You may or may not have heard of the 8 limbs of yoga, depending on how long you’ve been exploring this thing called yoga. If you’re completely unfamiliar with the eight limbs of yoga, stick around because these 8 limbs ARE yoga, and you’re going to want to learn about them.
If you’re vaguely familiar with the 8 limbs; ie, you’ve heard the term before, or you know what one or two of the limbs are, then this post is for you too because it will break them down and give you more clarity.
If you’re a yoga pro and you know all about the 8 limbs, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my take on them, so please read on and share in the comments below!
Why Are The 8 Limbs of Yoga Important?
I’m sure you’ve heard that yoga is so much more than physical postures. Yogis love to say this all the time, but they rarely go into detail about what all this “so much more” is (I include myself in this statement; no yogi shade being thrown here!).
The 8 limbs of yoga are the “so much more”. They are the full breadth and scope of the yoga practice.
In addition to being a physical, mental, and spiritual practice, yoga is also a life philosophy. One that focuses on harmonizing body, breath, mind, and spirit. The eight limbs help us to live this philosophy.
Where Did The Eight Limbs Come From?
One of the most important texts on yoga is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras is the first organized presentation of yoga, organized by an Indian sage named Patanjali.
Patanjali did not create something new; he didn’t invent yoga. He simply took the ancient practices that were already in existence and summarized them in an organized and concise way (thanks Patanjali!).
The Yoga Sutra consists of 195 or 196 sutras, or aphorisms (some sources say 195, others say 196) that organize the practice of yoga into eight parts, or limbs (the meaning of ashtanga = eight limbs; ashta = eight, anga = limbs).
These 8 limbs of yoga are the eight principles that make up the practice of yoga.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
We are meant to progress through the 8 limbs, becoming grounded in the first before we move on to the second, and so on. This will ensure that we are mentally and spiritually ready to receive the teachings of each limb.
The first two of the 8 limbs are broken down into 5 sub-principles:
1. Yamas: Ethical and moral standards.
- Ahimsa: Non-harming.
- Self-explanatory, right? Don’t hurt others; we learn this shit in kindergarten. But also don’t hurt yourself, and make sure that you apply this to your words and thoughts as well as your actions.
- Satya: Truthfulness.
- Also pretty straightforward. Don’t tell lies; not just to others, but to yourself as well.
- Asteya: Non-stealing & respect.
- Don’t take stuff that isn’t yours. This includes other people’s time and energy, so don’t be late or waste people’s time.
- Brahmacharya: Moderation, self-control, or right use of energy.
- This applies to all things – food, exercise, pleasure, you name it. Use your energy wisely.
- Aparigraha: Non-attachment.
- This is a big one. Huge. The more you get into a yoga practice, the more you’ll hear about it. This also applies to all things – postures, things, people, experiences. Be ok with letting shit go.
2. Niyamas: Standards of individual conduct, or internal observances.
- Saucha: Purity, or inner and outer cleanliness.
- Shower on the reg, but also watch what you consume – what you eat, what you listen to, what you read, what you watch. You get it. Don’t consume crap.
- Santosha: Contentment in the now.
- This is another big one – being content with what we have and where we are in each present moment.
- Tapas: Self-discipline, or inner fire.
- This one is related to our desire to transform, and utilizing our energy in a disciplined way in order to facilitate transformation. Keeping eyes on the prize and working towards it with discipline.
- Svadhyaya: Self-study.
- This applies mainly off the mat in the form of reading and studying yogic texts. It can also be applied on the mat by being curious about yourself, both in physical postures and in meditation.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender the results of your actions, or trust in the universe.
- Doing the best you can, when you can, with what you have, and then trusting that the universe will bring you what you need.
3. Asana: Physical postures.
The Sanskrit word asana literally translates to ‘seat’, since the OG yoga pose was simply a meditative seat. Today, asana is translated as “pose” or “posture.”
This is why the Sanskrit names of poses end in “asana”. Warrior pose = virabhadrasana; locust pose = shalabhasana.
The purpose of all yoga poses is to increase hip flexibility so we can find ease while sitting in meditation. They also assist with opening the mind to a meditative state.
The term asana invites us to think of each pose as a place to find the meditative “seat”, or a meditative state of mind.
4. Pranayama: Breath control.
Prana is life force; it is the vital energy that gives us life. Pranayama is how we regulate that life force, through use of the breath.
Breathing practices are an integral part of a yoga practice, as the breath links the body, mind, and soul. There are many different breathing exercises you can try; if you’d like to learn more about pranayama, check out the Pranayama Guide.
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses.
This is the first step towards a meditation practice. It is the conscious detachment from our senses in order to take our attention inward.
We begin by closing the eyes, detaching from our sense of sight, then gradually detaching from our other senses as we take our attention further inward.
6. Dharana: Focus and concentration.
This is the second step towards a meditation practice. It is the principle of controlling the “monkey mind”; of not allowing our thoughts to run rampant and control us.
An “anchor” is often used for this – the breath, or a mantra – something that we focus our attention on. Mantra meditation is wonderful and accessible way to practice this.
Related: Mantra Meditation With a Mala
7. Dhyana: Meditation, or contemplation.
This is uninterrupted focus and concentration. In the preceding limb, Dharana, our concentration is often interrupted by wandering thoughts (which is totally ok!), but in Dhyana, our focus is unbroken.
8. Samadhi: Bliss; oneness with the Universe.
This is enlightenment and it can be thought of as the ultimate “goal” of yoga.
It’s a tricky one to describe, but basically, if you practice the preceding seven principles (and I mean really practice them), you will eventually reach a state where your individual awareness dissolves and you realize that you and the entire Universe are one. Yeah babe…you and the entire Universe!
Samadhi is not a permanent state, and it takes incredible dedication and effort (and many lifetimes, if you believe in that kind of thing). You must be willing to train the mind and go deep inside.
Progress Not Perfection
Know that each limb requires dedication and that all of them will always be a work in progress.
While we are meant to progress through the 8 limbs of yoga, that does not mean that we need to “master” one before exploring the next. Truthfully, I don’t expect to ever “master” any of the 8 limbs, and you shouldn’t either.
As one of my teachers always says, we are part-time yogis. If you’re reading this, then chances are you aren’t living in a cave, having renounced all worldly things, practicing the 8 limbs all day every day. So go easy on yourself.
Do the best you can, when you can, with what you have.
And the next time someone says that yoga is so much more than postures, you’ll know what they’re talking about 😉
What Are Your Thoughts?
The 8 limbs of yoga remind me that this practice will be with me long after my physical body has tired of chaturangas and warrior poses. I don’t have to make crazy shapes – or any shapes at all – to practice yoga. I think this is a beautiful thing.
What do you think? Do you practice the principles of the 8 limbs in your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below!