Ashtanga Yoga or eight-limbed Yoga is put forward in Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras , book two. This is the method to fully develop the body-mind.
The first two limbs are Yama and Niyama which are moral and spiritual guidelines for human development. Yama consists of:
- Ahimsa (non-harming)
- Satya (truthfulness with compassion)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (remaining attached to cosmic consciousness)
- Aparigraha (non-hoarding)
Niyama consists of:
- Shaoca (physical and mental cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapah (undergoing hardship for others)
- Svadhyaya (increasing spiritual understanding)
- Ishvarapranidhana (making cosmic consciousness the goal)
The third limb is Asana which Pantanjali calls a steady, comfortable posture. Postures have been created to train the body to be able to sit easily for meditation. Usually, when we think of yoga we are thinking of a class of asana practice. These asanas have the effect of lengthening and toning muscles, tendons and ligaments. They also affect functioning of internal organs and endocrine glands. The endocrine glands include the pancreas, thymus, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenals, testes, ovaries, prostate, pituitary and pineal.
This effect is a physical result of the movements and also a result of tuning of the energy system. The energy system is a subtle, intuited control system of the body with major junction points at the chakras. Asanas are designed to affect the chakras and normalize the energy system which then has effects in the physical body as well as the thoughts and feelings.
By following the first three limbs including proper diet, we prepare for the fourth limb, Pranayama, control of the vital energy. Control of the vital energy is developed by a special process of breathing which helps readjust vital energy in the body and allows the mind to become very calm. Yogis intuit ten different vital energies in the body called vayus. The controlling point for these vayus, again intuited is an organ in the center of the chest called the Pranendriya. The Pranendriya pulsates in synchronization with respiration. Pranayama with the correct ideation affects the Pranendriya, readjusts the vital energies and supports spiritual development.
The fifth limb is Pratyahara, withdrawing the mind from attachment to external objects. This is done by a process of retracting the mind to one point.
The sixth limb is Dharana, the concentration of the mind on a specific point. This is done by a focusing process to bring the mind to a specific chakra that is the spiritual and mental nucleus of the person. Once the mind is concentrated on the point then repetition of the mantra can begin.
The seventh limb is Dhyana, a process of directing the mind in an unbroken flow toward the Supreme Consciousness. This flow continues until the mind is completely absorbed in the Supreme Consciousness.
The eighth limb is Samadhi, the absorption of the mind in the Supreme Consciousness. This is the result of the other practices. People who experience this cannot quite explain what has happened as this state of absorption does not coexist with discursive thought. In other words the ego is not active when in Samadhi.
The eight limbs have been presented here as a tiered sort of arrangement with successive tiers building upon the ones below. Pranayama is most safe and effective when the body is prepared by asana practice, following Yama and Niyama and correct ideation. The upper four limbs are meditation related and medittion can be carried out in parallel with the rest of the eight limbs.