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The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a systematic approach to achieving liberation. 

Patanjali created the Eight Limbs as a tactile means of practicing yoga on and off the mat.

The Eight Limbs are philosophical and practical guidelines for creating a balanced, ethical, compassionate lifestyle. 

This article outlines the Eight Limbs, where they came from, and simple ways to incorporate them into your life today with yoga and meditation classes. 

History of the Eight Limbs

The Eight Limbs are from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a text containing 195 aphorisms on how to live.

The Sutras are widely known and still popular today for their classic and timeless approach to cultivating a harmonious life. 

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were composed around the 2nd Century B.C.E. The Sutras are divided into four sections (Padas). The Eight Fold Path is in the second Pada, the Sadhana Padha. 

Sutra translates from Sanskrit as to thread or to weave. They are an intricate and intelligent composition of aphorisms to liberate the consciousness and alleviate suffering. 

The Eight-Fold Path is known as Ashtanga. Ashta means eight, and anga means limb. Vinyasa yoga has its roots in Ashtanga yoga. 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

1. Yama – Moral disciplines

The five Yamas are how we relate to the world. The Yamas express moral constraint. 

The Yamas are the social observances to uphold as we engage the public sphere. 

The Five Yamas:

Ahimsa: non-harming/radical self-love

Ahimsa is the first of the five yamas—the ethical observations we, as yogis/yoginis, try to practice. It is the idea of nonviolence, peace, or radical self-love. 

This is a practice of non-harming toward self and others through any physical, mental, or emotional violence that we create. To practice ahimsa, one may practice accepting things for what they are and working with compassion to approach things with an open heart and concern for others and the environment.  

Satya: truthfulness  

Satya translates as truth or essence, one of the five yamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

This is a practice of living and speaking truth at all times. Gossip, assumptions, and lies are the opposite of living with Satya. When honoring Satya, one may speak from a place of honesty and act with integrity. 

Asteya: freedom from avarice/greedlessness 

Asteyra is the idea of non-stealing. This could be physical, regarding not taking items that do not belong to you. It could also be energetic, regarding an awareness of how you are taking other people’s time, space, and attention. 

Brahmacharya: chastity/control of sensual pleasures

Brahmacharya is generally translated as celibacy. Another interpretation is refraining from wasting your energy, holding on to your own Prana, and moving it/giving it to the directions that serve your higher purpose. 

This is a practice of continence in controlling our physical impulses for pleasure through attachment and addiction. When we break the attachment bond, we develop more courage and self-confidence.

Aparigraha: freedom of possession/non-stealing  

This is a practice of letting go of what no longer serves and any excess. Taking only what is necessary and observing how our habits inform our lives would honor aparigraha.  

2. Niyama – Moral observances

The five Niyamas are how we relate to ourselves. The Niyamas express personal observances. 

The Niyamas are the personal observances we uphold to manage ourselves as we navigate the ongoing flux within and all around us. 

The Five Niyamas:

Tapas- discipline

Tapas is usually translated as discipline and heat but also as ‘training your senses.’

The way to consider it in a restorative practice is to observe the senses without doing anything about them. This way, we can understand what information is coming in without reacting. 

Saucha – purity/goodness

Saucha is the first of the niyamas- the self-observances – from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It generally translates as ‘purity’ and helps us cultivate a clear and clean space for meditative practice. 

Physical practice is an action of Saucha, cleansing our bodies, spirits, and minds so we can move more easily.

Santosha – contentment 

Santosha is the second of the Niyamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is the quality of being happy and grateful for what you have – it is different from joy or happiness in that it is a mindset and not a spontaneous feeling.

Svhadyaya – self study 

Svadhyaya is generally translated as ‘self-study.’

One way I like to think about it is that we are waves, like the ocean. We are a part of the ocean, this consciousness of awareness and divinity. We also look at the ocean/Divine/energy by studying ourselves and the waves.

The more we reflect, observe, and understand ourselves, the more we can understand the collective. If we understand the micro, we can understand the macro.

Ishvara Pranhidana – devotion 

Generally translated as ‘giving it up to God’ or ‘offering it all to something greater than yourself.’ It is truly an act of surrender.

3. Asana – Poses

The poses are asanas. Hatha yoga helps us develop the discipline and tenacity to sit for extended periods of concentration and master the body and mind.  

Asana translates as ‘seat.’ According to Patanjali, the whole reason for performing asanas was to prepare the body for meditation. 

Patanjali believed that all asanas should be steady and comfortable – the poses include a state of Sthira and Sukha. [Sutra 2.46]

Sthira is the quality of steadiness and stability. 
Sukha is the quality of ease and comfort. 

The way asanas are taught and performed should embrace these two qualities so that the breath can move freely. Alignment is established through the balance of sthira and sukha. 

Asanas are one of the paths to connect to the true Self (Atman) by connecting to and controlling the body’s life force (Prana). 

Asanas have physical benefits, including solid and supple muscles, limber joints, fluid movement, coordination, agility, and proper posture. They also strengthen the bodily systems (respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, nervous, and the like). 

The purpose of asanas is to keep the body strong, healthy, and vital, though on a much deeper level, they also support the mind-body awareness supported by yoga. 

Asana has evolved over the centuries, from a seat in meditation to the various ways we practice and perform asanas today.

There are thousands of postures to express the body and move the Prana (life force) to enhance your mental, physical, and emotional well-being. 

4. Pranayama – Breathing practices

Pranayamas are breathing techniques. Hatha Yoga often includes subtle body practices such as Pranayamas to move the prana (life force/energy).

Breathwork helps clear stagnancy, create heat, shift the mental state, and encourage calm in the body. 

Prana means life force.

Pranayama is the control or constriction of the life force. It’s the energetic current created in the body we control by bringing awareness to the breath.

Focused pranayama brings calm to the body and mind, influencing the central nervous system to affect the hormones released, thereby shifting how we feel. 

The body comprises energy lines called nadis, which affect the body’s subtle energy.

The body has three main nadis: Sushumna, Ida, and Pingala. Sushumna is the central channel that travels from the spine’s base to the head’s crown. Ida is the channel that travels along the left side of the body, and Pingala is the channel that travels along the right side of the body.

Pranayama aims to understand the flow of breath by understanding how it lights up the nadis, shifts our subtle energy, and transforms how we think and feel.

5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses 

Pratyahara refers to the withdrawal of the senses. This is to remove ourselves from the sensory world and external distractions. It allows us to become more aware of our inner processes and how we move through emotions. 

Prati means against or withdraw. Ahara represents the substances we gather from the outside. 

Pratyahara is the first step to shifting into a meditative state. First, we become aware of the senses and the fluctuations of the outer world. Then, in this phase, we learn to observe them from a non-judgmental space. We distance ourselves and become observers of all the changes that occur without being drawn in. 

6. Dharana – Concentration

Dharana is mental concentration. Once we shift from the outer to the inner world, the mind has more space to focus on one thing.

Dha means to hold or maintain. Ana means to place in something else.

When we focus on one thing, we have a much better capacity to refine our focus and see all the aspects of that one thing. 

Dharana teaches us how to focus our attention and hold it on something for a longer duration. Concentration focuses on the mind and the initial step to developing a meditative state. 

7. Dhyana – Meditation 

Dhyana is meditation. This is distinct from concentration as it is awareness without interruption. Dharana teaches us to focus on one thing where Dhyana is aware of the entire landscape. 

Meditation is a spontaneous occurrence, whereas concentration is effortful. 

When we are entirely absorbed in what we are doing, everything falls away, and we land in the flow state or meditative absorption. 

8. Samadhi – Enlightenment 

Samadhi is Nirvana. It expresses enlightenment in connecting to the divine, which is global consciousness, the inner teacher, or God, depending on your beliefs. 

Sama means equal. Dhi means to see. 

Through samadhi, we discover that realization is attainable at any moment. Peace and happiness are within us and within our grasp right now. There is nowhere to be, nothing to attain, and nothing to do. It is inside of us. 

Enlightenment is the opposite of escapism; it invites you to be present to exactly what is and what you are in the present moment.

There is no striving or grasping. The mind and body are quiet and indifferent to the fluctuations from the outside. 

The eight limbs of yoga may be practiced and observed out of order. Hatha Yoga is one aspect of yoga that aids self-discovery as one moves through the world.

Yoga Classes to Embody the Eight Limbs

  1. Take a yoga class from the Yamas & Niyamas Collection to explore the themes of the ten moral disciplines and observances. 
  2. Try a class from the Vinyasa Yoga Collection – explore the videos based on time – to work with asanas. 
  3. Explore the breathing practices in the Pranayama Collection
  4. The Hatha class, Withdraw from the Senses, is a great way to experience Pratyahara.
  5. The Vinyasa class, Drisht, gives you a taste of Dharana.
  6. The Meditation Collection will help you experience Dhyana. 
  7. Bliss Meditation is themed for Samadhi.

Resources

Seraphina Dawn

Seraphina has a BA in Literature from Simone Fraser University and participated in the Creative Writing Program at UC Berkeley. She is a Kundalini teacher, writer, and poet. She admires Clarice Lispector’s prose, Octavia Butler’s fiction, and Simone Weil's philosophy. Seraphina currently lives in Istanbul.