Understanding the 8 Limbs of Yoga
Why Practice All 8 Limbs?
If we constantly practice these 8 limbs that ultimately lead up to samadhi, we will likely live a happier and more peaceful life on the way there.
What are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
When people think of yoga, most immediately envision a group of women on a beach or at a lovely yoga studio with incense burning, soothing music playing, and physical poses being practiced. The truth is there is so much more to yoga than that one common picture!
There are four main sects of yoga mentioned in the Vedas, ancient texts where yoga practices were first documented – karma, bhakti, jnana, and raja yoga. Most of what is widely practiced today falls under raja yoga, including ashtanga yoga, or the 8 limbed path. The physical postures, or asana, that we mostly view as yoga, is the third limb in this 8 limbed path, therefore encompassing only a small piece of this spiritual practice and divine way of life.
Let’s explore all 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga –
1. Yamas – Restraints
The first limb of yoga is the Yamas, which means restraints. These are spiritual principles that are more practice than theory. I do well with the metaphor that the Yamas and the Niyamas are guides for living, similar to the 10 commandments of the Christian faith, or the Eightfold Path of Buddhism.
There are 5 Yamas –
Ahimsa – Practicing nonviolence. This can be turned outward, do not harm (physically or emotionally) or kill another being. Nonviolence is also important to the inner self, for if you are harmful to yourself that’s how you will ultimately see and treat others.
Satya – Practicing truthfulness. The more obvious gross external meaning of truthfulness is honesty, not lying. Turned inwardly, satya focuses more on being true to oneself and truly understanding and knowing oneself.
Asteya – Practicing nonstealing. This one is pretty self-explanatory when focuses outwardly, but can go very deep and on many paths such as not stealing from the earth, not stealing time or energy from others, and not stealing experience from oneself.
Brahmacharya – Practicing moderation. This has also been defined as celibacy, but what I’ve seen and how I’ve been taught is there is much more depth to it. Brahmacharya is not just about purity of sexual relations, but delves into our energy bodies and how we expend that energy.
Aparigraha – Practicing non possessiveness. This one can be very difficult in a culture of more, more, more! Aparigraha invites you explore if you have more than you need. It invites you to explore attachment and greed.
The Yamas are generally practiced outward towards others. We turn in and look at how each of these spiritual principles is being displayed in our inner world, thus mirroring in our outer world.
2. Niyamas – Observances
The Niayamas further expand our guide for living in the yogic philosophy, this time focuses much more inward, toward the self and how we put into action the principles laid before us.
There are also 5 Niyamas –
Saucha – Practicing cleanliness. In its gross meaning, what are we putting into our bodies? Into our minds? Do we have purity of thought? What about the physical things we put into our body, our spiritual vessel?
Santosha – Practicing contentment. Santosha (sometimes seen as Samtosha) is a principle in evidence in every major religion that I have seen – acceptance. Can we just let people, places, things, events, be as they are, without judgement? Without extreme reaction?
Tapas – Practicing self-discipline. Tapas means “heat. ” We quite literally at times burn our spiritual practice into us by pushing through that last pose we think we can’t do, or sitting for those extra 5 minutes in meditation. Self-discipline also means knowing the self and when to slow down and rest.
Svadhyaya – Studying the self. Any way that you study the highest form of your self, the soul, your spirit, is svadhyaya. Reading spiritual texts, journaling, learning about and implementing spiritual practices.
Isvara-pranidhana – Surrender. This one is my favorite! In everything we do, we surrender to God, to the service of humanity, to the love of others. This practice fits within any religious adherence or spiritually principled way of life.
3. Asana – Postures
Now this one we all know about! All the physical yoga, every pose, every sequence all falls under this 3rd limb, asana. So you can see that the physical aspect of yoga is only 1/8th of the entire practice. And if you think about the hundreds…thousands…of yoga postures that there are, imagine how much there is to explore in each of the other limbs?
What’s more is that the physical postures do more for us than simple physical health. For physical health, through years of steady practice, one can gain and maintain, strength, mobility, and endurance. Yoga has been proven to improve organ function and joint health as well. Beyond the physical health, we can receive clarity of mind and purity of body, so we are set up for successful meditation, which is where the real work and real rewards of yoga lie.
When we sit to meditate, it is often our body that immediately distracts us from going deep within. “Was that my stomach? Oh, I’m so hungry.” “Ugh, my back hurts I don’t think I can sit here for 1 more minute.” “My posture is so bad, I need to sit up straight.” “My hips are so tight, I’m not sure if this seated position is going to work.” Our minds are riddled with thoughts, so what if we could eliminate some regarding our body, simply by practicing some asana before meditation? We may have a better meditation session and be able to go deeper.
4. Pranayama – Breath Control
As taught by my teachers, we focus on the body first because that is the easiest thing to control. What is the very first thing that people tend to do when they are finally ready to go through some change? They diet! Either that or they make a gym commitment, both involving the body. The next easiest thing to control is the breath. Both of these practice modalities are stops on the way to meditation.
Think for a moment how important and present breath is in our lives. It is the first and last thing we do on this earth plane, it is the only constant throughout our entire lives, and it is the only bodily function that occurs autonomously and by control.
Pranayama is practiced through various breathing exercises meant to cleanse the body of blocked energies and open channels so life, or prana, can flow through. Once we are able to begin controlling the breath, it will be much easier to “control” the mind through the next 3 limbs.
5. Pratyhara – Sense Withdrawal
This is practiced while sitting in meditation, it is the practice of not reacting to responses of the 5 senses. For example, if you are sitting in meditation and hear a dog barking in the neighborhood, or a car horn honk, or you smell some coffee being brewed in the next room. Can you continue your meditation undisturbed? Can you let the thought reactions that occur as a result of something noticed by the senses pass on by?
More inwardly focused as a way of living, sense withdrawal can also pertain to any thought reaction that occurs via external stimuli. In this technological age, we are constantly interrupted with stimuli. Phone alarms and bells, TV and radio sounds, and busier and busier cities. How can we practice equanimity and withdrawing from our senses as we walk through our daily, loud lives? The goal is to be able to exist peacefully not just in a cabin in the woods with no internet, but in the middle of a busy, loud city, or whatever environment you happen to find yourself in.
6. Dharana – Concentration
Concentration is actually what most of us think of as meditation. This is where we begin to focus the mind. Concentration is the practice of focusing the mind on one specific point. This can be a mantra (words that are repeated over and over silently in the mind), or focus on the flame of a candle, or focus on the breath.
The intent should not be to control the mind and cease all thoughts, but merely to have a singular point of focus to bring the mind back to once the mind wanders, which is inevitable. This practice will sharpen the mind and help attune the previous practice of pratyhara.
7. Dhyana – Meditation
Meditation in the yogic tradition is actually different from what most people think. Most people see the practice of the precious, dharana as meditation, when truly meditation is a state of no thoughts. This is quite difficult to achieve, if it is achieved at all. All of these practices are called that, practice, because it is not assumed that anyone will actually “arrive” at any certain point of successful completion of anyone one of these limbs.
The state of meditation is achieved through the practice of dharana when one finds a sort of blank space in the mind, almost disappearing for a moment as if in a state between consciousness and sleep. I have personally experienced this sensation a couple of times when I am in deep dharana, but it lasts for just a mere moment and then I am launched back into the present moment reality.
8. Samadhi – Nirvana
The final of the 8 limbs of yoga is samadhi, or nirvana. This is where one finds complete solace and union with God, or the collective consciousness. This is also achieved through the practice of each limb in succession with the previous. Just like meditation, this is rarely, if ever reached, but the practice of obtainment is the goal. If we constantly do these 8 practices that would ultimately lead up to samadhi, we will likely live a happier and more peaceful life on the way there.
This is Just the Beginning
Each of these limbs can be delved into in an article solely focusing on each as there is a lifetime of lessons to be learned in the study of each one. This is merely a very base beginning from my perspective as taught by my teachers and the research and practice I have done over my years of practicing yoga.
If you are interested in learning more about all 8 limbs, or delving into a practice of your own please contact me, I would love to help get you started on a path to finding yourself and your own samadhi.