8 Limbs of Yoga
8 Limbs. 1 Path. Boundless possibilities.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga were developed 6,000 years ago as a means of introspection, analysis, and transcendence. By practicing these concepts, ancient yogis believed you could carefully and consciously reach enlightenment.
Pretty heavy, right?
By walking the yogic path, sages believed one could gain valuable insight on themselves, their relationships, and the Universe. Transcendence is the ultimate goal. To recognize this world as the maya, or drama, that it is. In doing so, one could break the chains of Ego and commune with whatever great force lies beyond our immediate realm of perception.
And despite the texts, traditions, and subject matter, yoga is not religious. There are no definitions of god or worship. Just a series of concepts—the limbs of the path—that move the yogi away from Ego and toward the divine.
Are you tired of fitness yoga?
Cynical over the commercialization of the practice? If so, this Path is for you. I certainly did not invent it. But I’ve practiced and taught long enough to know that most students want more than just pretty mats, silky tights, and a good sweat.
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The 8 limbs of yoga are like a compass.
We use them to find true North; a focal point that draws us toward our best and brightest selves. The first four limbs help us find the attitude, physicality, and personal awareness we’ll need for the long and difficult journey. This prepares us for the final four limbs, where we explore the senses, mind, and ethereal nature of our existence.
While the first limbs prepare us for the final ones, it’s important to understand these limbs are practiced simultaneously. For example, developing body control (#3) often leads to more discipline (#2) and contemplation (#s 6-8). For that reason, it’s important to return to these limbs frequently and ask: Where can I be a little bit better?
First are the yamas. These 5 concepts govern the idea of “right living” in the yogic sense. Consider these to be a code of ethics for yogis. They guide how we treat our brothers, sisters, and the environment we all share. They include:
- Non-violence, or ahimsa. Choosing to use peaceful means, rather than force.
- Truthfulness, or satya. Honesty with self and others; integrity.
- Non-stealing, or asteya. Only taking what we need, and refraining from taking what isn’t ours.
- Continence, or Channeling sexual energy into devotion. For some, it means celibacy. To others, it means remaining faithful to their committed partner(s).
- Non-covetousness, or aparigraha. Praise your neighbors rather than covet their wealth, possessions, or status.
Next are the niyamas. These 5 concepts are spiritual observances. While yamas govern how we treat the world, the niyamas help us find our inner sense of truth and meaning. They include:
- Cleanliness, or saucha. Keeping mind and body clean through mindful consumption (includes food, but also things like media).
- Contentment, or samtosa. Acceptance of our world and the ability to see things clearly.
- Austerity, or tapas. Living simply and with dedication to our goals.
- Self-study, or svadhyaya. Studying what harms and heals us.
- Surrender, or isvara pranidhana. Devotion to a higher power.
3. Body Control
The third limb, asana, is one that most students are familiar with. This is the physical practice of yoga postures. When we go to a yoga class or take time for a quick Happy Baby in bed, we’re practicing asana.
This limb is all about physical development. Yogis believe the body is the temple of the spirit, so taking time to strengthen and nourish it is important. Asana also conditions the body and develops the mind for more contemplative practices like the 6th, 7th, and 8th limbs discussed below.
4. Breath Control
The fourth limb, pranayama, uses various breathing techniques to build awareness for the vital life force that runs through each of us. In doing so, we can better understand how the simple act of breathing profoundly impacts our mind, emotions, and health.
Breath control can be practiced by itself or in conjunction with a physical asana routine. At its most basic level, breath control might simply mean calming yourself in times of stress (e.g. taking a deep breath). More complex applications of this limb might include breathing techniques like Breath of Fire to excite your nervous system during a challenging yoga practice.
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, deals with sensory withdrawal and transcendence. If you’ve ever laid down at night and felt as if your mind were racing, you can probably understand why this limb is so important. Lying in the peaceful darkness, it becomes much easier for your brain to sort through all the things that have been on the back burner—for better, or for worse.
By eliminating the senses that we normally rely on, we expand our awareness of ourselves, our relationships, and the world. Removed from sight, sound, and other sensory inputs, we also see our desires and cravings more objectively. Only then can we really know if our actions are in alignment with our goals and morals.
The sixth limb, dharana, begins to tie things together and leads us toward transcendence. Asana, pranayama, and pratyahara help us understand how our attention flows. Through dharana, our goal is to take that attention and focus it on a single point.
When people talk about meditation mantras and visualizations, they are usually practicing dharana. This limb is best practiced in a comfortable position to build steadiness and resolve. In time, concentration will become unshakable (if only for a moment). At that point, awareness can truly expand into the practice of Dhyana (the seventh limb).
The seventh limb, Dhyana, is best described as the space between your thoughts. When looking inward, you will experience thoughts and sensations that seem to be your own. However, building a quieter state of unfocused awareness will reveal that those thoughts and sensations spring from somewhere. Dhyana taps into that nothingness, allowing your awareness to drift into the void that exists beyond conscious thought.
The eighth and final limb, samadhi, is perhaps best described as peace that passeth all understanding. The great yogi sage, Patanjali, describes this limb as a state of ecstasy that occurs when your focus transcends your sense of Self. As this happens, you begin to experience a profound sense of oneness with all existence.
Taking action through practice
Like all things, the 8 Limbs of Yoga become easier with practice. They don’t need to be practiced in order, either. In my experience, the best way to practice is to pick one thing to work on. Then another, and another, and so on.
Let’s practice the 8 Limbs, together. Complete the form below to receive daily reminders to practice a specific Limb. Think of these messages as daily challenges—a gentle nudge along your own, personal path.