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Eight Limbs of Yoga Explained

August 15, 2022 4 min read

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path of yoga is called ashtanga, which translates to “eight limbs.” Within this structure, guidelines are offered which include, and extend beyond the physical practice. The first four limbs of the eightfold path focus on fine tuning our personalities, actions and physical bodies to develop energetic awareness. The final four limbs focus on the senses and achieving deep meditative and fulfilled states of being.

What are the eight limbs of yoga?

1) Yama (moral conduct)

The first limb of yoga is yama. There are five yamas, which focus on the internal landscape of the yogi. They are essentially rules that outline behaviors that one should partake or abstain from.

  • Asteya (integrity or non-stealing)

Read more about the 5 Yamas.

Eight Limbs of Yoga | Mukha Yoga

2) Niyama (spiritual observances)  

The second limb niyama is a set of spiritual qualities and conducts to be practiced and developed in order to align with our highest version of self. To live in a way that respects these moral guidelines, we can transform our internal world into a more peaceful place, with a greater capacity to give and receive love for ourselves and those around us.

Read more about the niyamas.

3) Asana (physical postures)  

The third limb of yoga, asana, is what comes to mind first and for most. Asanas are the physical postures that are practiced. It’s in the practice of these yoga poses, that the practitioner gains a palpable awareness of energetic locks and can target areas of stored physical and emotional tension. Through the practice of asana, one can develop discipline and a sense of presence in their body which prepares for deeper layers of meditation and spiritual discovery.

4) Pranayama (breath control)

The fourth limb revolves around techniques used to enhance and improve something that many consider automatic; the breath. There is a deep connection between the breath, the emotions and the nervous system. Gaining awareness and developing mastery over the breath can lead to radical shifts in energy and help establish concentration, calmness, security, presence and ease.

Breathwork or pranayama can be practiced on its own or in combination with asana and / or meditation practices.

5) Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)  

Constructed from two root words, Pratya (to withdraw) and Ahara (to take in), pratyahara is the transcendence of the senses. While it may read as though we temporarily lose the ability to use one of the five senses, pratyahara is actually an intentional choice to draw inwards so that the distraction of the senses no longer takes precedence. It creates the opportunity to detach from outside stimulation and look within.

Over time, the benefits of pratyahara can be taken beyond meditation and asana practice, and translated into everyday life. The experience of regularly narrowing the senses can be applied to daily tasks and lead to greater concentration as the mind becomes used to selecting one point of focus.

Read on Practicing Pratyahara for Sensory Overload.

6) Dharana (focused concentration or meditation)  

The preparation of pratyahara leads us into the next limb, Dharana. This is also a compound Sanskrit word, derived from Dha (holding or maintaining) and Ana (other or something else). Having dropped the attachment to our senses, we now move inwards to the workings of the mind itself. This practice of concentration involves offering the mind a single point of focus. There are multiple ways to practice dharana including pranayama (using the breath as a focal point) and visualization (selecting a single point of gaze like a candle or a stationary object). As one practices dharana for extended periods of time, they may naturally find themselves shifting into the next limb, dhyana.

7) Dhyana (state of being in focused meditation)  

The seventh limb, dhyana, is the quality of being in an uninterrupted meditative state. It differs from dharana, in that the single point of focus has now dissipated and instead a more complete state of broad awareness has been reached. Dhyana may be experienced for fleeting moments, during or after practicing asana, pranayama or meditation. As a practitioner develops their practice they may experience extended periods of time being in a state of dhyana. One should remember the word “practice” while moving through this limb. Finding and existing in this state of consciousness is a process. To view our progress with compassion is essential.

Read more on Understanding Dhyana, the 7th Limb of Yoga.

Path to Enlightenment | Mukha Yoga

8) Samadhi (bliss or enlightenment)  

The last step in the eightfold path of yoga is Samadhi, or ultimate bliss and immersion in a state of oneness. Patanjali describes this as the completion of the yogic path; finding peace, the greatest achievement humans can obtain. It’s at this stage that one has formed a deep and meaningful connection with the divine and a sense of being one with the universe and all that exists within it. While this may seem like an unattainable goal, it is one worth striving for, as it can not be bought or forced, simply experienced through continuous growth and openness.

What is the purpose of practicing the eightfold path of yoga?

Practicing the eightfold path of yoga is important as it honors the authentic roots of yoga. While it is a wonderful form of physical exercise, the practice of yoga is a vessel for spiritual growth. The eight limbs of yoga provide a context and a framework to explore a deeper sense of knowing oneself and embracing a deep connection with the collective consciousness of the universe and all beings within it.

Victoria Maybee l Mukha Yoga
By Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2022

Victoria Maybee l Mukha YogaBy Victoria Maybee; All Rights Reserved @2022