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Ashtanga (eight limbs of yoga)

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A statue of Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, practicing dhyana (meditation), one of the eight limbs of yoga that he defines.

Ashtanga yoga (Sanskrit: अष्टाङ्गयोग, romanizedaṣṭāṅgayoga[1], "the eight limbs of yoga") is Patanjali's classification of classical yoga, as set out in his Yoga Sutras. He defined the eight limbs as yamas (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption).

The eight limbs form a sequence from the outer to the inner. The posture, asana, must be steady and comfortable for a long time, in order for the yogi to practice the limbs from pranayama until samadhi. The main aim is kaivalya, discernment of Puruṣa, the witness-conscious, as separate from Prakṛti, the cognitive apparatus, and disentanglement of Puruṣa from its muddled defilements.

Definition of yoga


Patanjali begins his treatise by stating the purpose of his book in the first sutra, followed by defining the word "yoga" in his second sutra of Book 1:[2]

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः ॥२॥

— Yoga Sutras 1.2

This terse definition hinges on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. I. K. Taimni translates it as "Yoga is the inhibition (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of the mind (citta)".[3] Swami Vivekananda translates the sutra as "Yoga is restraining (nirodhah) the mind-stuff (citta) from taking various forms (vrittis)."[4] When the mind is stilled, the seer or real Self is revealed:

1.3. Then the Seer is established in his own essential and fundamental nature.
1.4. In other states there is assimilation (of the Seer) with the modifications (of the mind).[5]

Eight limbs

Patanjali's eight limbs of yoga

Patanjali set out his definition of yoga in the Yoga Sutras as having eight limbs (अष्टाङ्ग aṣṭ āṅga, "eight limbs") as follows:

The eight limbs of yoga are yama (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption)."[6]

The eightfold path of Patanjali's yoga consists of a set of prescriptions for a morally disciplined and purposeful life, of which asana (yoga posture) form only one limb.[7]

1. Yamas


Yamas are ethical rules in Hinduism and can be thought of as moral imperatives (the "don'ts"). The five yamas listed by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.30 are:[8]

  1. Ahimsa (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings[9]
  2. Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood[9][10]
  3. Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing(चोरी नही करना है)[9]
  4. Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): chastity,[10] marital fidelity or sexual restraint[11]
  5. Aparigraha (अपरिग्रह): non-avarice,[9] non-possessiveness (लालच नही करना है)[10]

Patanjali, in Book 2, states how and why each of the above self-restraints helps in an individual's personal growth. For example, in verse II.35, Patanjali states that the virtue of nonviolence and non-injury to others (Ahimsa) leads to the abandonment of enmity, a state that leads the yogi to the perfection of inner and outer amity with everyone, everything.[12][13]

2. Niyamas


The second component of Patanjali's Yoga path is niyama, which includes virtuous habits and observances (the "dos").[14][15] Sadhana Pada Verse 32 lists the niyamas as:[16]

  1. Shaucha (शौच): purity, clearness of mind, speech and body[17]
  2. Santosha (संतोष): contentment, acceptance of others, acceptance of one's circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self[18]
  3. Tapas (तपस्): persistence, perseverance, austerity, asceticism, self-discipline[19][20][21][22]
  4. Svadhyaya (स्वाध्याय): study of Vedas, study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self's thoughts, speech and actions[20][23]
  5. Ishvarapranidhana (ईश्वरप्रणिधान): contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality)[18][24]

As with the Yamas, Patanjali explains how and why each of the Niyamas helps in personal growth. For example, in verse II.42, Patanjali states that the virtue of contentment and acceptance of others as they are (Santosha) leads to the state where inner sources of joy matter most, and the craving for external sources of pleasure ceases.[25]

3. Āsana

Lahiri Mahasaya in Padmasana, one of the ancient seated meditation asanas

Patanjali begins discussion of Āsana (आसन, posture, seat) by defining it in verse 46 of Book 2, as follows,[2]

स्थिरसुखमासनम् ॥४६॥
The meditation posture should be steady and comfortable.[26][27]

— Yoga Sutras II.46

Asana is a posture that one can hold for a period of time, staying relaxed, steady, comfortable and motionless. The Yoga Sutra does not list any specific asana.[28] Āraṇya translates verse II.47 as, "asanas are perfected over time by relaxation of effort with meditation on the infinite"; this combination and practice stops the body from shaking.[29] Any posture that causes pain or restlessness is not a yogic posture. Secondary texts that discuss Patanjali's sutra state that one requirement of correct posture for sitting meditation is to keep chest, neck and head erect (proper spinal posture).[27]

The Bhasya commentary attached to the Sutras, now thought to be by Patanjali himself,[30] suggests twelve seated meditation postures:[31] Padmasana (lotus), Virasana (hero), Bhadrasana (glorious), Svastikasana (lucky mark), Dandasana (staff), Sopasrayasana (supported), Paryankasana (bedstead), Krauncha-nishadasana (seated heron), Hastanishadasana (seated elephant), Ushtranishadasana (seated camel), Samasansthanasana (evenly balanced) and Sthirasukhasana (any motionless posture that is in accordance with one's pleasure).[27]

Over a thousand years later, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions 84 [a] asanas taught by Shiva, stating four of these as most important: Siddhasana (accomplished), Padmasana (lotus), Simhasana (lion), and Bhadrasana (glorious), and describes the technique of these four and eleven other asanas.[33][34] In modern yoga, asanas are prominent and numerous, unlike in any earlier form of yoga.[35][36]

4. Prāņāyāma

Alternate nostril breathing, one form of Pranayama

Prāṇāyāma is the control of the breath, from the Sanskrit prāṇa (प्राण, breath)[37] and āyāma (आयाम, restraint).[38]

After a desired posture has been achieved, verses II.49 through II.51 recommend prāṇāyāma, the practice of consciously regulating the breath (inhalation, the full pause, exhalation, and the empty pause).[39] This is done in several ways, such as by inhaling and then suspending exhalation for a period, exhaling and then suspending inhalation for a period, by slowing the inhalation and exhalation, or by consciously changing the timing and length of the breath (deep, short breathing).[40][41]

5. Pratyāhāra


Pratyāhāra is a combination of two Sanskrit words prati- (the prefix प्रति-, "against" or "contra") and āhāra (आहार, "bring near, fetch").[42]

Pratyahara is drawing within one's awareness. It is a process of retracting the sensory experience from external objects. It is a step of self extraction and abstraction. Pratyahara is not consciously closing one's eyes to the sensory world; it is consciously closing one's mind processes to the sensory world. Pratyahara empowers one to stop being controlled by the external world, fetch one's attention to seek self-knowledge and experience the freedom innate in one's inner world.[43][44]

Pratyahara marks the transition of yoga experience from the first four limbs of Patanjali's Ashtanga scheme that perfect external forms, to the last three limbs that perfect the yogin's inner state: moving from outside to inside, from the outer sphere of the body to the inner sphere of the spirit.[45]

6. Dhāraṇā


Dharana (Sanskrit: धारणा) means concentration, introspective focus and one-pointedness of mind. The root of the word is dhṛ (धृ), meaning "to hold, maintain, keep".[46]

Dharana, as the sixth limb of yoga, is holding one's mind onto a particular inner state, subject or topic of one's mind.[47] The mind is fixed on a mantra, or one's breath/navel/tip of tongue/any place, or an object one wants to observe, or a concept/idea in one's mind.[48][49] Fixing the mind means one-pointed focus, without drifting of mind, and without jumping from one topic to another.[48]

7. Dhyāna

A woman meditating beside the sacred river Ganges in Varanasi

Dhyana (Sanskrit: ध्यान) literally means "contemplation, reflection" and "profound, abstract meditation".[50]

Dhyana is contemplating, reflecting on whatever Dharana has focused on. If in the sixth limb of yoga one focused on a personal deity, Dhyana is its contemplation. If the concentration was on one object, Dhyana is non-judgmental, non-presumptuous observation of that object.[51] If the focus was on a concept/idea, Dhyana is contemplating that concept/idea in all its aspects, forms and consequences. Dhyana is uninterrupted train of thought, current of cognition, flow of awareness.[49]

Dhyana is integrally related to Dharana, one leads to other. Dharana is a state of mind, Dhyana the process of mind. Dhyana is distinct from Dharana in that the meditator becomes actively engaged with its focus. Patanjali defines contemplation (Dhyana) as the mind process, where the mind is fixed on something, and then there is "a course of uniform modification of knowledge".[52] Adi Shankara, in his commentary on Yoga Sutras, distinguishes Dhyana from Dharana, by explaining Dhyana as the yoga state when there is only the "stream of continuous thought about the object, uninterrupted by other thoughts of different kind for the same object"; Dharana, states Shankara, is focussed on one object, but aware of its many aspects and ideas about the same object. Shankara gives the example of a yogin in a state of dharana on the morning Sun may be aware of its brilliance, color and orbit; the yogin in dhyana state contemplates on Sun's orbit alone for example, without being interrupted by its color, brilliance or other related ideas.[53]

8. Samādhi


Samadhi (Sanskrit: समाधि) literally means "putting together, joining, combining with, union, harmonious whole, trance".[54][55] In samadhi, when meditating on an object, only the object of awareness is present,[56] and the awareness that one is meditating disappears.[49][56][57] Samadhi is of two kinds,[58][59] Samprajnata Samadhi, with support of an object of meditation, and Asamprajnata Samadhi, without support of an object of meditation.[60]

Samprajnata Samadhi, also called savikalpa samadhi and Sabija Samadhi,[61][b] meditation with support of an object,[60][c] is associated with deliberation, reflection, bliss, and I-am-ness (YS 1.17).[65][d]

The first two associations, deliberation and reflection, form the basis of the various types of Samāpatti:[65][67]

  • Savitarka, "deliberative" (YS 1.42):[65][e] The citta is concentrated upon a gross object of meditation,[60] an object with a manifest appearance that is perceptible to our senses,[68] such as a flame of a lamp, the tip of the nose, or the image of a deity.[citation needed] Conceptualization (vikalpa) still takes place, in the form of perception, the word and the knowledge of the object of meditation.[65] When the deliberation is ended this is called nirvitarka samadhi (YS 1.43).[69][f]
  • Savichara, "reflective":[68] the citta is concentrated upon a subtle object of meditation,[60][68] which is not perceptible to the senses, but arrived at through inference,[68] such as the senses, the process of cognition, the mind, the I-am-ness,[g] the chakras, the inner-breath (prana), the nadis, the intellect (buddhi).[68] The stilling of reflection is called nirvichara samapatti (YS 1.44).[68][h]

The last two associations, sananda samadhi and sasmita, are respectively a state of meditation, and an object of savichara samadhi:

According to Ian Whicher, the status of ananda and asmita in Patanjali's system is a matter of dispute.[70] According to Maehle, the first two constituents, deliberation and reflection, form the basis of the various types of samapatti.[65] According to Feuerstein,

"Joy" and "I-am-ness" [...] must be regarded as accompanying phenomena of every cognitive [ecstasy]. The explanations of the classical commentators on this point appear to be foreign to Patanjali's hierarchy of [ecstatic] states, and it seems unlikely that ananda and asmita should constitute independent levels of samadhi.

— [70]

Ian Whicher disagrees with Feuerstein, seeing ananda and asmita as later stages of nirvicara-samapatti.[70] Whicher refers to Vācaspati Miśra (AD 900–980), the founder of the Bhāmatī Advaita Vedanta who proposes eight types of samapatti:[71]

  • Savitarka-samāpatti and Nirvitarka-samāpatti, both with gross objects as objects of support;
  • Savicāra-samāpatti and Nirvicāra-samāpatti, both with subtle objects as objects of support;
  • Sānanda-samāpatti and Nirānanda-samāpatti, both with the sense organs as objects of support
  • Sāsmitā-samāpatti and Nirasmitā-samāpatti, both with the sense of "I-am-ness" as support.

Vijnana Bikshu (ca. 1550–1600) proposes a six-stage model, explicitly rejecting Vacaspati Misra's model. Vijnana Bikshu regards joy (ananda) as a state that arises when the mind passes beyond the vicara stage.[67] Whicher agrees that ananda is not a separate stage of samadhi.[67] According to Whicher, Patanjali's own view seems to be that nirvicara-samadhi is the highest form of cognitive ecstasy.[67]

Asamprajnata Samadhi, also called Nirvikalpa Samadhi[59] and Nirbija Samadhi,[59][j] is meditation without an object,[60] which leads to knowledge of purusha or consciousness, the subtlest element.[68][k]

Soteriological goal: Kaivalya


According to Bryant, the purpose of yoga is liberation from suffering, caused by entanglement with the world, by means of discriminative discernment between Purusha, the witness-consciousness, and prakriti, the cognitive apparatus including the muddled mind and the kleshas. The eight limbs are "the means of achieving discriminative discernment," the "uncoupling of puruṣa from all connection with prakṛti and all involvement with the citta." Bryant states that, to Patanjali, Yoga-practice "essentially consists of meditative practices culminating in attaining a state of consciousness free from all modes of active or discursive thought, and of eventually attaining a state where consciousness is unaware of any object external to itself, that is, is only aware of its own nature as consciousness unmixed with any other object."[73][74]

The Samkhya school suggests that jnana (knowledge) is a sufficient means to moksha, Patanjali suggests that systematic techniques/practice (personal experimentation) combined with Samkhya's approach to knowledge is the path to moksha.[73] Patanjali holds that avidya, ignorance is the cause of all five kleshas, which are the cause of suffering and saṁsāra.[73] Liberation, like many other schools, is removal of ignorance, which is achieved through discriminating discernment, knowledge and self-awareness. The Yoga Sūtras is the Yoga school's treatise on how to accomplish this.[73] Samādhi is the state where ecstatic awareness develops, state Yoga scholars, and this is how one starts the process of becoming aware of Purusa and true Self. It further claims that this awareness is eternal, and once this awareness is achieved, a person cannot ever cease being aware; this is moksha, the soteriological goal in Hinduism.[73]

Book 3 of Patanjali's Yogasutra is dedicated to soteriological aspects of yoga philosophy. Patanjali begins by stating that all limbs of yoga are a necessary foundation to reaching the state of self-awareness, freedom and liberation. He refers to the three last limbs of yoga as samyama, in verses III.4 to III.5, and calls it the technology for "discerning principle" and mastery of citta and self-knowledge.[49][75] In verse III.12, the Yogasutras state that this discerning principle then empowers one to perfect sant (tranquility) and udita (reason) in one's mind and spirit, through intentness. This leads to one's ability to discern the difference between sabda (word), artha (meaning) and pratyaya (understanding), and this ability empowers one to compassionately comprehend the cry/speech of all living beings.[76][77] Once a yogi reaches this state of samyama, it leads to unusual powers, intuition, self-knowledge, freedoms and kaivalya, the redemptive goal of the yogi.[76]

See also



  1. ^ 84's symbolism may derive from its astrological and numerological properties: it is the product of 7, the number of planets in astrology, and 12, the number of signs of the zodiac, while in numerology, 7 is the sum of 3 and 4, and 12 is the product, i.e. 84 is (3+4)×(3×4).[32]
  2. ^ The seeds or samskaras are not destroyed.[61]
  3. ^ According to Jianxin Li Samprajnata Samadhi may be compared to the rupa jhanas of Buddhism.[62] This interpretation may conflict with Gombrich and Wynne, according to whom the first and second jhana represent concentration, whereas the third and fourth jhana combine concentration with mindfulness.[63] According to Eddie Crangle, the first jhana resembles Patnajali's Samprajnata Samadhi, which both share the application of vitarka and vicara.[64]
  4. ^ Yoga Sutra 1.17: "Objective samadhi (samprajnata) is associated with deliberation, reflection, bliss, and I-am-ness (asmita).[66]
  5. ^ Yoga Sutra 1.42: "Deliberative (savitarka) samapatti is that samadhi in which words, objects, and knowledge are commingled through conceptualization."[65]
  6. ^ Yoga Sutra 1.43: "When memory is purified, the mind appears to be emptied of its own nature and only the object shines forth. This is superdeliberative (nirvitaka) samapatti."[69]
  7. ^ Following Yoga Sutra 1.17, meditation on the sense of "I-am-ness" is also grouped, in other descriptions, as "sasmita samapatti"
  8. ^ Yoga Sutra 1.44: "In this way, reflective (savichara) and super-reflective (nirvichara) samapatti, which are based on subtle objects, are also explained."[68]
  9. ^ See also Pīti
  10. ^ Without seeds or Samskaras[59] According to Swami Sivananda, "All the seeds or impressions are burnt by the fire of knowledge [...] all the Samskaras and Vasanas which bring on rebirths are totally fried up. All Vrittis or mental modifications that arise form the mind-lake come under restraint. The five afflictions, viz., Avidya (ignorance), Asmita (egoism), Raga-dvesha (love and hatred) and Abhinivesha (clinging to life) are destroyed and the bonds of Karma are annihilated [...] It gives Moksha (deliverance form the wheel of births and deaths). With the advent of the knowledge of the Self, ignorance vanishes. With the disappearance of the root-cause, viz., ignorance, egoism, etc., also disappear."[59]
  11. ^ According to Jianxin Li, Asamprajnata Samadhi may be compared to the arupa jhanas of Buddhism, and to Nirodha-Samapatti.[62] Crangle also notes that sabija-asamprajnata samadhi resembles the four formless jhanas.[64] According to Crangle, the fourth arupa jhana is the stage of transition to Patanjali's "consciousness without seed".[72]


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Further reading