What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?

by | Feb 7, 2023

8 Limbs of Yoga

  • Yamas = Yogic practices of restraint
  • Niyamas = Yogic practices of self-discipline
  • Asana = Care for the body and physical preparation for the deep spiritual work ahead
  • Pranayama = Breath control, or growing the ability to use the breath to control our bodies and brains
  • Pratyahara = Withdrawal of the senses
  • Dharana = Single pointed concentration
  • Dhyana = Meditation, or the state that occurs when pranayama, pratyhahara, and dharana are practiced
  • Samadhi = Bliss, or the state of enlightenment that occurs after being in a state of Dhyana for a time

What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga, Really?

First, A Little Background

When you realize that yoga is more than just poses and is actually Yoga, capital Y, and want to learn more about it beyond the calisthenics aspect, one of the first terms that you usually stumble across is the 8 limbs of Yoga.

It’s a great place to start because it’s actionable and relatively clear. It’s also inspiring, because you see yourself in those bottom limbs right away, which automatically means that with time, practice, and persistence, you will soon find yourself in the top limbs.

You can think of these limbs like a ladder of concepts put forth in a specific order to help you achieve peace/ enlightenment/ connection with Spirit.

You start by considering and improving your behaviors then move to prepare your body and ultimately your mind so that you are able to connect with that presence or energy from which we all came from/ exist within but often do not acknowledge. It’s an unlocking of sorts, limb by limb, until Samahdi, or the blissful highest state of consciousness, is achieved..

But it’s not a one and done kind of thing. The eight limbs are directives for a yogic practice that is a way of life and living, and it is something that you engage with every moment of every day.

 

Where Do the 8 Limbs of Yoga Come From?

Though the origins of Yoga can be traced back thousands of years to the Vedas, ancient Indian texts written in archaic Sanskrit, Yoga began thousands of years before that as an oral tradition that was passed down through perfect memorization of poems, hymns, and teachings, many of which were ultimately written down in the Vedas.

The 8 limbs of Yoga are not found in these ancient texts, but in a text called the Yoga Sutras that came thousands of years later – roughly 8000 to 10,000 years after Yoga began and anywhere from 3000 to 5000 years after the Vedas. The Yoga Sutras were written (allegedly) by a great teacher named Patanjali somewhere around 300 BCE (maybe – more on that below).

The writer of the Yoga Sutras would have been deeply familiar with the Vedas and those scriptures deeply inform the complex and textured foundation underlying the Yoga Sutras, where the eight limbs of Yoga are found, so if you’d like more context, the four Vedas would be a great place to start.

Why Allegedly?

The Yoga Sutras are a compilation of writings attributed to Patanjali, but the dating is far from perfect. Some of the writings included the Yoga Sutras are believed by some scholars to date back to 300 BCE but others date all or part of the manuscripts to closer to 200 CE and there are plenty of people who put them somewhere in between.

Patanjali was believed to be alive during the second century BCE (e.g., 200 BCE to 101 BCE), so some if not all of the Yoga Sutras may not have been written by the same person or by Patanjali, if the scholars who have dated the manuscripts are correct.

Also, Patanjali is credited with writing the Mahabhasya, a treatise on Panini’s teachings on Sanskrit grammar and linguistics as well as a commentary on Charaka Samhita, the text of Ayurveda.

What Is the Purpose of the Eight Limbs of Yoga?

In Yoga, the primary purpose of practice is to live in a state of Purusha, defined as the purest of pure states of love and perfection – essentially, no suffering.

Everything outside of this state of being is termed Prakruti, or suffering. We’re so embedded in our physical bodies and our views of the world that we are not only apart of Prakruti, we forget that at the essence of our being is always Purusha. That is, we carry that state of bliss and purity within us at all times but we generally choose to live in Prakruti, with all its ups and downs and sadnesses and hardships.

While Purusha comes naturally to us, we have to “remember” this in our consciousness, called chitta, we must join all the parts of ourselves: emotions, spirit, soul, physical body, mind.

How to do this was the focus of yoga teachings for thousands of years and Patanjali would have been apart of this conversation. Yoga is the practice of seeking this state of Purusha and overcoming Prakriti, and for thousands of years, generations of teachings and evolutions of Yoga practice sought to accomplish this through forms of meditation, attempts to stay in meditation as much as possible, study and memorization of the vedas, and asceticism or renouncing of possessions.

As Patanjali absorbed the teachings of his day, he essentially codified that process in the Yoga Sutras, simplifying complex philosophies and beliefs into individual sutras, which means threads.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are divided into 4 sections called padas, and the 8 limbs that we will be talking about come from the second pada, called Sadhana Pada.

Ashtanga Yoga Vs Raja Yoga

The practice of the 8 limbs of Yoga as defined by Patanjali is often called ashtanga yoga. This is not to be confused with the Ashtanga Yoga that is a style of asana practice comprised of a set of formalized series of somewhat advanced yoga asana postures created and taught by teacher Patthabi Jois.

Ashtanga means 8, and there are 8 limbs in Patanjali’s teachings, with no recommendations for what the specifics of your 3rd limb of practice, or asana practice, should look like.

The 8 limbs of yoga as a lifestyle and practice is more often called Raja Yoga, meaning the royal path, one of the four paths of Yoga, a term popularized in Swami Vivekananda’s book of the same name that sought to define and decode Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

8 Limbs of Yoga: The Outer/ Lower Limbs

First Limb of Yoga: Yamas (Moral Code)

(Pronounced “Yuh-muhz”)

The yamas, the first limb of the 8 limbs of Yoga, are five moral codes or guidelines for ethical behavior and social conduct. They are the principles that teach us how to treat ourselves, others, and the world around us.

They’re often called “the don’ts” of Yoga, as in don’t harm, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t overindulge, don’t hoard.

The five yamas include:

Ahimsa (non-harm)

(Pronounced “uh-him-suh”)

Ahimsa is the first of the five yamas in the 8 limbs of Yoga, and it translates to “non-violence” or “non-harming.”

It doesn’t just mean choosing not to hurt someone physically or emotionally when you have the ability to, but practicing the opposite of harm, which will vary from case to case but in most case means being kind and compassionate.

 

Satya (truthfulness)

(Pronounced “sut-yuh”)

The second yama, satya, is about being honest, but it’s more than just saying true things when you have the option to lie.

It’s about practicing self-awareness and knowing who you are and not attempting to be who you are not. It’s about speaking truth on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves, making honest choices and behaving in alignment with your beliefs.

 

Asteya (non-stealing)

(Pronounced “uh-stay-uh”)

At this point, you know the drill: asteya, the third yama, is not just keeping your hands off other people’s property but not taking their time, their energy, their work, or doing anything that diminishes who they are and what they are doing.

PS, All of these apply to you as well, so not stealing from yourself can also mean not stealing from your own purpose or potential by wasting your own time and resources.

 

Brahmacharya (celibacy or sexual restraint)

(Pronounced “bruh-muh-char-yuh”)

The traditional understanding of brahmacharya is celibacy, but in most traditions, this is translated today more as a directive to apply judiciousness when you decide where to direct your energy.

That is, overindulging in anything simply because it feels good means you aren’t spending a as much time as you probably should on purposeful and powerful action or practice.

A Note on Language

Brahma is not a great word in Sanskrit. Brahmin is the word for the highest caste in a system that judges people by the color of their skin in India. It is a word used in the Vedas, which promotes said caste system, a system which is anti-yoga itself. Some people think this of Sanskrit in general; they think of it as the language of the higher castes and feel that it is used for oppression.

Aparigraha (non-possessiveness or non-greediness)

(Pronounced “uh-par-ee-gruh-huh”)

Translated directly as “non-hoarding,” aparigraha, the fifth yama, doesn’t just mean not buying out the toilet paper when you hear there’s going to be a shortage and taking more than you need, it means not keeping your love and support to yourself when others need it.

It means making sure that food, medical care, jobs, and other support are available to all who need it and not just relaxing because you have everything you need.  Like all yamas, it is a direction to act rather than a direction of inaction.

Second Limb of Yoga: Niyamas (self-discipline and spiritual observances)

(Pronounced “nee-yuh-muhz”)

Niyamas are the second limb of the 8, the standards by which we should practice self-discipline, AKA the “do’s of yoga.”

In a nut shell: live a clean life, be content, stay committed to your yoga practice even when it is uncomfortable, take time to know your authentic self, and fully surrender to the Divine.

The five niyamas include:

Saucha (cleanliness)

(Pronounced: “sow-chuh”)

We’re talking about keeping the body clean inside and out with Saucha, the first of the niyamas. What we put into our minds comes out of our mouths, and what we put into our mouths determines our physical and mental health.

Essentially, it means taking care of your physical body all the ways you know you should (good sleep, lots of plants, minimal sugar and processed foods, moderation) and feeding your mind with positivity, truth, and yoga teachings.

Santosha (contentment)

(Pronounced “sun-toe-shuh”)

Practicing contentment as prescribed by the second niyama, santosha, means loving what you have as a discipline and not just as an occasional gratitude list. It means letting go of desire for material things or caring about what others think and focusing instead on loving yourself, others, your dharma or life’s purpose, and your practice.

Tapas (austerity or self-discipline)

(Pronounced “tuh-puss”)

Yoga is a beautiful way of life but it requires discipline. Tapas, the third niyama, means “heat,” and it refers to the heat that develops as a result of friction between your relationships with your self and others and the discomfort that comes from remaining committed to a daily practice. Being disciplined with your practice will mean putting up with the heat and sticking with it.

Svadhyaya (self-study or introspection)

(Pronounced “svud-yuh-yuh”)

Forget the external, other people’s approval, how we look, how we fit in, advises the fourth niyama, svadhyaya. Instead, our attention should be on deep introspection and self-study as well as a commitment to the study of spiritual texts and a commitment to internal growth. When we do this, the rest falls into place.

Ishvara pranidhana (surrender to a higher power or devotion)

(Pronounced “eesh-vah-ruh prun-ee-dun-uh”)

When we practice the fifth niyama, ishvara pranidhana, we are surrendering to the knowledge that we cannot control other people or the results of their choices and that everything will be and is as it should be. It doesn’t mean inaction, but with the first 4 niyamas and 5 yamas in place, it means not worrying about the outcome but staying committed to the course of prescribed behaviors, knowing that events will unfold as they should.

Pause, Please

The first two of the eight limbs of Yoga are “outer limbs” and focus on how we show up in the world and who we are as people. Though we are always students of Yoga, it is recommended that we demonstrate some level of commitment if not proficiency in these 10 directives before we add the next two outer limbs to our practice.

Aparigraha (non-possessiveness or non-greediness)

(Pronounced “uh-par-ee-gruh-huh”)

Translated directly as “non-hoarding,” aparigraha, the fifth yama, doesn’t just mean not buying out the toilet paper when you hear there’s going to be a shortage and taking more than you need, it means not keeping your love and support to yourself when others need it.

It means making sure that food, medical care, jobs, and other support are available to all who need it and not just relaxing because you have everything you need.  Like all yamas, it is a direction to act rather than a direction of inaction.

Third Limb of Yoga: Asana (yoga postures)

(Pronounced “ah-suh-nuh”)

Yoga postures – the familiar! The third limb of yoga is asana, but remember, this is a ladder. The first two limbs prepare us by giving us time to focus on awareness of our physical selves so that we can address imbalance on the mat (lack of strength or flexibility on one side, for example) but with an eye toward preparing the body to undertake the following 5 limbs.

While there are many different styles of asana in the world (likely 10 more were dreamed up while you were reading this), asana is utilitarian. That is, it’s not the focus of the 8 limbs of yoga by any stretch, and in fact there is very little instruction on what asana is or looks like in any of the ancient literature, including the Yoga Sutras.

When you choose the style of asana that will serve you best, consider what your purpose is for the movement, what you need most in your body and in your mind to be able to successfully take on the next four limbs.

Fourth Limb of Yoga: Pranayama (breath control)

(Pronounced “pruh-nuh-yuh-muh”)

The fourth limb of yoga, pranayama, is the use of the breath to control how we feel physically and mentally and to help us internalize our focus. It also allows us to direct our energy, or prana, anywhere in the body.

The breath is not prana, but it is how you direct prana. Like an electrical cord houses and directs the flow of electricity, the breath directs prana that is external to us to where we want it to go internally and control our central nervous system responses.

Controlling the breath means paying attention to the length of your inhales (purak) and exhales (rechak) and then how long you retain the breath (kumbhak) in the body. How you adjust these factors can change how your nervous system responds and how you feel. Additionally, holding “locks” within the body can help you to control the breath as well; these are called bandhas and are an advanced pranayama practice.

Did You Catch That?

Notice that pranayama comes after asana, a reminder that asana is not the goal and far from the most difficult aspect of Yoga practice. All the more reason why a practice that only happens on the mat is not a full Yoga practice at all!

8 Limbs of Yoga: The Inner/ Upper Limbs

The Fifth Limb of Yoga: Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

(Pronounced “pruht-yuh-har-uh”)

Now that your moral compass is correct, you’re committed to your Yoga practice and happy about it, you’ve prepared your body on the mat, and you’ve mastered your central nervous system responses with the breath, it’s time for the real work to begin.

The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, is the first limb to explore the deeper work of Yoga. It’s a little bit harder to pin down and takes some practice.

Essentially, pratyahara is the practice of no longer noticing the information that the senses provide to the brain. You are no longer paying attention to what your ears and eyes are telling you, nor are you allowing any physical sensations of touch, taste, or smell to influence your focus.

That’s the sole function of this limb: to stop yourself from being distracted by outward stimuli, not at all as simple as it sounds.

The Sixth Limb of Yoga: Dharana (single pointed concentration)

(Pronounced “duh-ruh-nah”)

Now that you are no longer subject to distraction, it’s time to choose a single pointed focus as you practice the sixth limb of yoga, dharana.

This might mean closing your eyes and turning your attention to your third eye, or ajna chakra, or visualizing a static image like your favorite color or your favorite person’s smile. It may mean taking a soft gaze with your eyes open and focusing on a candle flame or a single fixed point in the room.

No matter what you “see,” the idea is to concentrate all your energy and focus in one place without being distracted by thoughts or feelings of any kind. Again, easier said than done – but absolutely possible with practice!

The Seventh Limb of Yoga: Dhyana (single pointed meditation)

(Pronounced “dee-uh-nah”)

With our senses withdrawn and our single point of focus, dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga, happens automatically: meditation. The first six limbs were about readiness and preparation, steps to get us to this point. When they are implemented, dhyana occurs on its own.

When we try to jump right into meditation without first committing to the process, taking care of the body, using the breath to calm the mind, and then withdrawing our focus from everything except a single point, it’s impossible to do. We get frustrated, distracted. We feel like “this isn’t for me.”

But the truth is that if we use the tools available to us, it gets easier and easier over time.

The Eighth Limb of Yoga: Samadhi (enlightenment or oneness with the Universe)

(Pronounced “suh-muh-dee”)

The eighth limb of yoga, samadhi, is the easiest of all – no action required. When you practice pratyahara and dharana, dhyana happens automatically. When you remain in dhyana long enough and frequently enough, samadhi occurs.

It’s not something you can control, but it is a beautiful peace found in being fully present without attachment, action, or thought, and with enough practice, it follows you off the meditation cushion and off the mat and stays with you in your daily life.

 

What Can This Mean for Your Practice?

Yoga asana, the poses we do on the mat, can be rejuvenating, relaxing, invigorating – and life changing. But that is just the beginning.

Patanjali mapped out a step-by-step, actionable path to help us change every part of our lives and not only achieve the bliss of Yoga on the mat but live out Yogic teachings in our lives, making the world a better place. Following the 8 limbs of Yoga and actively using them as a guide to grow your practice means you’re building a full, textured, and beautiful Yoga practice. 

 

Want help building a daily Yoga practice that you love? Download the curated guide giving you 21 tips from yoga teachers on how to make it happen!

Written by Valeria Weber Williamson

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