The 8 Limbs of Yoga show us that yoga is much more than just building up a sweat and toning the glutes.Chances are, you likely started your yoga journey because you viewed yoga as a way to become more physically fit. Of course, you were correct. Yoga is a proven and terribly effective way to exercise. After just a few minutes on the mat, most of us are surprised to discover that yoga is far more physically challenging than most expect.
However, in the East, yoga is thought of first and foremost as a spiritual practice. In the West, we tend to spend more time on the physical aspects of yoga and less on the spiritual. The 8 Limbs of Yoga is a good way to find balance between the physical and spiritual practices.
So, what are The 8 Limbs of Yoga?
Well, yoga has been around for about 5000 years and a sage named Patanjali wrote something called “Yoga Sutras”. Within these writings he described an eight-step path which you may refer to as Ashtanga Yoga, also known as The 8 Limbs of Yoga. These limbs are presented in a specific order, but many students choose to skip around or only focus on certain limbs. For example, the third limb is known as “Asana” and it’s likely the limb you’ve most experienced.
Below you can find a basic breakdown of each limb and decide if all eight limbs would be beneficial. If you decide to follow the Ashtanga system, you will likely experience yoga as it was originally meant to be experienced, a balance between the physical and spiritual.
This first limb is referred to as “Yama”. These yamas basically represent our ethical standards and how we live our life off the mat. So, essentially this limb takes our yoga practice beyond the physical and allows it to influence how we treat and deal with others.
In other words, using yoga to advance our physical well being doesn’t mean much if the rest of our lives are messy with a lack of integrity, too much greed and violence.
Naturally, whether we practice yoga or not, applying the yamas into our daily lives can help lead us to happiness and spiritual well-being.
There are five “Yamas” including Ahimsa which refers to practicing non-violence. Satya which means to practice truthfulness. Asteya meaning not to steal, Brahmacharya which deals with the proper use of energy and higher awareness, and Aparigraha which is the practice of being less greedy.
The second limb is referred to as “Niyama”. This limb deals with the way we use self-discipline and the way we see ourselves. “Ni” is a Sanskrit term which means “inward”. As with “Yama”, “Niyama” focuses on the spiritual aspects of our yoga practice.
These Niyamas could be used daily away from your yoga mat to focus on your personal disciplines and taking a close look within yourself to improve your happiness.
There are five “Niyamas” that include “Saucha”, this niyama focuses on cleanliness of both the body and spirit. “Santosha” is another niyama that deals with our contentment. The third niyama called “Tapas” deals with the intensity of our desires or attitude. “Svadhvava”, the 4th niyama, concerns the study of ourselves. The fifth and final niyama is referred to as “Isvarapranidaha” and it focuses on our devotion to a higher power.
Of course, this is the limb that most of us in the West are most familiar with during our yoga journey. We think of the term “asana” meaning posture or pose, and we practice many asanas on our mat. However, there is a little more to it.
We would think of this as the physical limb of yoga. Although, in Patanjali’s 8 Limbs Of Yoga, the term “asana” simply means “seat”, specifically a comfortable seated position that doesn’t cause pain or discomfort. This seated position originally would have been meant for meditations.
In the West, we practice many different asanas for many different reasons and use them primarily to attain physical exercise. Naturally, this isn’t a bad thing, but it does differ from Patanjali’s writings long ago.
If you decide to follow the 8 Limbs of Yoga, you may begin to view your asanas a little differently.
Pranayama simply means breath. It may also be referred to as “life force”.
Pranayama breathing techniques including “Breath Of Fire” are used to control the breath and move the life force energy or prana up the spine. Practitioners believe that prana or life force is carried on the breath, and it moves up the spine on inhale and down the spine on exhale.
Clearly, breathing is critical in our daily lives, but not just for life. When we control our breath, we stay calmer and experience less stress. You’ve also likely discovered that controlling breath on the yoga mat is also critical to a healthy and beneficial practice.
You can read more about Prana & Pranayama.
This limb of yoga deals with our ability to withdraw from our 5 senses.
Keep in mind that we’re not speaking of losing our senses but simply developing the ability to prevent our senses from being a distraction. The term “Pratya” means to withdraw or go within.
Our 5 senses include touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. These senses can lead to a major distraction. In the 8 Limbs of Yoga, Pratyahara is used as a major step in meditation. It’s important during mediation to clear the mind and not allow external senses to distract.
Of course, it’s nearly impossible to avoid all external noise and stimuli but practicing Pratyahara can help us to focus inward and create inner peace.
This limb of yoga is focused on concentration.
Dharana is closely related to the previous limb called Pratyahara. These limbs are all about focusing the mind and being able to ignore external distractions. As you practice Dharana and Pratyahara, you will grow closer to achieving true meditation.
The term Dharana is broken down this way, “Dha” means “to maintain” and “ana” means “something else”.
One common way yogis try to hold concentration is to focus the eyes on a static object during certain postures. Some yogis also chant a mantra to help focus the mind and bring their focus back to center if it begins to wander.
Simply put, once you reach Dhyana, you have attained true meditation.
Continued practice of Pratyahara and Dharana will hopefully lead you to a genuine state of meditation. Of course, if you’re truly meditating, you shouldn’t even be aware of it.
As mentioned earlier, the 8 limbs are specifically ordered, and it’s no accident that Dhyana is near the end. Clearing the mind and truly meditating takes practice and dedication. However, there are tremendous benefits to meditation, even just a few precious minutes can prove rewarding.
Fortunately, practicing the limbs of Posture, Breath, Sense Withdrawal, and Concentration can help take us closer to a free mind.
This final limb is called Samadhi and it’s about reaching enlightenment.
Many also consider the term to mean “bliss”. However, according to Patanjali, this limb isn’t focused on reaching happiness. Instead, it’s about being able to simply accept oneself and surroundings for what they are. In other words, it’s to see our life without any influences or thoughts.
Patanjali also tells us that this state of enlightenment does not last for long, but as we practice we can hopefully achieve a more permanent state of freedom.
So, with a steady practice of Posture, Breath, Sense Withdrawal, Concentration, and Meditation, we should be able to work toward the goal of the 8 limbs of yoga, Samadhi or enlightenment.