The 8 limbs of yoga are a an ancient wisdom and a central part of yogic philosophy.
They offer the practitioner guidelines for how to live a fulfilling, meaningful, and purposeful life.
In this article we are going to cover:
- The history of the 8 limbs of yoga.
- An overview and a detailed description of each of the 8 limbs of yoga.
- Practical applications of the 8 limbs of yoga.
- How to meditate according to this philosophy.
Ready to go deep?
Yoga is much more than a physical activity
Most people think that yoga is simply a physical activity.
Popular culture shows yoga as highly trained, lean yogis bending into exceptionally acrobatic poses.
And yoga classes focus mainly on postures and breathing.
But yoga is much more.
One of the reasons that most people think mainly of yoga as a physical practice is because of the pragmatic western approach to a practice that is deeply rooted in eastern philosophy.
However, the philosophy of yoga, and the 8 limbs of yoga can be a source of inspiration and guidance on how to live a balanced and ethical life both on and off the mat.
The history of the philosophy of yoga
In its early beginning yoga was an oral tradition that was passed on from teacher to student.
Some traditions state that yoga goes back to 4000 BCE when Patanjali, a sage and a scholar, became the first person in recorded history to write about yoga when he wrote the Yoga Sutras around 2200 BCE.
The Yoga Sutras are 169 ‘truths’ that describe the working of the mind, the emotions, and the path to fulfilment.
According to Patanjali, the means of yoga are just as important as the end result.
With this phrase, Patanjali tells us that it is not about the body, the six-packs, or the beautiful shape of a yoga pose. It is about the practice.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the 8 limbs of yoga.
The 8 limbs of yoga are an eightfold path to a healthy, balanced and ethical life. Even though they are more than 2000 years old, they are still relevant to our modern way of life.
“Practise, practice, practice, and the rest will follow”- Patanjali, 2200 BCE.
An overview of the 8 limbs Of Yoga – the eightfold path
- Yama – (Attitudes Toward Our Environment)
- Niyama – (Attitudes Towards Ourselves)
- Asanas – (The Physical Postures)
- Pranayama – (Control Of The Breath)
- Pratyahara – (Withdrawal Of The Senses)
- Dharana – (Concentration)
- Dyana – (Meditation)
- Samadhi – (Complete Integration)
A description of each of the 8 limbs
Here, I will go through a description of each of the 8 limbs of yoga – the eightfold path.
Each path will be followed by an explanation that is adapted to our modern understanding and practice.
Though it is a series of sequential paths, the 8 limbs of yoga are seamlessly interwoven.
Yama and Niyama.
The first two paths, Yama and Niyama offer guidance on your conduct, both in relation to others and yourself.
They are meant to be a help in the personal growth of an individual.
1. Yama – Attitude Towards Others
- Ahimsa: Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings in words, thoughts, or action.
- Satya: Honesty, truthfulness.
- Asteya: Non-stealing.
- Brahmacarya: Sexual integrity.
- Aparigraha: Non avarice (greed).
In other words:
Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat on your partner. Don’t be greedy on behalf of others, and the planet.
Basically, do to others as you would like them to do to you.
2. Niyama – Attitude Towards Ourselves
- Sauca: Purity, clearness of mind, speech, and body.
- Santosa: Contentment, optimism for self.
- Tapas: Persistence and perseverance.
- Svadhyaya: Self-study.
- Isvarapranidhana: Surrender to true self – your divinity.
In other words:
This is the practice of self-acceptance, acceptance of others, and of your circumstances, in order to get past them or to change them.
Discipline yourself and never give up. Be reflective of your thoughts and study to become a better version of yourself.
Asana and Pranayama
The next two limbs; Asana and Pranayama are the physical practices taught in any yoga class.
They are the most familiar of the 8 limbs of yoga as they are the ones we experience in the studio. Together they provide a vehicle for more internal work.
3. Asana – The Yoga postures
A set of 84 different poses to practice in various sequences.
4. Pranayama – Breath Control
This takes the form of a numerous set of breathing exercises.
Breath control can be done in several ways, such as by inhaling and then holding the breath, suspending the exhalation for a period, then exhaling and holding off the inhalation for a period.
There are also exercises that slow the inhalation and exhalation, or ones that consciously change the timing and length of the breath.
There are multiple breathing exercises including those for concentration, surrendering, stress release, strength, and more.
In other words:
The poses and the breath are how we experience the yogic philosophy on the mat.
A yoga teacher is trained to integrate the philosophy into their teaching of a class. The student’s job is simply to follow along and do the best they can, surrendering to the process.
Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi
The following 4 of the 8 limbs of yoga; Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi, refer directly to an inner quest.
It is the preparation, the actualization, and experience of the art of meditation.
5. Pratyahara – Withdrawal Of The Senses
The 5th limb refers to the withdrawal of the senses from external objects to be replaced by inner observation.
It is not only closing your eyes; it is consciously closing your mind from the outer world.
6. Dharana – Concentration
This is the concentration of the mind, by either focusing on an inner object or the breath.
The purpose of this practice is to calm the mind.
To sit in meditations for an extended period you need to be able to stop the constant movement of the thinking mind (it is well known that it is the thinking mind that causes stress more than anything else).
That is only possible through concentration on something that is not the mind.
7. Dhyana – Meditation
This is the actual act of meditation, which means sitting silently withdrawn from your senses with your awareness concentrated on an inner object.
The inner object could be an image or your breath.
Maintaining that state for a period of time, preferably 20 minutes is required to get the benefits.
8. Samadhi – Complete Integration
It is an inner state of bliss (aware consciousness) attained by the practice of the above previous stages.
It is variously defined as freedom, self-realization, and enlightenment.
In the ancient scriptures, it is told that only the few can obtain the Samadhi state and only after practicing for years and lifetimes.
However, a more modern and scientific approach to the philosophy states achieving Samadhi is accessible to anyone.
In other words:
This 4 step sequence is the ancient explanation of meditation.
It is quite practical and when you follow the steps, it does take you to a meditative state.
Once you obtain the results of the sequence the rest is practice. You can meditate morning or evening, at home or out in nature.
How a meditation session might look like Using 4 of the 8 Limbs of Yoga
A meditation session in line with the 8 limbs of yoga can look something like this:
Sit in a comfortable position that allows you to be still and turn your awareness inwards.
Stop listening to what’s going on around you, the sounds, and the movements.
Close your eyes and sit without moving for the rest of the time.
As your awareness is turned inward, start to control your thinking mind by focusing either on your breath or a sound or an inner image.
Ancient traditions offer a mantra (a holy word or a sound) to repeat inwardly.
At a certain moment your inner stage changes, you become quieter, more still and your breath deepens.
You are now in a state of meditation.
It is normal to drift in and out of the state of meditation as your thinking mind is engaged most of the time. When you find yourself having gone back to thinking you go back to Dharana and concentrate.
The moment, the second or minutes that you experience being one with everything and connected to the people in your life and life itself.
For a practitioner, this stage is passing and it is not to be chased.
It occurs when you are completely still, in body and mind.
If you want more of it, start from the beginning.
How to use the guidelines of the 8 Limbs Of Yoga
Although it is said that the 8 limbs of yoga don’t have to be followed sequentially, it does somehow make sense to start from the beginning, from your personal conduct.
If you live day to day with no integrity, lying, and having an aggressive tone toward yourself and others, and if you are caught in negativity, you are not likely to find stillness on the yoga mat.
Once you start the journey for a healthier life the 8 limbs of yoga can offer you a complete journey to inner and outer growth and development.
The inner perspective followed by the practice on the yoga mat brings you back into contact with the outside world, awakened by the basic understanding that everything and everyone is interconnected.
That’s the original purpose of yoga according to the 8 limbs of yoga.
How should I start?
Now back to your daily routine on the mat.
Do not worry too much about doing things the right way or understanding all the principles.
Do your best and enjoy the poses.
As Patanjali, the founder of yoga said; practice and the rest will follow.
So practice! Check out these articles to deepen your yoga journey: