Welcome to a seriously important, action packed, need-to-know yoga article for anyone/everyone who loves the yoga practice.
Let me forewarn you yogis – this will be long, it will be informational, it will be enlightening, and you will leave here knowing what the 8 limbs of yoga are.
If that term – 8 limbs of yoga – is alien talk to you, then please for the love of yoga, stay put. And if you’ve heard the word here and there, then again please stay put. And if you’re a yoga know-it-all who’s been studying and practicing these babies, then please stay put and offer some feedback down below.
Okay, I think I covered every yogi in that top statement.
If I left you out, serious apologies.
Before we dive headfirst into this article, let me briefly explain this concept of yoga limbs.
Yoga and everything it encompasses is built upon a framework called the eight-fold path. This path is what yogis from thousands of years ago used to achieve a state of samadhi, bliss or enlightenment. It’s a path that’s still used today to transcend the physical being and experience a deeper state of awareness, truthfulness, and again – bliss.
The eight limbs were created by Patanjali (basically the head guru of yoga), and then written and explained in his famous scriptures titled – The Yoga Sutras. If you really want to get deep with it, bury your head into the sutras (good luck).
Okay… so we kinda understand the premise behind the eight limbed path, but how does yoga (the practice I use to sweat, stretch and nourish my soul) relate to this ancient idea of reaching enlightenment?
Keep reading yogis… just keep reading.
The majority of the yoga world discovers the practice through the third limb – asana (physical practice). I’d guess that over 90% of yogis discovered their love for yoga through the physical movements (I sure as hell did). I’d also guess that over 90% of yogis have no clue what the yoga practice is built upon, the ultimate goal of the practice, or the method that’s available to reach said ultimate goal.
Don’t feel silly if you fit into that 90%, I fell into that crew before yoga teacher training, and there are many instances where I still fall into this crew. But here’s the crutch – we’re all beginners, we all have the power to learn, we all have the power to grow, and we all have the power to move deeper into our beloved yoga practice.
So with that said, let’s get into this longg ass breakdown…
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
1. The Yamas
Think of these like The Golden Rule or The Ten Commandments – they’re external guidelines that should be practiced and upheld every day. And of course – there’s not just one, but five.
- Ahisma – nonviolence
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – moderation
- Aparigraha – non-hoarding
Use these guidelines to expand upon your current relationships with the world – physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Don’t get too caught up if you lose sight of them, but do remember to always come back.
Just like we should do unto others as we would like done unto us, we also need to learn and practice the above actions. And the more we can instill these actions into our daily routine, the fuller our lives will be.
2. The Niyamas
Similar to the first limb, the niyamas consist of five rules/observances, but instead of being practiced externally, these are focused on internal actions (a personal practice).
- Sauca – purity
- Santosa – contentment
- Tapas – zeal/austerity
- Svadhyaya – self-study
- Isvara Pranidhana – devotion to a higher power
Again – don’t get tripped up if you’re not doing any of these, its not a mandatory must-do path. And more importantly – the eight limbed path is not for most.
It’s a hard trek to enlightenment (the ultimate goal), so please – digest the limbs one bite at a time, take what you can, come back to the rest later.
And we’ve made it to the third limb, the one that we all know and love very much – the physical practice of yoga.
The reason that 90% of us discover yoga through the physical practice is quite simple. It’s a practice that awakens and unites our body, mind and soul. It permeates through our skin, into the body, and then further into the inner depths of who we are.
It’s not a surface practice.
It’s the real fucking deal.
So while a majority of yogis do practice the physical side of yoga, what we don’t do is integrate the above two limbs within the asana practice.
If the idea of integrating the two sounds interesting, here’s how it works:
Imagine you’re flowing through a practice, transitioning from one posture to the next, linking breath with movement…
- Approach your practice with ahisma (nonviolence), recognizing when to back off, where to soften, and when to move deeper.
- Practice brahmacharya (moderation) by not always doing a sweaty/heart-pumping class, but instead adding restorative and yin practices to your routine.
- Practice santosa (contentment) with where you are today. Don’t grasp for postures beyond reach, don’t stare at your neighbor with desire, but instead – be content with your practice and where it is today.
Okay – I won’t go through each yama/niyama, but I hope you understand the general idea behind integrating each limb of yoga.
Mmmm…. this limb is one of my favorites, it’s fascinating/scary/exciting/nourishing…. (shall I keep going).
Prana, when translated, is the life force energy within us that’s manifested by the breath.
Let me repeat that (so we’re all on the same page) – Our breath, something available to everyone, manifests the life force energy within us.
This truth, that we have control over our life force, is profound for me.
I remember my first few years of yoga and constantly being told to turn on my ujjayi breath (the Darth Vader sound). And then I stumbled into yoga teacher training and went deep with pranayama… like to the point of yoga stoned x 10. And it’s in that moment of yoga stonedness that I developed a crush on pranayama.
To bring it full circle (and not all about me), let’s connect the dots here.
At this point on our yogi path, we’ve covered how to ethically live in the world, how to keep ourselves in check, how to consciously move our bodies, and we are now on the breath.
The breath is purposefully placed after asana, because it’s only through the movement of our bodies, that we can learn and appreciate the power of the breath. It’s through our yoga practice – the vinyasas, the warriors, the inversions, the savasana – that we can truly understand why the breath is important, how it fuels the the body, and in turn – fuels the mind and soul.
Whoa – that was a run on sentence, sorry grammar readers, I just had to get that out.
To further explain why pranayma is the fourth limb, let me go a tad deeper here…
In Iyengars novel, Light on Life, he explains that in order to properly perform pranayama the body must be strong, focused, and healthy. The body must be able to sit up straight, for extended periods of time, and endure the practice of breath work.
It’s no easy feat breathing in and out, keeping the mind soft, while the body stays erect. But it’s made much easier by practicing asana first, and this is why it’s the fourth limb.
We’re halfway through the eight limbed path, are you feeling enlightened yet?
Don’t answer that, it’s a rhetorical question.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, is the withdrawal of the senses. It’s the action of dimming the exterior nonsense and tuning into the inner magic within us. I know, that’s super woo woo, but it’s the truth.
Again, let’s connect the dots.
After practicing/implementing the yamas and niyamas, moving your body, and then breathing – your mind is now ready and able to turn down the external volume. You might be wondering, what is external volume?
External volume is…
- General noise – like traffic, conversation, music, etc.
- Nature – the trees rustling, birds chirping, squirrels playing.
- Mind chatter – the voice inside that incessantly talks away.
At this stage, you are ready to shut all of this off. Yes – it’s still actually happening around you, noise is always happening, but the difference is you’re able to withdraw from it, dive deep within yourself, and experience stillness.
Dharana, the sixth limb, is concentration.
You can imagine that if you practiced yoga for thirty minutes, then pranayama for ten minutes, then withdrew from the exterior and into the interior – that you can now wholeheartedly concentrate.
My best advice for this limb is don’t think about it too much.
Let yourself float into a state of single-pointed focus, let the mind rest on one point – a drishti, and then relax into it.
This is where people can find clarity, the answers to questions, or the guidance to take a step into the unknown.
Dhyana, the seventh limb, is meditation.
Oh meditation, how I love thee/can’t stand thee.
I have such a serious love/hate with this limb. I loveeeee the after effects of meditation, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like I’m floating around for a moment, like I’m connected to the wind sweeping across my face, and the birds chirping outside.
But, there’s always a but, I hate sitting down to do it. The 30 steps or so to my outdoor zen den are painful, I feel like a child stomping off to timeout…. it’s that pathetic.
To help you and especially me, here’s a few must-dos to further our meditation practice:
- Set a specific time to do said meditation.
- Decide if your meditation is simple – breathe in, breathe out, concentrate, relax.
- Decide if you want to do a mantra meditation challenge – this is a fav of mine.
- Or look into guided meditations, like Deepak Chopra & Oprah Winfrey.
- Create a comfortable and inviting place to do this said meditation.
- Sit up really tall, keep the entire spine lengthened from the sit bones to the crown of the head, roll the shoulders back, gently tuck the chin, softly close the eyes, and breathe.
- And then do the damn thing – meditate!
And we made it to the end of the path and now it’s time to experience bliss.
Many yogis, including me, feel that samadhi is unattainable, that’ it’s not meant for us, that it’s only for the incredibly devoted, or that it’s simply a bunch of bullshit.
Well, as usual, I like to remind people that yoga has no rules.
Bliss can take on many, many, many different forms. Bliss can mean a moment of true quiet for some and the sun shining on your face for others. Bliss can translate to a day without negative self-talk, a moment of reprieve from the day-to-day, or comfort in a yoga pose.
Bliss is yours and only yours.
You are the keeper of your bliss and enlightenment, you have the power to turn it on and off, and you can experience it – in this lifetime, in your body, so long as you do the work.
And if you made it to this last sentence, then you’re a serious badass, because I know this article is long, detailed, and a bit of me rambling. So again – thank you for being a badass and following along on the yoga journey.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all of the above, take a deep breath, and know that everyone is overwhelmed at first (I still am). Tackle each limb one at a time, move at your own pace, seek out other yogis to discuss… do what’s right for your learning journey.
Until next time yogis – xoxo.
Hey! I’m Allie.
I’m a self-growth student, freedom-seeker, yoga teacher and the founder of a tight-knit online yoga community: the Body Mind Soul Studio. I’m here to teach you how to transform your life on-and-off-the-mat with a holistic yoga practice.
I wanna learn it all!
The Yoga Reset Guide is my FREE 7-step journey to deepen your practice and recenter your body, mind and soul. Self-paced, no equipment necessary, perfect for beginners AND veteran yogis.