The 8 limbs of yoga, known as Ashtanga yoga, is a step-by-step guide to realizing the ultimate truth and connecting with the divine in us.
The Sanskrit word Ashtanga is made up of two words – ‘ashta’ meaning eight and ‘anga’ meaning limbs. Ashtanga yoga, therefore, literally translates to the eight limbs of yoga or the eight-fold path of yoga.
In this article, we do some getting to know. We talk about the origin of the 8 limbs of yoga, what they are, and how they can be put into practice.
The Origin of The 8 Limbs of Yoga
Patanjali was an ancient Indian sage who, during his lifetime, authored many great Sanskrit works, including the Yoga Sutras. It was through the Yoga Sutras that Patanjali classified classical yoga into the 8 limbs of yoga or Ashtanga yoga.
The Yoga Sutras is Patanjali’s seminal work and is accepted as the authoritative text on classical yoga. It is a compilation of aphorisms (sutras) that lays out a practical and approachable path to the theory and practice of yoga through its 8 limbs.
The 8 limbs of yoga are sequential and progress from involving the outer to the inner. Patanjali, therefore, created something like a guidebook that has practical advice for how to start, proceed, and culminate one’s spiritual journey so as to arrive at the state of ultimate bliss. You can get this guidebook here.
What are The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The 8 limbs of yoga are yamas (abstinences), niyamas (observances), asana (physical postures), pranayama (breathing techniques), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (complete absorption).
Here are the 8 limbs of yoga in detail:
The yamas are abstinences or a list of don’ts. They are moral and ethical rules that practitioners abide by so they can follow the right code of conduct.
The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa: is causing no harm. It is the approach of non-violence towards any living being in thought, action, or word. Read this article if you want to learn more about Ahimsa.
- Satya: is being true. It is truthfulness, non-lies, and non-falsehood.
- Asteya: is non-stealing. The scope of asteya goes far beyond material and physical objects and expands to include our behaviors in relationships, and the ideas of time, energy, trust, generosity, etc.
- Brahmacharya: In the literal sense, Brahmacharya is following the kind of conduct that would lead us to the creator or Brahma. While widely understood as celibacy, Brahmacharya in its essence refers to the conservation of sensual energy so it can be transformed into spiritual energy.
- Aparigraha: is the abstinence from grasping. It, therefore, entails non-hoarding and non-possessiveness.
The yama ahimsa means harming no living being, including yourself and not even with your thoughts.
How to put the Yamas into practice
Reflection is a great way to build awareness about each of the yamas. Before going to bed, recalling the events of the day and thinking about how we responded and felt can make us more aware. It also reveals our deep-rooted tendencies.
Having the yamas as a guide helps us benchmark our thoughts, words, and actions against that which is in alignment with our yogic journey.
If the yamas were a list of don’ts, the niyamas are a list of dos. These are observances that one keeps to progress on the path of virtue.
The five niyamas are:
- Shaucha: It means purity and cleanliness and refers to mind, body, and speech. Purification of the body by keeping it and its environment clean as well as purification of the mind by keeping away from negative thoughts and behaviors are essential in yoga for health and happiness.
- Santosha: The word santosha means contentment. Contentment comes from acceptance. Accepting ourselves, accepting life as it is, and accepting what life has brought to us are steps towards leading a life of happiness.
- Tapas: When translated, tapas means heat. In the context of yoga, it refers to the burning off of impurities by practicing self-discipline, austerity, and perseverance.
- Svadhyaya: The Sanskrit term means the study of self. It also includes the study of sacred texts like the Vedas. Introspecting, journaling, and studying the wisdom teaching are some ways to gain a deeper understanding of the self.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: The word Ishvara means God or the Supreme. Pranidhana is to devote or surrender. This niyama is about dedicating all the actions of one’s life to the Supreme. It helps in cultivating humility.
You can use journaling to practice self-awareness and record your progress.
How to put the Niyamas into practice
Since niyamas are about observances, journaling is a great way to monitor progress and notice what’s happening inside of us. Spending time alone, especially in nature, is also a way to build self-awareness and get in touch with our feelings and emotions.
The word asana means seat. Asana, which is the third limb of the 8 limbs of yoga, is the practice of physical postures or poses. It is interesting how asana has become synonymous with yoga though it is just one-eighth of what yoga actually is.
The Yoga Sutras are 196 in number, out of which Patanjali dedicates only 3 to asana. The sutra that is the most well known about asana and perhaps also the most important is ‘sthira sukham asanam’. According to the texts then, asana is that which is steady, stable, effortless, and comfortable.
This sutra on asana shines a light on the importance of being compassionate with ourselves in our physical practice of postures. Recognizing the difference between discomfort and pain and keeping in mind that pain in a posture is not yoga helps us be kind to our body and mind.
How to get the most from your asana practice
Step 1 is to set an intention. What does your asana practice mean to you? How would you like it to benefit you? What would you like to achieve from it?
Next is to create a consistent practice. Whether you spend fifteen minutes on your mat every day or an hour every alternate day, there is no shortcut for the benefit that you will receive if you show up on your mat. Perseverance is key.
Listen to your body. Respect its limitations.
Follow your breath. Your breath will be your guide as you transition from one posture to the other and your anchor as you stay in a pose.
The meaning of the word prana is life force or vital force. Ayama means to regulate or gain control. Pranayama, therefore, helps to elevate our life force by regulating the breath.
Pranayama is the practice of working with the breath. It involves focusing on the breath, different ways of regulating inhalations and exhalations, and techniques of creating pauses after inhalations or exhalations.
Research has shown that a regular practice of pranayama has immense benefits for both body and mind. It can considerably reduce stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure, be therapeutic for respiratory conditions like asthma and bronchitis, and improve sleep.
The best moment to practice pranayama is after doing asanas or other physical activity.
How to practice Pranayama
B.K. S. Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world and the founder of Iyengar Yoga has said that Pranayama should only be learned from an experienced Guru or teacher.
While practicing Pranayama, one needs to be careful that the breath is not forced beyond capacity. The exercises should feel comfortable and the breath should feel steady.
Other considerations to keep in mind are that pranayama should be practiced on an empty stomach, preferably after asana practice or some gentle movement, in a quiet, well-ventilated room, and the duration and intensity of the breathing exercises should only be gradually increased.
Here is a helpful guide if you are looking to start and build a pranayama practice.
The fifth limb of the 8 limbs of yoga is about ‘withdrawal of the senses’. Patanjali refers to Pratyahara as the bridge between bahiranga (external) yoga – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama – and antaranga (internal) yoga – dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi.
The meaning of the term Pratyahara, composed of two Sanskrit words, is moving away from ingestion or taking in. In the context of yoga, it refers to the conscious withdrawing of all the five senses from sensory inputs so that the mind becomes collected and prepared for the next stage of yoga, which is dharana.
In this way, the senses go through a purification process and the mind becomes ready to concentrate and meditate. Pratyahara, therefore, is the initiation of the journey in yoga to go inwards.
How to practice Pratyahara
In the modern context, a great way to practice Pratyahara is to limit our use of screens. Reducing our consumption of online content, in whatever form, helps reduce the intake of external stimuli into our system. We can do the same thing with food.
Other ways to practice are observing mauna (a vow of silence), meditating on nature, spending alone time in nature, and sitting with eyes closed.
Pratyahara prepares us for Dharana, the sixth limb, which means concentration or singular focus. It is only when the mind is focused on the object of concentration that there are no other thoughts.
It is the initial stage of meditation and absorption, the difference being that in Dharana, there is still the awareness of the separation between the one who is meditating and the object of meditation.
Mantra meditation, where the practitioner focuses solely on a mantra, or sacred utterance, is an example of Dharana. Other ways to practice are focusing on the breath, the flame of a candle, or sounds.
Focusing on a single thing prepares you for Dharana.
Dhyana is the penultimate step in Patanjali’s 8 limbs of yoga. It means contemplation, reflection, and meditation. Whereas dharana brought in focus and concentration, dhyana helps us contemplate and reflect on that which was focused upon. To be in dhyana, one needs to maintain a non-judgmental, witness-like attitude.
While in dhyana, the mind becomes completely absorbed and actively engaged with the object of meditation. Also, the one who is in dhyana is not conscious of the act of being in dhyana. However, there is still an awareness of the object of meditation.
The practice of dhyana leads to the eighth and final limb of yoga, called Samadhi. Samadhi is a state of complete absorption in which the consciousness of the one who is meditating becomes one with the subject of meditation.
The ultimate aim of yoga is to reach a state of Samadhi where there is a cessation of the ego and one unites with the highest reality. It is the highest form of consciousness where there is a union of individual awareness with divine consciousness.
Samadhi is also understood as the state of enlightenment and is also referred to as Kaivalya or Nirvana. It is not a permanent state of being but requires immense effort and dedication to come by.
The 8 limbs of yoga are our lifelong guides to show us the path to our spiritual journey. They also are a lifelong practice.
It can feel overwhelming to follow all of the practices all at once. At such times, Patanjali’s sequencing can help. Starting small by introducing one or two yamas and niyamas into our lives and building a consistent asana practice is a great way to initiate your yogic journey.
Over time, adding other steps could feel easier. What is important in all of this is to keep compassion towards oneself and be patient with one’s limitations.
Here is a great talk by Swami Tadatmananda of the Arsha Bodha Center on the 8 limbs of yoga if you are looking for more inspiration.
Nidhi @thebigbindu is a practicing yoga therapist and an advanced yoga teacher. Her writing is inspired by her experience of yoga and her study of Ayurveda, Yoga philosophy, and Yoga psychology.