The 8 branches of yoga, and more specifically of Ashtanga Yoga, are described in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the ancient foundational texts of yoga, written by the sage Patanjali in the 3rd century BC.
Knowing these eight branches of yoga will be fundamental for any practitioner of yoga, and especially for those who are dedicated to the teaching of this vast and sought-after discipline.
From Sutra II.29, the 8 branches of the yoga tree are described, each one of which represents a stage in the path that every yogi has to follow towards his personal realization.
In this article, we explain what these different branches of yoga are, and the meaning of each one of them to help you on your way to inner peace and knowledge of the world of yoga.
What are the 8 branches of yoga?
In Sutra 2.29, Patanjali states that the eight disciplines or branches of Yoga are:
Yoga is a whole philosophical system, or worldview, whose purpose is to achieve union between body, mind and soul; in other words, to reach a state of consciousness in which you merge with the Universe, Samadhi.
In fact, the postures, or Asanas, are only a small part of the path of Yoga. And, as you can imagine, a large number of people enter the world of yoga for the physical benefits, and end up entering the path of the 8 Branches of Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga? Well, if you’ve done yoga, you probably know that Ashtanga Yoga is an intense style of class, where you always repeat the same 26 postures, in the same order. Well, this style is based on the 8 Branches of Yoga (as are many other styles of classes), and seeks to help practitioners reach the state of Samadhi consciousness.
At this point, you should know that the 8 Branches of Yoga were first described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most important texts within the philosophy or worldview of Yoga.
This is the social code, that is to say, the straight way in which we should behave with the other beings that inhabit the universe. This code is composed of 5 basic commandments which are:
Ahimsa – Non-violence
When non-violence is deeply embraced, all creatures cease to fear our presence. (Sutra 2.35)
Satya – Don’t or cheat
When we are firmly installed in truthfulness, all our deeds bear proper fruits. (Sutra 2.36)
Asteya – Don’t steal
When we rest firmly in honesty, wealth flows to us. (Sutra 2.37)
Brahmacharya – Restraint of Sexual Energy
When we are firm in restraint (restraint of sexual energy), we acquire spiritual energy. (Sutra 2.38)
Aparigraha – Non-possession (being generous and having only the essentials)
When man ceases to be interested in the acquisition of useless goods, he receives the knowledge of his past, present and future experiences. (Sutra 2.39)
On the other hand, the Niyamas are the rules or personal codes to be followed, to help maintain a pure and healthy body, mind and soul. The commandments included within the Niyamas are:
Saucha – Internal and external cleanliness
Purity causes us to stop being slaves to our own bodies and to lose interest in the bodies of others. (Sutra 2.40)
Santocha – Contentment and serenity
When the heart is purified the mind is calm and happy, there is increased power of concentration, control of the passions and ease in contemplating the Self. (Sutra 2.41)
Tapas – Discipline or Austerity
Austerity destroys impurities and brings about perfection of body and senses. (Sutra 2.42)
Swadyaya – Introspection and self-knowledge
Within yourself, you will attain communion with the aspect of the Universal Self* that you have chosen to worship. (Sutra 2.43)
Ishwara Pranidana – Surrender
Success depends on total surrender to the Divine*. (Sutra 2.45)
Posture is one of the 8 disciplines of yoga. In the Sutras, Patanjali does not elaborate on the meaning of the posture or postures he refers to, although he is said to be referring to Padmasana, Siddhasana and/or Sukhasana (although in the text called Bhasya, also attributed to Patanjali, the first 12 yoga postures are described).
Other objectives of the asanas are:
- To help in the development of balance.
- To improve muscular resistance and elasticity.
- To balance the body’s energy in order to achieve stability at all levels (mental, physical and emotional).
- Learning to hold Yoga postures helps to meditate intensely and for a long time.
There are many different types of asanas: standing, inverted, seated, etc. Knowing them is fundamental to carrying out varied practices in this discipline.
In the Rigveda, the oldest Indian text, it is mentioned that Prana is life, referring to the Vital Energy that resides in the universe and within us. This Prana is constantly changing within us through the breath; in other words, the breath provides us with the Vital Energy we need to exist, and allows us to expel the energy we no longer need.
On the other hand, the ancient yogis knew that through different breathing exercises, or Pranayamas, the mind could be controlled, calmed or accelerated. Pranayama is therefore a fundamental discipline for all those who seek to achieve union through postures and meditation.
Once you have mastered the codes of conduct, postures and breathing, what you have to do is to isolate yourself from all external stimuli, to look inwards. All this in order to reach the state of Dharana or concentration.
Dharana refers to concentration, and to achieve it, what is sought is to fix the mind on an internal, external or divine object; to achieve it, a great variety of techniques are used, such as Mantras, Chakras, Pranayamas, Asanas, etc.
What should that point be? The variety can be very wide. It can be a symbol, a mantra, our own breath, an apple, a candle…
Concentrating on that point does not mean obsessing over it. The attention on it should be maintained in an unforced way. To achieve this, practice is essential. A good preliminary exercise to achieve this is the daily practice of conscious breathing.
Let the focus realised with the mind be relaxed, and through practice and dedication, one can gradually achieve a state of mind-melding with that chosen point.
One thing that can help to begin the practice of Dharana is the cultivation of mindful breathing awareness each day.
According to the Sutras, when you maintain the continuous flow of attention on an object you attain Dhyana, or meditation. A process that cannot and should not be forced, but must be achieved with perseverance.
It is about trying to reach a state of deep meditation, where our personality is relegated to a secondary plane, leaving all the protagonism to our soul or spirit.
At this point, the concentration is completely fluid and uninterrupted. If we want to talk about the differences between Dhyana and Dharana we can say that:
- In Dharana the mind flows towards a concrete object, but with other thoughts interspersed and appearing.
- In Dhyana the mind flows towards that object without other thoughts appearing, so that a continuum is established.
- In this branch of yoga, time will stop, and concentration, the notion of time and space will be lost.
When we reach the state of Dhyana, we find many explanations and answers to questions and concerns that we could not understand about ourselves before.
When you master the first 7 branches of Yoga, the meditative process culminates in the state of Universal Consciousness, Enlightenment or Superconsciousness; this is achieved only when mind and duality have been transcended. A state of freedom in life, known as Jivan Mukta.
There are 2 types of Samadhi.
- Savikalpa samadhi. Similar to a trance state, one may experience visions or extrasensory experiences over which one has no control.
- Nirvikalpa samadhi. In this case, trance is entered and exited at will. It is, so to speak, the highest and most perfect degree of samadhi.
The 8 Branches of Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, was a system of disciplines proposed by Patanjali thousands of years ago, believed to be in the 3rd century BC, and he proposed it through the use of short aphorisms, or Sutras, which do not describe them in depth.
In conclusion, yoga goes far beyond what physical exercises show. The postures are only the physical representation of the teachings of Indian culture in search of personal development. Integral balance and enlightenment are the goals.