Eight Limbs of Yoga

15th July 2019

If you have heard of the 8 limbs of Yoga and are wondering what they are – here is a brief outline: The Eight Limbs of Yoga are thought to have been written by Patanjali and scholars believe he lived sometime between the 2 nd century BCE and the 4th century CE. Patanjali (as thought to be the author of the Yoga Sutras which included the 8 limbs of yoga) was Hindu and he is attributed to many important Hindu works that are also meaningful in Buddhism and Jainism. The eight limbs actually form the basis of Ashtanga Yoga – Ashtanga being Hindu for eight limbs. They are the eight limbs of classical yoga and as such relate also to Hatha Yoga. The main difference between Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga is that the former relies on holding specific asanas (poses) for longer than the latter and the latter relies on the flow from one asana to the next (Vinyasa Yoga being a fast moving form of Ashtanga). You may ask why am I blogging about the Eight Limbs when I teach Hatha Yoga and not Ashtanga Yoga – the reason is that both Hatha Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga rely on the Yoga Sutras, the eight limbs etc and in Hatha Yoga classes flows (Vinyasas) are often included.

And now for the eight limbs:

Limb 1 - Yama - five 'restraints' which are:

  • Ahimsa - non violence and not harming other beings

  • Satya - being truthful

  • Asteya - non stealing

  • Brahmacharya - non sexual misconduct

  • Aparigraha - non possession (e.g. non coveting and non materialistic approach)

Limb 2 - Niyama - five 'actions' which are:

  • Saucha - cleanliness of mind, body and speech

  • Santosha - being content with what is

  • Tapas - Acceptance of what is

  • Swadhyaaya - self awareness and self reflection

  • Ishwara Pranihanna - devotion to the 'divine' - (doesn't have to be a religious attachment)

Limb 3 - Asana - these are the 'poses' that yoga is generally thought of being!

Limb 4 - Pranayama - this is the 'life force' and closely related to the breathing practise (e.g. the yogic breath, humming bee breath etc). Pranayama is the force without which we do not exist, it is the life force and the energy that flows through the Nadis of the 'subtle' body. Prana means life force (as in breath) and Ayama means to prolong or lengthen - so literally it means to lengthen the breath.

Limb 5 - Pratyahara - from prati meaning 'away or against' and ahara meaning food or ingestion of anything into ourselves (including thoughts). So a literal translation might be to remove ingested things and in the sense of the eight limbs it has been interpreted to mean to remove thoughts (in practise the student or practitioner doesn't actively 'remove' thoughts but rather allows the thoughts to settle and dissipate by themselves).

Limb 6 - Dharana - translated as concentration or 'single focus' this limb builds on limb 5 in keeping the mind focussed - in meditation the focus can be the breath, an object, a mantra, a mudra or other focus the practitioner finds helps towards the Dharana.

Limb 7 - Dhyana - the 'art' of meditation itself the term literally translates to meditation or contemplation and is the result of following the previous 6 limbs in particular the last 2 - it is a prerequisite for the final limb:

Limb 8 - Samadhi - there are various potential translations but all relate to the blissful state attained from continued practise of Dhyana and the 'oneness' thus achieved. In this state the practitioner loses the sense of ego and becomes one with all that is in existence - this term is the same as that of the Buddhist eight element of the eightfold path.

Yoga is so much more than exercise!



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