The Eightfold Path: Aid on the Spiritual Journey

Part 1: Beginning the Journey

For most of my association with yoga I found the eight limbs of the eightfold path from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra more confusing than useful. Since I’ve been reintroduced to them, I’ve discovered that I’ve been practicing some of them without realizing it. It seems to me now that if we peel away some of the cultural overlays, that the eightfold path has gifts to offer those of us in the West. This is the first of six columns devoted to exploring their value in today’s world.

The eight limbs of yoga are: 1) yama, ethical principles; 2) niyama, rules of conduct; 3) asana, postures or the physical exercises of yoga; 4) pranayama, the science of breath; 5) pratyahara, control of the senses; 6) dharana, concentration; 7) dhyana, meditation; and 8) samadhi, union with the divine.

Most hatha yoga practice consists of asana and pranayama with a little meditation thrown in. In doing so, we’ve reduced a complex system to what makes sense to us, leaving valuable aspects, unrecognized, behind. The next several columns will be devoted to exploring these and the rest of the limbs, beginning with: The First Yama.

Each of the eight limbs provides a foundation for the next. For instance, the ethical principles expressed in the yamas can be seen as a Hindu Ten Commandments. They are behaviors to avoid, and they prepare the yogi for what comes next.

There are five yamas. The first and most familiar to Westerners is the one associated with Mahatma Gandhi – non-violence, or ahimsa (“You shall not kill,” or non-harming). This arises from the recognition that all beings are one with the Supreme Being and, as such, are part of ourselves. This is why vegetarian eating is fundamental to Hinduism.

I, too, was a vegetarian for a long time. When I discovered that plants have feelings and spirits, as well, my choices became: Become a fruitarian (an extremely expensive way to eat); learn to live on air as certain yogic saints do; or resolve to eat both plants and animals with reverence. That means being gratefully aware of the sacrifices made by other beings for my survival, and making sure that food is prepared in ways that honor the ingredients.

Ahimsa requires us to take no more than we need and to do what we can for the well-being of our fellow travelers on the planet because, since we are all part of “God,” when we harm others we harm ourselves. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and Animists have all created beautiful, meaningful ways to make sense of living. Republicans, communists, democrats, sultans, kings and presidents all struggle to make societies work. Sometimes the complexities that societies must accommodate frustrate folks to the point that war or extermination seems the only answer.

Judging others for their beliefs or behaviors does not help. Compassion does. So does holding the ideal of ahimsa in our hearts and remembering how deeply we are all connected.

Namasté (the spirit in me salutes the spirit in you).


  1. The book takes issue with the commonly held belief that success is the result of hard work, exacting plans, and driving ambition. Instead the book adopts the perspective that success is the result of learning to live in harmony with natural laws. Achieving this harmony it holds to be the key to manifesting well-being, good health, fulfilling relationships, energy and enthusiasm for life, and material abundance.


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