Clean the House, Make
Dinner, Find Inner Peace: A Yogi’s To-Do List
On Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga
By Libby Dembe
Practitioners of yoga are called yogis, and yogis
love lists. Even the popular definition of yoga
offers an explanation in list format. Yoga: union
or yoking of body, mind and breath (toward a common
practice, which in turn unites the practitioner
with her or his best self.)
Yogis love questions almost as much as they love
lists. Why practice yoga? What does yoga do for
me? How do I practice yoga? How do I become a yogi?
Approximately 2000 years ago, give or take 400
years, a sage named Patanjali offered a response,
and codified what many consider to be the first
how-to manual on the practice of yoga. This manual,
called the Yoga Sutra, is one of the most widely
referenced yoga texts among yoga schools, likely
due to its attention to detail coupled with its
level of succinctness: this Sanskrit text is a long
list of short aphorisms. What does this manual teach
the practitioner to do? (i.e. Why practice yoga?)
Patanjali says in Sutras 1.2 and 1.3 that yoga completely
calms the fluctuations of the mind, enabling the
yogi to see clearly and to rest fully within her
or his essential, whole and peaceful nature.
So, how do we become yogis? By practicing yoga.
And how do we do that? We make a to-do list. In
the second portion of the text, Patanjali offers
a list of eight elements that an aspiring practitioner
must cultivate in order to reach what Patanjali
considers the desired goal of yoga: the calming
of the mind and the return to essential, peaceful
nature. This list is known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Because this list is so popular, many yogis have
taken a stab at their own translation of the text.
Through the wisdom of the larger community, combined
with my own thoughts on the matter, here is the
list and a translation of 8 criteria for being and
becoming a yogi. If this list leads you to more
questions, you’re on the right track.
8 Limbs of Patanjali’s yoga
1. Yama: outward observances
Yama often translates as “restraint”,
but the yama(s) (yes, Patanjali gives a list of
5 yamas) are invitations to external observances,
or outward practices, that promote peace and harmony
in life—in interactions with the outer world
of social and environmental circumstances. In Yoga
Sutra 2.31, BKS Iyengar translates the yamas as
“the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned
by place, time and [social circumstance].”
They are as follows:
affirmatively translated sometimes as compassion
for self and all others.
Satya: truthfulness, in thought,
word and action
Asteya: non-stealing. Nischala
Joy Devi’s sutra translation offers asteya
as a concept of “abiding in generosity.”
She says when we practice asteya, we remember
we are greater than our material wealth, and we
have what we need within.
Brahmacarya: energy conservation.
This yama has many translations, but one translation
that may apply well to our day and age would be
“wise use of energy,” that is, learning
to safeguard energy, and to choose our battles.
One example in yoga practice would be to pace
yourself when taking a long class, so you’re
able to maintain your strength when the body becomes
Aparigraha: non-grasping, non-hoarding,
or non-attachment. This yama could also mean,
again, using Devi’s affirming language,
“resourcefulness” or “abundance,”
i.e. the ability to recognize and cultivate gratitude
for one’s own resources.
2. Niyama: inward observances
Patanjali offers a list of 5 niyamas as well. Niyamas
are inner observances and actions that improve one’s
self and one's immediate environment.
They are as follows:
3. Asana: posture, seat.
Sauca: cleanliness. Sauca is
cleanliness not only of one’s body and surroundings,
but cleanliness of mind. Think of it as what philosopher
Dr. Douglas Brooks calls cleaning out "the
junk drawer of consciousness.” Sauca can
help the practitioner get rid of unwanted collections
Santosha: contentment. Santosha
is the practice of contentment, practice being
the operative word. Sometimes life is difficult,
and it’s hard to remember the feeling of
contentment. Santosha is the process of looking
for the good, or of counting one’s blessings
regardless of the circumstances that arise.
Tapas: literally “heat;”
energy of transformation, specifically self-transformation.
Self-transformation can happen in numerous ways.
Tapas can be the process of breaking a sweat in
yoga practice, which signifies physical efforts
that promote a healthy and fit body. Tapas also
refers to any effort the practitioner makes that
promotes health, not only physically, but also
mentally and emotionally. Philosopher Chase Bossart
says, for example, that an action of tapas may
be having that difficult but necessary conversation
with a loved one that, while challenging and emotional,
will improve the relationship.
Svadhyaya: literally “study
of texts,” but often translated as self-study.
Let’s combine these two translations and
call svadhyaya the process of taking great teachings
so much to heart that they become a part of the
practitioner, which provides insight on becoming
a consummate observer of the all aspects of one’s
to the fullness of self. Isvara is a word for
god in Sanskrit, but has come to have additional
connotations meaning best or highest expression
of self. Pranidhana means “placement under
the fullness.” Isvarapranidhana could translate
to the process of placing or holding consciousness
fully upon one’s ideal embodiment of self.
Yoga helps us embody our ideals.
The most commonly known of the eight limbs, the word
asana means “seat,” or “to find
a steady and comfortable seat.” Interestingly,
Patanjali does not comment extensively on the practice
of asana. He does, however, offer general advice,
in Sutra 2.46. He says, "sthiram sukham asanam."
As world class yoga teacher and practitioner Judith
Lasater translates, Abiding (sthiram) in ease (sukham,
sweetness) is the practice of yoga postures (asana.)
Others translate this sutra as the process of holding
a paradox in the body. Here are some other translation
Asana practice should be firm, but pleasant. Asana
is effortful effortlessness. A good asana (yoga posture)
yields steadiness and sweetness within the body. A
good pose is one that stretches and strengthens simultaneously,
in all the ways the body needs, in order to create
optimal physical alignment.
to extend (ayama) one’s vital life force
In other words, pranayama is the process of understanding
and utilizing the wisdom of the breath. Studies have
shown that deepening the breath calms the nervous
system as well as the mind. By deepening and evening
the breath, yogis for centuries have experienced less
physical stress and less mental chatter.
5. Pratyahara: to turn awareness inward, to
withdraw sensory information from external stimuli.
Some scholars posit that Patanjali wrote the 8 limbs
in a specific order because one limb creates the circumstances
necessary to make the proceeding limbs more easily
accessible. For example, it’s easier to to draw
awareness away from external sensory information when
the mind and body are calm from the effects of asana
and deep breathing. When the yogi is less distracted
by external circumstances or random thoughts, she
or he is more easily able to concentrate on a desired
6. Dharana: concentration.
Here again Patanjali outlines a natural progression
from one limb to the next. Dharana is the process
of bringing the mind to a single point of focus and
holding it there. Remember, the word yoga means to
yoke. Dharana yokes or harnesses the faculties of
the mind toward undivided concentration.
7. Dhyana: meditation.
When able to concentrate on a single point of focus
(be it the breath, a posture, or the highest ideal
for oneself), meditation begins to happen. Meditation
can be an elusive word. Let’s think of meditation
here as the process of being able to hold the mind
steadily and continuously on one point of focus.
8. Samadhi: total absorption, bliss,
to hold the realization of unity.
Samadhi, the final criterion for the experience of
yoga, is a state in which the yogi is completely immersed
in the object of concentration. The yogi then gets
a taste of what it might be like to reach Patanjali’s
yogic ideal: a quiet mind with which to remember one’s
humanity as the essence of peace. For some, doing
the dishes may be a meditation, for others it may
be painting, or running, or practicing asana. Samadhi,
however, is that moment when everything else disappears
and only the elements of the present moment exist,
the practitioner is able to see not only connection
of body, to mind and to the breath, but to everything.
A sense of real peace—bliss—arises out
of this deep connection to oneself and one’s
E-RYT 500, is an artist and dancer whose love for
the human form and movement brought her to Hatha Yoga
in 2000. She has been involved in the Austin yoga
community since 2003, serving as a studio administrator,
yoga teacher and teacher trainer. For more information,
Dr. Douglas Brooks: www.rajanaka.com
Judith Lasater: www.judithlasater.com
BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga, A Woman's
Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras
Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,
Commentaries on the Raja Yoga Sutras
Chase Bossart: www.chasebossart.com