In his second and third padas, Patanjali outlined what he called Ashtanga Yoga, or the
“eight-limbed” Yoga. Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with a recently founded school
of Hatha Yoga by the same name) is a classification of the eight stages on the route to
Self-realization: yama, niyama,
pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Ashtanga Yoga (also called Raja Yoga) is not a “type” of Yoga; it is Yoga. It provides not
only an invaluable “road map” of where we are going, but specific instruction on what
we must do to achieve the state of yoga (union with the Infinite.)
The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:
Yama, restraints, “don’ts”
Niyama, observances, “do’s”
Asana, stillness of body
Pranayama, energy control
Dharana, one-pointed concentration
Samadhi, union with the Infinite
The first two limbs (yama and niyama, literally “control” and “non-control”) concern
outward behavior and, more importantly, the inner attitudes which lead to outward
behavior. Certain kinds of thoughts and actions are discouraged, while others are encouraged; they are the “do’s and don’ts” (niyama and yama, respectively) of Yoga.
These two limbs comprise five yamas and five niyamas,
which should be practiced regardless of outward
circumstances. Acting in accordance with these principles
allows one to live in deep harmony with the universe;
mastery of each of these principles brings certain powers,
which are also listed below.
By “asana,” Patanjali simply meant the ability to sit in such a way as to be “steady and
comfortable”: in Sanskrit, sthirasukhamasanam. The perfected “state” of asana is the
ability to sit completely motionless for at least three hours. Patanjali was not talking
about Hatha Yoga here; as noted before, he didn’t even mention Hatha Yoga in his
sutras. In fact, only two sutras even mention the word “asana,” and only three others
refer indirectly to it. Practice of the yoga postures is helpful for achieving the state of
asana, but it is not essential.
Pranayama (Energy Control)
This refers not just to techniques, but to the state of energy
control, in which the body’s energy is harmonized to the point
where its direction is reversed; it no longer flows outward
toward the senses, but inward toward the Divine Self.
Patanjali gives no detail of specific pranayama techniques; in
fact, only six sutras even mention pranayama. The techniques
commonly called “pranayama” in Hatha Yoga are usually
breathing techniques since there is a link between prana (energy), breath and mind. However, this is a
limited concept of pranayama; there are many other forms. For example,
Yogananda’s Energization Exercises
also are pranayamas, for they both recharge the
body cells with prana and teach us how to control its flow.
Pratyahara (lnteriorization of the Mind)
With energy having been directed inward and upward toward the brain through
pranayama, it then becomes necessary to direct the energy inward in the brain, rather
than letting it flow outward toward objects of thought and thus mental restlessness. This
interiorization is the state of pratyahara, the state of withdrawal of the mind from external objects and experiences.
The stage where the mind becomes fixed one-pointedly; no disturbances due to sensory
input, and no restless, outward thoughts.
Dhyana (Absorption, True Meditation)
One becomes absorbed into and identified with the object of
concentration. Individuality begins to expand into identification with a universal quality, such as one of the eight
aspects of God: peace, calmness, light, sound, love, joy, wisdom and power. This is the
state of true meditation.
Samadhi (Superconscious Union of the Soul with God)
Ego consciousness is dissolved. One’s identity is universal and there is a perception of
oneness with the whole universe and the Creator of that universe. There are two stages
of samadhi: sabikalpa samadhi, in which one must remain fixed in a breathless, motionless
state of meditation, and nirbikalpa samadhi, in which one remains in universal oneness
whatever the outward activity may be.