The eightfold path in Patanjali’s Yoga sutra is called the ashtanga.
Loosely translated, ashtanga means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb).
The eight limbs or steps function as guidelines on how to live a life that is both purposeful and meaningful.
In addition, it also gives clear guidance on self-discipline as well as proper ethical and moral conduct.
Moreover, it helps individuals focus on the importance of their health and helps them acknowledge the spiritual aspects of their nature.
The first limb of yoga is the yama.
It focuses on your sense of integrity and ethical standards and gives guidance on how you should behave and conduct your life.
In essence, yamas are practices that are universal and can best be related to what is popularly known as the “Golden Rule”—Do unto others as you want others to do unto you.
The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa (nonviolence)
- Asteya (nonstealing)
- Aparigraha (noncovetousness)
- Brahmacharya (continence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
Yoga’s second limb is called the niyama and it deals with spiritual observances and self-discipline.
Classic examples of this limb in practice include attending church or temple services, observing a personal meditation practice, spending time alone and contemplating, and saying grace before eating, among other things.
The five niyamas are:
- Tapas (spiritual austerities)
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Svadhyaya (study of one’s self and the sacred scriptures)
- Samtosa (contentment)
- Isvara panidhana (surrender to God)
The postures performed in yoga is called asanas and it is considered yoga’s third limb.
From the yogic point of view, the body is the spirit’s temple.
That being said, taking care of the body or the temple can do wonders for your spiritual growth.
Through asanas, you will be able to develop discipline and the ability to focus—both of which are considered vital in the practice meditation.
The fourth limb of yoga is called pranayama.
Pranayama refers to breath control and is comprised of techniques that are designed to master the respiratory process while acknowledging the connection between the emotions, the mind, and the breath.
Just like its literal translation (“life force extension”), yogis believe pranayama will not only rejuvenate the body but will actually extend life itself.
Pranayama can be practiced as an isolated technique (read: just sitting and performing a series of breathing exercises) or it can be integrated in your daily yoga practice.
The fifth limb or the pratyahara means sensory transcendence or withdrawal.
It is in this stage that you will be making a conscious effort to draw your awareness from outside stimuli and the external world.
Even if you are still keenly aware of the external world, once you are able to cultivate a detachment from it, you’ll be able to direct your attention internally.
Pratyahara can provide you with the perfect opportunity to step back and examine yourself a little more closely.
The withdrawal will allow you to observe any cravings you have objectively—habits or inclinations that are detrimental to your health and a hindrance to your inner growth.
As each stage in yoga has been perfectly designed to prepare you for the next, pratyahara creates the perfect setting for the next move which is the dharana (concentration).
Once you have learned the art of relieving yourself from the distractions of the outside world, the next thing you would have to deal with would be dealing with the distractions of the mind itself.
While no easy feat, it can be done.
In the concentration stage which precedes meditation, you will learn how to slow down your thinking process by focusing on a single mental object—a specific energetic center in your body, a silent repetition of a sound, or an image of a deity, whatever works for you.
While you may already have developed the power of concentration early on in the practice through posture, withdrawal of the senses, and breath control, there is still the tendency for the attention to be diverted especially when paying attention to the execution of the poses.
Your focus can also shift constantly when you fine-tune a specific breathing technique or a particular pose.
However, in dharana, you focus your attention to a single point.
Prolonged concentration will naturally lead to meditation.
Uninterrupted concentration flow is the seventh stage of ashtanga and it is called dhyana.
While it may seem like dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are one and the same, there is a fine line that exists between the two.
While dharana is about one-pointed attention, dhyana on the other hand is a state of being where you are keenly aware but without focus.
When you have achieved the latter, your mind is quiet and in the stillness, there are very few thoughts or none at all.
The stamina and strength that is required to achieve this state of stillness is massive.
However, while quite challenging, it can be done.
It would help if you keep in mind that yoga is a process and in due time, you’ll eventually be able to achieve dhyana.
The final and the eight stage of ashtanga is a state of ecstasy known as samadhi.
At this stage, the practitioner is able to merge the point of focus and transcends the self in the process.
It is in this stage that you will feel a profound connection to the Divine and with all living things.
When you reach this stage, you will experience oneness with the Universe and attain “peace that passeth all understanding.”