What are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?

“Yoga” means to join, connect, or “yoke.” We try to connect with our real Self, which is also called the “divine essence,” “ultimate self,” or atman. This could also be called the soul.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, think about how the word “yoga” can also mean “separation” or “untangling.” We untangle ourselves from anything that keeps us from feeling free, since the final goal of any yoga practise is to reach moksha, which means freedom or release.

So, how does one use yoga to get to this point of freedom? Does it cost a lot, like a pair of expensive yoga pants? Can you get there by going on a detox vacation or touching your toes for the first time? Not likely…

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras say that there is an eight-step way to freedom. This is called the “Ashtanga Yoga System” or the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” (the word “ashta” means “eight” and “anga” means “limb”). But it actually does not refer to the active form of yoga that is commonly practiced as ‘astanga’ in yoga studios across the world. instead it is an 8 step path for illumination or awakening of conciouness, often refered to as enlightment, though the practices of yoga. The 8 limbs are the explination of what those 8 practices are.

What are Yoga’s 8 limbs?

1. YAMA: Limitations, moral rules, or moral promises
2. NIYAMA – Good responsibilities or rituals
3. ASANA is a pose
4. PRANAYAM – Techniques for Breathing
5. PRATYAHARA – Withdrawal of sense
6. DHARANA: Concentration on one thing
7. DHYANA: Meditation
8. SAMADHI: Bliss or awakening

The Eight Limbs of Yoga in detail

1. YAMA: Limitations, moral rules, or moral promises
Yama is the first of the eight limbs of yoga. It refers to vows, practises, or rules that are mostly about the world around us and how we deal with it. Even though yoga can make you stronger and more flexible and help calm your mind, what’s the point if you’re still stiff, weak, and stressed out in your everyday life?
The five Yamas are:

Ahimsa, which means “nonviolence,” Satya, which means “truthfulness,” Asteya, which means “don’t steal,” Brahmacharya, which means “right use of energy,” and Aparigraha, which means “don’t be greedy.”
Yoga is a practise that changes and improves every part of life, not just the 60 minutes spent on a rubber mat. If we can learn to be kind, honest, and use our energy in a positive way, our practise will not only help us, but also everyone and everything around us.

In “Light On The Yoga Sutras,” BKS Iyengar’s version of the sutras, he says that the Yamas are “independent of time, class, and place.” This means that no matter who we are, where we come from, or how much yoga we’ve done, we can all try to live by the Yamas.

Learn more about the Yamas and Niyamas

2. NIYAMA – Good responsibilities or rituals
The second leg, Niyama, is generally about what we have to do for ourselves, but it can also be about what we do for the rest of the world. The word ‘ni’ is a Sanskrit verb that means ‘inward’ or ‘within’.
The five Niyamas are:

saucha is cleanliness, santosha is happiness, tapas is discipline or a burning desire, or the burning of desire, svadhyaya is self-study or self-reflection, and isvarapranidaha is giving up control to a higher power.
Niyamas are usually done by Yogis who want to go further along the road. They are meant to build character. The Niyamas have a lot in common with the Koshas, which are our “sheaths” or “layers” that go from our physical bodies to our inner soul. As you can see, when we work with the Niyamas, from saucha to isvararpranidhana, we are led from the grossest parts of ourselves to the truth deep within.

3. ASANA is the physical yoga pose
The physical part of yoga is the third step on the path to freedom. If we’re being honest, the word “asana” here doesn’t mean “handstand” or “beautiful backbend.” It means “seat,” specifically the seat you would take for the practise of meditation. Patanjali’s only alignment tip for this pose is “sthira sukham asanam,” which means the pose should be steady and relaxed.

Traditional texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika list many postures like Padmasana (lotus pose) and Virasana (hero pose) that are good for meditation. However, this same text also says that the most important posture is sthirasukhasana, which means “a posture the practitioner can hold comfortably and without moving.”

The idea is that we should be able to sit comfortably so that we aren’t “pulled” by aches and pains or restlessness caused by sitting in an uncomfortable way. If you always choose the “advanced” yoga pose instead of the one your body can do, you might want to think about this before your next yoga class: “In how many poses do we feel stable and comfortable?”

4. PRANAYAM – Techniques for Breathing and Breath Control
Prana means “energy” or “source of life.” It can be used to talk about the very thing that keeps us living and the energy in the world. Prana is also used to talk about the breath, and when we change how we breathe, we have a very real effect on the mind.

One of the most interesting things about Pranayama is that it can mean two different things, which could take us in two different ways right now on the path to freedom….

Pranayama can be thought of as either “prana-yama,” which means “breath control” or “breath restraint,” or “prana-ayama,” which means “breath freedom,” “breath expansion,” or “breath liberation.”

The physical act of practising different breathing techniques changes the mind in many ways. We can choose calming practises like Chandra Bhadana (moon piercing breath) or more exciting practises like Kapalabhati (shining skull clearing breath).

Each way we breathe changes how we feel, but it’s up to us to decide whether we see this as “controlling” how we feel or “freeing” ourselves from the way our minds are normally set.

5. PRATYAHARA – Withdrawal of the senses
Pratya means to “draw in,” “pull back,” or “pull away,” and ahara means anything we “take in” on our own, such as the many sights, sounds, and smells we take in all the time. When we sit down for a structured meditation practise, this is probably the first thing we do when we think we’re relaxing. We focus on “drawing in.” Focusing on the way we breathe may be part of the practise of drawing inward, so this limb would also be directly related to the practise of pranayama.

People often get this part of practise wrong because the word “sense withdrawal” makes it sound like we can actually turn our senses “off” through focus.

Pratyahara doesn’t make us lose the ability to hear, smell, see, or feel. Instead, it changes our state of mind so that we become so focused on what we’re doing that things outside of us don’t bother us and we can meditate without being easily distracted. Experienced meditators may be able to use pratyahara in their daily lives. This means being so focused on the present moment that feelings and sounds don’t easily pull the mind away.

6. DHARANA: Concentration on a single point or one thing
Dharana means “concentration on one thing.” Dha means “keeping” or “keeping hold of,” and Ana means “other” or “something else.” Both dharana and pratyahara are important parts of the same feature. They are closely linked to the first two limbs. To focus on something, our senses have to go away so that we can put all of our attention on that one thing. To bring our senses back, we have to focus and think very hard. Tratak (looking at a light), visualising, and focusing on the breath are all forms of dharana. Many of us think we are “meditating” when we reach this stage.

7. DHYANA: Meditation
“Meditative absorption” is the seventh limb. This is when we become totally involved in the topic of our meditation, which is when we are really meditating. All of the things we may learn in a class, online, or from a teacher are just ways to help us calm down, focus, and concentrate. The actual practise of meditation is not something we can actively “do.” Instead, it describes something that happens on its own because of everything else. Basically, if you are really meditating, you won’t think to yourself, “Oh, I’m meditating!”

8. SAMADHI: Bliss or Awakening the I AM Consciousness
Many of us know that the word “samadhi” means “bliss” or “enlightenment.” This is the last step in Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras” path. After we’ve rearranged our ties with the outside world and with ourselves, we reach the final stage of happiness.

When we look at the word “samadhi,” however, we see that “enlightenment” or “realisation” does not mean “floating away on a cloud in a state of happiness and ecstasy.” I’m sorry.

When we split the word in half, we can see that the last stage is made up of two words: “sama,” which means “same” or “equal,” and “dhi,” which means “to see.” There’s a reason it’s called “realisation”: getting to Samadhi isn’t about escaping, flying away, or being very happy. Instead, it’s about realising the life that’s right in front of us.

Bliss is being able to “see equally” without the mind getting in the way, without our experiences being shaped by our likes, dislikes, or habits, and without having to judge or become attached to any one thing.

Just as the theologian Meister Eckhart used the word “isticheit,” which means “what is,” to describe the pure knowledge of seeing and realising “what is,” this stage is not about attaching to happiness or a feeling of “bliss.” Instead, it’s about seeing life and reality for exactly what they are, without our thoughts, emotions, likes, dislikes, pleasure, and pain changing and controlling it. Not exactly a state of feeling or being or a set way of thought; just pure “I-am-ness.”

The only problem is that Samadhi isn’t a stable state…. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that we can’t stay in Samadhi for long if we aren’t fully ready, without “impressions” like attachment, aversion, wants, and habits, and if we don’t have a completely clean mind:

Once the mind is calm and we can reach a state of Samadhi that we can truly percieve, we reach moksha, also called mukti, which means freedom.

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