The eight limbs of yoga — hold on, what?
Maybe you’re scratching your head because all this time you thought yoga was a focus on the movements of your body.
While that’s definitely an important component of yoga, there’s so much more to the story, and it’s too incredible not to know.
I read this quote recently, and while it did not resonate with me, many might identify with it:
“The core of yoga is asana. Without it, yoga would be nothing.”
Yoga is far more than asana (poses). So when you hear someone say they can’t “do yoga” because they’re not flexible — they actually can… and should. The “core” of yoga is defined by the eight limbs. Whether you’re hearing about this for the first time or you’re a daily practitioner, it’s always helpful to go back to the basics.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he outlined the eight-limbed path of enlightenment. Practicing the eight limbs is what we call “yoga.” Consider the eight limbs a roadmap of your spiritual journey. Follow it, and you’ll find enlightenment.
The first six on the map are action-oriented (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana). The last two are experiences (dhyana, Samadhi). Each limb basically depicts a positive, productive and healthy way of interacting with yourself and the world you live in. The limbs work together like Russian nesting dolls (or maybe like a Rubik’s Cube for some)—one unfolds and it often leads to the next. Read on and you’ll discover that only one limb deals with the physical practice (asana)… and it’s third on the map.
Please know that it’s a good idea to stock up on books related to this topic. There’s a world of literature out there that dives into each intricate limb in its entirety. But for time’s sake (you’re busy, we know), here’s a simplified breakdown:
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Yamas (restraints)
The first limb, called “yamas,” is a list of actions to avoid when dealing with yourself and others. This limb teaches us about non-harming, speaking your truth, non-stealing, mindful conservation of energy and non-coveting.
- Niyamas (observances)
This list depicts actions to take when dealing with yourself and others, including cleanliness, contentment, sustained practice, self-study and connection to universal energies. That final item is defined by a space where pure love, light and truth are able to flow easily, where one can acknowledge their place in the web of life—whoa… we’re only on the second limb and things are already getting pretty deep. So, what about asana?
- Asana (postures)
Ah, here we are! Asana. It’s the most widely recognized component of yoga and seems to get all the credit—but for good reason. Although practiced yogis get caught up in the idea that, “there’s more to yoga than asana,” it’s important to remember that this moving mediation is what gets most of us into the studio in the first place.
We definitely can’t discount the benefits of this integral limb. Asana uses the physical body to foster strength, flexibility and spatial awareness. Through the poses, one is able to locate areas of tension and release energy. What better way to learn about your body than to gracefully pass through 75+ minutes of fluid transitions and strong, static postures? As for your mind, thoughts will pop up. Breathe and continue to move. It’s all part of the practice.
- Pranayama (breathwork)
From alternate nostril breathing to kapalabhati (breath of fire), pranayama techniques are all-around awesome. Seriously. Practice at your desk, during meditation and throughout your asana practice. Once we learn to control our breathing with intention, we’re able to calm the central nervous system and are actually able to access higher realms of consciousness (gah!).
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
The practice of non-attachment to sensory distractions, pratyahara teaches us to stay present. In short, it’s the ability to concentrate without distraction. We’re on the path to self-realization here, people—the fifth limb is not messing around!
More than ever—thanks to technology, which is an entirely separate conversation—we’re open to receiving a stream of information at any given time, which distracts us from our inner peace. When we no longer seek external stimuli, we are practicing pratyahara. Referring back to my training books, “Pratyahara is a process of seeing, rather than looking for what we hope to see.”
- Dharana (intense focus)
The first thing that comes to mind (for me at least) is meditation. Although we’re not quite there yet (see dhyana), this is when it begins. This is when we learn to focus on one thing; a single image, a mantra, etc. When thoughts begin to suffocate your intended focus, now is when we learn to let them drift away and return to your initial visualization. The more one practices dharana, the stronger their ability will become to control the floodgates of the mind.
- Dhyana (meditation)
Now do you understand the aforementioned nesting doll reference? While dharana translates to concentration, or a single point of focus, dhyana is known as the state of meditation in which consciousness is unified. This. Is. Bliss. If you’ve experienced it, let me know, because I sure haven’t—sigh. This is when the mind is completely quiet producing few or zero thoughts whatsoever. It’s a work in progress for most of us.
- Samadhi (state of oneness)
I’m already getting tingly inside! It’s what I like to refer to as the “yoga finale.” The final limb defines the space beyond regular consciousness. It’s a state of ecstasy in which all notions of ego disappear and the mind reattaches to the unconscious energy of creation. Samadhi equals liberation and joy and is a comprehensive result of the seven limbs before it. Practice, practice, practice!