How to live a happy, healthy, meaningful life.
‘The goal of yoga is to encourage us to be a little better than we were before.
We become better by making an effort and by practising….
Our efforts may change in intensity, but over a period of time we will gradually experience progress.’
The Understanding Of Yoga. TKV Desikachar
“Ethics is not a way of just thinking, but a way of doing with thinking. It is the process of re-alignment of the
body, senses, mind, intelligence, and consciousness, which have to be put together.
You cannot separate ethics from physical or mental discipline…”
The 8 limbs of yoga summarise its key ethics and aspects. But the best 8 limbs of yoga course that you can do, is to just start yoga. By starting yoga, you let the power of yoga asanas, and pranayama, act on both your body and mind. If you’re doing yoga, or thinking about starting, here is more about the origin and content of the 8 limbs of yoga.
It starts millennia ago, with the yoga sage, Patanjali, writing the Yoga Sutras. He set out to study the nature of consciousness.
Patanjali defined yoga as the ability to direct the mind exclusively to an object, and sustain that direction without distractions. In other words, he was talking defining it in terms of its ability to increase your power to focus.
A common representation of Patanjali, the yoga sage.
What is the mind?
Patanjali defined the mind by its activities, which he called states of mind, or vrttis.
The mind, or consciousness, fluctuates between these 5 activities or states (or vrttis):
- Deep sleep
He said that each of these 5 activities of the mind can be both beneficial and detrimental.
Patanjali also said that yoga is the study of how our actions and thoughts affect our ability to find inner peace and happiness. (Our Post on yoga for action talks more about how Patanjali saw yoga as a journey to inner peace.)
To assist our journey to inner peace and happiness, Patanjali says we should also develop our capacity for self-examination.
Obstacles to perception: Kleshas and Samskaras
Patanjali said we are all able to develop clear perception.
However, there is often something that gets in the way that causes our distress. It’s often referred to as causing us to “suffer”, and suffer more than we need to.
These obstacles or afflictions are referred to as Kleshas.
These Kleshas form part of the “infrastructure” that shape our minds.
Five Kleshas, or obstacles to clear perception
Patanjali noted these 5 Kleshas. They each get in the way of clearer perception.
- Misapprehensions, or Avidya. It’s being unaware of reality as it is. Ignorance for Patanjali means being spiritually ignorant (in the non-religious sense of the word). Such misapprehension, or avidya, is seen as the breeding ground of all the other kleshas. It could also be called self-delusion.
- Confused Values, or Asmita, or I-ness. As you can see in the diagram, it’s also called egoism.
- Excessive attachments, or Raga, or craving to repeat desirable pleasures. Memory is key here, as it precedes attachment.
- Unreasonable dislikes, or Dvesha. We act to resist to avoid past pain, based on past memory. It’s also been called repulsion.
- Insecurity, or abhinivesha. It’s also seen as a synonym for fear of death, or will to live.
You’ll probably recognise each of these kleshas in your own thoughts, approaches, or actions. They’re summarised in the diagram below.
Five Kleshas Patanjali discussed
Diagram from Yogapedia
Samskaras: Impressions due to our past
The mind is also impacted by impressions that we hold as a result of past experiences. Such impressions are another obstacle to clearer perception.
These subliminal impressions buried in the mind. Patanjali called them samskaras.
Everything we do and think has consequences. Yoga is the journey to bring change to who we are, so as to propel us onto to a path that brings greater clarity.
In turn, the yogic path lets us see more clearly the consequences of our thoughts and actions.
In the process, yoga lifts the veil of misperception (avidya) that clouds our perceptions.
Wikipedia also defines samskaras like this:
Samskaras are the impressions and dispositions that develop and accumulate deep inside a person… from perception, inference, choices, preparation, practice, interaction with others, thoughts, intent, [and] wilful actions…. These manifest…as habits, behaviour, tendencies, psychological predispositions and dispositions.
Actions, studies, diligent preparation and inner resolutions trigger Samskaras – hidden impressions or dispositions – in the psyche of an individual, and these influence how the individual acts, perceives self, and the manner in which the individual responds to or accepts the… the future.
The eight limb path
Patanjali proposes a path forward to clear the mind and remove obstacles to perception. He called it the Eight Limb Path.
The great yoga teacher, Mr Desikachar, wrote about how we should approach that path forward.
There are obviously many views of how rigidly one should adhere to the 8 limb path of yoga. Mr Desikachar’s view is less rigid, and probably more realistic, than many.
“The goal of yoga is to encourage us to be a little better than we were before.
We become better by making an effort and by practising [yoga asanas or breath meditation]….
Our efforts may change in intensity, but over a period of time we will gradually experience progress.”
The Understanding Of Yoga by TKV Desikachar.
Given the obstacles to perception (or Kleshas), and the role of memory in the holding of subliminal impression (Samskaras), Patanjali proposed that all those practising yoga should follow the 8 limb path.
The diagram gives an overview of Patanjali’s 8 limb path.
Patanjali’s Eight Limb Path, Including Yamas and Niyamas
Clear perception leads to positive outcomes
The eight limb path will lead progressively to higher stages of self-awareness and to a spiritual life. (In this regard, spiritual does not mean a religious path. It simply means to find your purpose or sense of direction for you).
Clear perception comes through learning how to quieten the mind, and to experience how our thoughts and actions impact us, and others around us.
When there is not clear perception, such as when obstacles are dominant, then our actions will have painful consequences.
When there is clarity of perception, then our actions lead to positive outcomes.
Our yoga journey via our yogic practice allows us to appreciate that ”there exists certain tendencies in our mind that are responsible for painful effects” (according to TKV Desikachar).
More detail of the 8 limbs of yoga
Patanjali outlined the 8 limbs in great detail.
For a start, the image below, gives you a quick overview of them.
Below, we’ll discuss each of the 8 limbs of yoga in a little more detail.
One: Yamas, or ethical principles
The yamas are universal principles, and are the foundation of so-called Patanjali yoga. They can also be seen as ethical principles.
These ethical precepts of the yamas include:
- Nonviolence (ahimsa). It’s the kindness we show towards others and ourselves.
- Truthfulness (satya). It’s means to speak the truth, but also be considerate of when the truth can be harmful.
- Not stealing (asteya).
- Sexual moderation (brahmacarya).
- Non-covetousness (aparigraha). In other words, take only what is necessary.
The diagram below gives you a quick summary of the yamas.
However, as you read through the poster, or diagram, remember that they are just one person’s interpretation, based on the suggestions made by a range of yogic teachers. Obviously, you choose what it means for you, and how you want to apply it to your life, or not.
Yoga can be as simple as doing some yoga poses, or it can involve some selection of the ethics and approaches outlined in this post.
“Suggestions” for how to live better, and review living
See the yamas as suggestions for how to live, and not commandments.
They are simply suggestions that allow you:
- to review your social attitudes and life style
- to understand how you interact with other people, and your environment, and
- how you deal with your problems.
Two: Niyama, or personal practices
Niyama are personal practises that refer to the attitude we have towards ourself in terms of:
- Cleanliness in body and mind (sauca).
- Contentment (santosa).
- Tapas, or fervour for yoga, or perseverance.
- Svadhyaya (self-study) Ishvara pranidhana.)
As you scan the summaries in the diagram below, remember that these personal practices are simply suggestions for living a better life.
I have talked more about the meaning of surrender, in my Post on Kriya Yoga.
Three: Asana yoga postures
In asana, or yoga postures, Patanjali saw the body and mind as moving in harmony.
Asanas increase physical capabilities, promote attentiveness, and open us up to new experiences.
In the process, yoga delivers many physical, mental, emotional, health, and other benefits.
For instance, practising asanas regularly has already been proven to deliver at least 117 health benefits. The diagram below gives you a tiny snapshot of some of the many benefits of yoga.
It’s also worth noting that the benefits of yoga and breath meditation both overlap each other, and reinforce each other. Among other things, this explains why short summary pictures of the benefits of either, often seem to repeat themselves to some extent.
Some of the physical, mental, emotional, health, and other benefits of yoga asanas
Four: Pranayama breath meditation
Pranayama breath meditation is the process of breathing so as to influence the mind.
It involves observing normal breath, altering the length of inhalation and exhalation, and retention of the breath. To do this, various breathing techniques are used, as I’ve discussed in various other posts on pranayama, and pranayama breathing techniques.
In practice, the breathing techniques are done by focusing on a breath or a sound (such as in so-called Bumble Bee Breath).
As you probably know, the so-called “monkey mind” will still wander to some extent. But each time it does, you mind it back to the focus on the breath.
The diagram below gives you a quick snapshot of some of the benefits of breath meditation.
Five: Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
Pratyahara is the process of the withdrawal of the senses. In turn, this helps you to focus more.
Six: Dharana: uninterrupted concentration
Dharana is fixing the mind in one place, or concentration on a point or object.
Mira Mehta explains it further like this:
“… uninterrupted concentration, with the mind focused steadily on a particular point, or object.”
Seven: Dhyana: unwavering contemplation
Dhyana is the state where the mind flows onto an object without interruption.
It’s a place where you are fully engaged in meditation, without the mind wandering.
Again, Mira Mehta elaborates:
“…This is meditation. The span of concentration is increased so that the whole mind encompasses the object, and contemplates it unwaveringly”.
Eight: Samadhi: absorption, or a sense of “oneness”
Samadhi is where the mind is fully absorbed in the object of meditation, such that it loosens self-awareness.
It is a subconscious awareness such that “I am meditating on this object”, according to Mr E Bryant in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).
The 8 limbs of yoga have been summarised in a variety of ways. The diagram below may also help draw them together for you.
Another overview of the 8 limbs of yoga
Practise all 8 limbs
The Eight Limbs are ideally intended to be practised together, even though they obviously can’t be done simultaneously.
But each limb does complement every other limb.
Obviously, the higher stages of the 8 limbs involve a higher level of skills than do Steps One to Four.
However, there is no particular place to start, or no set order in which they should be practised.
Once the lungs and spine are stronger from the yoga practice, and the mind is at least a little more able to be “quiet”, we then move on to pranayama breath meditation.
However, some yogic schools do first start with studying the philosophy involved in Steps One and Two.
Yamas are the foundation
The yamas, or ethics, form the foundation of Patanjali yoga.
As yoga philosopher Michael Stone explained in the Inner Traditions Of Yoga, they “safeguard us against the tendency to act out habitual patterns of reactivity”.
In Iyengar Yoga we learn to work with The Yamas and Niyama’s when and as we practise asana and pranayama.
We then gain insights during our practise that help us review our attitudes towards ourselves and others.
In turn, it provides the basis for personal transformation to take place.
Michael Stone goes on to say that:
“…the yamas remind us that the purpose of yoga is to show how experience can be made a creative action.
In fact, sometimes the most negative characteristics of ones personality are more prominent sources of wisdom than positive aspects, because they are the details and encumbrances that we have struggled with the most, know most intimately, and have learned how to wrestle, restrain, and transform”.
Ethics of yoga creep up on you
In practical terms, the yogic ethics explained by the 8 limbs tend to just creep up on you, as you steadily practise yoga or pranayama, or preferably both.
It’s not known exactly why this happens, but there are plenty of studies, as well as individual anecdotes, to indicate that it does.
Some of those studies are mentioned in our post of the benefits of yoga for those in any workplace.
In whatever way that we are able to to yoga and breath meditation, it almost always steadily changes us for the better, in a huge number of ways.
It’s a gradual process, driven by how much asana (yoga postures) and breath meditation that you do. But even a tiny bit will help, and start you on a path.
Moving to greater happiness
To illustrate how yoga and breath meditation brings about change, and the implementation of the 8 limbs of yoga, we finish with a published story by just one yoga student.
Ten years after starting, and still doing yoga and meditation regularly, he reflects on some of the benefits he got.
In the process, he provides a good account of how the 8 limbs of yoga, in practice, just creep up on people, and impact their behaviour. In other words, he did not set out in a search for the benefits he described. The benefits just arrived as a result of doing yoga and meditation.
After my first class,…everything changed….
My family and friends noticed the difference in me too. They noted that I was happier, friendlier, and more open and compassionate.
As a result my relationship with my wife was much better too. We used to argue over stupid things. But that all stopped.
He finishes by saying:
… I became happier and more contented….
Deals for putting the 8 limbs into action
Practising yoga and breath meditation is the super highway to everything you want from yoga, including what you may not even know that you want.
These are excellent beginner classes when you have not been exercising for a long time, or are stiff. As well as improving flexibility, these classes reduce stress, and fix imbalances.
It’s best to start pranayama breath meditation after you’ve done at least about 3 months of yoga posture learning and practise.
Ideally, as soon as you’ve done at least 6 months of yoga come to Flametree’s yoga retreat in Bali. It’s also another way to quickly access healing yoga options.
See our most popular passes at the orange links below.