As outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is an eight-limbed philosophy, the sum of which constitutes what Patanjali outlines as Ashtanga Yoga. These eight limbs are guidelines towards what we would contemporarily deem a yogic lifestyle. The ultimate aim and final limb in the process is samadhi, more commonly known as enlightenment.
Patanjali writes that samadhi is only achievable by committing to the seven other essential limbs, working through them as a process. Finally, samadhi is the completion, almost like a reward.
Now, I don’t know about you but going through life with eight limbs sounds like a whole lot of hassle to me. Yes, it would have its benefits, but really, how hard would it be to buy clothes?
The eight limbs in yoga is a sought-after lifestyle. Each limb must be an addition to the previous one as you build your way towards samadhi. We don’t have the time or word-count to discuss each limb in all its glory but to whet your appetite slightly, let’s have a glance at just a couple.
The first limb is the yamas. Yes yamas, as in plural, or more than one. Five in fact. These outline the five abstentions and include non-violence, truth, non-stealing, moderation and non-possessiveness. The second limb is the niyamas, or the five observances, which are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender.
When I was first learning about Patanjali and the eight limbs, I was reluctant to take it all in. It was interesting, yes. But in the back of my mind there was a voice saying, “following orders regarding how to live your life from a book? Something stinks of religion!” I would not classify myself as an atheist at all, but having been brought up in no particular faith, when someone mentions religion, I tend to run (or at least, walk) in the opposite direction. However, the slightly more dominant voice at the front of my head spoke a little louder this time. I’m not quite sure what it was saying, but there was something different about these limbs, particularly the niyamas. Then I learnt what separated Patanjali’s guidelines from say, the ten commandments. It is the same concept which dominates yoga and deems it a spiritual scientific practice, as opposed to a religious strategy; these procedures are about making commitments to yourself, and to building a lifestyle to which you were only honouring yourself. You are answering to no one, particularly not any sort of higher deity, you never ask anyone for forgiveness or answers. The answers are already there, because these acts take place within you. The niyamas are about observing your own discipline and individual susceptibility towards who you are, and being true to that nature in light of a yogic lifestyle.
The other limbs are a little more widely known, as they fit more into the modern concept of yoga. They consist of pranayama, which is control of the breath; asana, or discipline of the body; and pratyahara, dhyana and dharana, the first few stages of meditation and concentration. Patanjali outlined that unless you are living by the yamas and niyamas, and practicing asana and pranayama, you cannot begin the meditation process. The modern day concept of meditation would say different. Any guided meditation you listen to (you know the type: “you are walking through a meadow/desert/insert ideal destination here”) is great for relaxation. But Patanjali and such successors would claim this is not meditation. Meditation (in yoga) is the result of a practice built up through knowledge, experience, commitment and perseverance. The goal, or the eighth and final limb is samadhi, enlightenment or bliss. This is described as oneness in meditation, where there is no division between the act of meditation, and the object of meditation.
An attempt at living by these eight limbs can teach us not only who we can become, but also about who we are. As a rather impatient individual, I always wrote this lifestyle off, thinking “I can’t wait that long for samadhi! Too much hard work, I give up.” But just from this realization I have already done myself a world of good, I have noted my approach towards tasks, I have acknowledged that I shouldn’t give up so easily, I should be determined and resolute in my practice and each challenge. It’s that old chestnut: “fake it till you make it,” just try to live this way, and you might find you like it. Just tell yourself to not give up so easily, and it might just work. And by George, I think it has.
So living with eight limbs might seem like a huge daunting task, but it can really just become you. And even if it doesn’t become your lifestyle, it can tell you a lot about who you are. And who doesn’t want to constantly learn about themselves? Particularly in yoga where there are no obligations to pray to higher entities, but you do have an obligation to yourself, to learn about yourself and to love yourself.
So try it! It won’t be easy, eight limbs are hard work, but hey, Vishnu did it, and he also had ten avatars to keep afloat. How hard can it be?
Jessie Blackledge is a yoga teacher based in Birmingham, UK. She completed her teacher training with Himalaya Yoga Valley Centre in Cork, Ireland, working closely with Yogacharya Lalit Kumar and his team. Jessie is trained in traditional Ashtanga and Hatha yoga as well as pranayama, meditation and chanting. She currently runs her own freelance business, Ahimsa Yoga, teaching at various venues around Birmingham and working with a range of charities to spread the word of yoga and help to use yoga as a therapy.
Website: Ahimsa Yoga
Facebook: Yoga For Mind and Body