Yoga consists of many different practices. One of the most widely used summaries of yoga is contained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. According to this ancient Indian text, there are eight limbs of yoga:
Yama is the first step on the path of yoga practice. It is a set of principles that we should follow in our behaviour towards other people and ourselves. The first and most important principle is ahimsa, non-violence.
The second step on the path of yoga is niyama. Niyama is a set of principles that focus on how we treat ourselves and our own development. There are five principles that help build our well-being and character. As such a basic rule, we should strive to build behaviors that are helpful to us and that serve us, rather than behaviors that are harmful to us and hinder our progress.
Asana literally means “a pose”. This step involves the physical practice of yoga. Yoga asanas have only recently become widespread. Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century text, describes only 15 postures, half of which are seated postures. This is because asana used to be a position for meditation. Today, there are hundreds of postures and many different styles of asana practice. Asana is an important part of yoga practice, but it is important to remember that it is not the only one.
The next step on this path is pranayama, or breath control. The skill of controlling one’s own breath is a useful tool for regulating emotions and calming the mind. The reason pranayama precedes meditation is because having control over the breathing process is essential to the ability to meditate.
The following four steps describe the process of turning inward, meditating, and reaching a state of passive awareness.
Pratyahara is the first component of meditation. This step depicts the conscious detachment from sense sensations. The goal of meditation is to achieve single-minded concentration of the mind, and for this we need to free ourselves from external sensations that distract our attention.
Dharana means concentration, and it is the second stage of meditation. After we close our mind to perceptual stimuli in pratyahara, dharana means that we give our unconditional attention to one object – and that object can be something we are meditating on, it can be a mantra, our breath, or perhaps an activity that we enjoy and that we are completely absorbed in.
Dhyana means meditation. In dharana we have managed to concentrate absolutely on one object. But that is still a conscious process. In dhyana that concentration becomes our state of mind. Meditation is not something we do, but rather something that happens spontaneously.
And finally we come to the last stage, samadhi, which is characterized by complete passive consciousness. In this state, one is aware of everything that is happening around and within him.