Eight Limbs Of Yoga
H.H. SWAMI CHIDANAND SARASWATIJI
Yoga is not about making only our bodies healthy, strong and flexible; it teaches us to make ourselves healthy, strong and flexible.
The secrets of the ancient science of yoga were passed down from the divine seers to the sages who came to the Himalayas for divine inspiration. Through their meditation, austerities and prayers, a treasure chest of wisdom was bestowed upon them for the benefit of humanity. Sage Patanjali is renowned for compiling this treasure chest of yogic wisdom for the benefit of the world.
Yoga is not a religion. It does not require you to believe in a certain God or to chant mantras. It is an ancient science, which leads to health in the body, peace in the mind, joy in the heart and liberation of the soul.
People take yoga classes to learn about the various techniques of hatha yoga, pranayama and meditation. But yoga is more than that. Yoga is a way of life, and its teachings should penetrate every aspect of your being – from your thoughts to your speech and to your actions.
Yoga as Union
Yoga encompasses “asana” (postures) and “pranayama” (breathing exercises), but ultimately the word “yoga” actually means “union.” Union of what? Union of the self with the Divine. That oneness with the Divine, is what we are striving for, in our lives. Lack of unity is the cause of all problems in the world – both on a personal level and on a global level. Personally, we are not united with ourselves. We are constantly at war with our mind and our heart, our desires, our fears, our confusions. There is no balance, no harmony, no unity within ourselves. We feel alone, we feel scared, we feel that everything is on our own shoulders. In our families also, unity is not there. So we frequently fight with each other, manipulate each other, and criticize each other.
Unity is also lacking in our communities. “I do Iyengar yoga. I do Anasura yoga. I do Bikram yoga. I do Kundalini yoga. My type of yoga is better than your type of yoga.” Even though we are all practicing the art of Union, still we are divided! And of course, in the world we are divided – by nations, by religions, by color.
Yoga, therefore, in its fullest and most complete meaning is truly the panacea for all that which ails us, for all that which divides us, from the most basic personal level to the most complex global level. But, how do we find that union? How do we become united?
8 Limbs of Yoga
In his compendium of wisdom, inspiration and insight, titled the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali explains yoga as an 8-limbed tree, with the highest branch being Samadhi, or the ultimate, divine bliss and ecstasy which comes from a complete, transcendental union with the Divine.
The foundation of the tree are the Yamas and Niyamas (the moral and ethical codes of conduct) and one moves upward through asana and pranayama, which use the body and the breath as the medium, then into the aspects in which one’s mind becomes fine-tuned and united with God, and ultimately to the state of divine liberation.
But when I say you will attain liberation, I am not talking only about an abstract and vague concept in which – after death – you merge into Oneness with the Divine. No, I am talking about liberation here on Earth. Liberation while living, liberation every moment of every day. What is that liberation? It is liberation from anger and greed. It is liberation from worry and desires. It is liberation from despair and depression.
But one has to begin at the foundation and move upwards. Let us take these eight limbs, one by one, and see what they mean for us in our lives. So, let us talk about these eight limbs of the tree of yoga, the tree of Divine Union.
Yamas & Niyamas
We begin at the foundation with the Yamas and Niyamas. Oneness with God, unwavering peace, ecstatic joy and ultimate fulfillment in life – of our external, physical desires as well as our internal, spiritual desires – can only come if we abide by the natural laws of dharma. These laws are descibed simply and comprehensively in the first two “limbs” the Yamas and Niyamas. We begin with the five Yamas – the moral restraints and injunctions which, when followed with dedication and discipline, help us become the master of our bodies, minds and lives.
1. Ahimsa – Non-violence
This is the fundamental, most basic and crucial tenet of living as a good human. Do not cause pain or injury to another. However, Ahimsa does not pertain only to our physical actions. It does not simply mean, “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not hit.” Rather, it encompasses all forms of violence – violence in thought, violence in speech and violence in deed. We must think pure and loving thoughts. We must speak pure and loving words, and we must practice pure and loving acts.
Further, Ahimsa does not only call upon us to live peacefully with other human beings. Rather, the meaning of Ahimsa encompasses all beings, all creatures and all life on the planet. It includes the animals as well as nature. This means, of course, that one should be a vegetarian and shun products that are made through violence to animals (either through using animal products or through cruel testing on the animals). It also means that one must take care of nature, protecting and preserving our natural resources.
Moreover, the law of Ahimsa goes even deeper than that which we do to others. It also includes that which we do to ourselves. When we smoke cigarettes, take drugs, eat food that we know leads to heart disease or diabetes, get involved in relationships in which we are abused, victimized and suppressed, or when we simply waste our precious time engaged in meaningless activity – these are all ways in which we injure ourselves.
2. Satyam – Truthfulness
This tenet also goes deeper than its mere meaning. Yes, of course we must speak the truth; but that is not enough to say we are practicing Satyam. We must also live the truth. Our thoughts, our values, our words and our actions must all be aligned. Many times we say one thing in front of others, or in the temple, or to impress people, but we act in a different way. I have even heard parents tell their children “Do as I say, not as I do.” This is not Satyam. Satyam means – “As I say, so I do.” Satyam means, being true to our promises and vows, fulfilling our word to ourselves, to others and to God.
But Satyam doesn’t mean we have to tell everything. I have seen, particularly in the West, people who are on a spiritual path think that being truthful means telling 100% of the truth, in all circumstances, to everyone. This is not the case. Our scriptures clearly say that we should practice that speech which is truthful, kind and beneficial. So, if the truth is neither kind nor beneficial to the listener, then it should not be spoken.
3. Asteya – Not Stealing
Asteya is not as simple as refraining from stealing a possession that belongs to someone else. We steal much from others without realizing it. We steal people’s time, by wasting it, engaging in idle gossip or complaints. We steal people’s credit, by claiming to have done something that actually was accomplished by someone else. We steal from Earth/nature by using more than we need – by driving cars that are too big and use too much fuel, by building homes larger than our requirement, by purchasing more and more unnecessary possessions that are made using natural resources and whose production pollutes the atmosphere. We steal the dignity, the safety and the health of the poor, when we purchase things that were made by people in deplorable conditions. Further, if God has blessed us with prosperity and we have enough to help others, it is stealing if we do not share our wealth. We must realize the joy that comes from sharing with others. Life is for sharing and caring. Life is for giving.
Brahmacharya is frequently translated as celibacy or abstinence, but actually its meaning is more comprehensive than refraining from sexual activity. Rather, it actually means one who is brahma-acharya, this means one whose actions are all dedicated to God, one whose actions are all pure and holy. It means one whose attention, energy and life are focused on God. These Yamas and Niyamas are not applicable only to celibates, sanyasis or monks. Rather they were laid out by one of the greatest sages of all times, for all of humanity. Therefore, the law of Brahmacharya also pertains to those on the householder path. What does it mean? It means restraint. It means moderation. It means, realizing that the purpose of life is much greater and far deeper than continually fulfilling one’s sexual urges. It means that all of our relationships should be ones in which we are moving closer and closer to the Divine. We should not entertain any relationships in our lives, which are taking us off the track of our spiritual growth. By over-engaging in sexual activity, our minds and attention divert, and our vital energy gets dissipated. So, even if you are married, still one must try – as much as possible – to move beyond the realm of the body to the realm of the spirit. We must ensure that those relationships we have, which do include physical intimacy, are loyal, honest, loving and are dedicated to bringing us closer and closer to God.
5. Aparigraha – Non-accumulation
Aparigraha literally means “nonhoarding.” It means don’t take more than you need – in any area of life. Mahatma Gandhi said it beautifully: “There is more than enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for any man’s greed.” It means, live simply. Use only that which you require. Purchase only that which is essential. It doesn’t mean that everyone must live like a wandering monk, but it means that we must cultivate a sense of moderation and simplicity; regardless of our financial means, we should not live extravagantly or surround ourselves with unnecessary possessions.
Travel light! If you came here for the weekend and brought 10 suitcases full of fancy yoga clothes, fashionable suits for every activity, and other unnecessary items you would go through a very difficult time at the airport! First of all, they would charge you a lot of excess baggage. Second, you would hurt your back and arms trying to lift everything.
Third, it would take you a very long time to get from baggage claim to the car, from the car to the hotel, from the hotel to your room, etc. Then your room would be cluttered with so many suitcases and, of course, you’d never be able to find what you were looking for!
But, if you came with just one small bag, with the bare necessities – clean clothes for each day, your bathroom articles, a book to read – you’d pass easily through every step of the journey. You would never be weighed down, slowed down, inconvenienced, and you wouldn’t hurt your back!
The same is true in life also. The more we try to accumulate, the more we acquire, the more we get bogged down, and the more difficulties we face. So, travel light in life and you will find that you progress quickly and easily.
Aparigraha also means that there should be no sense of “mine” in life. We should realize that everything belongs to God and we have simply been lent a certain amount for a temporary period of time. In yagna ceremonies, after each mantra, the priest chants “idam namamah.” It means “Not for me, God. It is for you, God.” This is Aparigraha. Nothing is mine. Everything is His. Everything is for Him.
We also have five Niyamas – the spiritual and ethical observances which, once we have mastered our bodies and minds through the practice of the Yamas, will take us higher on the spiritual path. In Sanskrit, the word “Niyama” means a rule or a law or a standard practice. These five Niyamas are internal laws, rules which we set for ourselves.