal for oneself), meditation begins to happen. Meditation can be an elusive word. Let’s think of meditation here as the process of being able to hold the mind steadily and continuously on one point of focus.
8. Samadhi: total absorption, bliss, to hold the realization of unity.
Samadhi, the final criterion for the experience of yoga, is a state in which the yogi is completely immersed in the object of concentration. The yogi then gets a taste of what it might be like to reach Patanjali’s yogic ideal: a quiet mind with which to remember one’s humanity as the essence of peace. For some, doing the dishes may be a meditation, for others it may be painting, or running, or practicing asana. Samadhi, however, is that moment when everything else disappears and only the elements of the present moment exist, the practitioner is able to see not only connection of body, to mind and to the breath, but to everything. A sense of real peace—bliss—arises out of this deep connection to oneself and one’s surroundings.
Libby Cox, E-RYT 500, is an artist and dancer whose love for the human form and movement brought her to Hatha Yoga in 2000. She has been involved in the Austin yoga community since 2003, serving as a studio administrator, yoga teacher and teacher trainer. For more information, visit www.libbyyoga.com.
Dr. Douglas Brooks: www.rajanaka.com
Judith Lasater: www.judithlasater.com
BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga, A Woman's Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras
Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Commentaries on the Raja Yoga Sutras
Chase Bossart: www.chasebossart.com