The eight limbs of yoga are one of the first concepts beginners will learn when delving deeper into the practice of yoga. It is a roadmap or a framework to help achieve freedom, liberation and ultimately, bliss. It is also referred to as Ashtanga, a term derived from the words “ashta,” which means eight, and “anga,” meaning limb.
The concept originated thousands of years ago from the great yogic sage, Patanjali, and can be found in his writings titled, The Yoga Sutras. The writings are comprised of 196 Indian sutras that layout the fundamentals of yoga. This text is highly regarded within the community and can be likened to the bible of yogis.
Now this all might sound like a foreign language, but each of the limbs relate to our everyday lives. From the moment our eyes open and until they gently close, we are examples of this ancient practice. For example, our relationships with our family, co-workers and strangers, the way we treat ourselves, the dedication we put into our jobs and interests, the energy we give and receive, our undivided attention to whomever or whatever and lastly, that feeling of accomplishment when a day is coming to a close.
The eight limbs should not be seen as separate but rather as a unified whole. They should be studied as a circle, all related and dependant upon one another. Each limb is learned and practiced in a specific order so that the next can be layered on. Following the path requires dedication and an openness to learn and apply the concepts to your everyday life.
The first five limbs bring focus to our external world, while the last three bring attention to our internal being. In other words, this path should be viewed as moving from the gross to the subtle or from regular society to Ashtanga. See below for a brief overview of each of the limbs and what they encompass.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
Yamas – The five moral commandments that when practiced, allow us to be in harmony with society and have control over our actions in the world.
- Ahisma – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – not stealing
- Bramacharya – moderation
- Aparigraha – non-clinging, non-grasping to things and thoughts
Niyamas – The five observances that lead to self-purification. These involve character building, self-discipline, taking in only pure impressions, and getting to your mat everyday.
- Saucha – purity
- Santosha – contentment
- Tapas – restraint or concentrated focus, creating heat
- Svadhyaya – self-study
- Ishvara-Pranidhana – surrender to a force higher than yourself
Asanas – The physical postures that help purify the body and prepare it for the following limbs. A true Asana can only be achieved when one has integrated the practice of the Yamas and Niyamas.
For example, a yogi must learn to practice Ahisma (non-violence) towards oneself. This can translate to honoring your body while practicing, knowing the edge and how far to push yourself. It can also translate to negative self- talk and practicing kindness to yourself each and everyday!
Tapas, the third Niyama, mean to burn away the impurities, to build heat, to stoke your inner fire and build concentration. This will naturally happen once a regular yoga practice is in place. You will notice that poses become more balanced, transitions more graceful, and your breath more peaceful. This is the eightfold path of yoga within your practice!
Pranayama is the bridge between the external and internal senses. It is the connection that integrates the physical work achieved and the internal practice that lies ahead.
The practice of Pranayama involves various breathing techniques that aim to relax the mind, enhance our consciousness, and become content with stillness.
Pratyahara is the withdrawal or fasting of the senses. It can be likened to turning off the lights before bed so that you can turn inward and rest peacefully. In other words, one must dim the exterior senses to brighten the interior light.
Dharana is centered on focus. It is the practice of bringing one’s attention to a single pointed concentration or a drishti point. Many yogis are familiar with balancing postures and how critical concentration is during them. In its simplest form, Dharana involves steadying the mind on a singular point to achieve stillness.
Dhyana is the practice of meditation, which has become widely popular in Western culture. Many people believe that meditation serves as a stress reliever, but in the traditional limbs of yoga, it is far from this.
BKS Iyengar explains in his book, Light on Life, that meditation is only possible when one has already achieved a stress free state. It is a disciplined limb that requires the other six to be planted and well tended to. When this is the case, yogis will experience fluidity, expansion of awareness, an internal guidance and those “Aha!” moments.
However, for the sake of yoga being accessible to everyone, this limb can and should be practiced to relieve stress. Meditation will help slow the mind, bring clarity to your thoughts, calm the nervous system, and can aid in finding eka chitta, meaning “one mind.”
Samadhi is the final limb and is the union of the whole path. It is described as absorption, oneness, transcendence, bliss, liberation, enlightenment, a full but empty state. There is no technique needed and it can be experienced for a fleeting moment or for a period of time. Buddhists refer to this limb as “nirvana.”
The eight limbs of yoga are tools to help guide people through life. It’s a framework to build a relationship with society, be kinder to yourself, strengthen the body, awaken your energy, withdraw from the exterior and illuminate the interior, practice concentration, quiet the mind, and liberate yourself from suffering. It’s the essential path to living a wholesome and balanced life. Yoga and its teachings are accessible to everyone. It only requires an open heart and a willing mind.