The 8 Limbs of Yoga were written down by Patanjali over 2000 years ago in the Yoga Sutras. Previously, the yoga techniques were passed down orally from yoga guru to disciple. The Sutras (meaning ‘thread’ in sanskrit) are a collection of 196 short statements on the theory and practice of yoga. In essence, the sutras are an outline of the teachings of yoga. Each sutra requires contemplation to unpack the depth of its meaning from its simplicity. Many commentaries have been written which attempt to illuminate the sutras and if you are interested I suggest looking to one of these commentaries for more exploration. The following is a incomplete and simplified version of the The 8 Limbs of Yoga from my humble, pragmatic perspective.
1st Limb: Yamas (Restraints)
2nd Limb: Niyamas (Observances)
The Yamas and Niyamas, the ethical precepts for Yoga, are the foundation for all of the other yogic practices. Rather than view them as a way to judge right from wrong, they can be used for guidance on how to live a yogic life, where we consider which actions will support love and connection.
3rd Limb: Asana (Postures)
The 3rd Limb is the what most people identify with yoga, the physical postures. The postures help ground us into the experiences of our body, anchor us to the present moment and revitalize the flow of energy, relieving stagnate or constricted energy in the body.
4th Limb: Pranayama (Breath Control)
The 4th limb, Pranayama, is the control of Prana. Most often associated with the breath, Prana also refers to the life-force. There are many different Pranayama practices, each with its own specific aim. All work to bring mastery over our direction of our energy.
5th Limb: Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
Pratyahara is not a cessation of perceiving through your senses, but rather not being distracted by creating a story about what your senses perceive. For example, if you hear a siren, you stay with hearing the vibrations of that sound and do not get drawn off into an flurry of thought about what possible disaster is happening.
6th Limb: Dharana (Concentration)
Dharana is the practice of anchoring the attention on something such as the breath, a candle, or a mantra. When we become distracted by thoughts or stimuli, we respond by refocusing our attention as we work to develop the ability to hold our concentration for longer. This is what we often refer to as meditation.
The first 6 Limbs are practices we can perform. The next two limbs naturally arise from diligently practicing the first 6 Limbs.
7th Limb: Dhyana (Meditation)
Dhyana is the successful, sustained focus of our attention, where our consciousness is absorbed in a oneness of thought, whether that be perceiving of an object, a thought or an idea. My teacher, Dharma Mittra, says that when you can hold your concentration for 10 minutes without distraction you are meditating.
8th Limb: Samadhi (Oneness)
Samadhi arises from sustained Dhyana, when your absorption proceeds to the point where your perception of being separate from the item of your focus dissipates. What remains is a sensing of oneness, wholeness and connection of all things.
If you are interested in further study, join me for a 6 week Bookstudy exploring Deborah Adele’s book, The Yamas and Niyamas starting on Friday, January 18th 12:00p – 1:00p.
My interpretation of the 8 Limbs of Yoga has been formed by exposure to so many different books, lectures, podcasts and people that I am unable to properly attribute all of their contributions to my understanding. The most predominate influences are from my teacher Dharma Mittra, Alistair Shearer’s translation and commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and Deborah Adele’s book mentioned above.