8 Limbs Of Yoga

8 Limbs Of Yoga

Posted on Jan 27, 2023

8 Limbs Of Yoga

When broken down to its earliest form, the word yoga meant to yoke two things together. What we're really after is a union with our true Self, which has variously been called the "divine essence," "ultimate self," or atman. Who knows, maybe this represents the soul to you.

If that doesn't make sense to you, think about the fact that the word yoga can also mean disconnection or isolation. The ultimate goal of yoga is moksha, which can be translated as liberation or freedom; this state of mind is what we are working to disentangle ourselves from. 

In that case, what is the procedure for achieving this independence through yoga? Does it cost more than a nice pair of yoga pants? Can you get there by attending a cleansing retreat or by merely putting your toes on the floor? Most likely not... 

Known also as the "Eight Limbs of Yoga" (from the Sanskrit words "ashta" for "eight" and "anga" for "limb"), the "Ashtanga Yoga System" is Patanjali's eight-step guide to enlightenment.


1. YAMA, Restrictions, moral disciplines, or moral vows 

Yama, the first limb, refers to vows, disciplines, or practises that centre on our relationship with the external world. Although regular yoga practise has been shown to have positive effects on physical strength, flexibility, and mental calmness, these benefits are of little use if we continue to live our lives in a state of rigidity, weakness, and stress. 

The five Yamas are as follows: 

The Yamas and Niyamas are the Eightfold Path, which emphasises nonviolence (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), nonstealing (Asteya), energy conservation (Brahmacharya), and sharing (Aparigraha), among other virtues (non-greed or non-hoarding). 

When we learn to be compassionate, honest, and productive with our energy, our yoga practise will benefit not only us but also the world around us. 

According to BKS Iyengar's translation of the sutras, "Light On The Yoga Sutras," the Yamas are "unconditioned by time, class, and place," implying that we can all strive to internalise them regardless of who we are, where we come from, or how much yoga practise we have had.



Positive responsibilities or rituals are called NIYAMA, and the word comes from the Arabic word niyat. 

Niyama, the second limb, typically refers to inward obligations, but can also be interpreted in light of how we interact with the world. The Sanskrit prefix ni has the meaning of "inward" or "within." 

Five observances known as Niyamas are: 

Practices such as cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), discipline (tapas), self-reflection (svadhyaya), study of spiritual texts (isvarapranidaha), and arousal of desire (burning of desire) are all essential to enlightenment (surrender to a higher power). 

Those who are serious about progressing along the Yogic path are expected to observe the Niyamas, which are practises aimed at strengthening one's moral fibre. One interesting connection between the Niyamas and the Koshas, the "sheaths" or "layers" that cover and protect our bodies and lead to our true nature, is that they both emphasise the importance of a person's inner life. Working with the Niyamas, from saucha to isvararpranidhana, helps us see how we're led from our baser selves to our truest selves. 


3. ASANA, or the Yoga Postures

Third on the road to liberation is the physical practise of yoga, or asana, which, if we're being completely honest, has nothing to do with being able to do a handstand or an aesthetically impressive backbend, but rather means "seat" (as in, the seat you would take for the practise of meditation). Patanjali's only asana alignment instruction is "sthira sukham asanam," which means to maintain a steady, comfortable posture. 

Padmasana (lotus pose) and Virasana (hero pose) are just two of the many postures recommended for meditation in classic texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Sthirasukhasana, however, is the most crucial asana (which literally translates to "a posture the practitioner can hold comfortably and motionlessness").

The point is to be as comfortable as possible while sitting so as to avoid being "pulled" by physical discomfort. If, in yoga class, you always go for the most challenging pose, rather than the one your body can actually do, maybe you should give this some thought: "How many different poses can we hold comfortably?" 


4. Breathing Exercises (PRANAYAMA) 

'Prana' is Sanskrit for 'energy' or 'life source,' and it's what keeps you going. It can be used to describe both the vital force that sustains us and the cosmic power that permeates the cosmos. Prana is also used to describe the breath; altering one's breathing pattern can have a profound effect on one's state of mind. 

Pranayama's ambiguous meanings, which could take us in opposite directions at this juncture on the road to liberation, are among the practice's most intriguing aspects. 

Pranayama can be interpreted as either "breath-control" ('prana-yama') or "breath-restraint" ('prana-ayama'), all of which refer to the regulation of breathing rather than its expansion or release. 

The physical act of practising various breathing techniques has a profound effect on the mind. We can select calming practises, such as Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath), or more stimulating ones, such as Kapalabhati, depending on our needs (shining skull cleansing breath). 

The way we breathe can have a profound effect on our emotional and mental state, but we get to choose whether we see that as 'controlling' our emotions and thoughts or as 'freeing' ourselves from our ingrained patterns.


5. Withdrawal of Sensation (Pratyahara) 

Pratya means to draw in, draw back, or withdraw, and the second part, ahara, refers to anything we "take in" on our own, such as the various sights, sounds, and smells our senses pick up on a regular basis. The first thing most of us do when we sit down to meditate formally is to concentrate on drawing in our attention. This limb would also relate to pranayama, as the act of drawing inward often involves paying attention to the way we're breathing. 

People often misunderstand this part of the practise because the term "sense withdrawal" may evoke images of being able to physically switch our senses "off" through concentration. 

The practise of pratyahara alters our mental state so that we become so focused on whatever it is we're trying to concentrate on that nothing outside of ourselves (such as sounds, smells, or physical sensations) can distract us from our meditation. Pratyahara, the ability to focus so intently on the here and now that external stimuli like sights, sounds, and even thoughts are unable to pull one's attention away, may be transferable to daily life for adept practitioners. 


6. DHARANA, Concentration With Intent 

Dharana is a state of rapt attention. The two words Dha and Ana mean "holding" and "maintaining," respectively. Dharana and pratyahara are integral parts of the same aspect and are closely related to the first two limbs. To concentrate on something, one must pull in one's senses so that their full attention can be given to the object of their focus, and vice versa. Many of us reach the dharana stage, where we think we're meditating, by engaging in techniques like tratak (candle gazing), visualising, and focusing on the breath. 


7. DHYANA, Means Deep Meditation 

The seventh limb is "meditative absorption," which occurs when we lose ourselves in the object of our meditation. Meditation is not something we consciously "do," but rather, it describes the natural consequence of all other causes. Whatever we may pick up in a lecture hall, online, or from a mentor, it's all just a set of tools to help us calm down, zero in, and pay attention. That is to say, if you are truly meditating, you will not be thinking to yourself, "Oh, I'm meditating!" (does this sound familiar?)


8. SAMADHI, a state of bliss or enlightenment

The goal of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is samadhi, which has many meanings but is most commonly understood to mean a state of bliss or enlightenment. By rearranging our connections to others and to our own selves, we can reach the pinnacle of joy. 

However, when we examine the word samadhi, we find that 'enlightenment' or'realization' does not refer to a state of blissful, carefree elation.... Sorry. 

By separating the word into its component parts, we can see that the last stage, dhi, consists of the verbs sama, which means "same" or "equal," and dhi, which means "to see." Samadhi is not about escaping, drifting away, or being overwhelmingly happy; rather, it is about realising the very life that lies in front of us. 

Bliss is achieved when we are able to "see equally" and free from mental interference, when our experience is not coloured by our preferences, biases, or routines, and when we are not compelled to form strong opinions or form strong attachments. 

This stage is not about clinging to feelings of bliss or happiness; rather, it is about seeing life and reality for exactly what they are, without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, pleasure, and pain fluctuating and governing it. This concept is similar to the theologian Meister Eckhart's use of the word isticheit, meaning "is-ness," to refer to the pure knowledge of seeing and realising just "what is." The simple recognition that "I am" exists, apart from any particular emotional or mental disposition. 

But there is a catch: Samadhi is not an eternal state.... Patanjali warns us in the Yoga Sutras that we will not be able to stay in Samadhi for very long unless we are completely prepared, without 'impressions' like attachment, aversion, desires, and habits, and with a completely pure mind: 

When the mind is free of all negativity and we are able to maintain a state of Samadhi, we have achieved moksha, also spelled mukti, which means to be permanently liberated, released, and free.