The Eight Limbs of Yoga

“Do you practise Yoga every day?”

In my two years of teaching experience I’ve found out that students ask this question a lot.

It’s common to get asked this question and assume the student means Asana practise, after-all in a class this is the main event. Which then, understandably, leads the student to believe this is what Yoga is.

But, Yoga is not only Asana practise – which has been popularised as a “get fit” type of exercise in recent years. There is more than meets the eye when it comes to living yoga. Yoga is more than a physical exercise. So, what is it?

So, when we think of Yoga – we must remember the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as defined by Patanjali (Yoga Sutras). The Eight Limbs is derived from the word Astanga, translating to ‘eight limbs’, i.e the eightfold path.

These 8 limbs are:
Yama (ethical disciplines, restraints)
Niyama (self observances)
Asana (movement/postures)
Pranayama (breath-expansion/control)
Pratyhara (withdrawal of the senses)
Dharana (concentration)
Dhyana (meditation)
Samadhi (pure awareness/contemplation)

In most yoga classes the teacher will likely instruct pranayama and asana, and maybe touch upon the others…

University of Patanjali, a statue of Maharishi Patanjali in Haridwar

…So looking into each limb in a little more detail below…

The first limb, Yama, ‘moral discipline’, is comprised of five Yamas. These five Yamas are guidelines of our relationships with others. These are: Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (nonstealing), Brahmacharya (self-restraint/control), Aparigraha (noncovetousness).
These Yamas, or golden rules are universal, such as the understanding of: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

The second limb, Niyama, ‘moral observances’, is comprised of five parts. These five Niyamas are guidelines for our relationship with ourselves.  These are: Saucha (cleanliness), Samtosa (contentment), Tapas (spiritual austerities), Svadyaya (study of ancient scriptures and ones-self), Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to God).
These niyamas are made up of your personal development practises, saying grace, long contemplative walks – conscious awareness.

The third limb is Asana practise, the practise of postures with the body. Understanding that the body is a temple for the spirit we develop a healthy attitude towards the body and take care of it to develop further in our spiritual growth. Through this practise we develop greater awareness and concentration which is an important step for meditation.

The fourth limb, Pranyama, translates to breath control – and breath expansion. This practise allows one to gain access to their mind-body connection and therefore emotional states. By practising breathwork the student rejuvenates and increases health and vitality of the body and mind.

The first four stages focus on increasing our awareness of our energy/body and aids us towards greater vitality and strength. With the understanding of our personality and ego and mind-body connection gained in the practise we are prepared for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.

The fifth limb means sensory or withdrawal transcendence. During this stage we are drawing attention away from outside stimuli; highly aware of the external world yet cultivating a detachment from it (where it is to our benefit), and our senses, directing our attention internally.
This practice allows us to see ourselves with a different perspective. We can then objectively observe ourselves and change things in our life which are detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth and focus on the things we know that are beneficial.

The practise of pratyahara aids the sixth limb which is dharana, or concentration. Now having lessened the distractions of outside influence, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind. By concentrating on a single mental object, the thinking process slows down, lessening any anxiety or over stimulation in the mind, which allows more space for harmonious feelings and thoughts. Some methods to do this are: observing an image of a deity, a particular meditation technique, chanting or a silent repetition of sound. Having developed concentration during postures, breath control and withdrawl of the senses – dharana focuses that energy on a single point of focus, and with this naturally meditation follows.

Dhyana meaning meditation or contemplation is the seventh stage of the eight limbs and it means the uninterrupted flow of concentration.
So concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be the same thing, but there is a subtle distinction between them. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. At this stage in the process of Yoga the mind can access deep meditative contemplation.

Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage in the process of Yoga, the meditator merges with his/her awareness and transcends the Self altogether. Here a profound connection to the Divine is experienced; an interconnection with all living things is understood – but experientially, something which cannot be explained, only to be lived.
This path is a way toward self-fulfillment, self-actualisation and something we all aspire to at some point in our life, inner peace. The continual devotion of the aspirant heads toward the ultimate stage of Yoga – enlightenment.

More on Yoga here

A moment captured reading Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on Hampstead Heath (2016)