Yoga Philosophy: Eight Limbs of Yoga

Article ID: JAY001-1 | By: Elliot Miller

Classical yoga practitioners are not interested in making their minds permanently blank, but rather to so discipline their minds that they no longer identify thoughts and sensory perceptions with their sense of self. This is accomplished by following Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga.

The eight limbs of yoga involve strict moral, physical, and mental disciplines. They are (1) moral restraint, (2) religious observance, (3) postures (asanas), (4) breath control (pranayama), (5) sense withdrawal, (6) concentration, (7) meditative absorption, and (8) enlightenment (samadhi). A consideration of the limbs quickly reveals that yoga is a demanding autosoteric (salvation based on self-effort) system, similar to original Theravada Buddhism with its eightfold path, which historically preceded Patanjali’s yoga system and probably influenced it.

Limbs 1 and 2 pertain to the exercise of the will. It is important for the yogi to restrain himself from violence, lying, immorality, theft, and greed. It is also necessary for him to observe or practice purity, contentment, religious fervor, study of self, and surrender to God. He is to replace thoughts that are contrary to these virtues with their opposites.

Asanas and pranayama are the two limbs of yoga that exercise the body. They were not originally intended to be isolated from the other limbs of yoga, but that is what has happened to a great extent in the West through the promotion of hatha yoga, which is predominantly comprised of these two limbs (although meditation is often included or encouraged at the end of the session). It should be noted that in the Yoga Sutras one does not find the emphasis on stretching the body into unusual poses that is now associated with yoga, mainly through the influence of hatha yoga. Patanjali’s expressed concern was for the practitioner to assume “steady and easy” postures that would be conducive to meditation.

Sense withdrawal, concentration, and meditative absorption are the mental exercises of yoga. To develop the desired pure state of consciousness it is necessary to withdraw from the input of one’s senses and to develop one’s powers of concentration. To achieve this one might practice concentrating on a sound (e.g., one’s own chanting of a mantra, such as the name of a Hindu god or the sacred syllable om, which Patanjali says is the voice of God [1:27]), on an image (e.g., the tip of one’s nose or a symbolic religious image known as a mandala), or on one’s own breathing. The purpose, however, is to so focus on an object that the object itself disappears and a state of pure (i.e., thoughtless) consciousness is attained. Through these mental exercises and techniques, meditative absorption is achieved, where the practitioner begins to lose the distinction between subject and object (i.e., self and not-self), to experience the cosmic consciousness (i.e., the sense that one’s own mind is merging into a larger, Universal Mind), and to feel one with the Universe or God.

Diligent and persistent observance of the first seven limbs of yoga ultimately will yield samadhi, the eighth limb, which is defined as direct knowledge, free from the distortions of the imagination. When samadhi is achieved the yogi is finally free from the influence of the three gunas, which, as we’ve seen, has been the goal of yoga practice all along. Unlike everything else in creation, the yogi who achieves samadhi no longer is bounced around between the pulls and pushes of purity, passion, and darkness, but becomes sublimely indifferent to everything in the material world.4

On achieving samadhi, the yogi is believed to accumulate karma no longer. The only remaining karma for him to work out is that which was accumulated before attaining enlightenment. Once that remaining karmic debt is balanced the yogi will have achieved moksha or deliverance/salvation and his long and wearisome transmigrational journey finally will be over.

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