As complimentary Vedic sciences, Ayurveda and Yoga originated from the same source and share a common history, language, and cultural foundation. Often referred to as sister sciences, yoga and Ayurveda weave together perfectly and help to enrich the other’s benefits.
The tradition of yoga is like a wide river with many different streams—over many centuries of evolution it has branched into countless different systems, styles, and schools of thought. One of the most recognized and well-known systems is Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga, commonly known as the eight limbs of yoga.
Patanjali was a sage in ancient India, known for his contribution to classical yoga and for authoring the Yoga Sutras. This famous and greatly influential text defines yoga as having eight limbs, similar to eight separate branches of the same tree.
In order, these eight limbs include the yamas (abstinences), niyamas (observances), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (absorption).
The yamas can be thought of as outer observances, ethical guidelines, or areas of self-restraint. They are focused on how one interacts with the outer world, and include five rules—ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (right use of sexual energy), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
There are also five niyamas, which can be thought of as virtuous habits and relate more to one’s internal state. These include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-disclipline), svadhyaya (self-reflection), and isvarapranadhana (surrender to the divine).
The third limb of yoga is what we most often think of when speaking of yoga in the West—asana, or postures. While this concept can be interpreted in different ways, even as simply taking a seat or meditation posture, it can also refer the countless yoga poses and positions we see in a modern yoga studio.
Pranayama, or control of the breath, is also gaining popularity in the West and can include any kind of breathing practice such as Alternate Nostril Breathing or Ujjayi Pranayama. The fifth limb, pratyahara, refers to withdrawing the senses from the outer world and turning one’s gaze inward. The idea is that this practice can guide one closer to inner knowledge and inner contentment.
Dharana, the sixth limb, refers to concentration or a holding a single-pointed focus. This point may be the breath, a mantra, or a particular place of focus in the body, and trains the mind to become still, rather than jumping uncontrollably from one thought to another.
This single pointed focus that is developed with a practice of dharana leads naturally into the seventh limb—dhyana, or meditation. It goes a step beyond simple concentration to a place of contemplation, steady awareness, and an uninterrupted stream of consciousness. The concept of dhyana is what we ideally find with consistent meditation practices such as So Hum or Empty Bowl meditation.
Lastly, the eighth limb of yoga is samadhi, or absorption. This refers to a state of being more than an action and can be thought of as an experience of oneness or harmony. A highly evolved state of consciousness invoking profound joy, spiritual bliss, and ecstasy, this is considered the ultimate goal of yoga and the purpose for the previous seven limbs.