In its essence, yoga is a philosophical way of living your life. The physical movement of the body and the seated meditation practice that we associate with a Western yoga class, comprises only two aspects of the eight philosophical principles, or limbs, that underpin the practice of yoga. My aim as a teacher is to share that yoga is so much more than an hour-long weekly class and, in this article, I will explain the eight limbs of yoga.
The non-dualist traditional of yoga does not identify with a God but rather, recognises that we are all connected. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a key text on yoga philosophy written over 2000 years ago, the eight-limb path is used to demonstrate the central principles of yoga and is a clear framework that you can return to again and again to deepen and expand your understanding and practise of yoga.
These eight limbs are:
1. Yamas (moral disciplines, ethics)
There are five Yamas listed in the Yoga Sutras and these are: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (Truth or truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (integrity in relationship to sexuality/chastity) and aparigraha (freedom from desire and greed).
2. Niyamas (positive duties or observances)
There are five Niyamas: saucha (purity or cleanliness), santosa (contentment), tapas (self-discipline; spiritual passion, practice), svadhyaya (mindfulness; self-study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God or the Absolute).
I could discuss both the Yamas and the Niyamas in much more detail and look at the subtle nuances of these ethical restraints and observances, however, that would be enough content for a separate blog so I am excited to delve deeper into this at a later date.
3. Asana (posture, physical movement of the body)
The word asana can be translated as “seat” and originally referred to the seat you would take in meditation. As yoga evolved and different physical postures were created, the term asana referred to the posture you were in and then, eventually, it began to be the word used to refer to all the physical postures of yoga that we are familiar with today. The practice of asana is a form of moving meditation where practitioners turn their attention inwards and focus on the breath. It is a tool to prepare the body and mind for seated meditation.
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
Pranayama translates as “extension of life-force energy” and the term refers to the breathing techniques that you might use at the beginning or throughout a yoga class. Controlling the breath by using Pranayama helps the yoga practitioner to steady the mind and is often viewed as the foundation for the development of meditation, helping to create a focused and concentrated mental state.
Prana, which is life-force energy in the yoga tradition, is increased in the body through breathing techniques and asana practice. By increasing prana, it is said to give yogis good health and longevity. Traditionally, yogis tried to build prana in the body to awaken the dormant Kundalini energy. This concentrated form of prana would pierce open and awaken the Chakras so that the yoga practitioner could attain enlightenment.
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga and often considered the bridge between the first four limbs, which are more externally focused and the last three limbs, which are more internally focused. Pratyahara can roughly be translated as the withdrawing of the senses and is considered the first step towards deep meditation. Traditionally, yogis would withdraw from the everyday world to live in caves in the Himalayas or to join forest communities. Pratyahara doesn’t need to involve this extreme action and it can simply refer to becoming more aware of what commands your attention and consciously directing your attention. An example of this would drawing your attention back to a yoga posture or your meditation practice when your attention is drawn outward by sensory stimuli or when your attention is drawn into thought.
6. Dharana (concentration)
Dharana is defined by Patanjali as concentration or single-pointed awareness. When a yoga practitioner learns how to steady the mind and consciously let go of thoughts and feelings as they arise then a steady uninterrupted state of intense focus is cultivated. It can be thought as the application of the mind to an object and these objects can be tools to help the practitioner to focus. Examples include repeating mantras or observing the breath.
7. Dhyana (meditation)
Dhyana refers to meditation or contemplation and builds upon the practice of Pratyahara and Dharana. Dharana is defined as concentration and single-pointed awareness and meditation is the extension of the concentration into a flowing process. The practice of meditation is to be aware of everything that arises in our consciousness and to choose to stay present and not get entangled in our thoughts and feelings.
8. Samadhi (enlightenment)
The final limb of yoga is Samadhi, or enlightenment and it is the ultimate goal of the yogic path. Samadhi occurs when the yoga practitioner transcends the Self and realises their interconnectedness with all living things. The yoga practitioner ceases to identify with the self as ego and identifies as consciousness. Samadhi is not a state to be attained, but it is our true nature.
By moving through the limbs of yoga, the tradition illustrates the potential for powerful transformation of the self, enabling the practitioner to find peace, freedom from suffering and the recognition that we are all one. In other words, yoga enables the practitioner to master their mind. The anxieties, the short attention span and distractions of the mind are not a new phenomenon, they are simply exacerbated by our modern lifestyles and the eight-limb path of yoga offers a powerful tool to anchor you throughout your life. It acts as an instrument to allow you to relax your body, quieten your mind, find greater clarity in your thoughts and find acceptance with your feelings. Yoga offers you the moment to reflect and turn inward. This framework, however, is not simply confined to the movement of the body, and by exploring the other limbs of yoga, you can harness the full potential of this powerful practice.
Here are a couple of books to get you started on exploring the eight limbs and the history of yoga:
The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy by Stuart Ray Sarbacker and Kevin Kimple
From the Vedas to Vinyasa: An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga by Amy Vaughn