Which Limb First? Finally a Legit Answer to the Questions posed by Patanjali’s 8 Limbs

As an avid student of the philosophical aspects of yoga, I get irritated with myself for getting caught up in the minutia of which approach is correct when looking to move my practice beyond the mat.

Things like: Do Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga evolve all at once, like the limbs of a baby growing or do you start with the yamas and work your way to enlightenment as some scholars of the eight limbs espouse. This kind of stuff actually keeps me up at night.

Patanjali laid out these eight limbs to bring us to a point where our impurities are destroyed and we attain a wisdom beyond intellectual gain. The fact that most of us tend to start with yoga and then have to decide to move up or down the spectrum makes me wonder about the legitimacy of either of the above claims.

When we tie together another basic yoga philosophy idea—the koshas to the Eight Limbs, it all becomes clear. The Eight Limbs must follow the same process that our inner evolution to connection with our Higher Self does.

To review, the five koshas are the five veils or sheaths that cover Atman, or the God, within us. It is the drop of spirit within us that we are closest to as children and then again, closer to death, that gets covered with our earthly experiences.

The first veil, annamaya kosha, is the “food sheath.” It is our physicality, the part of ourselves that needs to eat and sleep. It’s the most grounded and earth-bound part of ourselves. It is the part of ourselves that experiences the physical practice of yoga, that sweats, stretches, strengthens, looks for ease and comfort on the mat. If we start with this manifestation of outer body as the most gross or base sheath to cover our connection to a Higher Spirit, than truly we can say that the Eight Limbs are a journey to evolution that starts with Asanaor the third limb.

Continuing to use the koshas as a guide, we then move to Pranamaya Kosha, or the energy Sheath.  Prana is defined as the energy that rides in on the breath. It is what fills the nadis, it’s what sends the chakras into a whirling dervish of balance or imbalance. This is the breath of practice, which is interestingly where we tend to move our focus naturally as we go deeper into practice. Pranamaya Kosha enlivens the physical earth-bound body. When we follow the model of the koshas, the obvious next step is Pranayama or the 4th Limb in Patanjali’s ladder to Enlightenment.

The third kosha is manomaya, this is where we process emotions and feelings. Because we experience emotion and then react to them, we could venture to say this covers two limbs. First, the yamas. The yamas are guidelines to live by when dealing with the outside world and it’s fair to say that it’s in these relationships where emotions arise (it’s easy to detach in a cave, at the top of a mountain alone, without triggers).

Then it makes sense that the third limb to study would be the “rules” on how to behave with others. As well, as we move into, toward Atman, manomaya kosha would also ask us to become more acquainted with is pratyahara. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. The great sages taught that in order to release the fluctuations of the mind, we should not be triggered by our experiences through the senses. They preach that we experience the outside world through the senses and then we react. Therefore if we step away from the world of what we see, what we hear, taste, touch etc, we are less susceptible to being swayed by our worldly experiences. So, it’s safe to say that by combining the withdrawing of the senses—the fifth limb—with the first limb, we are well on our way to next step toward moving to the Higher Self.

The fourth kosha is Jnanamaya Kosha. This is the sheath of wisdom that is at the root of our processing, thinking aspect of mind. This is the world of opinion/judging and creates separation between things. This is where our ego resides. The avatar that we create, that we project into the world, the person we believe we are is firmly established in this sheath. This sense of “I” allows us to have a sense of ourselves in the world. But it’s when life’s struggles don’t reflect situations that we think would happen to this persona, we run into trouble.

The ego also loses strength when mixed up in the past. This kosha is very much about our relationship to ourselves. The second limb, the niyamas, are all about our practices of self-discipline and our personal spirituality so here we turn inward and reflect. Our ego is very much tied into how spirituality and self-discipline play out in our day-to-day lives. One could ask, which comes first, the chicken (our ability to reign ourselves in and take time for sadhana) or the ego (do these things partially define who we are?)

The fifth kosha, anandamaya kosha plays into the sixth and seventh limbs. The fifth kosha is a delving into the bliss of being absolutely present, with no past experience to influence us and no future event to create anxiety. This takes a tremendous amount of concentration to move into the uninterrupted flow of contemplation, that starts with practice on one object and then later dissolves into pure concentration. The mind quiets, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The sheer will to reach this state of stillness is similar to moving a mountain—a force that is continuous and unyielding.

Finally we arrive at the light beneath the five koshas, Atman—the reconnection with a part of ourselves that is unchanging, unswayed. The soul that dropped into this physical body that will one day return to a greater pool of energy. This coincides readily with the nirvana of Samadhi, the Eighth Limb. The purity of non-dualism creates a state of pure existence that is not influenced by our experience on this earth, in this body. At both points can we experience the eternal vastness of infinity and there, we release fear.

When we combine these two philosophical elements of yoga, we can arrive at an understanding all our own that cuts a clear path into the confusion of how to approach our path to a mind unfettered by the fluctuations of the mind. And there is a peace there.

Francesca Ter Poorten