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The 1st limb of Patanjali’s noble eightfold path

By Anna Bhushan based on conversation with A.L.V. Kumar avlkumar2

A. L. V. Kumar has been a lifelong practitioner of yoga and meditation. His interest in teaching came about as a result of a car crash that resulted in complete paralysis of the lower body. He used his knowledge of yoga to restore his body to full health. Following this experience he decided to dedicate as much time as possible to teaching yoga to heal both body and mind. Since then he has taught yoga to over 13,000 people in India by conducting free public workshops, in addition to residential meditation courses, teacher training and yoga therapy courses in India, the US, UK and China. Kumar was recently honoured with the Bharat Jyoti Award, the International Achievers Award and the Glory of India Award for his meritorious public service in the field of yoga.

Anna Bhushan is a trustee of the Yoga Healing Foundation, under which Traditional Yoga programs are run. She is a trained yoga and meditation teacher, as well as a painter and lecturer. She has been studying with A. L. V. Kumar for many years and writes these articles from her conversations and recordings with A. L. V. Kumar. Read more about A.L.V. Kumar on the website of Traditional Yoga, Hyderabad, India.

Our previous article introduced the Hindu sage Patanjali who codified the oral tradition of yoga into a series of sacred written texts known as the Yoga Sutras. Before learning the asanas, a student of yoga was required to master the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path. We now examine the first limb : the yamas. 


Patanjali, a great yogi who lived in India around 100 BC, is the author of the Yoga Sutras which teach the path to completely purifying the mind, leading to enlightenment. Patanjali teaches an eightfold path to achieve this goal, based closely on the noble eightfold path of Buddha, his predecessor by 300 years.

Patanjali’s eightfold path includes:

1. Yama (morality)

2. Niyama (observance)

3. Asana (sitting posture)

4. Pranayama (observing the natural uncontrolled breath)

5. Pratyahara (withdrawing the senses)

6. Dharana (momentary concentration)

7. Dhyana (access concentration)

8. Samadhi (absorption concentration)

There is a common misconception that Patanjali is referring to physical yoga in his eightfold path, particularly when he mentions asana and pranayama. In fact, Patanjali’s science pertains purely to the mind. Asana refers to the sitting posture for meditation, and pranayama refers to the practice of observing the natural breath in meditation.

The first and foremost step that Patanjali teaches is yama. These are the five principles of yama:

Ahimsa – non-violence (to remove anger or hatred from the mind)

Asteya – ‘non-stealing’ (to remove greed from the mind)

Satya – truthfulness (to remove fear from the mind)

Brahmacharya – ‘non-sexual misconduct’ (to remove lust from the mind)

Apaarigraha – ‘non-intoxication/addiction’ (to prevent slavery of the mind)

There is absolutely no doubt that the first step of the spiritual journey is abstaining from unwholesome action. The resolution to give up any action which causes harm to yourself or others by body, speech or mind is the foundation stone without which there can be no progress whatsoever. This is the teaching of every yogi and every saint. Buddha calls these principles sila.


This code of conduct is also recognisable in the tenets of most of the major religions throughout the world. If people of the world maintained these five basic principles it would be a very different place, free from violence, terrorism, corruption, addiction and sexual abuse.

Without striving to maintain these five qualities, there can be no spiritual growth. No matter how much meditation, how many rituals, how many spiritual books we read or how much charity we do, it is of no use without this basic morality.

The Katha Upanishads say: “Not even through deep knowledge can the atman (inner self or soul) be reached, unless evil ways are abandoned.”

Why are these five principles so important?

On the path of yoga the goal is to remove all negative tendencies from the mind. That is why the first step is to stop doing any action that increases those tendencies and reinforces unwholesome behavioural patterns. For example, every time we tell a lie we increase fear in the unconscious mind. If we want to live without fear, the first thing we do is to make a commitment to always tell the truth. It is not possible to experience anger and peace simultaneously. When we shout at someone we flood our bodies with adrenalin and other unpleasant chemicals that get deposited as a cellular memory at the unconscious level of the mind. These stored impurities will eventually resurface and find a new object to attach themselves to. Or they may manifest as health problems. It is said that if we shout at one person, 100 people will shout back at us sometime in our future. This is the law of karma; cause and effect, seed and fruit, stimulus and response. When we cause harm to anyone else through our negative actions, we simultaneously cause much more harm to ourselves.


The volition behind the action has the effect of making it weak or strong, so for example, accidentally treading on an ant is not breaking the principle of non-violence as long as it was not done out of strong negligence or carelessness. However, if we curse someone or wish ill on them mentally, even if we do not outwardly do anything to harm them, the violent action of the mind has been performed and we will reap the results. For this reason refraining mentally from unwholesome actions is specifically mentioned. For example, having the intention to confuse or mislead someone amounts to breaking sila even if the words uttered are not literally a lie. Likewise, covetousness is the mental violation of the principle of ‘non-stealing’ even if the hand does not touch the object of desire. The first step is to refrain from the action outwardly by body and speech, but just as important is developing the mental tendency to shrink away from any thoughts of hatred, greed for others’ belongings, excessive or inappropriate lust, deception and desire for intoxication.

If we want our room to be clean, the first thing we do before clearing it of dust is to make sure that we are not bringing any additional dirt inside. If dust is blowing in while we are working hard to sweep it out, the purpose is defeated and we are just wasting our time and energy. That is why both Buddha and Patanjali teach that in order to purify the mind we must first scrupulously maintain these principles.

Maintaining these five principles gives the aspirant a sense of confidence and relief. It creates a lightness and calmness in the mind. The calmer the seas, the deeper we can dive. When the seas are choppy and stormy, it is very difficult to enter the water. In order to practice meditation effectively, we must create the conditions that will reduce mental agitation so that we can concentrate and explore the mind.

Photographs by Coni Hörler.

An introduction to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras

By Jodi Boone 

Jodi Boone-cropJodi Boone is a yoga teacher, Ayurvedic lifestyle counselor and birth doula. For the past six years, she lived in India, co-directing Satsanga Retreat, in Goa, India. Recently, she moved to Seattle, USA. Jodi teaches yoga classes and workshops in her community, as well as retreats and trainings internationally. For more information, please visit her website


Part One of a new series of articles on important yoga luminaries introduces the Hindu sage Patanjali who codified the oral tradition of yoga into a concise written form in a series of sacred texts known as the Yoga Sutras. Jodi introduces us to this mythical character and these important texts which are the foundation of yoga philosophy and required reading for all serious yoga seekers.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outline a path for obtaining divine oneness, self-realisation or, as Nicolai Bachman says in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras, a deep understanding of the core of who you are. Among yogis and spiritual seekers, this promise is very inviting. What is even more attractive is that the path is laid out in 195 short verses (or 196, depending on the school of thought). You could easily read the entire Yoga Sutras in 30 minutes or less. However, making sense of these pithy lines is a different, and much longer, story. Like yoga, studying the Sutras could span a lifetime. There are dozens of translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and they vary because the terse verses leave much room for interpretation.


The name Patanjali means “falling from joined hands” (in Sanskrit, the word patat means falling and anjali means joined hands). As with most great Indian mystics, sages and priests, there are mythical stories explaining their incarnation (or reincarnation). The myth widely held for Patanjali is that he deeply desired to share with the world the teachings of yoga and other knowledge so he chose to be reborn as a seven-year-old boy, falling from the ethereal world directly into his mother’s hands, a Brahmin woman named Gonika. For this reason she named him Patanjali (Source: David Gordon White’s book, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography).

Although no one is certain, scholars believe Patanjali lived sometime between 500 BC and 200 AD. Patanjali is not only credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, but also works on ayurveda and Sanskrit grammar. Because of his prolificacy, some scholars question whether Patanjali was one person or if the name refers to a collective group of sages and teachers. Where everyone is in agreement though is that Patanjali brilliantly codified the vast oral tradition of yoga into a concise written form. He did not develop yoga, this science existed thousands of years before Patanjali.

In India, the ancient tradition of orally transmitting knowledge through the chanting of mnemonic verses is still practiced today, helping students recall knowledge passed down from their teachers. In Sanskrit, the word sutra means thread, and each densely packed and succinctly written Sutra represents a large amount of knowledge. Chanting the verses helps students with memorisation and pronunciation. The belief is that students are not ready to question their understanding of a teaching until they have committed the knowledge to memory and mastered the pronunciation.


The inspiration of the Yoga Sutras comes from the Vedas, which are the most ancient Hindu texts in India, as well as the foundation of Hindu spirituality. Today, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras remain the primary text on yoga philosophy. The first verse of the Yoga Sutras is translated as: “Now the teachings of yoga.”  Today, a reader may assume that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about asanas, or postures, which is the modern day connotation of yoga. Although, after reading just a few lines, it is clear that Patanjali is concerned with meditation and ultimately, self-realisation. The text says very little about asana. What is shared about asana relates to finding a comfortable sitting position for meditation.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are divided into four chapters, or Padas:

1) Meditative Absorption

2) Practice

3) Mystic Powers

4) Absolute Independence

The Sutras explain the nature of reality, our misunderstanding of the nature of reality and the practices necessary to see reality clearly. As Chip Hartranft says in his book, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, “Though brief, the Yoga Sutras manage to cut to the heart of the human dilemma.”

The main problem, Patanjali says in his Sutras, is a misunderstanding about consciousness and ’pure awareness’. They are separate, but are often perceived by humans to be one and the same. Patanjali’s solution for this is to allow consciousness to settle from the whirling thoughts, sensations and emotions to a point where it can reflect ‘pure awareness’ back to itself. This is addressed right away, in the second verse: “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. When this is achieved, we connect with our source of true happiness – pure awareness. The path Patanjali lays out is a journey within, accessible to anyone, offering deep, universal insight that guides practitioners to freedom.


Today, the philosophy from the Sutras that yoga practitioners are most familiar with is The Eightfold Path, or Ashtanga Yoga (unrelated to the asana system founded by Pattabhi Jois), which appears in Chapter 2, Verses 28 – 32. Ancient lore says that when a student approached a teacher to study yoga, the teacher would require him to master the yamas and niyamas, the first two limbs of the Eightfold Path, before returning to learn asana.

With the many translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras available today, deciding on which one to read may feel overwhelming. In choosing a translation, you could approach this similarly to finding a yoga teacher – someone you resonate with and enjoy spending “time” with – Edwin F. Bryant’s translation is 598 pages long with an 8-point font!

Like Ayurveda, yoga’s sister science, yoga was given to humanity as a gift. Ayurvedic philosophy is focused on longevity and leading a life of well-being. In the case of yoga, the practices are dedicated to ending the ‘mundane’ cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Ultimately, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras speak to the greatest desire of every human being – how to end the cause of suffering and find eternal happiness.

Look out for our next article which will examine the 1st limb of Patanjali’s Eightfold Path.

Photographs by Coni Hörler.

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