Patanjali Yoga Sutra: Eight steps of Yoga

Sage Patanjali

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra states that Ashtanga yoga comprises eight steps of yoga which has to be perfected to reach divine self. Though, yoga was existed and being practiced before Patanjali’s time, it was scattered all over. He collated and documented which was until then passed on through oral tradition from master to pupil. It is said that there is nothing more anybody can write about yoga than Maharshi Patanjali. He created a system and made everything simple to understand.

We often view yoga as a physical exercise and meditation as a concentration technique. In reality, there is a lot more than just these aspects. Physical exercises can make you physically fit and meditation may help you to relax a little and reduce stress, but it is not sufficient to move beyond.


Then what is Yoga?

Yoga literally means ‘union’. It reunites you to the ultimate reality, which means the individual manifestation of life will get merged with the universal manifestation, or simply called as divine self. In a simple term, it is a link between a spiritual aspirant and the God. The purpose of Yoga as prescribed by Maharshi Patanjali in Yoga sutras is to liberate oneself with the cycle of birth and death and get united with God consciousness. It is a complete path by itself. Patanjali created eight limbs of yoga as a system or template to guide us to come out of the maya or illusion.

Sage Patanjali says: “Yoga anga anushtanat, ashuddhi kshaye jnanadi apthiraviveka khyatehe’’ (II Sutra 28)

[yoga – yoga; anga – limbs; anushtanat – consistent practise of; ashuddhi – impurities; kshaye – destroyed; jnana – wisdom; apthi – the light; viveka – discrimination; khyatehe – knowledge.]

Patanjali is of the view that in order to attain the highest spiritual realization, one has to follow a certain process. This process is called Ashtanga yoga or eight limbs of yoga. By constant practice of yoga, impurities are destroyed and wisdom & discrimination radiate. Though Patanjali did not coin the term Ashtanga yoga, he called it eight limbs.

You have to follow all the eight steps or disciplines in order to achieve samadhi. Maharshi calls them both steps and limbs. They are steps because one has to be followed by other like rungs on a ladder. One step at a time has to be taken in a sequential order. They are also like limbs of a tree or a body. They have an internal unity and they work together. To reach the goal, one needs to practice all the steps in totality.

[Also Read: Who is Sage Patnajali]

Contents of Yoga Sutras

Maharshi Patanjali divided yoga sutras into four chapters or padas, which contains a total of 196 aphorisms or sutras.

  1. Samadhi Pada (51 sutras) – Samadhi refers to a state in which individual self is completely aligned with the divine self. In this chapter, Patanjali explains the yoga and the means to attain samadhi.
  2. Sadhana Pada (55 sutras) – sadhana in samskrit is practice or discipline. This chapter includes kriya yoga and eight limbs of yoga.
  3. Vibhuti Pada (56 sutras) – Vibhuti means power or manifestation. In this chapter, how the powers or siddhis are acquired through dharana, dhyana, and samadhi to experience renunciation or liberation is explained.
  4. Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras) – This chapter explains the process of mastering the mind and liberation.


What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?

The eight limbs or disciplines of Yoga are; Yama (Restraining harmful thoughts), Niyama (Cultivating good habits), Asana (Physical postures), Pranayama (Breathing techniques), Pratyahara (Withdrawing senses from the object of enjoyment), Dharana (Fixing the mind), Dhyana (Uninterrupted contemplation) and Samadhi (Total absorption of mind)

There is no strict rule that the steps have to be followed one after the other. It is good to have a mastery over each step before moving on to the next step. But it may not be practically possible. Except for the samadhi, all the steps can be perfected together. However, practicing Dhyana without practicing initial steps is a futile exercise.

First five steps are very important steps in yoga. When we perfect these five steps, then Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi become natural. These five steps are like foundation. When the foundation is not strong, you might misuse the enormous amount of energy gained through meditation. Let’s dwell on each of the eight steps.


1. Yama – Restraining harmful thoughts

It deals with the ethical standard and integrity by restraining harmful thoughts and impulses. These are moral rules of code of conduct. The purpose of these rules is that to purify and strengthen our minds through moral and ethical exercises. Yama consists of the following five practices for restraining harmful physical urges to develop intense willpower.

  1. Ahimsa [Non-Violence] – `According to Hindu philosophy, all forms of life are sacred. Every living being has as much significance as a human being. Any violence committed, even in utmost secrecy will fall into the law of karma. This refers to any violence committed through action (physical violence), words and thoughts.
  2. Satya [Truthfulness] – It is the total commitment towards the truth and integrity. Again it refers to truthfulness in thoughts, speech, and action.  The practice of truthfulness generates mental strength.
  3. Asteya [Non-stealing] – Stealing is an extremely selfish act. It is prompted by a sense of craving. A person in the path of yoga, should avoid taking anything that rightfully belongs to others.
  4. Brahmacharya [Celibacy] – Brahmacharya literally means to walk with Brahman. It is like walking in awareness with the highest reality. Celibacy basically means conservation of energy. If this energy is wasted through unchecked sexual activity, unnecessary talking, too much thinking or other similar activities, then it will be difficult to practice spirituality.
  5. Aparigraha [Non-greed, Non-possessiveness, Non-attachment] – It means one should avoid taking more than what is needed. One’s possessions should include only what is necessary at a particular stage. Because unnecessary possessions will hinder one’s spiritual path. Also, one should never be identified with the possessions.

2. Niyama – Cultivating good habits

Niyama means rules. Niyama is the cultivating virtuous habits and behaviors to improve the quality of mind and make it stronger. The five niyamas are: cleanliness, happiness, penance, self-study, and devotion to God.

  1. Shoucha (Cleanliness) – A spiritual seeker should maintain external and internal cleanliness.  When body, mind, and speech become pure, the person becomes a yogi.
  2. Santosha (Contentment) – Contentment means accepting life as it is. One should be content with bare necessities of life. A happy mind and body will bring joy and ultimate bliss.
  3. Tapas (Persistence, austerity) – It is a process of self-discipline in terms of body and mind. The restraints willingly imposed upon the body and the mind, will destroy all the impurities and strengthens the mind.
  4. Svadhyaya (Self-study) – Self-study and contemplation on sacred words, would enable us towards union with the divine. For a spiritual seeker, awareness of inner reality is a must.
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana (Practice of surrendering to God) – It may sound easy to surrender to God, but a lot of sadhana is required to achieve this state. Ishvara means ultimate reality or higher self. Isvara pranidhana is the contemplation of Ishvara, which means occupying one’s mind completely into the higher self without ego.


3. Asana – Learning postures

Patanjali says “Sthira sukhasanam”, which means: that which is steady and comfortable is Asana. Therefore, when we sit for a meditation, posture should be steady and also comfortable to sit for a long time. The posture that causes pain in the body, is not suitable. A lot of practice is required to master the yogic postures. Yoga scriptures suggest many asanas like Padmasana, Vajrasana, Veerasana, Siddhasana, Bhadrasana etc. No matter which posture is chosen, the head, neck, and back should be aligned leaving the natural curve in the spine.,


4. Pranayama – Techniques of rhythmic breathing

Pranayama is the practice of consciously regulating the breathing patterns, which leads to a steady flow of energy (prana). The three phases of pranayama are breathing in, holding the breadth and breathing out. Through Pranayama, one can control the prana. However, Patanjali says when the mind is cleared from all the thoughts and ideas, then the fourth pranayama starts automatically. When the fourth pranayama starts, the pranic energy is aligned with that of the cosmic energy.


5. Pratyahara – Withdrawing senses from the object of enjoyment

All the senses within us become attached on which they feed. Pratyahara is the process of withdrawing the senses from the objects on which they depend. A yogi who is able to stop being controlled by the external world, can truly go inward. When the mind becomes free from the interference of external objects caused by the senses, it will be ready to experience the higher state.


6. Dharana – Fixing the mind

Dharana means concentration or focus, which is the preliminary stage of meditation. When the mind becomes free from the external objects caused by the senses, one can fix the mind on the inner state of contemplation. The mind can be fixed to anything like the divine, one’s breath, any object (heart, tongue etc), an idea, a mantra, an imaginary point or a colour. In Dharana, one should have a clear focus, without drifting the mind from one object to another. Also, all the other parts of the body are excluded from the consciousness.


7. Dhyana – Uninterrupted contemplation

Dhyana is intense mental concentration. It is continuous, uninterrupted and one-pointed awareness without any distraction. According to Shankaracharya, there is a slight difference between Dharana and Dhyana. In  Dharana, the mind is focussed on one object, however, it is also aware of the other aspects of the same object. But in Dhyana, the mind is so much focussed on one aspect of the object that other aspects become insignificant.


8. Samadhi – Total absorption of mind

Samadhi is a state of mind where there is no distinction between the meditator and the object of meditation. It is about getting immersed in the universal consciousness. There are two types of Samadhi. One is Samprajnata Samadhi and the other is Asamprajnata Samadhi.

Samprajnata samadhi is a state of meditation with the support of an object. Samprajnata Samadhi is of six kinds. Savitarka, Nirvitarka, Savichara, Nirvichara, Sananda, and Asmita. One who masters all the six kinds of samprajnata samadhi will be able to control the nature.

Asamprajmata Samadhi is the acme of concentration. It is a state where meditation happens without any support of an object. Swami Vivekananda says, Asamprajnata samadhi can only give freedom or liberation.

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