2500 years ago, the sage Patanjali compiled a book called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to give an introduction to the practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. These eight limbs are referred to as Ashtanga Yoga.
In Sanskrit, “asht” literally means eight and “anga” means limbs or parts.
We hear about the “Eight Limbed Path of Yoga” all the time – especially if you’ve ever taken a Yoga Teacher Training. But what does it really mean, and how does it relate to our lives nearly 2500 years later?
The purpose of these eight practices is to help us purify our physical body, energy body, gain mastery over senses, and become free from worldly illusions.
The ultimate goal of practicing these Eight Limbs of Yoga is to achieve self-realization. Sage Patanjali explained that self-realization should be the ultimate goal of humankind.
Through self-realization, you can become free from mental and physical suffering and understand the true purpose of your life.
Learn About the Eight Limbs of Yoga
These eight practices provide practical steps of personal development physically, mentally and spiritually to attain the highest state of awareness.
Sage Patanjali insisted that these eight practices be practiced in a specific order, and no practice should be skipped as it lays the way to the subsequent practice.
Within the Eight Limbs of Yoga, we start with the Yamas and Niyamas. “Yamas” translates to self-control and thus represent the qualities we must develop in ourselves.
These qualities help us become more aligned with living a life of integrity – the Yamas are guidelines for how we relate to the world. There are 5 Yamas:
Non-violence in this context means no intention to hurt ourselves or others. We can hurt others and ourselves in many different ways. Apart from obvious physical and mental violence, feeding your body toxic food, anger, jealousy, and unkind words are all forms of violence.
The next quality we want to develop is truth. Patanjali explained two different kinds of truth: one is personal truth and other is universal truth or complete truth.
Satya is all about living with a clear, honest, and grounded view both of yourself and the world around you. When you’re able to see things for what they are, you can accept them as they are, freeing you to experience a greater sense of self-love and compassion for those around you.
Living in truth also means speaking your personal truth (standing up for what you believe in), expressing yourself clearly and accurately, and encouraging others to do the same.
Non-stealing is meant in the obvious sense of not taking anything which is not yours. Stealing can be in the form of money, materials, ideas, time, effort.
Other forms of stealing can be taking advantage of the situation, not following through on your word, not putting forth your best effort, etc.
Stealing can also be on an emotional and energetic level – stealing someone’s peace or happiness through your words, or being an ‘emotional vampire’ are other forms of stealing that Asteya seeks to avoid.
This practice includes not over-indulging in sensory pleasures. Some examples are an over-indulgence in food or physical pleasures like sex, drugs, sleep etc.
If you practice Brahmacharya, you eat food to stay healthy and not just for pleasure. You enjoy things like sex, shopping, etc in healthy moderation.
As human beings, we can become addicted to sensual pleasures. By practicing Brahmacharya, we tap into self-control and self-awareness, and ultimately gratitude and contentment will follow.
We live in the age of materialism and it’s easy to get carried away in the pursuit of the newest car, purse, or pair of shoes. As a result, we waste a lot of time, money and energy on unnecessary things.
The idea is to develop habit of non-possessiveness or non-attachment, so we only take and collect what we actually need – not more.
When it comes to material possessions, we should assess if we really need it or if we can live without it. The concept of non-attachment also spans to people, circumstances, and outcomes. Releasing the need to control, not harboring feelings of jealousy etc can help us practice Aparigraha and simplify our lives.
Want to dive deeper into the Yamas? Read: A Guide to the Yamas: The First Path of Yoga’s Eight Limbs
While the Yamas are about how we interact with the world, the Niyamas are the way we relate to ourselves. “Niyama” translates to “moral observance.”
Thus, the Niyamas are the personal habits we should cultivate for a more fulfilling, meaningful existence. There are 5 Niyamas:
Saucha, or cleanliness, means physical, mental and intentional purity. It’s important to spend time everyday focusing on self-care in the form of hygiene, grooming, and staying active. It’s also practices like positive mantras or affirmations, mindfulness, meditation, and other ways of maintaining a healthy, positive mindstate.
Want to learn a simple mindfulness meditation? Check out our Mindfulness Meditation Guide on How to Start a Daily Practice
Saucha extends beyond ourselves and into the world – maintaining a neat and organized home, practicing saucha by putting things back where you found them, and so forth. Purity and cleanliness start as an inward practice and expand into all aspects of our lives.
Santosha is being satisfied and grateful for what we have while working towards what we want. With this principle, we develop a habit of being thankful for the things we already have in our lives and in so doing, finding contentment with the here and now.
Santosha is a radically simple notion of staying grounded, practicing gratitude, and finding a great sense of joy for everything precisely as it is.
Tapas is the concept of using self-discipline to release and move through negative habits and patterns. You can use Tapas to gain control over your senses and desires.
Discipline is motivating – it helps us focus on our goals and dreams so we can continue growing and evolving. Tapas can help you change unwanted habits and develop a stronger sense of self-control.
Swadhyaya means self-study or study of the self. Here, you ask challenging, provoking questions like Who am I? What is my purpose? Why do I think and behave the way I do?
Swadhyaya is the all-important act of cultivating a great sense of self, of your identity, of your core beliefs, so you find direction and purpose in life.
Ishvara Pranidhana: Connection with Divinity
Ishvara means your personal idea of the Supreme, Divine, or God – whatever and however you relate to a higher power. Ishvara Pranidhana, then, means surrender of ego to Divinity.
It’s about coming to terms with the meaning of life, and how you relate to the universe. This final Niyama is often translated as “surrender” – the act of recognizing and celebrating the beautiful interconnection of all things.
Want to dive deeper into the Niyamas? Read: A Guide to the Niyamas: The Second Path of Yoga’s Eight Limbs
3. Asana: Physical Yoga Poses
The third limb of yoga is the physical yoga poses (or asanas) – the part that we are arguably most familiar with in modern times.
The interesting thing to note about yoga postures being third on the list is that Patanjali believed that #1 and #2 must be practiced first in order to prepare mind and body for the phsyical practice of yoga.
Sthira Sukham Asanam is a phrase that most yogis have heard at some point, and it explains that a steady and comfortable pose is asana. The body should be steady and free from suffering, and the mind should be steady and free from sensual craving, worry or desire.
The physical asanas we practice as an effective way to purify the physical body in preparation for the remaining limbs of yoga. . .
4. Pranayama: Expansion of Life Force Energy
Pranayama is Sanskrit and translates as follows: “Prana” means life force energy, and “yama” means vehicle or control.
Pranayama is conscious breathwork that enhances your life force energy. There are many forms of Pranayama exercises that purify the energy body (i.e. the chakra system, energy channels and meridians, etc).
Want to learn more about Prana? Read Prana – an Ancient Understanding of Life Force Energy Explained in Modern Times
These conscious breathing exercises will help you increase the capacity to hold prana – vital life force energy – in your body.
Prana is the vital force we need to live and to do our physical activities like speaking, thinking, digestion etc. These exercises also help improve the condition of your respiratory system and bring harmony between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
Want to learn more about Pranayama? Read Pranayama Explained + 5 Techniques to Get You Started
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal From the Senses
Withdrawal from the sense means restricting the senses from outside stimulation. Our five senses are always craving new and more inputs. In the practice of Pratyahara, we try to close or restrict the sensory organs from getting any sensory stimulation.
For example, closing the eyes in meditation, using Pranayama (see limb #4) to quiet the mind, etc. Floatation tanks create a similar experience.
When our senses don’t receive stimulation for a period of time, they start to calm down. It is essential to calm the senses in order to concentrate and gain control over them – key for meditation. Which brings us to the sixth limb of yoga . . .
6. Dharana: Concentration
Dharana means concentration. Bringing all five senses on one single object or point of focus is the act of Dharana. Notice a trend here? We need to practice all five limbs leading up to Dharana, in order to make this single-pointed focus possible for ourselves.
The purpose of Dharana is to control the mind. There are various techniques we can use to practice Dharana. For example, concentration on the breath, candle gazing, Japa (chanting) etc.
In fact, I wrote an entire article on the very subject of how to calm and concentrate the mind. Learn How to Control Your Mind and Experience More Peace
It is important to be able to focus on one single point in order to reach to the next step, which is meditation . . .
7. Dhyana: Meditation
Dhyana means meditation. Here, meditation means connecting to your true Self. In this state, you focus deeper inward and are able to observe the true Self without interference of your mind and the senses.
You must possess deep concentration to be able to go inwards beyond the sensations of the body and mind. Complete physical and mental stillness is an important step in meditation.
New to meditation? Follow These 6 Simple Steps to Begin a Meditation Practice
8. Samadhi: Freedom From Illusion
Samadhi is the deeper state of meditation. In this state, you become free from the illusions of time, space and reason. This is the state of pure bliss and higher awareness.
In this state, you realize your true Self. Samadhi is the ultimate goal, or step, in the Eight Limbed Path of Yoga.
The Takeaway on the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Sage Patanjali explained that while these Eight Limbs of Yoga may seem difficult, with discipline, dedication and guidance, you can master them and gain control of your entire life.
In brief summary, with the Yamas and Niyamas (the first and second limbs of yoga), you live a life of integrity. With physical asana (the third limb of yoga), you will cleanse and prepare your physical body. Through pranayama (the fourth limb), you will purify your chakras and focus the mind.
Practicing pratyahara (the fifth limb of yoga), you will gain control of your senses, and with dharana (the sixth limb) you will gain control of your mind. Dhyana (the seventh limb) allows you to connect with your inner self, and with practice of samadhi, the final limb of yoga, you will ultimately become free from the illusion.
Ashtanga Yoga is a complete practice that is suitable for any level or background of experience. There are no external tools required – all you need comes from within. With practice of each limb, you will grow and develop physically, mentally and spiritually.
Check out our Beginner Yoga Basics Program
If you want to dive into the Third Limb of Yoga (physical poses, or asana), then start with this beginner yoga program on YA Classes.
With Leah Sugerman
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