Eight Limbs of Yoga
In Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras the second chapter explores the classical Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Eight Limbs of Yoga basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life fit for spiritual practice. Out of the eight branches (or limbs) of Yoga, only one limb mentions the physical aspects of Yoga.
Here is a simple guide on the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Branch 1: Yama (outer observances)
This limb focuses on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. A little bit like treating others, as you’d like to be treated! The five Yamas are:
1. Ahimsa: Non-harming or nonviolence in thoughts and actions (think of Gandhi)
2. Satya: truthfulness in what we say and do (or absolute truth)
3. Asteya: non-stealing (not taking things that don’t belong to you)
4. Brahmacārya: self-restraint (reducing sensual desires including towards food)
5. Aparigraha: non-grasping or non-hoarding (what we have already is plentiful)
Branch 2: Niyama (inner observances)
The second limb is about self-discipline and spiritual observances.
For example, it could be as simple as saying grace before meals, making time for meditation practice. The five niyamas are:
1. Saucha: cleanliness (in our mind and thoughts as well body)
2. Samtosa: contentment (acceptance and feeling at peace with life)
3. Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities (real self-discipline)
4. Svadhyaya: the study of the scriptures and of one’s self
5. Īśvara praṇidhāna: surrender to something greater than us
Branch 3. Asana
Following on from yamas and niyamas comes the physical aspect of practicing yoga postures (asana) to help focus the mind. This is the aspect that most of us in the west will be familiar with, the physical poses, the stretching, the pulling, the bending, flexing, and holding poses. Asanas help to cleanse, detoxify and prepare the body for mind practices.
Branch 4. Prāṇāyama
This fourth stage consists of what we typically call extending the breath with specific techniques, as implied by the literal translation of prāṇāyama, “life force extension”.
Prāṇāyāma techniques can aid in extending life by breathing properly especially as we age, or when we are stressed, going through changes (specifically beneficial for pregnant ladies). You’re able to practice prāṇāyama on its own (e.g. simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or as part of your physical Yoga practice (for example using ujjayi breath within asana).
It is natural that prāṇāyama is the fourth step as it is the breath that connects the body to the mind and takes us onto the second half of the journey.
If you look carefully you will see that the first four stages of Patañjali’s ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our behaviour, our thinking, personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves. All of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Branch 5. Pratyahara
The fifth limb means withdrawal of our senses, it’s during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. If you practice Yoga Nidra you will already have some experience of this.
This practice really helps us to notice and observe what is occurring without getting involved with the story, it’s often what we may call becoming a witness or the observer to events and situations.
Branch 6. Dhāraṇa
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara establishes the setting for dhāraṇa, or what is commonly known as concentration. Once outside distractions are minimised we can begin to focus on stilling the mind, not such an easy task.
We began practicing concentration before meditation, as they easily partner up with each other. At this stage in Yoga, you can focus on the silent repetition of a mantra, or perhaps the breath. Naturally, we’ve already begun to develop this level of concentration with postures, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.
Extended periods of concentration will unsurprisingly lead to meditation.
Branch 7. Dhyāna
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is known as the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Whilst dhāraṇa practices one-pointed focus; dhyāna is ultimately a state of being deeply aware without focus.
At this stage, the mind has been quietened, and in the stillness, it produces limited or no thoughts at all. The determination and focus it requires to reach this level of stillness are remarkably impressive.
While this may seem difficult if a not impossible task, remember that Yoga is an ongoing process. It’s ultimately about not attaining anything (more of a letting go) and no labels or judgments are needed at any stage of this journey.
Branch 8. Samādhi
This final stage is also called ecstasy… It is about really dropping away and being gone, where a real deep connection is felt with all living things. You can say the meditator merges with the point of focus and transcends the Self-altogether.
This may sound a bit hippy-dippy or even a little scary, however, if you stop to pause and reflect what is it that you are searching for in life? Words such as peace, joy, and freedom spring to mind. This final stage in a sense is returning to what and who we naturally are, that which is limitless, boundless, and eternal. This final stage of samādhi or enlightenment is not something that can be bought or captured, it can only be experienced.
These stages can be practiced freely without judgment, though once you wish to deepen your practices and are ready for meditation it is best practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher.
Sanskrit is a historical Indo-Aryan language, the primary language of Hinduism, and literary and scholarly language in Buddhism and Jainism.
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is 196 Indian sūtras (threads or aphorisms) that constitute the foundational text of Raja Yoga (also known as Yoga for the mind).
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are studied in-depth as part of our 200-hour yoga teacher training course.