The 8-limbs of yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga, are often regarded as the foundation of yoga philosophy. They were first codified sometime around 500 BCE to 400 CE by the sage Patanjali in his seminal text, the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The 8-limbs are yama (moral discipline), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment).
Understanding and incorporating the 8-limbs of yoga into a modern yoga practice is essential to honor the depth of spirituality of yoga and to gain the many deeper benefits of this practice. But what exactly do the 8-limbs of yoga mean in a more practical sense? And how can you incorporate them into your yoga practice? See below to find out!
The 8-Limbs of Yoga
- Yama (Moral Discipline)
This first limb of yoga primarily focuses on the ethical and moral discipline required for yoga practice. This limb consists of 5 parts: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (sexual restraint), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). These various practices guide how we should interact with other people and the world, assisting us in shifting towards a more righteous and purer path.
In a practical sense, this can be generally interpreted to involve living a life that does not harm others, speaking your truth as much as possible, not stealing from others, not feeling greed or jealousy, and avoiding sex outside of marriage. Many people struggle with the concept of brahmacharya the most. The premise behind this component is to conserve one’s energy, as in yoga, the sexual energy is believed to be a part of the potent life force that, if lost, can prevent your kundalini energy from rising. But in general, this can be practiced simply by being more aware of how you use your energy and treating your body like a sanctuary.
- Niyama (Observances)
Niyama is the second limb that is quite similar to the first in that it also relates to self-discipline, but these practices are primarily concerned with spiritual observances. Niyama also consists of 5 parts, which are: saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvarapranidhana (surrender to God). By keeping the various components of niyama at the core of your life, you can shift into a greater focus on spirituality.
The components of this limb of yoga are understood in a practical sense to consist of keeping the body and mind clean and pure while also being content with what you have and not pursuing more than necessary. Additionally, this limb focuses on the importance of engaging in tapas, which is the generation of spiritual heat through austerity or discipline, the study of scriptures and the self, and surrender to God or any higher power you feel most connected to.
- Asana (Postures)
This limb is the most well known as it makes up the primary component of modern yoga classes. However, Patanjali’s understanding of asana was not quite the same as how we see it today. The traditional purpose of asana was to physically prepare the body for sitting for lengthy periods in a steady and comfortable posture while engaging in the higher spiritual practices of pranayama and dhyana. Ultimately, you only need one asana that you can sit in for an extended period of time. However, modern yoga asana classes can still be highly beneficial for improving physical health and furthering you on your spiritual path.
- Pranayama (Breathing Practices)
Pranayama is the practice of controlling or restraining the breath to influence prana or the energy that permeates the body. By manipulating prana, it is believed that the lifespan can be extended, any disease can be cured, and the mind can be relaxed and focused. There are numerous breathing exercises in existence, but some of the most commonly practiced are Ujjayi, Kapalabhati, and Anulom Vilom. You can also begin practicing this limb of yoga by merely engaging in abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
The next three limbs describe the various meditation stages and how to progress oneself in a stepwise fashion to reach samadhi or enlightenment. The word pratyahara directly translates to mean “withdraw into the self.” Practically, pratyahara is the first step of meditation when you begin shifting your awareness further inwards and release any awareness of the outside world. A good way to start practicing pratyahara is through breath awareness. By focusing the mind on the breath, you can concentrate your senses on a single point within the self, rather than getting pulled into sounds, sights, or smells around you.
- Dharana (Concentration)
This limb is the next phase of pratyahara in which the withdrawal of the senses is maintained for a more extended period of time. As you begin to develop your ability to withdraw your senses, you then must develop the ability to concentrate at a singular point for a long period of time. Your point of concentration can be anything that works for you. But some good ways to start with this practice is again through breath awareness or the practice of Tratak or candle gazing.
- Dhyana (Meditation)
Dhyana is the final stage of the withdrawal of the senses and the practice of concentration in which you become completely absorbed with your focus of awareness. When this absorption is maintained for a long period of time, then according to yoga philosophy, you are truly meditating. There are many techniques to practice meditation, and as mentioned above, you can do this through breath awareness, visualization, or mantra meditation.
- Samadhi (Enlightenment)
The final stage or goal of all of the prior limbs is ultimately to achieve samadhi or enlightenment. Samadhi is a state of complete ecstasy and bliss in which you merge the individual soul entirely with the supreme soul, transcending the concept of the self altogether. In this state, your body does not actually go anywhere different; this is simply a change of consciousness or state of mind. It is believed that many people may spend multiple lifetimes before they reach this stage, but for many yogis, this is the ultimate goal of yoga practice.
Although it may seem difficult to understand how the 8-limbs of yoga can be incorporated into your life, the essence of these practices is the pursuit of a higher truth and a pure existence. By living righteously, caring for others and yourself, devoting your life to a higher purpose, and engaging in the spiritually potent practices of yoga asana, pranayama, and meditation, you can truly embody the 8-limbs of yoga in your life.