The Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga Explained
By: Steph Ball-Mitchell, E-RYT-500, RPYT, RCYT, YACEP
Modern yoga classes often only focus on the physical postures or breathing practices in yoga, but yoga actually has many other parts that are profound when explored to their depth. The eight-limbed path of yoga forms the foundation of traditional yoga practice. Each limb of yoga builds upon the next, all bringing you toward the ultimate goal of awakening or enlightenment.
In this article, we will explore what is the eight-limb path of yoga and explain how you can practice each of the eight limbs of yoga on your own. Yoga is a practice, so it is essential to take this transformative philosophy into your daily life to experience the benefits it has to offer. Now, let’s dive into the eight limbs of yoga!
The eight-limb path of yoga is the foundational overview of the primary components of traditional yoga practice. Each of the eight limbs plays a vital part in supporting a serious yoga practitioner towards the ultimate goal of yoga: samadhi or enlightenment.
The concept of the eight limbs of yoga was first introduced by Sage Patanjali in the text of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, written around 200 BCE to 200 CE. The phrase of the eight-limb path of yoga comes from the Sanskrit word ashtanga yoga. Ashta means eight, and anga means limb, forming the basis of traditional ashtanga yoga, not to be mistaken with Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga created by Pattabhi Jois.
The eight-limb path of yoga is made up of the following eight components, and the first two components also have five sub-components, explained briefly below:
o Ahimsa – non-violence
o Satya – truthfulness
o Asteya – non-stealing
o Bhramacharya – celibacy or energy conservation
o Aparigraha – non-hoarding
o Saucha – purity
o Santosha – contentment
o Tapas – austerity
o Svadhyaya – self-study
o Ishvara-pranidhana – devotion or surrender to a higher power
· Asana – physical poses
· Pranayama – breathing practices
· Pratyahara – withdrawing the senses inwards
· Dharana – focusing the mind
· Dhyana – meditative absorption
· Samadhi – enlightenment
Each limb is considered an essential part of the path. Although these limbs go in a particular order and do ultimately lead to the final destination of samadhi, these limbs are also deeply intertwined with each other and typically practiced simultaneously rather than as individual discrete practices.
For example, in a traditional yoga practice, you may bring in the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which is one of the yamas, into your yoga asana practice while also focusing on building tapas or austerity, which is one of the niyamas, during your pranayama practice. Then, weaving all of these elements together in your asana and pranayama practice, you might also explore cultivating a focused state of mind by withdrawing your senses inwards through pratyahara that brings you deeper into the meditative elements of dharana and dhyana, and perhaps one day towards samadhi.
The yamas, or the ethical restraints, are the first step of the eight-limbed path of yoga, making them a foundational step for all serious yoga practitioners. This limb has five components: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy or energy conservation, and non-hoarding. These are essentially guidelines on how to live a more ethical and harmonious life.
The yamas are something that we take beyond the yoga mat and engage with in our daily interactions. For example, the principle of non-violence reminds us of the importance of engaging with compassion with ourselves and others in our lives. While the principles of non-stealing and non-hoarding remind us to observe our relationship with objects, time, and people and to engage with things in a reciprocal, harmonious, and balanced manner.
The niyamas are the next step of living an ethical and harmonious life. These principles are again often taken beyond the yoga mat and practiced in daily living. But in contrast to the yamas, the niyamas are not often as visible in our daily interactions and are typically an internal practice you engage in. The five components of niyama are purity or cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study, and surrender to a higher power.
The first two niyamas are a continuance of principles for how we treat ourselves and our environment, reminding us to keep our body and space clean and to be content with what we have. The last three principles are actually a combination of principles known as kriya yoga. Kriya yoga is a practice from the Patanjali Yoga Sutras that emphasize a systematic way of moving toward awakening through engaging in consistent practice or tapas, studying ourselves and sacred texts, and creating a connection with a higher power.
Asana, or physical postures, is perhaps the most widely known component of the eight limbs of yoga. Nearly every yoga class incorporates asana in some way. But in the traditional understanding of the eight limbs of yoga, the meaning of asana was simply a stable and comfortable seated position to practice meditation and breathing exercises.
Traditional asana practice was not nearly complex in the past as it is today, and it was also typically a slow and meditative practice in contrast to the fast-paced vinyasa yoga classes we see today. That being said, asana practice in all forms is part of the eight limbs of yoga because any posture can be a fertile ground to connect deeper with the inner self and explore the principles of yoga on the mat.
Pranayama is the practice of specific breathing techniques that are aimed at controlling or influencing the flow of prana or the vital life force energy. Prana is the main underlying energy that flows through the nadis or energetic channels throughout the body, mind, and consciousness. Through specific breathing techniques, we can gradually influence the flow of this energy, clear out blockages, and facilitate the raising of our consciousness.
The typical foundational practice to begin exploring pranayama is through diaphragmatic breathing or the 3-part breath. Initially, yoga students are encouraged to work on slowing down and extending their breath while also beginning to incorporate pauses or breath retentions after the inhalation and exhalation. Over time, you can begin to explore other breathing practices, such as alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) or the humming bee breath (bhramari).
Pratyahara is the first step toward gradually moving deeper inwards and connecting with the consciousness within. Pratyahara can be roughly translated to mean withdrawal of the senses. This component of yoga emphasizes the philosophical concept that our senses are constantly being bombarded and distracted by the outside world, and through yoga practice, we begin to methodically move our awareness inwards.
There are many ways to practice pratyahara while engaging in yoga asana or pranayama practice by simply closing your eyes and focusing inwards. You can also practice pratyahara on one sense at a time by consciously withdrawing your awareness from one of your five senses or using a tool to remove that sense awareness by using a blindfold or earplugs.
Dharana is the first step to beginning to deepen into meditation. Before you can explore more complex meditative practices, it is essential to first establish the ability to focus the mind on a single point. To begin practicing single-pointed awareness, you must first choose a point to anchor your mind. Some common points of awareness for dharana may be on the breath, body sensations, a mantra, a mandala, or a candle flame.
Many people struggle to focus their attention on a single point for very long. The nature of the mind is to get distracted and pulled into thoughts or fantasies, but with regular practice, you can begin to focus your mind on a single point and move deeper into meditation.
Dhyana is the deeper practice of meditation. Once you have reached the level of being able to focus on a single point for an extended period of time, you can begin to explore deeper meditation practices or dhyana. In this level of meditation, the boundary layer between self and other begins to dissolve as you become absorbed in your point of focus.
There is no longer a limit between yourself and your point of focus as you slowly merge into the experience of absolute oneness – the ultimate state of meditative awareness.
Samadhi is not a practice but a goal or an experience that one hopes to achieve. For many people, samadhi is just something theoretical that we often struggle to fully comprehend as it goes beyond our everyday understanding. But essentially, samadhi is the experience of complete enlightenment or awakening. This state is also known by other terms, such as moksha or nirvana. Engaging with samadhi in your everyday life is out of the capacity for most people, but we can use this understanding of awakening as a way to keep us motivated on the path of yoga and moving toward the goal of reaching higher states of consciousness.
The eight-limb path of yoga is a transformative journey that ultimately brings you deeper within yourself and into a connection with the higher power of the universe. While yoga poses or asana are certainly an important part of the eight limbs of yoga, it is important to also explore the other limbs of yoga to experience the full depth and breadth that yoga practice has to offer.
In our online yoga teacher training courses, we explore all the eight limbs of yoga to provide you with a strong foundation of yoga practice. Through our online 200-hour yoga teacher training course, you will be prepared to teach the eight limbs of yoga to your students, providing the full spectrum of yoga in your classes. Reach out to us for more information on how you can join our online yoga teacher training courses today!