Patanjali’s “Ashtanga” or “eight limbs” of yoga are traditional yogic teachings and practices arranged and documented to form his great work, The Yoga Sutras. In his sutras, Patanjali presents an approach to the ancient system of yoga that is built upon a foundation of social and personal ethics and leads to ultimate liberation of the soul.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Approach
Patanjali is known as the person who compiled the main axioms of a living yoga tradition. Historically an Ayurvedic doctor, he has also been credited with authoring an Ayurvedic medical text. His systematic approach honors Ayurvedic wisdom in that it presents an empirical path to reaching the highest spiritual goals of yoga, emphasizing healthy social practices as integral to ultimate personal liberation and spiritual freedom.
The system conveys essential teachings and practices of yoga, beginning with the social ethic “Ahimsa” or “not causing harm”. This attitude and lifestyle pillar is an external premise for the deeper yogic practices and higher powers gained through those deeper practices. Considering Ahimsa is a fundamental yogic practice. In order to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of all things in the universe, an experience of a reduction in harmful practices is required.
An important implied principle in the practice of Ahimsa at the start of the yogic path is that one cannot be harmful to self, other people or the world and achieve higher knowledge and peace. Observing the ethical tenets of the eight-limbed system of yoga is similar to paying attention to the physical level of the body on the road to health and wellness generally. Ignoring eating and sleeping habits results in the deterioration of the body; ignoring social ethics results in the deterioration of the Self.
Therefore, yoga practiced in isolation from the ethical precepts so foundational to higher practices may result in a breakdown of physical and social-emotional wellness.
Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga approach is integral, meaning that none of the limbs will yield their fullest benefit in isolation from the others.
Advancing Your Yoga Practice
An integral practice means that all aspects of yoga are practised together, even if some practices are considered fundamental or foundational, and others are seen as higher or advanced in nature.
The culmination of good yoga practice, or advancing in the practice, entails bringing the integrity and mindfulness of the entire eight-limbed path into daily life. And the deeper Spiritual practices are transferrable to yoga practice on the mat. Tantric scholar Paul Muller-Ortega has said that the repetitive reading of a line of sacred scripture is similar to practising yoga on the mat. Just as a yogi wouldn’t do the pose once and then never go back to it again and expect to get the full benefit of the posture, likewise, the greatest spiritual lessons are learned in a manner that is reflective of the way the yogi progresses in the physical practice: experience the posture, learn from it, adjust based on that learning, and then go back again and again to absorb more and more of the fundamental, yet subtle and profound lessons of simple practice.