How to Understand The Eight Limbs of Yoga

If you’re a yoga enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of the eight limbs of yoga. The practice of Yoga is believed to have started with the very dawn of civilization.

The science of yoga originated thousands of years ago. This was long before the first religions or belief systems were even born. 

The science of yoga originated thousands of years ago

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The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’ which means ‘to join’ or ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. According to Yogic scriptures, the practice of Yoga leads to the union of your consciousness with that of the universal consciousness resulting in perfect harmony between your mind and your body.

Yoga is a spiritual practice. It’s an art and science of healthy living which focuses on bringing harmony between your mind and your body. It is commonly understood as a therapy or exercise system for your health and fitness.

Yoga is a comprehensive system for your wellbeing that extends far beyond physical yoga postures.

It is a way of living that is designed to bring increased awareness of your body and your thoughts. 

This occurs through various techniques and teachings including the ten Yamas and Niyamas. Those two are the foundation of all yoga practice. 

The Yamas (restraints) & Niyamas (observances) represent the moral guidelines that help you to move deeper into your own authenticity. They help support your leap towards a more meaningful life.

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Yoga originated as a Hindu spiritual self-denying discipline that includes simple meditation, breathing control, and maintaining your body in specific postures. It is practiced widely for relaxation and health purposes. 

Yoga is about harmonizing yourself with the universe. It is the technology of aligning your individual geometry with the cosmic. This will enable you to achieve your highest level of perception and harmony. 

Practicing yoga doesn’t adhere to any particular community, religion, or belief system.

Rather, it is approached as a technology for your inner wellbeing. This means that if you practice yoga with involvement, you can reap its benefits, irrespective of your faith, culture, or ethnicity.

Because Yoga is not a religion, it shouldn’t interfere with your religious beliefs.

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Common Yoga sadhanas (practices)

Yoga Sutra consists of Patanjali’s eightfold path called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs”. The eight limbs form a sequence from the outer to the inner and act as your guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. 

Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga

The guidelines serve as your formula for ethical and moral conduct and self-discipline.

They also help you to direct your attention toward your health. When you do so, you’ll be able to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of your nature.

Read The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

The eight limbs of yoga are:

Yama (restraints or abstinences)

This is the first of the eight limbs of yoga and deals with your ethical standards and sense of integrity. Yamas are ethical rules in Hinduism and are perceived as moral imperatives (the “don’ts”).

It focuses on the restraints you put on yourself – your behavior and how you conduct yourself in life. 

Yamas are universal practices that you can equate to the golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

There are five yamas listed by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra. They are:

  • Ahimsa or nonviolence, freedom from harming, non-harming other living beings
  • Aparigraha or non-possessiveness, non-hoarding, freedom from grasping
  • Asteya or nonstealing, freedom from stealing
  • Brahmacharya or moderation, chastity, marital fidelity or sexual restraint
  • Satya or truthfulness, non-falsehood

Read The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice

Niyama (observances)

This is the second limb and has to do with your virtuous habits, self-discipline, and spiritual observances. Examples of niyamas in practice include:

  • saying the grace before your meals
  • developing your own personal meditation practices
  • regularly attending temple or church services
  • making a habit of taking meditative walks alone
Practice taking meditative walks alone

There are five Niyamas. They are:

  • Isvara-pranidhana or surrendering to something higher than yourself
  • Samtosa or contentment, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are
  • Saucha or cleanliness, purity, clearness of mind, speech, and body
  • Svadhyaya or self-study, self -reflection, the study of the sacred scriptures and of yourself
  • Tapas or self-discipline, persistence, perseverance

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Asana (physical body postures)

This is the third of the eight limbs of yoga and involves the postures you practice in yoga. In yoga practice, your body is viewed as a temple of your spirit. 

The care of your body is an important stage of your spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, you should be able to develop a habit of self-discipline and the ability to concentrate.

Both of these are necessary for effective meditation.

Asana is a posture that you can hold for a period of time, staying relaxed, steady, comfortable, and motionless. You may initially experience body quivering when you start asana.

However, persistent practice will stop the quivering of your body.

Asanas are perfected over time by relaxation of effort with meditation. The postures you assume should be comfortable and not painful. Any posture that causes pain or restlessness is not a yogic posture.

In asana practices, you pay attention to your actions. Your attention travels and your focus constantly shifts as you fine-tune the many nuances of each particular posture.

Physical body postures

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Asanas help bring about stability of your body and mind. They consist of adapting your body to various psycho-physical patterns. This adaptation gives you the ability to maintain a body position for a considerable length and period of time. It is a stable awareness of your structural existence.

Pranayama (breathing/breath control)

Translated as breath control, this fourth stage of the eight limbs of yoga consists of breathing exercise techniques. The breathing exercises are designed for you to gain mastery over your respiratory process. 

breath control, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga
Breath control, the fourth stage of the eight limbs of yoga

Read Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha

There are over 100 types of Pranayamas which are known as ancient yogic breathing exercises and healing techniques. 

After a desired posture has been achieved, you will start the practice of consciously regulating your breath (inhalation, the full pause, exhalation, and the empty pause).

Your inhaled breath is manipulated and directed through disciplined ways to different parts of your body and its organs and glands.

When this happens, you will connect with your body. Understanding the scope of breath within you is the ultimate realization in pranayamas.

By mastering your breathing, you’re able to recognize the connection between your breath, your mind, and your emotions.

People who practice yoga believe that yoga rejuvenates your body.

It is also believed to extend life itself. 

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You can practice pranayama as an isolated yoga technique at any time. Do this by simply sitting and performing some breathing exercises.

You also may integrate the practice into your daily hatha yoga routine.

The pranayama practice consists of developing an awareness of your breathing followed by the willful regulation of your respiration as a functional or vital basis of your existence.

It helps in developing the awareness of your mind. It also helps you to establish control over your mind.

In pranayama, although you pay attention to your actions, you also allow your attention to travel.

Your focus will constantly shift as you fine-tune the many nuances of each particular breathing technique.

Read Pranayama The Breath of Yoga

In the initial stages of Pranayama, you will develop an awareness of your breathing in and breathing out and willfully regulate this process called svasa-pravasa. 

‘Svasa’ means inspiration and ‘pravasa’ means expiration. You will modify the process through regulated, controlled, and monitored inhalation or inspiration (svasa).  

Svasa leads to your awareness of your own body spaces getting filled (puraka) as you inhale. You’ll become aware of the spaces remaining in a filled state known as kumbhaka.

As you breathe out, your body spaces get emptied. This is known as rechaka.

Regulated, controlled, and monitored inhalation and exhalation

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The first four of the eight limbs of yoga (Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama) focus on refining your personality and gaining mastery over your body.

They also help you develop an energetic awareness of yourself. 

Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama are meant to prepare you for the second half of your journey. They work on your senses, your mind, and your ability to attain a higher state of consciousness.

Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

This is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga. It means withdrawal or a sensory superiority or transcendence. It is the drawing within one’s awareness and retracting your sensory experience from external objects.

During this stage, you’ll make a conscious effort to work on your awareness. You’re not consciously closing your eyes to the sensory world. You will be consciously closing your mind processes to the sensory world.

You should draw your awareness away from outside stimuli and from the external world.  This stage empowers you to stop being controlled by the external world.

You will direct your attention internally. You’ll be keenly aware of, yet cultivate a detachment from your senses. 

Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses is the 5th of the eight limbs of yoga
Direct your attention internally

The practice of Pratyahara involves dissociation of your consciousness or withdrawal from your sense organs which normally help you to remain connected with external objects. 

Practicing pratyahara allows you to step back and take a look at yourself, becoming self-observant. This withdrawal allows you to objectively observe your cravings.

Pratyahara will help you to take a critical look at your habits. You should be able to detect habits that might be detrimental to your health. Such habits are likely to interfere with your inner growth.

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Dharana (concentration)

The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for you to practice Dharana or concentration. After you get rid of outside distractions, you can now deal with the distractions of your mind itself.

This stage involves holding your mind onto a particular inner state, subject, or topic you have in mind. Your mind is fixed on a mantra.

This practice is not an easy task and the level of concentration you attain at this stage will precede the state of meditation.

Develop your powers of concentration

By practicing Dharana, you’ll learn how to slow down your thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object. This object could be a specific energetic center in your body, the silent repetition of a sound, or an image of a deity.  

Remember, you’ve already started developing your powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.

Unlike in asana and pranayama, with Dharana, you focus your attention on a single point.

Extended periods of concentration will naturally lead you to meditation.

Dhyana (meditation)

This is the seventh of the eight limbs of yoga and means meditation. Dhyana is a Sanskrit word meaning “meditation”. Meditation or contemplation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. 

Dhyana is contemplating, reflecting on whatever you focused on in Dharana. For example, if in the sixth limb of yoga you focused on a personal deity, then Dhyana will be in contemplation of the deity.

You will have a non-judgmental, non-presumptuous observation of that object. Dhyana is your uninterrupted train of thought, current of cognition, and the flow of awareness of that object.

Your flow of concentration becomes uninterrupted. Your mind’s awareness is for one object or activity. The state that arises from this is dhyana (meditation).

Dhyana is somehow related to Dharana. One leads to another. Dharana is a state of mind, while Dhyana is the process of mind. 

Concentration (Dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be synonymous. However, there’s a fine line of distinction between the two stages. 

Reaching a true state of meditation
Reaching a true state of meditation may appear difficult

Dhyana is distinct from Dharana in that you become actively engaged with your focus in Dhyana.

At the stage of Dhyana, your mind has been quieted. In the stillness, it produces little or no thoughts at all. Dhyana is actually your maintenance of Dharana for longer periods of time.

It will take a great deal of strength and stamina for you to be able to attain the level of stillness needed for Dhyana (meditation). Reaching this state may seem difficult if not impossible for you to accomplish. However, this should not deter you. 

Remember, yoga is a process. You may not have achieved a picture-perfect pose or the ideal state of consciousness. However, you will benefit at every stage of your progress.

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Samadhi (bliss or enlightenment)

This is the last one of the eight limbs of yoga. This final stage of the eightfold path of ashtanga known as Samadhi is a state of ecstasy. 

At this level, you will be in a state of consciousness where your individual awareness dissolves into the great Self. This refers to a state of enlightenment and the highest form of Samadhi.

At the samadhi stage, you will merge with your point of focus and transcend the Self. You will come to realize a profound connection to the Divine and experience an interconnectedness with all living things. 

Samadhi is oneness with the subject of your meditation. At this point, there’s no distinction between you, the act of meditation and the subject of your meditation.

At this spiritual state, your mind becomes so absorbed in whatever it is contemplating on, that it loses the sense of its own identity. 

You, your thought process, and your thoughts fuse with the subject of your thought into a unique oneness.

When this occurs, you will attain profound peace. This peace is an experience of bliss and being at one with your Universe.

With this peace comes the things you really want to get out of life – joy, fulfillment, and freedom. 

Attaining the last of the eight limbs of yoga results in profound peace
Reaching the last of the eight limbs of yoga results in profound peace

You may not be able to successfully integrate all eight limbs of yoga at once. If this happens, you may decide to choose one or two that resonate the most with you.

You’ll find that by simply focusing on one, the others will begin to fall into place.

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