What Are The 8 Limbs of Yoga?

By Michael Quesada January 15, 2019

What Are The 8 Limbs of Yoga?

Introduction

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out his "Eight Limbs of Yoga", or ashtanga, literally meaning "eight limbs".  These eight steps act as a guide on how to live a meaningful life.  They serve as a prescription for ethical and moral conduct; they direct the attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the more spiritual aspects of our nature.

Due to our hectic schedules, some people only practice yoga as an afterthought – something to do when they have the time.  Initially, yoga was meant to be a way of life or a lifestyle.  Patanjani's eight limbs

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

You may have heard of the Noble Eightfold Path, which is a guideline that many Buddhists follow.  Patanjali’s yoga sutras are somewhat similar in that they are eight steps that will help guide you to a more meaningful life.

These sutras are also known as “ashtanga,” which can be translated as “eight limbs.”  Each of these limbs or branches has a purpose, and doing them is meant to help you live a more disciplined life.  Not only that, but they allow you to achieve self-actualization, which leads to a life with little-to-no suffering.

https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs

1. Yama

The first branch is called Yama, and it has to do with your moral code.  The focal point of this first limb is the way we act in our everyday lives.  Overall, there are 5 Yamas, and these are the following:

  • Ahimsa or non-violence
  • Satya or truthfulness
  • Asteya or non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya or continence
  • Aparigraha or non-covetousness

In a translation of “Light On The Yoga Sutras” done by BKS Iyengar, it says that these Yamas are not influenced by your station in life, be it class, gender, or age, everyone can learn wisdom by applying these principles.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

2. Niyama

On the other hand, Niyamas are the things you practice on the inside in order to improve and/or discipline yourself.  In a way, it is similar to the Yamas, but instead of outward practices that help change society for the better, you’re looking inwards to change yourself.

This distinction can even be seen in the name itself.  The “Ni” in Niyama is actually a verb in Sanskrit that means “within.”  Usually, only those who really want to further practice their yogic lifestyle are the ones who observe the Niyamas.  After all, not everyone is comfortable with looking within themselves.

But without a doubt, doing these Niyamas will help you improve yourself and build your character.  There are also 5 Niyamas, and these are:

  • Saucha or cleanliness
  • Santosha or contentment
  • Tapas or burning desire
  • Svadhyaya or self-reflection
  • Isvarapranidaha or surrender to God or a higher power

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

3. Asana

Asana deals with the postures you do when doing yoga.  As mentioned, this is a term you will frequently hear if you’re a yogi.  However, originally, this wasn’t what Asana meant per se.  Basically, it initially meant ‘seat,’ or the comfortable seat you take when you’re about to meditate.

Pratanjali doesn’t discuss anything specific – what matters is that you’re seated in a comfortable and steady position.  That being said, there are definitely yoga poses that help you.  For example, the lotus pose is one of the many poses that are ideal for meditating.

What you’re supposed to do is to be able to sit without feeling any kind of discomfort.  It’s understandable that Asana is the third limb because once you’ve improved yourself outside and inside, now you can focus on your mind through meditation.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

4. Pranayama

Pranayama means breath control and it is the fourth limb of yoga.  It’s not just simply breathing though – you have to pay attention to breathing techniques that help you focus.  The word ‘pranayama’ can be understood to mean “life force extension,” which is why many yoga practitioners believe that one of the benefits is an extended life.

If you are busy and don’t have the time to include pranayama in your yoga session, then there’s another easier way to practice it: just sit down comfortably and do some breathing exercises.

To be more specific, Pratanjali said that when you do breathing techniques, you have to do so in a cyclical way.  Keep this in mind the next time you do your Pranayama practice.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

5. Pratyahara

In this limb, you withdraw yourself from the everyday senses you see, feel, hear, etc.  By doing so, you will be able to completely focus your attention on the inside. Practicing Pratyahara allows you to look at yourself in an objective manner.

Of course, withdrawing from your senses doesn’t necessarily mean that you will completely close yourself off from them.

This is a mindful practice, so you can notice smells or hear sounds, but you shouldn’t allow them to hold your attention.  Doing so allows you to fully immerse yourself in meditation without getting distracted by outside factors.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

6. Dharana

Dharana comes after Pratyahara and they are closely linked together. In fact, it might even be safe to say that they go hand-in-hand.  Dharana means “concentration,” and you can only successfully do so once you’ve withdrawn yourself from outward distractions (Pratyahara).

In this limb, you can now turn your attention to the distractions plaguing your mind. Of course, this isn’t as simple as it sounds, but you can make it easier on yourself by focusing on one specific object inside your mind.

This can be anything – a repeating sound or an image, for example.  Fortunately, the previous limbs will have allowed you to really hone your concentration skills, and that will benefit you greatly during Dharana.

One reason why Dharana is effective because concentrating on just one object or just concentrating in general for a lengthy amount of time will eventually lead to meditating.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

7. Dhyana

Similarly, Dhyana means “meditation,” which may seem like it’s the same as Dharana but they are actually different.  As mentioned before, concentrating for a while leads to meditation.  Once you’re immersed in your meditation, this is where Dhyana begins.

In this stage, you no longer need to concentrate on one specific thing, but you will be able to be aware while remaining unfocused at the same time.  Your mind will now have been quieted and calmed and there is no longer anything to distract you.

This can lead you to having little-to-no thoughts at all – which is, of course, not an easy feat.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

8. Samadhi

Last but not the least is Samadhi, the final, 8th limb.  It is a stage that can be described as ‘ecstasy’ or even ‘enlightenment.’  After objectively looking at yourself on the outside and inside, you can now reach this point of bliss.

In this state, you will feel as if you are connected to all living things. Some would even say that you will feel connected to the divine, but Patanjali doesn’t really go as far as saying that.  This is why Samadhi can be associated with bliss or enlightenment because you will feel at peace with the Universe as well as freedom and understanding.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Conclusion

Now that yoga is a fairly common practice in different parts of the world, it doesn’t hurt to be a little more informed about it.  All 8 of these limbs are meant to help you improve yourself and allow you to live a free and pure life.  Since that is the case, it’s definitely ideal to incorporate these 8 limbs to your daily life and during your yoga routine as well.

However, you shouldn’t feel like you have to perfect all branches on the first try. This is a process and learning and advancing in all eight forms will take a lot of time to truly master.

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The Eight Limbs of Yoga


Michael Quesada

Founder of this website; currently living vicariously through himself.


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