Many people are introduced to yoga through the yoga postures (or asanas). But did you know that the philosophy of yoga embodies much more than just the physical aspects?
This is summarized in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most important texts on yoga, which consists of 196 sutras and organizes the practice of yoga into 8 limbs. These eight limbs are then assigned to the tree of yoga, and each limb given in a precise order through which yogis must progress in order to cultivate one’s path to samadhi, a state of bliss.
Translating from Sanskrit, the word Ashta means “eight” and Anga means “limb” or “stage”. Hence Ashtanga Yoga literally means the 8 limbs of yoga.
Depending on how long you have been practising yoga, the 8 limbs of yoga may or may not sound familiar to you. The concepts underlying the 8 limbs of yoga, especially the Yama and Niyama, are initially challenging for anyone who has not been exposed to Eastern traditions. It is only through the practice of the asanas and yoga breathing (pranayama) do new yogis begin to understand and practice the other limbs.
For those who want to truly understand the philosophy of yoga, it will be important to then learn about the eight-limbed path to fully experience the full fruits of yoga.
Below, we lay out an easy-to-understand explanation of the 8 limbs, which are: Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Yama, literally defined as “to control” or “to contain”, explains the moral codes, or ethical behaviour that a yogi should follow in daily living – whether in our relationships with others or with ourselves.
There are five yamas:
Ahimsa stands for “non-violence”. This begins with respecting one’s own body and extending this respect to others.
In learning yoga, students may become frustrated at not being able to achieve a certain posture. They may then force themselves into postures they are not ready for, eventually risking injuries. Ahimsa teaches yoga students how to listen to their bodies and treat them with love and respect, not violence.
Satya means to be honest with ourselves and others whether in speech, thought or action. You may wonder whether Satya is in conflict with Ahimsa when the truth is hard to accept. The answer is no – if you disagree with somebody, the truth still needs to be said in a way that does no harm. Don’t lie to make someone happy.
Asteya means not stealing, cheating, or being jealous of others. The practice of yoga should not be competitive. Instead of competing or comparing against fellow yogis, think of them as a source of inspiration – with consistent practice you can get better.
Brahmacharya essentially means to exercise self-control, practice moderation and use our energies for the right things. The common misconception is that Brahmacharya is all about celibacy when it should be applied to all behaviours such as eating, exercising, pleasure, etc.
To achieve our highest potential in life, it is important to listen to our bodies and use our energies in ways that would help us become happier and healthier.
Aparigraha is concerned with non-greediness or non-attachment. This is a hard one, as many of us are attached to things or thoughts that are hard to let go. Even in learning yoga asanas, we need to approach our practice with an attitude of patience rather than to push ourselves too hard because we desire to be better than we are now. Be okay with letting go of attachment to progress.
The niyamas are standards of individual conduct or internal observances. Living the niyamas can lead to deeper authenticity and well-being.
There are five niyamas:
Saucha, or cleanliness, suggests treating your body like a temple; It is related to detoxifying and cleansing of the body and mind. Keeping yourself clean with regular bathing purifies the external body while eating healthy food cleanses the inside.
A more important part of Saucha is to keep the mind clear and clean by taking care of what you read, watch, listen to, or say. Remember: rubbish in, rubbish out. Don’t take in crap.
Santosha is another huge one– it is the practice of contentment in the present. Life is an ongoing process of learning, growing and changing. We need to learn how to accept ourselves, our past, present and future in order to open us to happiness with who we are.
Tapas teaches us to exercise self-discipline by harnessing an inner fire, or motivation to fuel our transformation. It enables us to channel our energies to forge our characters through continuous self-improvement.
Swadhyaya is the practice of self-study in all that we do in the world. In the context of yoga, this would mean practising yoga asanas and meditation intentionally, learning more about ourselves and the yogic practice. It would also mean learning about yoga off the mat through reading and studying yogic texts.
This entails surrendering our ego and trust in a higher entity. This can mean different things to different people – for some, this is surrender to God, to others, trusting in a “divine being”. Regardless of your personal belief, Ishwaraprnidhana allows us to be grounded in a sense of being that is greater than ourselves.
Many of you are familiar with this third limb of yoga, which is the physical practice of yoga postures. The word aas means “to sit” or “to be” – so asana literally means “seat”, and can be interpreted to mean to be here, now, in the present moment. The word contains within it a far richer meaning, which is the sense of “being present in one’s body”
The movement of asana is a way to create space and openness in the body and mind. The term asana encourages us to think of each pose as a means to find the meditative state of mind during our practice.
Prana means “breath” or “life force”, and yama means “control”. As such, pranayama is the “controlled intake and outflow of breath in a firmly established posture” as told by Patanjali.
For the yoga practitioner, breathing has a key role in helping us to focus the mind – Pranayama was developed to control breathing so as to be able to control the mind.
There are many types of yoga breathing techniques for different purposes, to increase heat, or cool down the body.
In yoga, we synchronize movement to breath. This requires much concentration on the flow of breath and the equalization of inhalation and exhalation. When we master the flow of breath through the inhales and exhales, yoga starts to resemble a moving meditation and we are able to cultivate a feeling of bliss through each asana practice.
Pratyahara means to “hold back” or exercise sense control. Pratyahara requires us to withdraw from the stimuli of the outside world and be in tune with our inner voice instead. This is step 1 of the meditation practice.
When practising the asana and pranayama, your mind can easily be distracted by your environment or wander away from concentrating on the practice at hand. Pratyahara then becomes the limb of steadiness which brings your mind back to your breath.
In the true spirit of meditation, pratyahara enables your mind to stay focused so you do not catch on to passing thoughts, or even try to get rid of them. Instead, you learn to let thoughts pass right on and you do not become attached to them.
As we progress to the fifth limb of yoga, Dharana teaches us to stay focused and concentrate. This is step 2 of a meditation practice, where practitioners are able to achieve a high level of Pratyahara by controlling the “monkey mind”.
Through this limb, the mind becomes undisturbed by both external and internal stimuli, including thoughts, sounds and sensations.
In the practice of meditation, a mantra or the breath is used as an anchor for us to concentrate on. When we practice the asana, dharana is achieved when the mind is able to concentrate purely on the breath and the point of gaze (or dristi).
Moving to the sixth limb of yoga, Dhyana means to meditate or contemplate. The combination of limbs five and six allows a state of deep meditation where we are no longer distracted by thoughts. Our focus becomes unbroken, and our asana practice truly becomes a moving meditation, gracefully moving from one posture to the next and breath-movement synchronization is unbroken.
As mentioned, the eight limbs of yoga are likened to a tree. The yama resembles the roots, the Niyama the trunk, the asanas the branches, and pranayama the leaves. Pratyahara is the bark, dharana is the sap and Dhyana the flower.
Finally, when you have progressed through the first seven limbs of yoga, samadhi – or the fruit of the yoga tree – is reached. This is likened to enlightenment and is thought to be the ultimate goal of yoga.
Get your cheatsheet below
For the serious yogi, understanding and implementing the 8 limbs of yoga in your lives is important for your yoga journey. I’ve created a simple cheatsheet to help you remember the 8 limbs of yoga and put it to practice both on and off the mat.
Do your practice and all is coming
Observing the eight limbs of yoga is crucial in order to reach the fruit of the tree of yoga. This requires dedicated practice and will always be a work in progress.
The limbs of yoga become tools for us to nurture the seeds we have planted through our practice. While we should progress through the 8 limbs of yoga, they should be practised holistically – each limb is inseparable and works together to offer guidance and support for our practice.
For the readers out there, you may want to understand the 8 limbs of yoga better through the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
That said, the sutras are not easy to understand nor to contextualise for daily living. If you want a book that helps you understand the application of the 8 limbs of yoga, I would recommend a book by Stephen Cope (The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living).
In this book, he writes about the experiences of several students who spent a year actively applying the practice of yoga to their personal challenges, instead of giving a line-by-line interpretation of the yoga sutras.
Now that you have been introduced to a yoga philosophy written about two thousand years ago in a culture far from the western world, what are your thoughts about the 8 limbs of yoga? Do you embrace these teachings? Or have you already started practising them in your daily life? Share your thoughts below!
The YogaMad is founded by Candy, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams as a yoga nomad.