If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while you’ve undoubtedly heard your teachers make reference to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. Perhaps you’ve wondered exactly who Patanjali is, what’s this book he wrote, and what’s a sutra? All good questions, and ones which may not be addressed in the limited time span of an asana class.
Surprisingly little is known about the great Indian sage Patanjali, considering he wrote one of the most influential works of yogic literature. There is debate over who he was and when he lived. It is generally believed that he wrote the Yoga Sutras at least 1,700 years ago.
The Yoga Sutras consist of 185 sutras (an Indian term for aphorism, or words of wisdom) that collectively systematize and elucidate the discipline of classical yoga. In the second of four chapters he describes the eightfold path, or ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight limbs are intended as guidelines to living a life with meaning and purpose. They may be seen as a kind of map for seekers of greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Most yoga classes in the west focus predominantly on the development and honing of asana (posture) technique. However, asana is just one of the eight steps described in the Sutras. It is possible to derive great benefit from asana practice without ever paying heed to the other seven steps on the eightfold path. But if you do choose to dig deeper and explore the philosophical underpinnings of yoga, your practice and consequently your life will undoubtedly be richer, fuller and more gratifying.
The eight limbs are:
1. Yamas - universal ethical practices
a. Ahimsa - nonviolence
b. Satya - truthfulness
c. Asteya - non-stealing
d. Brahmacharya - establishment in divine consciousness
e. Aparigraha - greedlessness
2. Niyamas - personal lifestyle observances
a. Saucha - cleanliness
b. Santosha - contentment
c. Tapas - heat, spiritual austerities
d. Svadhyaya - study of the self
e. Isvara Pranidhana - surrender to God
3. Asana - posture
4. Pranayama - breath control
5. Pratyahara - sensory withdrawal
6. Dharana - concentration
7. Dhyana - meditation
8. Samadhi - enlightenment, transcending the Self
In Light On Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar explains how each step on the path prepares us for the next. He describes the first three steps as the outward practices (bahiranga sadhana), enabling the practitioner to control his/her passions and emotions and rendering the body a healthy and fit vehicle for spiritual development.
The following two steps are the inner practices (antaranga sadhana). They teach the practitioner to regulate the breath and thereby tame the mind. The senses can then be freed from the objects of desire.
The final three steps are the quest of the soul (antaratma sadhana). They take the practitioner on an inward journey to the deepest recesses of his/her soul in order to achieve peace, harmony, and enlightenment
In the months to come we’ll explore these eight steps one by one and examine ways to apply them in and out of the studio, on and off the mat.
Christine Malossi is a freelance writer and yoga teacher based in Manhattan.