An Introduction to Patanjali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga


An Introduction to Patanjali's Eightfold Path of YogaThis article is an introduction to Soulful Arogya’s Yoga 101 series where we explore steps and benefits of beginner and intermediate level yoga asanas.  Before practicing yoga, it is useful to understand the origin of Yoga and the Eightfold Path of Yoga as enumerated by Patanjali – the father of Modern Yoga. Our hope is that by gaining a deeper understanding of the roots of yoga, you will be able to appreciate this wonderful practice even more.

What is Yoga?

The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ which means union or communion. It is one of the oldest systems of Indian philosophy. Even older than the Vedas and is mentioned in the Rig Veda. It was collated and systematized by Patanjali in his classical work, Yoga Sutras.

In the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna explains the meaning of Yoga to Arjuna as a technique to liberate oneself from pain and sorrow. It is said:

“When his mind, intellect and self (ahamkara) are under control, freed from restless desire, so that they rest in the spirit within, a man becomes a Yukta – one in communion with God. A lamp does not flicker in a place where no winds blow; so it is with a yogi, who controls his mind, intellect and self, being absorbed in the spirit within him. When the restlessness of the mind, intellect and self is stilled through the practice of Yoga, the yogi by the grace of the Spirit within himself finds fulfilment. Then he knows the joy eternal which is beyond the pale of the senses which his reason cannot grasp. He abides in this reality and moves not therefrom. He has found the treasure above all others. There is nothing higher than this. He who has achieved it, shall not be moved by the greatest sorrow. This is the real meaning of Yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow.”

The ultimate goal of yoga is liberation (moksha) from pain and sorrow. Yoga teaches the means by which the individual human spirit (jivatma) can be united with the Supreme Universal Spirit (Paramatma). In the Kathopanishad, Yoga is defined as ‘the steady control of senses and mind. One who attains this state is free from delusions.

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is described as ‘Chitta Vritti Nirodhah‘, meaning restraint (nirodah) of mental (chitta) modifications (vritti). The word chitta has a deeper meaning than the word ‘mind’ as it refers to mind in its collective or total sense. A closer meaning would be consciousness. Chitta is comprised of three elements which can cause these mental modifications or fluctuations. These are Manas (Mind in its individual sense), Buddhi (intellect or reason), and Ahamkara (pride or ego). Yoga is the technique by which these mental fluctuations or modifications can be altered. The restless mind is therefore calmed and the energy is directed into constructive channels.

The Eightfold Path of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali consists of four chapters: Samadhi, Sadhana, Vibhuti, and Kaivalya. The second chapter, Sadhana (the means to achieve yoga), describes the eight limbs of Yoga aka Ashtanga Yoga. Each limb of yoga is described below:

  1. Yama – Yama means ethics. These are the great commandments which transcend creed, country, age, and time. They include non-violence (ahimsa), truth (satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence (brahmacharya), and non-coveting (aparigraha). These commandments are considered the rules of morality for society and the individual. According to Ancient Indian wisdom, the roots of all evils are the emotions of greed, desire and attachment. These emotions can bring only pain and ignorance. Patanjali strikes at the root of these evils by changing the direction of one’s thinking along the five commandments.
  2. Niyama – Niyama are the rules of conduct that apply to individual discipline. The key difference between yama and niyama is that the rules of yama are universal in application while niyama rules are applicable to the individual. The five principles of niyama are: purity (saucha), contentment (santosa), austerity (tapas), study of the self (svadhyaya) and dedication to the lord (Isvara pranidhana).
  3. Asana – Asana is yoga posture. Asana brings steadiness to the body, produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. By practicing yoga asanas regularly, one develops agility, balance, endurance, balance and great vitality. While asanas are great physical exercises, their real significance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind.
  4. Pranayama – Prana means breath, respiration, vitality or life. Ayama means length or extension. Pranayama thus connotes extension of breath and its control. This control is exercised over all functions of breathing: inhalation, exhalation, and retention. Pranayama is also considered the science of breath. A yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths.
  5. Pratyahara – Pratyahara is withdrawal or emancipation of the mind from the domination of the senses and exterior objects. This is the fifth limb of yoga where we try to being our senses under control. There is bondage when the mind craves, grieves or is unhappy over something. When we rid ourselves of our several desires and fears, our mind becomes pure.
  6. Dharana – This is the sixth limb of yoga where one concentrates on a single point or is completely engrossed in a task. In other words, this is mindfulness. The mind has to be stilled in order to attain Dharana. Without concentration, one can master nothing. To achieve this level of concentration, Patanjali recommends eka-tattva-abhyasa. In other words, study of the single element that pervades all elements – the word ‘Om‘ or ‘Aum‘ which has great spiritual significance in Hinduism. It refers to the atman or the inner self, and brahman or the supreme or universal spirit. Aum meditation is a meditation technique which the yogi can use to achieve dharana.
  7. Dhyana – When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana (meditation). In this state, there is no other feeling except a state of supreme bliss. The yogi’s body, breath, senses, ind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation – Aum or the universal spirit.
  8. Samadhi – The last limb of yoga is the end of a yogi’s quest. At the peak of meditation, one transcends into a state called samadhi, where the yogi’s body and senses are at rest as if asleep, the intellect is alert as if awake, yet the person has gone beyond consciousness. In the state of samadhi, there is no ego, there is no sense of ‘I’ or ‘mine’ as the body and mind have stopped as if one is in a state of deep slumber. This is the stage where the person is considered to have attained true Yoga. There is profound silence in this stage which is beyond understanding and a sense of peace which cannot be expressed in words. There is only an experience of pure consciousness and incomprehensible happiness.
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