July 18, 2023

What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga and How to Practice Them

Embark on an exploration of profound spiritual growth and inner transformation as we delve into the fascinating realm of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. This ancient and enlightening framework, rooted in timeless wisdom, offers seekers a holistic path to self-realization and spiritual awakening.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga offer seekers a holistic path to self-realization and spiritual awakening

Through a journey that transcends the physical, the eight limbs guide practitioners on an inward expedition, fostering not just bodily flexibility but a deeper connection with the self and the universe, leading to ultimate liberation. Discover how each limb intertwines with the others, paving the way for a profound evolution of consciousness and harmonious living.

By aligning mind, body, and spirit, the 8 limbs provide the means to cultivate mindfulness, ethical behavior, and inner peace. This blog post invites you to dive deep into these transformative aspects of yoga that resonate far beyond the mat, opening doors to a more conscious and connected existence.

To understand the eight limbs of yoga and how to practice them, we have to first understand where they come from and what their significance is. This is where we meet Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Imagine uncovering a 2,200-year-old meditation manual that holds the keys to unlocking the profound wisdom of yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Maharishi, the Great Seer of Truth, serves as a timeless guide to the vast realm of yoga.

This comprehensive approach, known as Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga), encompasses every aspect of our existence. Despite the enigmatic nature of its author, Patanjali’s work has illuminated the path of yoga for countless practitioners throughout history.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Maharishi, the Great Seer of Truth, is a timeless guide to the vast realm of yoga

The Yoga Sutras consist of 196 sutras, concise threads of truth that are intense, short, and brimming with profound significance. While they may appear as incomplete sentences to the untrained, each word carries immense weight.

In an era when knowledge was predominantly transmitted orally, the sutras were a remarkable way of capturing and preserving wisdom. During Patanjali’s times, sutras covered a wide range of subjects such as grammar, medicine, and more.

They are accompanied by commentaries, called Shastras, that offer thorough explanations and additional insights. Over time, numerous commentaries have emerged to help unpack the condensed structure of the sutras.

Traditional Ashtanga Yoga

From the Yoga Sutras, the system known as Ashtanga Yoga, or “the Eight Limbs of Yoga”, emerged. These eight limbs present a systematic path or classification that, when diligently followed, can ultimately lead to liberation.

It’s essential to distinguish the classical Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali from the contemporary high-power flow asana sequences with the same name created by Pattabhi Jois; they represent distinct variations in approaching the practice of the eight limbs.

“The eight limbs are abstentions, observances, posture, breath control, disengagement of the senses, concentration, meditation, and absorption”.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali, Edwin F Bryant 2-9

The original Ashtanga Yoga is a comprehensive science guiding individuals towards the state of Samadhi

The original Ashtanga Yoga is a comprehensive science, maybe the oldest meditation manual guiding individuals towards the state of Samadhi (absorption). Regardless of one’s level, Ashtanga Yoga has the potential to deepen the practice and provide profound benefits, as we will see below.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga, Explained

As we have seen above, the 8 limbs of yoga are a structural framework for yoga practice. They offer guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life, leading to spiritual enlightenment. Let’s have a deeper look at them.

Within the eight limbs, a general categorization emerges: the first four limbs primarily connect with physical or external practices, while the last four limbs pertain to mental or internal practices. While this distinction holds true at a surface level, it’s important to recognize that Patanjali describes high levels of spiritual achievement for each limb when perfected.

Progress within the eight limbs is not linear, akin to climbing steps on a staircase. Instead, Patanjali emphasizes the interconnectivity and integration of the limbs, where each supports and enhances the others as seekers advance on their yogic journey. Indeed, Patanjali uses the word limb as an analogy with the harmonious growth of limbs from a fetus to its adult size.

the 8 limbs of yoga are a structural framework for yoga practice

By now you must be wondering what the eight limbs of yoga are and what they mean. Below is a list of the 8 limbs and their significance, in a nutshell. For a more detailed analysis of each limb, keep reading!

  1. Yama: Abstentions, moral restraints.
  2. Niyama: Observances.
  3. Asana: Postures.
  4. Pranayama: Control of Prana using the breath.
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana: Concentration.
  7. Dhyana: Meditation.
  8. Samadhi: Absorptions, raptures.

Yama and Niyama: Abstentions and Observances

The first and second limbs are often treated together as they represent guidelines to create and develop a lifestyle that supports the practice of the other limbs. Reciprocally, practicing the other limbs correctly also creates a natural tendency to follow these ethical principles without having to put in any effort.

The Yama and Niyama are then a symptom of a sincere yoga practice. They align actions, thoughts, and behaviors. However, they are not meant to be followed as rigid rules or dogmas imposed and written by philosophical concepts or by a divine source.

Morality involves the presence of a set of values external to oneself that dictates right and wrong. In contrast, Yama and Niyama do not come with moralizing or threatening tones. They represent a system of self-reflection to navigate the trials and errors of life.

Yama and Niyama represent guidelines to align actions, thoughts, and behavior

They don’t command but rather inform and educate. Practicing them will test us, and contribute to personal growth. Living with too much chaos in one’s life simply leaves little time or energy to practice the other limbs.

It is essential to understand that Yama and Niyama are not prescriptions for spiritual perfection but practical tools for everyday living. They are like life lessons we finally learn to avoid repeating the same mistakes. 

For the purposes of this post, we will briefly list the core aspects of Yama and Niyama:

Yama: Universal Ethical Principles

  • Ahimsa (Non-Violence): Refraining from harming oneself and others through thoughts, words, and actions.
  • Satya (Truthfulness): Refraining from lying. Sincerity in thought, speech, and actions. 
  • Asteya (Non-Stealing): Not taking what does not belong to you, what is not given.
  • Brahmacharya (Continence): Self-control of sexual desires and physical senses.
  • Aparigraha (Non-Possessiveness): Letting go of greed and attachment.

Niyama: Personal Disciplines

  • Saucha (Purity): Inner and outer cleanliness.
  • Santosha (Contentment): Cultivating simplicity and gratitude.
  • Tapas (Austerity): Practicing self-discipline and transformation.
  • Svadhyaya (Self-Study): Engaging in self-reflection, studying sacred texts.
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine): Cultivating devotion and humbleness.

Integrating Yama and Niyama into daily life creates a strong foundation for spiritual evolution and self-reflection. Consequently, our consciousness has the potential to turn more inward. Each of the following limbs deepens this internal progression.

The practice of Yama and Niyama requires self-reflection, and taking a commitment to oneself to internalize and apply these guiding principles every day, every moment, every action. It also involves a good balance between rightful discipline and Ahimsa, intended as non-violence to oneself.

During our Teach Training programs at One Yoga, we explore in detail topics such as Yama and Niyama, Yoga Philosophy, and Patanjali’s 8 limbs of Yoga. If you’re looking for an immersive journey into the fundamental yoga principles, a Yoga TTC represents a great studying opportunity, flanked by experienced instructors and practitioners.

Asana: Postures

Most readers who already are walking the path of yoga will know the meaning of the term ‘Asana’. What’s more, many regular practitioners identify yoga with asanas, in that the practice of yoga comes down to mere physical practice.

Surprisingly as it may sound for some, the third limb, asana, is traditionally meant to prepare the yogi’s body for sitting for prolonged periods in meditation, rather than being self-referential. The quote deepens this concept:

“Posture should be steady and comfortable [and is attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite [so] one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites”.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali, Edwin F Bryant 2.46-48

asanas are traditionally meant to prepare the yogi's body for sitting in meditation

It is clear that the traditional practice of asana differs from the modern approach to yoga, which often focuses on physical healing, fitness, and health improvement. Patanjali’s understanding of asana involves finding stillness within the posture by cultivating a focused mind and holding the posture long enough to experience its many benefits.

While practicing asanas, to varying levels of complexity, is within everybody’s reach, practicing the third limb according to the traditional meaning requires deep introspection and the will to scrape below the surface of the physical benefits.

The risk with fast-paced styles is to turn yoga into a workout. In order to practice Asana more traditionally, we recommend embracing Hatha yoga, where postures are held for a longer time, or trying slow-flow styles such as Yin Yoga which allow you to go inward with each asana.

Pranayama: Control of Prana Using the Breath

The fourth limb of yoga, Pranayama, furthers the process of taming our mind by leveraging the breath to purify the pranic body. Through strategic modifications of the breath, the mind becomes regulated and slows down dramatically.

Therefore we can say that Pranayama is the interface that truly facilitates the internal progression toward advanced states of concentration and rapture. The practice of Pranayama includes various breathing techniques, for all levels of experience.

Pranayama aims at taming our mind through strategic modifications of the breath to purify the pranic body

While some Pranayama exercises are easy to perform and you can easily integrate them into your daily life in moments of need, some others require deeper understanding and regular practice. The long-term effects of practicing Pranayama are wide-ranging and profound.

Given the importance of this limb and its increasing popularity, we recommend deepening your knowledge by reading our post dedicated to Yogic Breathing and Prayanama Techniques. This article also provides you with easy-to-practice techniques for everyday life.

Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses

In the eight stages of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, Pratyahara describes the process of removing consciousness from all engagement with the five senses (sound, touch, sight, taste, smell). 

Often translated as ‘withdrawal of the senses’, Pratyahara involves consciousness turning to itself. Here, the movement of consciousness is centripetal – directed inward – instead of centrifugal – directed outward – when attached to the sense objects.

In ordinary mental consciousness, our attention dwells on describing the world perceived around us. On the other hand, in Pratyahara, our attention is absorbed internally and describes the inner space. It’s the first step toward an internally-focused mind.

Withdrawal of the senses, Pratyahara involves consciousness turning to itself

According to Patanjali, this limb is a bridge between the previous steps and the next three limbs, seen as different degrees of absorption, hence, states of consciousness to achieve through practice.

So, how to practice Pratyahara and aim in the direction of ultimate liberation? In the modern world, our senses are constantly overloaded with information, so taking distance from them is not an easy task. But it can be achieved.

Practical Pratyahara Techniques

Here are three techniques to practice Pratyahara:

  1. Focus on the breath: One primary method is to direct our attention to the natural rhythm of breathing. Without modifying or interfering with this pattern, we learn to connect inwards, gradually detaching from external sensory distractions.
  1. Chidakasha concentration: Another approach is concentrating on the Ajna chakra area, the space between the eyebrows commonly referred to as the third eye. This method can help tap into deeper layers of consciousness and awareness.
  1. Limiting sensory inputs: Begin by minimizing physical distractions. Then, turn your attention to a single sense, like hearing. Our mind, by its nature, flits between different senses. However, in the absence of other prominent sensory inputs, once the mind exhausts its interest in that single sense, it naturally turns inward.

If you’re new to one-pointed focus and meditation techniques, you might find our 17-Day Anapanasati Meditation Course useful. Driven by the desire to share this simple and universal meditation technique with everyone, we offer this course free of charge in our Online Studio.

Dharana: Concentration

 “Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place”.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali, Edwin F Bryant 3-1. 

One-pointed focus is a skill that seems to have degenerated in our society where multitasking has become the norm. For Patanjali, there is no yoga that bears fruits without learning how to tame the mind by training the muscles of concentration in keeping the attention fixed on one object to the exclusion of everything else.

Dharana is training the muscles of concentration in keeping the attention fixed on one object

We are now moving the first steps on the concentration path. An effort is needed for a sharp yet kind willingness to be developed through practice. By bringing attention again and again to the object of concentration, determination, and kindness forge themselves in the process toward a focused mind.

The ability to let go, to drop the mind and its judgments opens the invaluable skill to start afresh every moment. All of the qualities above trained on the meditation cushion with the practice of Dharana infuse in our most subtle being and reflect in our life creating more free will and detachment in our responses.

Dharana is not a tool or technique, but rather a process paving the way for higher states of consciousness. As mentioned above, this and the next two limbs represent different levels of awareness, that can be achieved through constant, dedicated, patient practice.

The kind of practice needed to achieve this state is formed by the previous limbs and the techniques that they involve.

Dhyana: Meditation

 “Meditation is the one-pointedness of the mind on one image”.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali, Edwin F Bryant 3-2

The word meditation has taken on many meanings today, not all sticking to the original sense of the word. For instance, meditation is easily mistaken for relaxation practices to reduce stress along with other healing techniques.

In the context of the Ashtanga yoga of Patanjali, meditation is the continuation and deepening of the concentration phase seen above. To use an analogy, the wind now blows in the sail and the sailors can stop rowing and rest as the boat is effortlessly going to its destination.

In Dhyana – meditation – the object of concentration flows effortlessly through the mind for long time, without interruption

After practicing Dharana sufficiently, the periods of non-distraction eventually extend and we enter naturally into Dhyana – meditation – where the object of concentration flows effortlessly through the mind for long periods of time, without interruption. Therefore we could say that we don’t practice meditation but we attain it.

Meditation states come with a great feeling of bliss and can give rise to a mental void, intended as the absence of thought processes, including the discursive mind and mental images. Dhyana finally realizes what Patanjali mentions in the famous second verse of the first chapter:

“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the Mind”.

Mind and Chitta

The word ‘mind’ in the sutra above is translated from the Sanskrit word chitta and encompasses much more of what we commonly refer to in English. To define the term Chitta, we need to go back to the yogic philosophy that underlies the root of the yoga sutras.

The Samkhya philosophy refers to chitta as the three elements that together constitute Mind, with a capital ‘M’:

  1. Buddhi: The higher mind, whose function is to discern with lucidity and clarity what is from what is not. It can be associated with insights, wisdom, and to some extent, the impersonal mind.
  2. Ahamkara: The sense of self, or ‘I’, me, mine. The process of identification with the content of Mind, the physical body, and the worldly objects to which we cling.
  3. Manas: The lower mind, the ordinary mental consciousness that we use when we are awake in our day-to-day life. Manas includes the psychological mind shaped by our past experiences and future plans, made of emotions and tendencies, shaped by likes and dislikes. It includes cognition through our senses and sense objects. The body and Manas identified as me become the ego self.
The Samkhya philosophy refers to chitta as the three elements that together constitute Mind

The depth and richness of this philosophy, dating to roughly 2,700 years ago, are striking. What profound insights into our psyche! Chitta hasn’t evolved since the times of Patanjali. We are made today of the same chitta and the practice of yoga involves the same challenges of deconstructing conditioning fabricated through Manas and Ahamkara.

However, Dhyana is not Yoga yet. The beautiful, effortless state of mental void and bliss it can lead to is still not full self-realization. Even if the discursive Manas mind is temporarily off, there is still a sense of identity.

Ahamkara is still present through the feeling of ‘me’ meditating – the meditator is still there. The continuous effortless absorption with the object of meditation is still creating bondage. Another stage is needed to reach full liberation.

Samadhi: Absorption

“Samādhi is when that same dhyāna shines forth as the object alone and [the mind] is devoid of its own [reflective] nature”.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali, Edwin F Bryant 3-3

Samadhi is the state where meditation shines forth solely as the object of focus, free from the reflective nature of the mind. This means the distinction between subject and object finally dissolves. It is an experience of awareness without any identification – a state of pure consciousness.

Samadhi is the state where meditation shines forth solely as the object of focus, free from the reflective nature of the mind

Samadhi is often described as a non-event, as it transcends the realm of ordinary experiences and conceptual understanding. It is not something that occurs within the realm of time and space, but rather a timeless and boundless state of existence

Samadhi can also be described as a feeling of ‘coming back home’ or going back to the source, the vast impersonal awareness, shared by all beings, always present. However, prior to reaching this realization, it was obscured by the limited perspective of Manas and Ahamkara.

The Levels of Samadhi

Patanjali attempts to elucidate the different levels of Samadhi, starting with “Samprajñātā Samadhi”, which consists of consecutive stages of absorption with physical awareness, subtle awareness, bliss, and a sense of I-ness. These stages reflect the gradual deepening of meditative experiences.

In the higher state of “Samāpatti”, the mind becomes transparent, assuming the form of any object placed before it – be it the knower, the instrument of knowledge, or the object of knowledge.

The ultimate stage is “Nirbija Samadhi”, the state of absorption without seeds where all conditioning disappears, opening the door to Kaivalya, the final state of complete liberation.

Nirbija Samadhi is the state of absorption where all conditioning is removed, opening the door to Kaivalya, the final state of complete liberation

It is important to notice that in the context of the eight limbs of Patanjali, Samadhi is distinct from Kaivalya. Patanjali named chapter 4 of the sutras Kaivalya. Though Samadhi is often referred to as the ultimate goal in the yoga sutras, looking closely, we understand that it actually is a succession of degrees of absorption that ultimately could bring to the full realization of Kaivalya, ultimate freedom.

Ultimate Freedom

It is essential not to become overly fixated on conceptualizing what the experiences should be like, as this can hinder progress by creating expectations and overlooking actual insights and experiences. Indeed, concepts are to be embodied through states of Samadhi before they become direct knowledge – jnana in Sanskrit, gnosis in Greek.

So, the various descriptions of Samadhi states by Patanjali serve as checkpoints and maps to explore consciousness. They act as a guide, preventing us from falling into the trap of false identifications and premature claims of freedom.

The unchanged essence of Samadhi makes it a universal state that transcends sectarian boundaries. It is not limited to any specific belief system or religious tradition.

Love, Wisdom, and Nondualism

“I find that somehow, by shifting the focus of attention, I become the very thing I look at, and experience the kind of consciousness it has; I become the inner witness of the thing. I call this capacity of entering other focal points of consciousness, love; you may give it any name you like.

Love says “I am everything”. Wisdom says “I am nothing”.

Between the two, my life flows.

Since at any point of time and space, I can be both the subject and the object of experience, I express it by saying that I am both, and neither, and beyond both”.

Nisargadatta Maharaj

Indian guru of nondualism Nisargadatta Maharaj beautifully captures the essence of Samadhi as the ability to enter other focal points of consciousness to finally become the inner witness of all things.

This state goes beyond the duality of “I am everything” and “I am nothing”, encompassing both and neither simultaneously. In this profound awareness, the source of consciousness manifests as simple, single, and infinite, while the expressions of love take different flavors.

Samadhi represents states of pure awareness beyond concepts and dualities

To resume, Samadhi represents states of pure awareness beyond concepts and dualities. It is a state where the limited self dissolves, where the subject and the object unite, and where ultimately the seeker reaches Kaivalya, ultimate liberation.

The Causes of All Suffering

The original purpose of practicing the eight limbs of yoga was the state of final liberation. This was the underlying motivation for the yogis who lived 3,000 years ago to study and practice the Samkhya philosophy, the mother philosophy of the sutras.

But the pursuit of liberation implies a state of bondage. What is it that yogis exerted such tremendous efforts to attain liberation from? Can we apply this cause (and its solution) to today’s world?

In this ancient worldview, karma is the source of bondage. Karma is the neutral deterministic force that creates an endless cycle of cause and effect that ripples through the cosmos. Karma is then responsible for the cycle of birth and rebirth that binds us to this world.

Being bound is being ignorant and, most of all, it is painful. So, what the yogis were looking to be free from was the suffering of the psychological torments caused by ignorance.

We all seek to break free from the suffering caused by ignorance, craving and aversion

Along with ignorance, other universal causes of suffering, now and in the past, are craving and aversion. You want something to happen and when it doesn’t, then you suffer (craving), or, the other way around, you don’t want something to happen and it does, again, you suffer (aversion).

Final Thoughts

How much practicing the eight limbs is still relevant in our modern materialistic worldview where ultimate liberation is not a priority anymore? One thing we can all agree on is that we all want to live a happy life.

As mentioned above, our Chitta hasn’t changed since Patanjali. In the same way, ignorance (fear of the unknown, a future event), craving, and aversion have not changed either. Indeed, we ultimately find ourselves living unhappily because of one of the reasons mentioned above.

Then, the 8 limbs of yoga are still a valid approach to reducing the suffering caused by our modern lifestyle such as stress, anxiety, depression, and so on. So, even if reaching the higher state of Samadhi is not our motivation, we can still benefit from a sincere practice of Patanjali’s traditional yoga.

Now that we have shed some light on the traditional meaning of the eight limbs of yoga and have offered you suggestions on how to practice them, it’s time for you to make a serious commitment to yourself. One that is worth taking as it may lead to a happier life. Any time is good to make a change.

Even now.

Make a serious commitment to yourself that can lead to a happier life