The Eight Limbs of Yoga is widely known and used in various ways and by diverse schools, some traditional and some even anti-traditional or anti-spiritual. The eight precepts consisting of abstentions, observances and yoga practice are concerned with the practices and requirements for any person that aspires to the yoga of knowledge. The Eight Limbs of Yoga forms a small portion of the whole body of works that make up the Yoga-Sutras. It is frequently made subject to erroneous interpretations and is used in ways that dilute and denature the intended meaning and use. We will therefore provide here a non-sectarian commentary based on the ancient texts and doctrine, without any ‘social’ or humanist distortions.
The yoga of Patanjali, based on the Shankhya cosmology, is by now the central hub of our methodology, a hub capable of analogous transposition with the true spiritual centre of the world even at a time when humanity is losing touch with the very essence to which it owes its existence. The Yoga-Sutras attributed to Patanjali express a timeless wisdom. Patanjali is a family name and does not indicate an individual author. The science of yoga already existed for thousands of years before the Patanjali school wrote down the Aphorisms. At that time, thought to be around two thousand years ago, our world was passing through considerable changes. According to tradition, humanity then entered the final phase of the Kali Yuga or Age of Darkness. There was a pressing need to write down knowledge that was once passed on orally to preserve it for posterity. As in the present times we now reach the end of the final phase of Kali Yuga, the Great Work of initiation and spiritual realisation requires a restoration of the traditional means of knowledge so that the seeds of the entire Manvantara or Cosmic Cycle can be carried through to the next and initiation, for those souls that still carry the possibility latent within them, is still possible.
Eight Limbs of Yoga
The yamas, though they are called ‘abstentions’, are practices in effect and when properly understood they are simply an expression of the truth of any individual being. The niyamas, called ‘observances’, are similarly what is ‘seen’, as an outward attitude to the beginner, while knowledge of these reveals them as the simplest, most natural state of the being.
1. Yamas: harmlessness; truthfulness; non-stealing; continence; non-covetousness
2. Niyamas: cleanliness; contentment; fiery aspiration; self-study; self-surrender (to the path, which is God)
3. Asana (seated posture)
4. Pranayama (control of breath)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
6. Dharana (concentration, fixation)
7. Dhyana (true meditation with sustained concentration)
8. Samadhi (union with God—the goal, which is yoga)
The first two yamas and niyamas are commonly referred to, even by so-called experts, as moral requirements, and sometimes even as social ethics. However, although that is certainly how they appear to the uninitiated, they are really nothing of the kind. These are practical requirements so that the goal of yoga is achievable and as such they have no relation with society or any morality; all morality is arbitrary by definition. The timeless wisdom does not change with the expedient requirements of any social order.
The ancient commentaries of sages on the Yoga-Sutras are emphatic that ‘harmlessness’ is not to be interpreted as Jainists and others do. Jainists must walk very carefully lest they step on an ant and if they find a flea in their bed they might have to move to another bed. The sages insist that one must not harbour thoughts that involve harm to another being. Obviously that also includes deeds but extreme interpretations are heterodox and do not accord with the primordial and universal tradition.
Truthfulness can be taken as far as the level of understanding goes. With greater knowledge, greater exactitude is required. One must not speak falsehood merely because it will please someone.
Non-stealing includes not stealing the thoughts or words of other persons, and this is subtler than it appears because there can be thoughts of a ‘collectivity’, such as popular opinion, what one might read in a newspaper or some form of social media—if one would read such things, which would then contradict ‘truthfulness’. Stealing also includes thoughts of envy, resentment of others. One should not claim gifts or favours from others and even when they are freely offered one should not always accept something; for example if it is given by a person with an unclean or evil mind.
Continence is sometimes construed as sexual abstinence, which is sufficient for many persons. A more complete understanding involves the conservation of all energy for the Great Work. This includes speech, such as idle chatter, and thought.
Non-covetousness is self-explanatory once it is realised what misery and suffering is caused by attachment to objects of desire. To desire or yearn for objects that belong to someone else is also a subtle form of stealing.
Of the niyamas, cleanliness includes purity of mind, so that all thoughts that are harmful to the path are eliminated. Most especially, even if evil thoughts enter the mind, they must not be retained so they become afflictions.
Contentment is acceptance of the path, and the level of attainment. From discontentment is bred the untruth of imagining that one is much further along than one really is. That is an impediment to yoga. With contentment comes tranquility, which is necessary if the yoga practice is to advance beyond the veriest beginning.
The fiery aspiration brings forth virya, a special kind of faith, strength and endurance that is built up through continuance of right practice. Nothing can be achieved without fiery aspiration.
Self-study means constant vigilance and discrimination—which is an exact science. It also means developing a reflective attitude of mind. It must not be construed ‘psychologically’, which involves development of a mentality that is totally anti-yogic as it encourages tamas and tends towards the asuras or demonic nature.
Self-surrender to God (and so the path itself) cannot be done without faith (saradha) and as a consequence the virya that comes about through the practice of yoga and discrimination. The profane or uninitiated person does not comprehend this at all and imagines it to be a sort of passivity that he can only see as ‘negative’. Self-negation on the other hand does not require mortification, as that is in fact only an inverse form of conceit or flattery. The self, through the senses and mental impressions, is a superimposition upon the Real or True Self. Any sacrifice is only what appears from the point of view of ignorance. From the point of view of the Self, freedom is gained from the misery and suffering of countless afflictions.
The last six limbs of yoga are the practice itself, commencing with seated asana or posture, which does not involve, as some like to think, difficult or even impossible or unnatural contortions of the body.
Likewise with control of the breath, which when properly understood is the direction of prana or subtle vitality.
The withdrawal of the senses here refers to the physical senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling, for at the beginning it is valid to concentrate the mind on the subtle (tattva) elements. When seated for meditation one closes the eyes so the sight is transferred within.
Concentration means to hold one object in the mind and no other. When this is sustained, then dhyana or true meditation is possible, and knowledge can be gained of any object.
Samadhi or union with God, sometimes called ‘transcendence’, is the goal of yoga. The word ‘yoga’ is inclusive of both the means and the goal.
This article, The Eight Limbs of Yoga, is from our book, Thunder Perfect Gnosis.
© Oliver St. John 2023