Eight Limbs of Yoga from a Christian Perspective
The Eight Limbs of Yoga come from a little book called the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, which was written somewhere around the time of Christ, give or take 200 years (scholars differ about when Patañjali lived). Written in short, aphoristic-like verses, the Sutras read a little bit like four chapters of the book of Proverbs. Overall, the Sutras describe a system for "calming the fluctuations of the mind" by maintaining focus on an object (Sutra 1.2). In the second chapter, Patañjali describes the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which are eight core practices that calm the thought-waves of the mind. [Like all summaries, this one is simplified. Please see the links at the bottom of the page for more!]
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yamas (attitudes towards others) and Niyamas (attitudes towards self), according to Jesus, can best be summed up in two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, body, mind, and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” The key for a Christian is to know God and His love, and then model that love toward God, self, and others. “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love (1 John 4:9-10, 16). As Christians, we remember that Love is a person. Love is not a nameless, formless force in the universe. Love is intimately personal and up close and knows us by name, and He desires that we know Him just as intimately. His love for us becomes the model we are to follow in loving Him and others:
- Love requires we love (Mt. 22:37; Mt. 22:39; Mt. 5:44)
- Love sacrifices and puts others first (Jn. 3:16; Jn. 15:13)
- Love perseveres (Jn. 17:26)
- Love offers a new beginning (Ezk. 36:26; 1 Cor. 3:17)
- Love desires communion (1 Jn. 3:1; Jn. 14:23)
- Love invites and offers forgiveness (Lk. 7:44-47)
As we extend this kind of love to God, to ourselves, and to others, we can be sure we are incorporating the essence of the yamas and niyamas.
Asanas (or postures) are a series of poses for the body held over time and synchronized with the breath. Muscles, bones, the nervous systems, respiratory, circulatory, digestive, cardiovascular and endocrine systems all work together to support the pose, and the pose in turn strengthens, regulates, and balances the body. As we practice the asanas, we grow in our awareness of the body, and we see more clearly the truth that we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:14-16a). Out of gratefulness to our Creator, we acquire a new desire to honor our body as the amazing gift that it is, knowing that our body is a temple of the Holy Ghost as well as the vehicle through which God wants to work out His will on the earth. We keep our bodies healthy and ready to complete the works He has prepared in advance for each one of us to do (Eph. 2:10).
Pranayama (or breath work) is controlled breathing. The components of pranayama are the inhalation, the exhalation, and retention (the pauses in between) the breath. Breath work has a calming and quieting effect upon the mind and the senses, preparing us for the more internal practices of yoga that follow. As we focus on our breath, we are reminded that it is the breath of Almighty God that gives us life (Job 33:4). We sense our connection to our Source, Jesus, more intimately and are calmed by remembering this connection and His promise that He is always with us. As we breathe fully with the awareness that every breath we take is a gift from our Father, not only do we energize our vital inner body with fresh oxygen all the way down to the cellular level (as the lungs pump oxygen into the blood and the blood carries the oxygen to every cell), but we also mentally and emotionally choose to stay connected to our Ultimate Life Force, Jesus.
Pratyahara (or withdrawal of the senses) can, for a Christian, be summed up with the words, “Be in the world but not of the world.” When practicing yoga from a Christian perspective, we remember that the world is not our home. Our home is with Christ who is seated in the heavenly realms at the right hand of the Father (Col. 3:1-3). So we do not cling to the things of this world. Instead we concern ourselves with the things of the Kingdom of God, and we seek to bring His kingdom to earth as Jesus taught us to do in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We willingly withdraw our senses from things of the flesh that would bend our wills towards our own selfish desires, and we embrace the freedom that comes from living by the Spirit. We die to ourselves and our plans for our lives and instead we live our lives as Christ did—for the kingdom of God.
Dharana (or concentration) is the practice of deeply focusing our attention and intentionally channeling our thoughts on one certain thing. When that One Certain Thing is Christ and His Teachings, we are transformed as our mind is renewed (Ro. 12:2). We align our thinking with the mind of Christ, and this practice of “repentance” or “changing the way we think” brings Truth to our lives. This renewed mind (filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit) is what guides us in keeping the attitudes towards ourselves and others that Christ teaches us to keep. Dharana is also known as “Concentration” and the preliminary stage of meditation. Through concentration the mind acquires the quality of a lens and penetrates deeply into the truth about something and perceives its real nature (Heb. 3:1; Jn. 8:31-32). Tools to develop concentration are worship, chant, singing, or reading aloud. As we bring a voice to the Truth—Jesus—within us, we set our minds more firmly on the kingdom of God, taking every thought and word captive to the obedience of Christ.
Dhyana (or meditation) as a practice is typically done simply sitting quietly, focusing on our breath, a word or a phrase. However, meditation is also taking place when concentration or steadfastness on the world of Christ becomes effortless and continuous, a way of life, no matter what action is taking place. When the mind of a born-again believer flows continuously towards Truth and takes hold of Him, that same mind is renewed and the believer takes on the lifestyle of the new creation that he is (Ps. 46:10; Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:1-3). In meditation we stop “studying” long passages of Scripture, and we simply receive its essence into our hearts (Ezk. 36:26-7), much like one would embrace a sunrise if he were up early enough to see it. All actions can become meditative if that is your intention. Thus, not only can we meditate sitting quietly but also as we go about our daily lives. In fact, you know meditation is “working” not so much when you can sit perfectly quietly with no distraction but when you see a difference in your personality and life-long habits for the better. Jesus taught us we would know a Believer by the fruit in his/her life. Therefore, if a meditation practice is not producing the fruit of God’s Kingdom in your life—causing you to look more like Jesus in word, action, and deed—then perhaps it’s time to consider on what you are meditating.
Samadhi (or contemplation) is the culmination of meditation and the fruit of a Spirit-filled life. As a Christian, once we have truly been able to receive Christ and His Teachings into our hearts/minds, Samadhi is manifested in our ability to totally rest in Him. No matter what is going on around us, our bodies, minds, and hearts are at rest, knowing He is within us. He has made a way for us to be one with Him and the Father, and He has sent His Spirit to stay and live within us as a constant companion, guide, and friend. All worry is gone; all fear is gone. We let go of all that we are to be all that He is (John 15:5). Contemplation is a practice that offers us the gift of knowing, with all of our being, our connection to the Vine.
For Further Study
Father Francis Clooney, SJ, has written extensively about the Sutras in blog posts on America: The National Catholic Review. Please see his work for further discussion about the Yoga Sutras from a Christian perspective.
Jesuit Yoga I - an intro to the Yoga Sutras
Jesuit Yoga II - a discussion of the aims of yoga
Jesuit Yoga III - "When the Object of Our Meditation Alone Illumines Us," the aims of yoga compared to Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises
Jesuit Yoga IV - a discussion of the kind of person produced by the Sutras and Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises
Yoga and Lent I - "The Practice of Yoga and the Practice of Lent"
Yoga and Lent II - "Sede Vacante": a discussion of karma, Ecclesiastes, and the "yoga of action"
Yoga and Lent III - "Empty Wisdom": a discussion of the apostle Paul and the Sutras
Yoga and Lent IV - "To See as Wisdom Sees": three observations on the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yoga and Lent V - "Ten Lenten Commandments": Yamas and Niyamas
Yoga and Lent VI - "Sit, Breath, Let Go": Asana, Pranayama, and Pratyahara
Yoga and Lent VII - "The Contemplative Gaze": Dharana and Dhyana
Yoga and Lent VIII - "The Samadhi of Jesus"