Introduction to the 8 Limbs of Yoga
If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you’ve likely heard reference to the 8 limbs of yoga. If you haven’t, you might be surprised to find that you have been practicing the yoga limbs without realizing it. The word asana is one of the eight limbs of yoga, which are the postures you take during your physical practice, and is one of the most known limbs of yoga.
The 8 limbs of yoga come from Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 verses offering guidance on how to live a non-violent life with as little suffering as possible, both on and off the mat. These ideas help a person embody “yoga” in body, mind, and spirit. You don’t have to be deeply spiritual to glean useful information from the “eight-fold path,” though.
Instead, you can take what works for you, build a practice around it, and ignore what doesn’t resonate. That’s the great part about yoga and life in general. You get to choose what serves your life best for your specific goals, personality, and beliefs.
You might notice some overlap in the 8 limbs of yoga and the eight-fold path, which has Hindu and Buddhist influences. Some of the core tenants of these philosophies revolve around leading a just and good life, doing no harm, and enlightenment.
In this article, you’ll gain an understanding of what are the 8 limbs of yoga, why they can be helpful for you, and how to incorporate them into your daily life.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
Below, we’ll touch on each of the 8 limbs of yoga, so you have a solid understanding of what they are, when to use them, how to use them, and why they’re important enough to land in the 8 branches of yoga.
1) Yama: Guidelines for living an ethical life
The Yamas are the first limb, and one you’ll often learn about first if you ever do yoga teacher training or deep dive into the study of yoga. You’ll often hear about The Yamas and Niyamas, which are how you look outward toward society vs. inward reflection toward improving the self.
As you learn about each of these, you might enjoy journaling on each concept to reflect on how you live your life currently and how you might enjoy adding these elements into how you move throughout the world.
The 5 Yamas include:
Ahimsa (Do no harm)
Ahimsa is a very straightforward concept of doing no harm. Do no harm to yourself and do no harm to others. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
To embody the idea of ahimsa, look at how you communicate, how you live your life, and areas that are strong and that could use a little work. In this idea of doing no harm, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries. There’s a huge difference between being harmful and being direct.
Truthfulness and honesty are a big part of living a non-harming life. We live in a world full of white lies and more significant falsehoods that impact everyone in some way.
To live a truthful life, you must stand strong in who you are. People often lie because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. So standing strong in who you are means practicing healthy communication strategies to be direct and honest with people without trying to carry their emotions for them (by lying to them to prevent them from experiencing “negative” emotions).
Non-stealing can be interpreted in many ways, as all of the 8 limbs of yoga can be. In Pantajali’s day, it might have literally meant not stealing property.
In today’s world, stealing can happen in the form of property theft and copying other peoples’ works. To practice non-stealing, absolutely get inspired by other people, and take the steps necessary to create a uniquely-yours world.
The translation for brahmacharya is something like “staying in conduct with yourself.” Others say it’s “right use of energy.” This Yama is sometimes interpreted as celibacy and other times as non-excess.
Feel free to take this idea of “non-excess” and “right use of energy” and channel it into how you want to live. Are the things you’re doing with your time, thoughts, words, and actions leading you toward the kind of person you want to be? What can you shift to feel like you’re living within your values if not?
Possessiveness could show up in the form of jealousy, envy, or greed. Aparigraha means not attaching to the possessions of others, or your own possessions, because a good and just life comes from living outside of material possessions, at least according to the 8 limbs of yoga.
If you struggle with jealousy or envy, look at how you live your life. Are you making choices to support your goals? Are you putting effort into who you want to be? Often, we are our own worst enemies. Flip jealousy on its head, and use it to drive you to achieve and focus on your own growth.
2) Niyama: Personal observance of your inner world
The Niyamas are a set of guidelines to focus on in your inner world, while the Yamas are more outward-focused. Remember, you don’t have to live by all of these principles. Pick and choose what feels right to you and filter out the rest.
The 5 Niyamas include:
Like all of the eight limbs of yoga, you can interpret these however you like. For many, purity means our “true selves” already exist within us beyond all the distractions and conditioning that paint our existence.
To achieve “purity,” you could be mindful of the foods you consume, the media you consume, and the energies you consume. A clear mind means letting go of negative thought patterns and being present as much as possible.
We live in a world that values achievement and growth, sometimes to a fault. Of course, those things are absolutely important to feel contentment, but so are gratitude and acceptance for who we are in this very moment.
To practice Santosha, you could journal (or even voice out loud) the things you’re grateful for in the external world and within yourself. What do you like about yourself? What makes you happy? Celebrate your wins every day versus focusing on what you haven’t achieved. You’ll feel better about it.
Tapas means heat or fire. It means lighting that fire inside you and committing to something that serves your goals and person. It means choosing to play the long game of a healthy lifestyle (which takes time) versus the short game of doing what feels good in the moment (but doesn’t feel better in the long run).
Practice tapas by making your best effort to choose things that serve you long-term, take you a step closer to achieving your goals, and make you feel genuinely good in the moment.
Self-study could mean many things to different people. The original texts might have meant a more religious way of memorizing mantras and texts. Today, it could mean introspection, meditation, and the studies that help you understand and improve yourself.
Self-study, like the rest of these concepts, is a life-long journey.
Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender/Devotion)
Because the 8 limbs of yoga are closely tied with religion, the original meaning of this Niyama involves surrendering to a god. There was often a student-guru relationship involved.
To practice surrender or devotion for non-religious folks, you could focus on the idea of surrendering to the present moment, to your present self, which also means acceptance. Can you accept who you are right now?
3) Asana: The physical postures
Asana is the most popular of the 8 limbs of yoga because it’s the physical. People value physical activity, appearance, and exercise, so they use an asana practice to achieve those values.
Some might be surprised to learn that “asana” once only meant “seat” or a seated posture to meditate. Yoga was meditation. It wasn’t the full-blown kick-your-booty hot yoga classes we take today.
But that’s ok. Language can and does evolve, just as ideas and beliefs do.
If you’re practicing the 8 limbs of yoga, asana, in its traditional form, means you can sit and find a calm, focused state because you aren’t dwelling on jealousy or causing people harm. You were just being. Existing.
Now, asana is a broader concept. In yoga classes, you might hear the word “asana” attached to different yoga postures, like tadasana (mountain pose), utkatasana (chair pose), or adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog).
If you only practice asana out of all of these limbs, you’ll still experience many of the benefits of the other 8 limbs of yoga because some of them are naturally incorporated into sequences.
Pranayama, our next limb, is about breath control, which you’ll do plenty of throughout a yoga class. You’ll also likely feel calmer and less stressed, leading to less attachment to the little things that bother you and more focus on a sense of contentment.
4) Pranayama: Breath control
In yoga, breath control is a huge part of asana and meditation. It’s a tool people can use to center themselves and find calmness in the body and mind. At first, pranayama can feel difficult for a couple of reasons.
- We tend to breathe shallowly throughout the day (unless we’re really paying attention), so learning to take big deep breaths into our belly can feel physically uncomfortable or even impossible at first.
- Many of us spend a lot of time hunched over computers or phones all day. This posture can become a more permanent fixture in how we stand or sit (and breathe), so we have to correct poor alignment to breathe easier.
Outside of yoga, breathwork is a powerful tool to manage our mental health. It’s a scientifically studied tool used in therapy, in the workplace, and at home with kids.
Right now, sit up tall so your spine feels long and your head reaches the sky. Take a big breath in through your nose, and then release a long, slow exhale out of your mouth. You can even sigh if that feels good (and it usually does). Do this a few times.
Do you feel calmer? That’s the power of breath. If you can, take time once every hour just to take some regulating, slow breaths and watch how it calms your nervous system. If you struggle with anxiety or have an over or underactive nervous system, breathwork would be a great opportunity to dive into.
5) Pratyahara: Withdrawal of your senses
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of senses or sensory withdrawal. No, it doesn’t mean you need to plug your nose so you don’t smell anything or cover your ears so you can’t hear. At its core, it means mindfulness. As one of the more confusing of the 8 limbs of yoga, it’s also a powerful tool for focusing the mind and practicing nonattachment or non reactiveness.
This means you will likely have a zillion thoughts floating through your brain on any given day. You may come into conflict with people. You may have judgemental thoughts toward yourself about the foods you eat or whether you should stay in this yoga pose or come out of it.
With pratyahara, the goal is to release your reactiveness or attachment to outcomes. It means you have a tough thought come into your head, but you don’t attach to it, letting it float away. It means you might feel calmer when faced with conflict because you’re fully present and not assigning value to yourself when a bumpy situation occurs.
For example, you’re in a yoga class and struggling to relax in savasana. You might have negative thoughts that you hate savasana because you don’t like to sit still. You’re judging yourself and your posture because it’s difficult. Instead, you could notice that you’re struggling to relax into savasana. And that’s it. You acknowledge the thought and then stop thinking about it. Just being there until the next thought comes. Then acknowledge it, and let it go.
6) Dharana: Concentration
All of the yoga limbs up to this point have more of an external focus. Pratyahara starts to create that bridge between how our outer world impacts our internal world and visa versa. Now it’s time to really go within on the journey toward less suffering.
Dharana means concentration of the mind, typically on a single point. In a yoga class, you may be guided to focus on a specific body part, a spot on the wall, or an energetic part of your body.
The goal is to quiet all thoughts outside of that point of content to strengthen the mind against negative thought patterns.
For all of you multi-taskers out there, Dharana encourages you to stop. Multi-tasking isn’t more efficient, so Dharana is a good practice for those struggling to concentrate.
In your daily life, a great way to start this practice is by being fully present with whatever you’re doing. It won’t always be easy, of course, just like meditation isn’t easy, and quieting negative thoughts isn’t always easy.
If you’re washing the dishes, notice the feeling of the water running over your hands, the sounds of putting plates in a dishwasher, and the look of a clean countertop.
If you’re going for a walk, look around you and notice the sounds, smells, and visuals. Dharana is all about concentration. So concentrate on noticing whatever it is you’re doing. Stay present with it and return to it when your mind wanders.
7) Dhyana: Meditation
The last limb talked about a type of moving meditation, which is really just mindfulness. Dhyana is meditation, but rather than seeing it as the practice of meditation, it is more of a state of being.
The reason it’s different from meditation is because meditation is focused on a specific thing. You might be focused on your breath. You might focus on not attaching to thoughts poking at you. All these have benefits because you’re calming your nervous system, but focusing so intently on something still requires thought.
Dhyana is the state you reach during meditation between thoughts. It’s the “gap” in between thoughts where time seems to disappear completely. You’re just there. Some call this glimpsing the soul.
Imagine you’re at a restaurant biting into the tastiest food you’ve ever tasted. You close your eyes and savor the flavors in your mouth. Nothing else matters. That is Dhyana.
Or say you’re catching up with a friend, and before you know it, half the day has gone by, and it only felt like you just got there. Time disappeared, and you were in a pure state of being that required no effort. That is Dhyana.
8) Samadhi: Enlightenment
Some might use words like bliss, enlightenment, liberation, or connected to the universe when describing samadhi. You can use whatever term you like.
When you find dhyana, that space between the gap, you’re achieving samadhi because dhyana leads to samadhi. There are varying levels of samadhi, with some describing the in-between space where time disappears up to where only the ego exists, the I am of the self, and nothing else.
It goes even further with some saying they’ve achieved a level of consciousness where the I disappears, and the person becomes pure consciousness of the universe. It’s likely impossible to actually teach someone how to achieve a state of nonexistence, as it’s a very personal journey (and a difficult one).
At its core, you can find value in achieving “enlightenment” by focusing on quieting the mind and enjoying those activities that you know make time disappear because you’re experiencing so much pleasure or joy.
Everyone’s journey is different. As you work toward these different states of being, continue to check in with yourself to make sure you’re staying connected and grounded in your physical self, as it’s easy to fall too far into the “no thought” space where a person becomes apathetic to the world around them.
Importance of Knowing the 8 Limbs of Yoga
Is it essential to know the 8 limbs of yoga to live a wonderful life? No, it’s not. There are so many ways to achieve bliss, presence, and happiness without understanding these concepts in this particular order.
Can the eight limbs of yoga lead to a happier life? Of course. The concepts here can be interpreted to support a peaceful life focused on healing our internal wounds and attempting to walk through life doing as little harm as possible.
From the eyes of a yogi, you can enjoy a yoga practice without knowing these principles. And you can take your yoga practice to a deeper level by diving into concepts like these.
If you aren’t into these spiritual practices yet love taking yoga classes here and there, you could enjoy learning about specific concepts that stand out to you, even if it’s just learning more about breathwork and how it can support you in your daily life.
The 8 branches of yoga were written a long time ago, yet many of the concepts are universal ideals for a lot of people. The best part is that science backs many of these concepts as ways to live a happier, healthier life.
How to Incorporate the 8 Limbs into Your Yoga Practice (Daily Life)
After reading through the 8 limbs of yoga, you may be curious how to incorporate each limb into your daily routine. It’s pretty simple to incorporate these practices into your life with a few simple ideas. Here’s how.
Assess your current routines and mindset.
How do you spend your time each day? How do you want to spend your time each day? How do you speak to yourself throughout the day? How do you want to speak to yourself? By assessing what is your current reality, you can find opportunity to shift habits and thoughts.
Make small, incremental changes first.
You may want to flip your life on its head and implement a zillion different practices all at the same time, but that’s often a recipe for disaster. Before you can adjust a habit, you have to build it as a habit first. If you want to meditate for 20 minutes a day, start by setting an alarm to just sit for 1 minute each day until that feels easy. Then add on to it.
Be kind to yourself.
We’re all human. You may adopt a practice of non-violence toward yourself or others, and as soon as you lose your temper, it might feel like you’re failing or not growing. That’s not true. Our patterns, triggers, and history don’t magically disappear, which is why implementing the 8 limbs of yoga is a lifelong process.
If you’re new to these concepts, and even if you aren’t, pick one that resonates the most. Start with that one practice and find ways you can incorporate it into your daily routine first. Little by little, you can begin to add more of the limbs and even expand on the ones you’re currently practicing.