Yogis of old used the analogy of a horse-drawn chariot to relate the way they thought we ought to align ourselves physically and mentally with our inner wisdom. The disparate parts of ourselves were correlated with the passenger, the driver, the reins and the horses. These parts either work together as a whole or wreak havoc on our lives, as is demonstrated in the following comparison. When the passenger (the higher mind) is awake and clearly resolves to give the driver (the ego) good guidance that is a vital starting point. If the driver (ego) is clear-headed and receptive enough to heed the guidance and skillfully takes control of the reins (the lower mind and emotions) thereby keeping the horses (the senses) in control, then the chariot (the body) can successfully reach the chosen destination. If the passenger is asleep and driver is drunk, then things can get a little crazy. As a contemplation on our lives and psycho-physical reality, the analogy points toward higher intention, inner alignment and a call to skillful action involved in being a yogi in the world.
Like the chariot analogy, the idea of eight limbs gives a holistic view of our relationship to ourselves and the world. In the Yoga Sutras, the path of Yoga is described as having Eight Limbs (Ashtanga), which like the limbs of a tree, grow together and reflect different aspects of our being, from our relationships with others to our inner consciousness. The limbs are often thought of as a progression of principles and practices, a systematic approach to working with our behavior, body and consciousness. The Eight Limbs include moral principles/disciplines (Yama), daily observances (Niyama), postural awareness and practices (Asana), energy awareness and breathing practices (Pranayama), inward-turned consciousness/ withdrawing from the senses (Pratyahara), mental concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and enlightened states (Samadhi). The first four, which are sometimes referred to as the “outer” limbs, when they are well cultivated can lead the practitioner to the threshold of the “inner” limbs. At some point, there is a natural reciprocal relationship between the inner and the outer limbs, like the roots and branches of a tree.
Modern Western Yoga practitioners often are only aware of and only practice the third limb and don’t pass through the doorway into inner practices. Practices related to the fourth, fifth and sixth limbs (breathing practice, withdrawing from the world of the senses and concentration) are where deeper personal transformation can begin to take hold. The first two limbs are key concepts for initiating the right view and understanding of life as a Yogi. These are fundamental to how we behave in relation to others and to our mental and physical health. The next two limbs are important for initiating the body and mind as a healthy vehicle. These are also foundational for being able to more easily enter meditation. The final four limbs point out the path to deeper states of focused inner awareness and awakening higher consciousness.
The Eight Limbs formulation, as traditionally interpreted, is a path for the renunciate or monastically-oriented person who is being asked to leave the worldly reality and tune into their deep inner spiritual reality. Interpreting the teaching for the modern “house-holder” yogis sometimes does not make sense because of that. We moderns are caught in a bind of being asked to fulfill ideals of renunciation but still live a worldly life. Patanjali, obviously did not have any modern life issues in mind and apparently wasn’t thinking of family life either! In addition, the exact practices to be done, in each category mentioned above, are not always spelled out very specifically in the Yoga Sutras. Therefore, it is left to the particular teachers, in various yoga lineages, to give the specific instructions for daily living and practice.
Overall, we are given poignant and profound principles or guidelines to follow. Or at least an interesting model to inspire us. We still need to discern clear, specific directives for the full manifestation of them in our lives! How to practice the limbs? That takes us into a lot of interpretation of how yogic principles should be applied in our modern worldly life!
Maybe that will need to be the next quandary to be explored!