Yoga is a movement from one point to another, higher one that was previously beyond our reach.
It doesn’t matter whether this shift comes about through practicing asanas, through study and reading, or through meditation – it is still yoga.T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga
The internet abounds with promises of life changing transformations through yoga. The promise is real, but here’s the thing. When we say “yoga”, we don’t just mean the physical postures and movements. If we did, all gymnasts and ballerinas would be enlightened. The transformation from yoga comes when we delve into the broader teachings. The Eight Limbs of Yoga were the first teachings I encountered when seeking to uncover the true essence of yoga.
This article is the first in a series that explores what the Eight Limbs are, what we can learn from them, and how to practice them.
Where do the Eight Limbs come from?
Although the teachings pre-dated him, the first person to codify the Eight Limbs formally was Patanjali*, in his Yoga Sutras. In this seminal text, Patanjali defined what yoga is, its purpose and how to practice it. As part of this, he defined eight key components of yoga, known as ashtanga in Sanskrit (ashta = eight, anga = limb).
These eight components cover all aspects of life: mental and physical health, the environment, spirituality, ethics and morals.
In his translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, teacher T.K.V. Desikachar wrote:
The practice and inquiry into different components of yoga gradually reduce the obstacles such as misapprehension. Then the lamp of perception brightens and the distinction between what one perceives and what is perceived becomes more evident. Now everything can be understood without error.T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga, translation and commentary on Sutra 2.28
In essence, practicing the eight limbs will lead to perfect mental clarity and understanding of the world. Sounds good!
In the Sutras, the eight limbs are written in a particular order. This order reflects the journey from an external perspective, via our attitudes, body, breath and mind, to a deeply introspective view.
What are the Eight Limbs?
1. Yamas – the attitudes you should adopt when interacting with the external world. I.e. the way you think and act around other people and in your environment. These are often considered to be ethical practices or restraints.
2. Niyamas – moral practices for the relationship you have with yourself. In my view, these are more difficult to adopt than the yamas, but incredibly beneficial if you use them to help build a better relationship with yourself.
3. Asana – the physical postures of yoga. Traditionally practiced to balance steadiness and ease in the body, as preparation for long periods of stillness and meditation.
4. Pranayama – conscious control of the breath to alter the flow of energy in the body. Practices change the natural rhythm of the exhale, inhale or pauses between breaths to help focus attention on the breath.
5. Pratyahara – the practice of noticing and controlling your senses. Becoming more aware of your senses allows you to practice ignoring them. Then you can focus your mind, free from distractions.
6. Dharana – the practice of sustained concentration on a single point of focus. Dharana and pratyahara work together as the first steps into meditation by learning to build mental focus and to disregard distractions.
7. Dhyana – the next step from dharana. This is where your concentration on the single point of focus deepens so much that you feel connected to and fully aware of the object of your focus.
8. Samadhi – the final stage of meditation. This is where you are completely absorbed by your point of focus, to the exclusion of all other thoughts and distractions. This point is often thought of as enlightenment.
How to practice the Eight Limbs?
While the order of the limbs is important in understanding them, but we don’t have to practice them in that order. The first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, are attitudes that we aspire to adopt all of the time. Asana and pranayama are more practical limbs, that require us to find time and space to practice them. How much and how often we practice these is different for everyone.
The latter four limbs are mental practices that are usually considered sequentially. As we practice meditation, we progress through these four states of mind, towards the ultimate goal of samadhi.
For more detail on each of the limbs and how to practice them, read more in the Eight Limbs of Yoga series, and subscribe to be the first to find out more.
* Scholars debate whether Patanjali was one person or many people working as a collective. For the purpose of this site, I refer to Patanjali as one man for ease, but this is not intending to discredit the involvement of anyone else in writing the Yoga Sutras.