The Eight Limbs of Yoga, or, how to practice a thing really hard.


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This piece is my best try at explaining my current understanding of the eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. I’ve had others over the years, this one just works for me right now. And of course many have had other interpretations. Maybe different ways of languaging the same idea. Maybe different ideas pointing towards the same place. Maybe totally different models entirely.

Listen to them all and weigh their validity against your own experience. None of them are adequate to describe the state that the Yoga Sutras attempt to describe because it is inherently a state beyond language.

The practice of Yogasana is the repetition and gradual refinement of a progressively complex series of physically challenging postures.

At first glance there may appear to be nothing inherently spiritual about such an act when framed so unromantically. However as a practitioner develops his skills it becomes clear that the most important skill he develops is not the skill of asana, which is really the province of strongmen and acrobats, but the skill of practicing itself.

The art of practicing, whether it’s practicing an instrument, a martial art, or even a seemingly menial workplace skill, requires the practitioner to make a purposeful decision to move from a state of compulsion and reactivity to a state of one-pointed focus in order to repeat, dissect, integrate and gradually refine the skill in question. In theory at least, the ultimate refinement of this one-pointed focus itself is a state called Samadhi, where the individual identity of the practitioner and the object of focus both dissolve and merge with the whole of creation in it’s totality. This is said to be the goal of yoga.

It’s a rather bold aspiration to be sure, but if it was easily attainable, we might focus on the goal and not on the practice of practicing practice, which, as I said, is the whole point of the practice.

So when we perform the yogic postures, what we are really trying to develop is a skill that we can apply to literally everything in our life. When we do asana, we are using physically challenging positions to mimic the challenging positions of everyday life, so that when we are met with them we can remain calm, treat meeting the challenge as a skilful act and hopefully move from compulsion and reactivity to one-pointed focus.

The Eight Limbs, or Astanga, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras should be understood in this light. Not as commandments, rules, or even precepts. But simply as an invitation to, first, apply this ethic of practising to each aspect of your life, and eventually, to refine the act of practising itself so that the one-pointed focus that is the product of practice becomes progressively deeper and more powerful.

The first 4 limbs invite us to turn our life into a skilful act.

1. Yama – We endeavour to turn the way we interact with other people, the world around us and ourselves into a skilful act

2. Niyama – We endeavour to turn the way we navigate, propagate and nurture our inner psychological world into a skilful act

3. Asana – We endeavour to turn the understanding, care and manipulation of the physical body into a skilful act

4. Pranayama – We endeavour to turn the understanding, manipulation and propagation of energy and information throughout the body into a skilful act

The second 4 concern the gradual deepening of the one-pointed focus that is the product of turning one’s life into a skilful act. The gradual deepening of the act of practice.

5. Pratyahara – As the practitioner develops focus the normal apprehension of the senses not immediately concerned with the object of focus begin to fall away.

6. Dharana – As the practitioners focus deepens the flow of thoughts not directly concerned with the object of focus begin to fall away

7. Dhyana – As the practitioners focus continues to deepen not only do the flow of thoughs directly concerned with the object of focus fall away, but the thought of the object itself also begins to fall away.

8. Samadhi – Once all thought forms are stilled, the object of focus ceases to be an object, and the focusing subject ceases to be a subject. The meditator and the object of meditation merge.

An asana practice can cultivate this deepening of focus in many different ways. But while the 7th and 8th limbs are being approached it would no longer be appropriate to assume difficult physical postures as the thoughts required to keep the body safe and stable would no longer be coherent. Only seated meditation postures will be useful at this point as the practice becomes so focused that it no longer matters what the practitioner is practicing.

At this point all methods become identical.

This is a very important point for the aspiring yogi to understand. There are a lot of different methods of yoga and a lot of different approaches to teaching them. The details of each may have a great deal of bearing on who is most suited to them for physical, mental or spiritual reasons. If someone has serious mobility issues, the challenging peak postures and vigorous movement of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga will be completely inappropriate. A simple therapeutic asana practice or even a seated breathing or meditation practice will suffice to develop the practical skill of gradually deepening focus that is the purpose of yoga. For someone in good physical condition a gentle practice will likely not challenge the attention in a way that is useful, for this person those physically demanding postures may be ideal. As the body develops, one may move to the other. As the body ages the process may reverse. Perhaps a persons passion or work can be approached as a type of yoga such that asana or a traditional meditation practice may not be strictly necessary. As a performing musician with 27 years of practice under my belt, far longer then my asana practice, I can attest to the fact that music can get you every bit as far as an asana practice if it’s approached as a practice in the same way. And of course, if we really take practicing seriously, the practice will eventually leave the boundaries of whatever discipline we pursue and will be applied to all the activities of our life. Eventually, each method will dissolve and the outer form of the discipline will become irrelevant.
So do your practice, whatever it is, but whatever it is, try not to focus on the results. Do your practice because it’s your practice, because practicing is the whole point.

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