The 8 Limbs of Yoga; A Brief Explanation

The 8 Limbs of Yoga are first referenced in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This eight-fold path known as the Ashtanga Yoga System or 8 Limbs of Yoga (the word ‘ashta’ means ‘eight’ and ‘anga’ means ‘limb’), are core principals that serve as a compass for living a life of meaning and purpose. It is through this practice that we may find liberation and freedom of the ultimate self or as you may think of it, the soul.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

  • YAMA - Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows

  • NIYAMA - Positive duties or observances

  • ASANA - Postur, poses

  • PRANAYAMA - Breathing techniques

  • PRATYAHARA - Sensory withdrawal

  • DHARANA - Focused concentration

  • DHYANA - Meditative absorption 

  • SAMADHI - Bliss or enlightenment

1. YAMAS - Ethical Considerations to Help Guide Our Interactions With Others and the World Around Us. The Five Yamas are:

  • Ahimsa - non-violence

  • Satya - truthfulness

  • Asteya - non-stealing

  • Brahmacharya - right use of energy

  • Aparigraha - non greed or non hoarding

Through the practice of yoga we can transform every aspect of our life, not just our time spent on the mat. If we learn to be kind, honest and use our energy in a worthwhile way, our practice will not only benefit us, but the world around us as well.

2. NIYAMAS - Practices That Inform Self-Discipline and Worldview.

The Five Niyamas are:

  • Saucha - cleanliness

  • Santosha - contentment

  • Tapas - disciple or burning desire, also refers to heat

  • Svadhyaya - self-study or self-reflection, study of spiritual texts

  • Isvarapranidaha - surrender to a higher power

Niyamas are intended to build character. Practicing them helps us maintain a healthy environment in which to grow and the self-discipline to progress down the yogic path.

3. ASANA - Postures

The physical aspect of yoga is the third on the path to freedom, but it doesn't mean you have to be able to do handstands or put your foot behind your head. The word asana means 'seat' and refers to the seat you would take to practice meditation. This is the only posture mentioned in The Yoga Sutras and the only alignment instruction Patanjali gives for this asana is 'sthira sukha asanam,' the posture should be steady and comfortable. While other traditional texts list postures suitable for mediation practice, the most important aspect is that the practitioner be able to hold the posture comfortably and in stillness.

“With this truth bearing light will begin a new life. Old unwanted impressions are discarded and we are protected from the damaging effects of new experiences.” -Patanjali, The Yoga Sutras

4. PRANAYAMA - Breathing Techniques

Pranayama is the practice of consciously controlling the breath. It can be understood as either ‘prana-yama’ which means breath-control or restraint, or as ‘prana-ayama’ which translates to freedom of breath. To cultivate a mindful use of life force (breath) is to practice Pranayama.

Working with different breathing techniques alters the mind in a myriad of ways. Techniques such as Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) can induce feelings of calm, whereas techniques such as Kapalabhati (shining skull cleansing breath) are more stimulating.

5. PRATYAHARA - Sensory Withdrawal

Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing from external stimuli in order to enhance internal awareness. Pratya means to ‘withdraw’, and ahara refers to anything we ‘take in’ such as the constant sights, sounds and smells we are surrounded by. The practice is useful in drawing focus inward, not to silence the senses, but to quiet them enough to see beyond the self.

Over time, practicing Pratyahara may lead to the ability to be so concentrated and present in the now, that things like sensations and sounds don’t easily distract the mind.

6. DHARANA - Focused Concentration

Dharana is the practice of complete concentration, generally on one object. It trains the mind to be still and focused. Dha means ‘holding or maintaining’, and Ana means ‘other’ or ‘something else’. This practice is closely linked with the previous limb, Pratyahara; In order to focus on something, the senses must withdraw so that all attention is put on that point of concentration.

7. DHYANA - Meditative Absorption

The seventh limb is Dhyana. This is the practice of being completely absorbed in a meditative state. It is what the practice of meditation truly means. It is not something you can actively do, it's something that happens as a result of the other limbs. It is not dissimilar to the feeling of a runners high or what some refer to as the 'flow state.'

8. SAMADHI - Bliss or Enlightenment

Samadhi is the final step of the journey of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. After we have aligned our relationship with the world around us and ourselves by eliminating the ego, then we are ready to experience enlightenment. Samadhi is a transcendent connection with the divine and a return to the universe and the concept of 'all things as one.'

The state of Samadhi is not a permanent state. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali tells us that if we are not completely ready, meaning we still have attachments, desires, habits and ego, and are without a completely pure mind, then we will not be able to maintain a state of Samadhi. Only when the mind is pure will we truly experience the lasting state of Samadhi known as Moksha; a permanent state of liberation and freedom.

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