What Are The 8 Limbs Of Yoga?

Anna Coventry
What Are The 8 Limbs Of Yoga?

Yoga. It’s more than just a bunch of postures named after animals. It’s an ancient health system that has been taught for around 5000 years, helping people achieve greater levels of physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.

The concept of the 8 Limbs of Yoga comes from a book called Yoga Sutra. It was written circa 200AD (the exact date is not known) by the sage Patanjali who described yoga as being an 8 Fold Path that leads to the ultimate goal of Samadhi (pure consciousness). Sounds pretty good so far!

The limbs – or practices – follow each other in a specific order working from the external to the internal and the practice that most of us are familiar with is the 3rd limb, Asana. Some people choose to follow Patanjali’s path in a disciplined way, while others focus on just one or two practices. Either way, it’s all yoga.

Understanding the 8 limbs may add a new layer to your practice, so here is a brief explanation of them.

1. Yamas (Ethical Standards)

The Yamas have to do with how we relate to others. They are essentially ethical standards that remind us that we do off the mat is equally as important as what we do on it.

The 5 Yamas are Ahimsa (non violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non stealing), Bramacharya (to live in higher awareness) and Aparigraha (absence of greed, non possessiveness).

2. Niyamas (Personal Standards/Self-Discipline)

The Niyamas relate to our relationship with ourselves. They offer us a framework for self-discipline and remind us of the importance of our actions (and inactions).

The 5 Niyamas are Saucha (cleanliness or purity of body and mind), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (self study) and Isvarapranidhana (surrendering to your spiritual source).

3. Asana (Postures)

The limb that most people know and love, asana makes up a large component of many modern yoga styles. Asana is nowadays used to describe the physical postures that offer a ton of health benefits including increased flexibility, core strength, physical and mental balance and detoxification. Traditionally, the purpose of asana (which translates as “to sit”) was to prepare the body for the internal practices that follow.

4. Pranayama (Breathing Techniques)

Prana is the vital life force that pervades every aspect of creation and exists within us as energy. The breathing techniques of yoga literally help to expand our energy and begin to move our awareness away from the physical body and into our more subtle layers.

5. Pratyahara (Sensory Withdrawal)

When information hits the senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight and taste) the mind is stimulated. Pratyahara teaches us to withdraw from this external stimulation and bring our focus inward.

It is an important preparatory stage of meditation. Even if we sit within a quiet space we can’t completely avoid all sensory stimuli (particularly sounds) but we can train ourselves to be unaffected by it, which paves the way for meditation to happen.

6. Dharana (Concentration)

Concentration is taking the mind to a single point of focus. It’s quite tough to concentrate when the mind is jumping around responding to sounds and smells, hence the importance of Pratyahara. At the stage of concentration, an agitated and busy mind may experience erratic thoughts, colours, images or shapes (or all of the above) and learning to ignore them is part of the practice.

The key is having something to concentrate on, a word or mantra, a symbol or an object, which helps the attention come to a single point.

7. Dhyana (Meditation)

Extended periods of Dharana as above, will naturally lead to meditation. They may appear to be the same thing, however while Dharana takes the awareness to a single point of focus, Dhyana is ultimately pure awareness without a specific focus. The mind has been stilled to the point of few or no thoughts (any we do have simply float in the background without our awareness becoming distracted by them).

We may move in and out of Dharana and Dhyana as we continue practicing, but the key word here is practice. In meditation, the mind and body experience a profound sense of peace and relaxation and even a few minutes can be deeply rejuvenating.

8. Samadhi (Pure Consciousness)

Samadhi is when a practitioner merges with the object of their meditation and becomes at one with it and their surroundings. This is sometimes described as bliss or ecstasy, but it is not an experience of emotion (as the experience of the self and the ego have dissolved). The practitioner simply becomes pure consciousness, at one with the divine.

So obviously everyone has choice when it comes to yoga. Some days I follow the path, other days I might just do a few postures and that’s enough. There is no right or wrong, but knowing about the 8 limbs might just add a new dimension to your yoga.

What is your experience with the 8 Limbs?