Get to Know the 8 Limbs of Yoga

Many people don’t know that yoga is more than a physical practice. In actuality, the physical practice, or asana, is a fraction of what yoga is all about.

Yoga is an eightfold path called ashtanga. Ashtanga literally means “eight limbs” as ashta is eight and anga is limb.

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During yoga teacher training, we not only covered the physical practice, we also read a series of books covering other seven limbs of yoga. One of the books was Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eight limbs basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. It’s not the easiest book to read but I’ll do my best to break it down.

The eight limbs of yoga serve as a guideline for moral and ethical conduct. At the same time, it’s not a religion. The focus is on self-discipline.

These guidelines direct attention toward mind, body and spirit wellness. Essentially, they help us to honor our spiritual development.

So what are the 8 limbs of yoga?

1. Yama

Yama focuses on ethical standards and integrity. These are universal practices that emphasize behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The five yamas are nonviolence, truth, no stealing, moderation, and no coveting.

2. Niyama

Niyama, the second limb, is centered on self-discipline and spiritual observances. This includes expressing gratitude and practicing meditation. The five niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, spirituality, study of scriptures and the self, and surrendering to God.

3. Asana

Asanas are the poses, or postures, practiced in yoga. Through the practice of yoga sequences, we develop discipline and focus. Self-discipline and concentration are important aspects to practice the next limb, Pranayama.

4. Pranayama

Pranayama, life force extension, consists of breathing techniques designed to strengthen the connection between the breath, mind, and emotions.

Practicing breath control helps to reduce stress levels. This in turn, improves mental, emotional, and physical health.  Also, focusing on the senses in relation to the mind helps to reach a higher state of consciousness.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara means detachment from the external world. During this practice, conscious effort is needed to shift awareness away from outside stimuli and turned inward.

Pratyahara provides an opportunity to take a step back and look within. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe habits that may not serve our highest good and block our personal growth. The practice of pratyahara creates the foundation the next stage: dharana, or concentration.

6. Dharana

Detaching from outside distractions allows us to better manage our thought patterns. Dharana, which precedes meditation, focuses on slowing down the mental thought process by focusing on a single point such as a specific chakra or the silent repetition of a mantra. Extended periods of concentration leads to meditation.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana, or meditation, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) and not the same. Dharana practices one-pointed attention whereas dhyana is a state awareness without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.

8. Samadhi

Samadhi is a state of enlightenment. At this stage, there is a connection with the higher self, all living things, and God. In this state of realization, peace and joy is felt through being at one with the Universe.

The 8 limbs of yoga is a lifelong learning process. All it takes is consistent practice. Even 5-minutes of meditation is better than nothing!

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