The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga work and grow together to form a whole and thriving yoga practice. These “limbs” were set out by a man named Patanjali, in his text called “The Yoga Sutras.” The exact dates are under considerable debate, but 250 BC seems to be a strong current theory. Together, the sutras provide an outline of the goals of yoga, the obstacles we will encounter, and ways to overcome these obstacles.

Yama: discipline concerning one’s interactions with society & the world
Ahimsa: Non-violence and non-harming toward all living things, including ourselves and others. Especially to be compassionate for those who are innocent, hurting, or worse off than we are. Ahimsa includes non-harming in our thoughts, actions, and speech.
Satya: Truthfulness and right-communication. That our thoughts, words, and actions are truthful and kind. When this is not possible, refraining from speech or action.
Asteya: Non-stealing or non-covetousness. Not taking or being ruled by a desire for that which is not ours. This includes not accepting undue credit or praise. It is also related to how we ask for the time and space of others, with consideration and appreciation.
Brahmacharya: Traditionally, brahmacharya has been interpreted as sexual celibacy. Less stringent interpretations consider it as a directive toward chastity and awareness regarding our sensual desires and energies. It is also seen as overall moderation regarding our desires and actions. To not be ruled by our senses and sexuality, particularly in a way that could cause hurt to ourselves or others.
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness, non-greediness. Using discipline to control our desire and attachment to possessions and people in our lives. It also includes not hoarding or taking more than we need.

Niyama: discipline concerning our relationship with ourselves
Saucha: Cleanliness, both inward and outward. Saucha involves keeping ourselves and our environment cleanly and hygienic. It also encourages us toward the goal of a clean, pure inner health. Practicing asana and pranayama can help to purify the energy in the body, and serve as a guide to purifying our thoughts and balancing our emotional lives.
Santosha: Being content with what we have, and accepting what we have as a rich opportunity to grow and learn – rather than focusing on what we do not have. Accepting the unfolding of our circumstances with modesty, even in trying times.
Tapas: Tapas is the “heat” or motivation that keeps us dedicated and moving toward our goals., a burning dedication to reach our highest aims.
Svadhyaya: Self-study and reflection on sacred/major texts. To have an active mind and use the opportunities of each moment to examine ourselves, our motivations, our actions. All of this leads us toward a truthful and honest knowledge of ourselves. The study of yogic texts expands our understanding of our own minds as well as of the people and relationships with whom we share our lives.
Ishvarapranidhana: Surrendering the fruits of our actions and labors to a higher force: God, Truth. To not attach our actions with our desire to possess their outcome, isvarapranidhana gives us the opportunity to find our selfless nature and enjoy the process of our actions without greed or future projections.

Asana: posture, poses, connection to the earth
Asana is the most widely known and practiced of the eight limbs, although a rich asana practice can open us to most if not all of the other limbs. Asana is literally translated as “seat” or “staying” and so it describes not only the posture of our physical body, but our connection with the earth, environment, and other living beings. Asanas are set out by Patanjali as a method to calm our minds, create healthful habits, and move into our inner-awareness. The practice of asana gives us many rich and fruitful opportunities to learn about our bodies, our reactions to pleasure and tension, our egos, and our relationships with others. With it, we become strong, healthy, light, and possess a free flow of energy in our body.

Pranayama: control or extension of the breath, life-force
Pranayama is the control of the breath or literally “extension of life-force.” Learning to control the breath shows us the connections between the activity of our breath and the activities of our minds, eventually allowing us to moderate the mental activity as we are able to moderate our breath. Pranayama is a powerful practice both when practiced independently and when practiced in unison with asana. When practiced with asana, the power and efficacy of the poses is greatly enhanced, and the space is created for moments of meditation and true awareness.

Pratyahara: moderation of the senses, “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses”
Imagine that you have recently enjoyed a full meal and you feel pleasantly full. Then you walk into a friend’s house and see a big bowl of chocolates – all of sudden your whole body wants a chocolate candy! Without conscious effort, the senses will determine the attention and desires of the mind. Pratyahara is the process of reigning in the senses, and allowing the mind to determine the activity of the senses. When we are focused on our breath, for example, pratyahara can naturally occur. As we draw our awareness inward, those senses which do not feed our connection to the breath quietly recede. It is not that we are asleep or unaware, only that our great focus has allowed these other senses to withdraw.

Dharana: a state of one-pointed concentration, being present in the moment
With dharana, we build on the efforts of pratyahara and gather our concentration toward one point or one idea. Imagine a meditation on a certain goal, focusing on the flow of your breath, or deep reflection on an idea. As we focus the efforts of the mind on one object (object=idea, image, movement, posture), the other activities of the mind begin to recede. Dharana teaches us to be focused on our goals in life, and to always hold them in our hearts and minds.

Dhyana: sustained concentration without effort, meditation
In a state of meditation, the focused awareness is sustained without conscious effort. The focus of dharana will always precede dhyana. TKV Desikachar describes it like this “dharana is the contact, dhyana is the connection.” So that in a state of meditation the mind is flowing easily with the object upon which you are meditating, steadily connected and joined.

Samadhi: bliss, without effort or conscious awareness
This is the state in which we become completely absorbed in something. Literally, Samadhi translates as “to bring together” or “to merge.” It is a state when our concepts of personal identity recede and our entire awareness is joined with something. Although a few great yogis have attained to, and perhaps achieved, a sustained state of Samadhi, it is not an inaccessible state for the rest of us. For instance Samadhi could occur when we are trying to write a paper, and after a few hours of writer’s block, we are suddenly seized with understanding and inspiration. We are merged with a whole understanding of our idea. It can occur while practicing asana, or any other number of circumstances. Pratyahara, dharana, dhayana and Samadhi are not states that we can sit down and will into occurring. However, with sitting still and calming the mind, we can begin to create the circumstances under which they will occur. They are simply “given” to us.

Great thanks to articles and books written by:
TKV Desikachar “The Heart of Yoga”
Louisa DiGrazia
Johanna Mosca PhD “More Than Just Asanas: Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga”
William J.D. Doran “The Eight Limbs, The Core of Yoga”

Updated December 13, 2004