As much as we love invigorating Sun Salutations, Vinyasa flows, hip openers, back-bending, and arm balancing, there is so much more to the yoga practice than just Asana, the physical aspect.
To better understand yoga as a whole, let's go back in time for a little history on where it all began.
Patañjali was an Indian sage, mystic, philosopher, and author that was believed to have been an incantation of the Hindu deity, Vishnu. He compiled the Yoga Sutras, which are the ancient texts that first outlined the 8 Limbs of Yoga and other yogic principles, estimated around 400CE.
Sutra is the Sanskrit word meaning to weave (think suture or stitch), and the Yoga Sutras were created to be woven throughout the path of a yogi or yogini's life. The Yoga Sutras encompass the entire system of yoga as a lifestyle, and outline the path of a yogi/yogini in order to ease suffering and elevate into a state of bliss through union of mind, body, and spirit.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, literally translating as "to yoke" or "to unite". When we practice yoga as a whole, we are doing just that; we are creating union and alignment by embodying each of the 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Patañjali details the 8 different limbs of yoga, yet only mentions the physical practice of Asana a few times in all 196 of the Yoga Sutras.
Asana (yoga postures or poses) make up only one limb of Patañjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga from the Yoga Sutras. While Asana has become the most popular expression of the eight-limbed path, in order to alleviate the suffering of the human condition and attain the ultimate state of yogic bliss (Samadhi), one must examine, study, contemplate, and incorporate all 8 Limbs of Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga ("Ashta-" meaning eight and "-anga" meaning limb) was created to manage the emotions and suffering of the human condition. The 8 Limbs of Yoga are the foundations of well-being, laid out as a path designed to liberate human exacerbation.
Patañjali states in the Yoga Sutras that the purpose of all paths of yoga is for liberation. Liberation from the ego, from the mental and emotional bodies, and from desire and jealousy. By practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga as a whole, one can learn how to be free and grateful for the gift of embodiment while in human form.
The goal of yoga is to maintain neutrality, balance, peacefulness, and alignment in the physical, mental and emotional bodies. The intention is to align and open into the blissful meditative state of Samadhi (enlightenment).
So, what are these 8 Limbs of Yoga?
The 8 limbs are designed to enable you to live in a flow of right action, constantly checking in with yourself and seeking alignment with divine consciousness and awareness.
Each limb, when practiced, is designed to help practitioners alleviate suffering, and live more disciplined and purposeful lives.
You might find that you are lacking in some limbs, while strong in others. That's ok! Balance and weave the eight-limbed path throughout your life as your unique embodiment and path requires.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
The Yamas are the moral, ethical and social disciplines. They are broken down into 5 ethical guidelines:
- Ahimsa – Non-violence. This can be interpreted as non-harm/non-abuse toward all life on our planet, including yourself and all the people around you, animals, plants, neighbors, and community, and not just physically, but mentally and emotionally too. This also includes not wishing harm onto another living being, including yourself. This can be put into practice by remaining calm, objective, and peaceful, while still standing up to injustice in local, national, and global settings. The "goal" of Ahimsa is to eliminate, eradicate, and prevent as much harm as possible from happening.
- Satya – Truthfulness. Through mind, speech and actions, the yogi/yogini always follows the path of truth and doesn't lie. Living an authentic life, speaking your truth without apologies (as long as it's done while also practicing Ahimsa/non-harm), and being honest towards yourself. The power of discernment and learning to critically think through what is true or not is also important when practicing Satya.
- Asteya – Non-stealing. Do not steal physically, but also do not steal other’s ideas, creations, etc. This also applies to not-stealing from yourself and honoring your bodily and individual needs.
- Aparigraha – Non-hoarding or collecting. What do you actually need? This Yama is a reminder to not be obsessed with material things and to keep life simple. There's no need to be greedy. There is enough abundance for all, so here is where we can practice sharing the wealth, not envying others for their possessions, and being generous whenever possible.
- Brahmacharya – Dedication to your practice. Yoga every damn day. Moderation in everything, and balancing internal emotions and energies. Some even say this Yama includes celibacy or retaining and balancing sexual energy through discipline and daily dedication.
The Niyamas are the five codes to observe in your personal behavior, the guidelines for personal discipline.
- Saucha – Purity and cleanliness. This means bathing daily, but also applies to your actions and speech. Always speak the truth, from the heart. Internal and external purity.
- Santosha – Contentment and satisfaction. Detachment from desire, both physical and mental. Attitude of gratitude, ease and peace.
- Tapas – Self-discipline, austerity, and spiritual practice. Following a simple life with zeal and rigor.
- Svadhyaya – Self-study and observation. Reading spiritual texts, and increasing knowledge of self and the yoga practice.
- Ishvara Pranidhana – Devotion, faith, trust, and surrender to the divine.
In English, asana means “comfortable seat”, and the intention of the Asana practice is to make the body strong and flexible so that it can sit in meditation for long periods of time.
- Asana is used to connect the mind, body, and spirit with the postures designed to connect the physical, mental, and emotional bodies in order to create stability. The position of the body when it is stable and comfortable is a direct expression of a person's asana practice.
- Creates mental and physical strength, along with flexibility and balance.
- Stimulates various bodily systems for improved physical health and longevity.
Pranayama exercises are yogic breathing techniques used to activate vital life-force energy.
- Prana is your vital life-force energy, and yama means expansion. Prana rides on oxygen and is activated, expanded, and controlled through the breath.
- Includes mindful breathing, breath control, and breathing practices. Some of the most common Pranayama techniques are Alternate Nostril Breathing, Kapalabhati breath, and breath retention exercises.
- Improves metabolism, expands the lung capacity, and has a direct effect on emotional health and physiological functioning.
- Helps to clear and balance the mental and emotional body.
- Helps to open, activate, and balance the chakras.
After working through the first four limbs, you are ready to venture inward and develop your inner landscape.
Dharana is the next step on the inward journey.
- Dharana is focused concentration of the internal practice. Being able to sit comfortably for an extended period of time and focus on internal spiritual practices.
Dhayna is the meditation practice.
- Once you have worked through the previous 6 limbs and their subsets, you'll be better prepared for this stage of deep meditation, which leads to refection, observation, steadying of the mind, quieting of the voices/mental chatter, and letting go of the monkey mind.
Samadhi is the merging with the divine, the true union of the mind, body, and spirit.
- It is complete tranquility, fulfillment, happiness, bliss, and contentment. The inward journey eventually takes you so deep that it becomes inward and outward; you become one with the divine, one with all. You are completely absorbed in this tranquil union and bliss. You have completely liberated yourself from the ego, the monkey mind, any and all desires, and live in cosmic connection with source. It is the stage of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of the yoga practice.
Now that you know what the 8 Limbs of Yoga are, how can you best go about implementing and incorporating these principles into your everyday life?
Just as we work on our physical practice of Asana, we must also work on the other limbs and walk the path towards the ultimate yogic goal of Samadhi, the connection with source and oneness with the divine.
By incorporating and using these yogic principles as a guideline to life, you'd have the tools to design your life and create habits that could lead you away from suffering, away from desire, and increase your feelings of bliss, awareness, consciousness and connection.
You may have already been practicing the 8 Limbs of Yoga and their subsets without realizing it, but continuing to study (Svadhyaya) and deepen your understanding of the Yamas and the Niyamas will help you to fully embody the yoga practice by walking the eight-limbed path.
It may take a while before feeling comfortable in your Vinyasa flow practice, for example, but it's important to remember that Asana is only a small piece of the yoga practice. Journal and see how you can incorporate more of the Yamas and Niyamas into your life by working backwards and reassessing how your yoga practice has been and is serving you now.
What Are the Benefits of Asana?
Asana works to align mind, body and spirit by strengthening and mobilizing the body so you are better able to advance through the eight-limbed path, while also honing the ability to hold long-seated meditation postures with more ease.
There are many different ways to work and strengthen the body using asana and physical movement. Whether by practicing Vinyasa, Hatha, Kriya, Tibetan Rites, Restorative, Yin, etc., there are many different styles of yoga to explore to deepen the connection held within the body, mind, and spirit.
Breathe In, Breathe Out
When the body is strong, flexible, and mobile, finding ease with the breath becomes like second nature. The breath is the guiding force of the entire yoga practice, but it's often not until we step on our yoga mats that we give it much attention!
You can weave your Pranayama practice in with your Asana practice (this is also known as Kriya), or practice the breathing exercises separately on their own.
It is best to practice Pranayama with discipline and regularity for optimal mental and emotional health, but even brief moments of attention toward the breath is beneficial. Pranayama helps to increase your lung capacity, balances settle the nervous system, it can help to lower blood pressure, and prepares the mind for meditation. Pranayama also helps to balance the chakras by moving vital life-force energy (prana) up and down the spinal column.
“Offering the inhaling breath into the exhaling breath and offering the exhaling breath into the inhaling breath, the yogi neutralizes both breaths; thus he/she releases Prana from the heart and brings life-force under his/her control.” – The Bhagavad Gita.
Move Into Stillness
Once you have begun incorporating the first four limbs of Ashtanga, the fifth limb, Pratyahara, turns you away from outward expression, and into internal examination. Pratyahara is going within, examining the mind and the inner landscape, withdrawing the senses, and moving into stillness.
Pratyahara can be embodied in the sense of closing your eyes, withdrawing yourself from all actionable senses and coming home to your essence within. Sit in meditation and truly give yourself time to explore your internal landscape. Notice how your mind reacts and tries to wander, and bring it back. Let everything become really quiet and see what surfaces.
Pratyahara also works with the 3 bandhas (energetic locks in the body):
- the Mula Bandha located on the pelvic floor
- the Uddiyana Bandha or the abdominal lock
- the Jalandhara Bandha or the throat lock
When practicing Pratyahara, the yogi or yogini is able to develop and control the flow of energy through the bandhas, and cultivates a deep understanding of their own inner landscape through withdrawal of the senses.
Where is Your Focus?
The sixth limb is concentration, or Dharana. Dharana involves the singular holding of one thought or focus in the mind, meditating on the breath, or reciting a Mantra repeatedly, with deep focus and concentration.
You can begin to practice Dharana by coming into a comfortable seat and closing the eyes. Bring your awareness to the third-eye space between the eyebrows and focus your attention there while engaging in Ujjayi Pranayama. When you find the mind beginning to wander, bring your awareness back to the third-eye and continue to breathe with your focus there. Set a timer for 3 minutes and then gradually work your way up to 5-10-20 minutes, twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.
Dive into the Depths of Yourself
The seventh limb is where the actual practice and benefits of meditation begin to shine through. Dhyana occurs when you have worked through all the previous six limbs and you are able to apply them in order to calm and quiet your mind, focus on stilling the chatter, and drop into a deep meditative state for a long period of time.
This is a difficult limb to master, but don't let that stop you from trying! Using all of the discipline from the Yamas and the Niyamas, as well as your Asana practice for strength, Pranayama practice for control of your prana, Pratyahara for self-inquiry, and Dhayana for cultivating focus, you can achieve this limb with time, patience, and dedication.
In Dhyana you begin to access deeper and deeper meditative states until you reach the ultimate goal of Samadhi.
Enlightenment and Ultimate Bliss
Once you have been able to drop into the practice of Dhyana for long periods of time, you begin to experience Samadhi - ultimate bliss and a deep, everlasting connection to the divine source that is always present.
Yogis and yoginis that have reached Samadhi have achieved the highest goal of yoga; the union with the divine and the ultimate blissful connection to cosmic consciousness. They are believed to have ended their karmic cycle of samsara, or reincarnation, and are able to access the realm of Samadhi at any time.
You will find as you begin to practice the 8 Limbs of Yoga, that they begin to weave themselves throughout your practice both on and off the mat.
You begin to develop awareness and mindfulness as you delve deeper into the limbs. Be gentle and pace yourself; you are working with many lifetimes of ancient yogic knowledge!
Exploring the Yamas and Niyamas
When working with the Yamas, ask yourself and journal with the following prompts:
- How can you bring more gentleness and empathy into your life?
- In what ways may you be causing harm to yourself? To other living beings? To the planet? (No shame here! Acknowledgment is how we begin to bring awareness and live more intentionally. Sometimes harm can occur out of our control, but awareness opens space for thinking of alternatives, if available.)
- While aiming to live more in line with yogic philosophy, what do you have in your capacity to lessen the harm being caused by you or around you?
- How can you show yourself more love and compassion?
- In what ways can you release shame or guilt?
- Who needs your forgiveness? (Do you need to forgive yourself for something? Is there a person from the past that caused you pain, and you still can't let go?)
- How have you been untruthful in the past? In what ways can you be more truthful and discerning in the present, while also being unapologetically you?
- Where in your life can you release envy? How about jealousy?
- Where there is envy/jealousy, how can you transmute those emotions into those of celebration, support, understanding, or love?
- What material things in your life do you hold onto, not out of necessity?
- What do you truly need to life happily?
- Where can you begin to incorporate more of the Yamas into your regular daily life?
When working with the Niyamas, contemplate, meditate, and journal with the following prompts:
- How can you embody purity and cleanliness in mind, body, and spirit?
- What can you do to further develop your spiritual practice and dedication to it?
- What situations can you focus on your observation more and live with more presence?
- What is your relationship with the divine? Where is there room to explore?
- What prevents you from fully trusting in, and surrendering to the divine?
- What parts of the yoga practice would you like to learn more about?
- Where can you be more disciplined or devoted in your practice?
- What actions can you take to explore and strengthen your passion with your yoga practice?
- What are you grateful for?
- In what ways are you content and satisfied with your life and practice?
- Where can you begin to incorporate more of the Niyamas into your regular daily life?
Begin to develop daily habits and routines by working with the Yamas and Niyamas on a regular basis, and you will be taking the first steps towards living the eight-limbed path!
Which limb resonates with you the most right now? Which one do you struggle with the most? Reflecting on your ease and resistance with each of the 8 limbs helps serve as a reminder that even if you've been practicing yoga for many years or even teach yoga, you are and will forever be a student on this lifelong journey.
Share your perspective and thoughts on Patañjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga with the community in the comments below!