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8 Limbs of Yoga (Explained Simply)

By PRANA EDITORS | Inputs from VINEET KAUL 

 
  • Understand the 8 limbs of yoga laid out in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

  • A practical and philosophical framework to establish a holistic practice.

  • The spiritual significance of the eightfold path in modern practice.

  • Also, check out our pick of the Best Yoga Sutra Books.

 

Modern yoga often highlights the importance of physical postures for their positive impact on our health. However, yoga is fundamentally a holistic spiritual tradition intended to enhance every aspect of our well-being. Understanding its foundational purpose and philosophical roots can be valuable for learners of all levels, particularly those seeking inner peace and spiritual growth.


Exploring yoga’s origins invariably leads to Sage Patanjali, a man revered as the father of yoga. Over two thousand years ago, he wrote the "Yoga Sutras," which compiles essential knowledge for understanding and practicing yoga. The second section of this book, Sadhana Pada, introduces a system known as Ashtanga yoga (ashta: eight, anga: limbs) or the "eight limbs of yoga."


In the following sections, we’ll explore the eightfold path of Ashtanga yoga, providing accessible explanations and insights into each limb's practical and spiritual significance. We will also provide links for further exploration and discuss whether this system holds relevance in modern practice styles.


What are the 8 limbs of yoga?


The eight limbs of yoga, also known as 'Ashtanga' or the 'eightfold path of yoga,' comprise a practical and philosophical framework for systematically developing the mind and body for spiritual growth and self-realization. In other words, this system is a step-by-step roadmap for establishing an authentic yoga practice characterized by different physical, mental, energetic, and spiritual development stages.


It’s also worth noting that each of these eight limbs builds upon the previous ones, so in a traditional yoga practice, they are followed and implemented in the order in which they are presented. 


That said, the eight limbs of yoga outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are:

Sanskrit Name

English Name

Meaning

Yama

To abstain from violence, stealing, dishonesty, promiscuity, and greed.

Niyama

Five vows of cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-introspection, and devotion.

Asana

Practicing yoga poses to refine and strengthen the physical body.

Pranayama

Breathing techniques to control the flow of life energy (prana) within the body.

Pratyahara

Withdrawing the five senses from external stimuli and venturing inward.

Dharana

One-pointed concentration on a sound, visual, image, mantra, or object.

Dhyana

Absorptive meditation - transcending awareness of our mind and body.

Samadhi

Experiencing non-dualism by witnessing the true nature of the self and the universe.

It’s worth noting that the first four limbs are called external limbs (Bahiranga) because they deal with the outward aspects of life. The next four are called internal limbs (Antaranga) because they entail directing our attention inward and understanding the more subtle layers of our being.


1. Yama (Moral Principles)


Before stepping onto a yoga mat, Patanjali encourages yogis to cultivate virtues and values that align with the spiritual way of life. He divides this foundational phase into Yama (external behavior or social conduct) and Niyama (internal behavior or personal conduct).


Therefore, “Yama" is the first of the eight limbs of yoga, which translates to “self-restraint” in actions. It represents five moral guidelines for regulating our behavior, navigating the external world with integrity, and cultivating kindness and compassion towards others.


The five yamas in the eightfold path of yoga are:

Sanskrit Name

English Name

Meaning

Ahimsa - अहिंसा

Non-violence

Neither engage in nor approve of anything that may cause harm to yourself or others.

Satya - सत्य

Non-lying

Abstain from lying or deceiving others with your thoughts, words, and actions.

Asteya - अस्तेय

Non-stealing

Always respect the possessions, personal space, and well-being of other people.

Brahmacharya - ब्रह्मचर्य

Non-sensual

Sexual abstinence or an ethical and balanced approach to using our sexual energy/vigor.

Aparigraha - अपरिग्रह

Non-greedy

Avoid material, emotional, and intellectual attachments as they hinder spiritual growth.

Significance of Yamas in Ashtanga Yoga


If you view yoga as a way of life, the role of the yamas becomes apparent in how it shapes our attitude and behavior off the mat. Embodying these five values positively influences our thoughts, words, and actions, ensuring we act respectfully and responsibly in society.


Moreover, this limb of yoga lays the groundwork for the following:


  • Cultivating a compassionate approach to life. 

  • Creating trust and respect in our interpersonal relationships.

  • Reflecting our commitment to the well-being of ourselves and others.


“Put simply, Yamas establish respect for others, while the subsequent Niyamas establish respect for yourself,” says Vineet Kaul. "While they are primarily self-restraint for the collective good, they also play a crucial role in preserving our mental and emotional well-being."


2. Niyama (Ethical Principles)

 

Niyama, the second step in the eightfold path of yoga, is a set of five “internal” observances or personal vows. Their primary purpose is to help practitioners establish the dedication, commitment, and self-discipline required to practice yoga effectively.


Here are the five niyamas in the eightfold path of yoga:

Sanskrit Name

English Name

Meaning

Saucha - शौचा

Purity

Maintain hygiene (body and surroundings) and pure thoughts.

Santosha - संतोषा

Contentment

Cultivate gratitude and find joy by embracing life precisely as it is.

Tapas - तपस

Austerity

Live austerely, engaging in yogic practices to discipline the mind and body.

Svadhyaya - स्वाध्याय

Self-study

Observation and introspection of the self, both internal and external.

Ishvaraparidhana - ईश्वरप्रणिधान

Divine surrender

Faith in the divine (cosmos) dissolves the ego and aligns us with a higher purpose.

Significance of Niyamas in Ashtanga Yoga


“Niyama" means "rules" or "guidelines," and in this context, it refers to five personal observances that lead to self-purification and virtue. By following them, a practitioner can cultivate faith and discipline, let go of prejudices and desires, and establish a mindset conducive to experiencing divinity through yoga.


“In Hindu Philosophy, the niyamas symbolically represent the horses of a chariot, with yamas being the reigns to govern the horses,” says Vineet. “An individual who does not wield the reigns will veer off the path of virtue (dharma), succumbing to lower, instinctual qualities like fear, pride, and egoism.”


For a deeper understanding of the first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga, we recommend yoga philosophy books, such as T.K.V Desikachar's "The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice" and Deborah Adele's  "The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice."


3. Asana (Yoga Poses)



After ten observances to ensure proper social and personal conduct, a yogi progresses to the third limb of yoga, Asana. The term "asana" is Sanskrit for "seat," but it is more commonly known as the physical aspect of yoga that entails learning and mastering various poses like Sukhasana and Vajrasana.


In ancient texts, the asana limb referred to only a handful of meditation postures and its primary purpose was to prepare a practitioner’s body to sit cross-legged for extended periods of meditation. However, as yoga evolved over the centuries, the scope of this limb expanded. Today, it encompasses an extensive collection of poses (and variations) that we assume during yoga practice.


Significance of Asana in Ashtanga Yoga 


“The first two limbs of yoga focus on refining our attitude and behavior, whereas asana helps you develop the body and its connection to the breath,” says Vineet. “This aspect is essential as it lays the foundation for the higher limbs of yoga, such as breath control and meditation."


Broadly speaking, the benefits of practicing asana are as follows:


  • Strengthening the physical sheath of our being, also called Annamaya Kosha.

  • Releasing tension and blockages from the physical body.

  • Aiding the harmonious flow of blood, lymphatic fluid, etc.

  • Creating balance and harmony between movement and the breath.


Today, asana is the most widely practiced component of the eightfold path of yoga. It is often used to improve strength, balance, flexibility, and overall physical well-being. However, rather than a physical exercise, the purpose of this limb is to reach a stage wherein you experience ‘Sukha’ (calm mind) and ‘Sthira’ (a steady body) during flows and sequences.


In other words, when the body and mind are harmonious and relaxed during postures, a yogi can move on to the next limb, which involves controlling incoming and outgoing prana energy.


4. Pranayama (Breath Control)



Pranayama, the fourth of the eight limbs of yoga, can be understood from its translation: prana (breath) and yama (control). In this limb, yogis work with different breathing techniques to refine and regulate the flow of life energy (prana) within the body. Pranayama is practiced after asana and before meditation. A typical session involves performing a sequence of breathing techniques to harmonize the flow of prana energy and prepare the mind for deep meditation.


Significance of Pranayama in Ashtanga Yoga

 

Like yoga postures, pranayama extends beyond simple breathing exercises. It combines breathwork sequences with mindfulness and energetic awareness, allowing us to alter our breathing rhythms to create mental shifts and influence consciousness.


For instance, the slow, rhythmic breathing pattern of Dirgha Pranayama (Three-Part Breath) induces calm and relaxation. In contrast, the forced right-nostril breathing of Surya Bhedana makes us more alert and energetic. Thus, practitioners can use different pranayama techniques to influence their mental states and shift from activity to rest mode or vice versa.


The fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga is designed to achieve the following:


  • Tone and strengthen the respiratory and nervous system.

  • Remove blockages from the subtle energy channels (nadis).

  • Influence the autonomic nervous system (ANS)

  • Harmonize the flow of energy through nadis and chakras.

  • Prepare the body and mind for Pratyahara. 


For a more in-depth understanding of yogic breath control, refer to Prana Sutra’s guide to pranayama and our selection of the best books to learn yogic breath control.


5. Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal)



Pratyahara, the fifth limb in the eightfold path of yoga, is commonly translated as “sense withdrawal.” It represents a phase wherein a practitioner cultivates the skills to consciously control and withdraw the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) from external stimuli.


When the senses are withdrawn, attention naturally turns inward due to the absence of distractions. This makes it easier for a yogi to maintain focus and concentration. Moreover, quieting the senses creates a favorable environment for self-awareness and deep meditation.


Significance of Pratyahara in Ashtanga Yoga


In yoga philosophy, our mental-emotional layer (Manomaya Kosha) is associated with the sensory organs. However, the five senses constantly expend life energy to observe our physical environment and relay that information to the mind. So, they consume a lot of our energy and keep the mind busy processing information and making sense of it.


Unless the senses are quiet, our worldly engagements prevent awareness from moving into higher centers of consciousness. So, in the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga, practitioners learn to control their senses and cultivate inner awareness using techniques such as yoga nidra, mantra repetition, breath awareness, Maha Bandha (Great Lock), and Jalandhara Bandha (Throat Lock).


6. Dharana (Concentration)



Dharana can be defined as one-pointed concentration – focusing solely on a thought, object, visual, sound, or breath for an extended period. The objective is to become aware of nothing but the object on which you are meditating. Of course, a yogi can’t achieve this level of concentration without the foundational training in the preceding limbs of yoga.


Just as you learn different asana poses to improve strength, balance, and flexibility, there are many dharana-based yoga techniques to develop unwavering concentration. Examples include visualization meditation, concentrating on a dot (Bindu Trataka), mantra chanting, and mindfulness with full attention to the present moment.


Significance of Dharana in Ashtanga Yoga 


"Mastery of dharana is a yogic siddhi (supernatural ability). It involves steadying Vayu (the air element), which represents movement within the body and mind,” explains Vineet Kaul. “In Shaiva traditions, this can only be achieved when the five Prana Vayus converge in the heart and consciousness-awareness is channeled through the eyebrow center (Ajna)." 


If you’re intrigued by the sixth and seventh limbs of yoga, Satyananda Saraswati’s “Systematic Course in Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya” contains many dharana practices.


7. Dhyana (Meditation)



Dhyana, a term in classical yoga philosophy, refers to a meditative state wherein the practitioner’s consciousness transcends the confines of the body and mind. It is not a wholly distinct practice but rather an extension of the previous limb known as Dharana.


Maintaining one-pointed concentration over an extended period naturally shifts awareness, leading us from dharana to dhyana meditation. Patanjali describes this limb of Ashtanga yoga as: “Unbroken continuation of one-pointedness (dharana) is meditation (dhyana).” (Yoga Sutras, 3.2)


Significance of Dhyana in Ashtanga Yoga


There are many types of meditations, each unique in its approach. For example, mindfulness meditation involves "open awareness," where the mind and senses observe the present moment without reactivity or judgment. In contrast, dhyana aims to release the senses from their roles of observation and inference, leading to a profound stillness of the mind. 


In essence, dhyana meditation means transcending the mind's dualistic nature by breaking the boundaries between individual (Atman) and universal consciousness (Brahman).

 

"According to Tantra texts, in dhyana, a yogi attains the highest state of consciousness and feels as eternal and indestructible as the universe itself," explains Vineet. "This experience of non-dualism leads to a profound realization of our true nature, which is called 'self-realization' in the yoga philosophy. 


To learn more about this limb of Ashtanga Yoga, we recommend Swami Sivananda’s “Dhyana Yoga” And Swami Satyananda’s Sure Ways to Self-Realization.”


8. Samadhi (Self-Realization)


Patanjali describes Samadhi, the final limb of Ashtanga yoga, as a state of pure light, harmony, and bliss. It signifies the culmination of the eightfold path, which starts with self-regulating guidelines and concludes with a feeling of interconnectedness with all creation.


Significance of Samadhi in Ashtanga Yoga 


In Samadhi, individual consciousness merges into universal consciousness, leading to a profound understanding that the true self (Atman) is very different from what we perceive ourselves to be in the illusions of the ego (Ahamkara) and the material world (Maya).


According to Patanjali, dhyana meditation is an absorptive experience in which we only experience consciousness of the object of meditation. We are unaware of our internal or external world and all our thought waves vibrate at an identical frequency (equalmindedness).


However, it should be noted that the methods of arriving at Samadhi vary depending on the yoga lineage an aspirant follows. We recommend Swami Rama's "Samadhi: The Highest State of Wisdom" and Swami Vivekananda’s "Raja Yoga" to explore this concept further.


Before You Go


Despite its ancient origins, Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga remains highly relevant in contemporary practice, especially for those seeking holistic well-being. Good yoga sutra books (commentaries) are a great place to start if you want to learn more about this system. 


While we’ve provided several links to relevant articles and books throughout this guide to Ashtanga, here are some additional posts that may interest spiritually curious readers:


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