The world of yoga philosophy can be daunting. I love me a yoga book and yoga movie as a way to learn more about this glorious practice and tradition. But I will say that when it comes to yoga philosophy, it’s full of thousands of years worth of different schools and lineages, matter bending metaphysics, and some pretty far out (not entirely helpful for 21st-century living) ideas.
But if there was one place I would recommend starting, it would be the 8 limbs of yoga. Not only are the eight limbs of yoga the most influential philosophical system on contemporary yoga, but they are pretty easy to get your head around. Besides, you probably already practice one, if not two or three of yoga’s 8 limbs already!
If you want to know more about different schools of yoga philosophy, then find out more about Tantra and Kundalini here and Chakras here. If you are interested in integrating yoga with its sister science Ayurveda, check out my Ayurveda 101 and top retreat recommendations.
Eight Limbs of Yoga Background
The eight limbs of yoga come from Patanjali’s yoga sutras and are basically an eight-stage system for practicing yoga and, as was Patanjali’s followers’ intention, achieving the ultimate spiritual state of enlightenment and lead a purposeful life. This eight-stage system of yoga – the 8 limbs – is called Ashtanga in Sanskrit (ashta = eight and anga = limb). This is different from the ashtanga yoga practice, although confusingly they share a name!
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What Are The Yoga Sutras?
The Yoga Sutras are a manuscript on how to practice yoga, written around the first century CE (although this is up for debate). They are credited to the sage Patanjali, although no one really knows who Patanjali was — he (or she!) may have been many people, or it could have been someone’s pen name.
What makes the Yoga Sutras significant is that, unlike the surviving earlier ancient text on yoga, Patanjali lays out practical, (relatively) easy to follow, advice on how to practice yoga. He also covers its aims, which are underpinned by some important theory on why you should follow this eight-step process.
The Yoga Sutras are divided into four parts and consist of 196 bitesize instructions — the sutras. Sutras were part of the Ancient Indian literary tradition and are essentially short aphorisms that can be memorized or chanted and distill key concepts of theory into a few words. For this reason, the Yoga Sutras are meant to be taught by a teacher — as without explanation and detail, they don’t make a whole load of sense. This is why when you buy a copy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras you not only have the literal translation, but an explanation of the meaning of each sutra.
The eight limbs of yoga are just one element of the Yoga Sutras, first listed in part 2, sutra 29, but are undoubtedly the most famous, practical, and, dare I say, useful components of the text. As we dive into what these eight steps actually are, notice how it starts with our engagement in the outside world, and each step gets progressively more inwards as the yoga journey deepens.
Some of my favorite Yoga Sutra translations and interpretations are:
– Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S Iyengar, which is loved for its clarity and Iyengar’s characteristically poetic style
– The Heart of Yoga by T. K. V. Desikachar contains an accessible and generous translation and interpretation of the Yoga Sutras
– The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated and edited by Edwin Bryant. If you are looking for a scholarly deep dive, this is undoubtedly the version for you. Included in the detailed translations are interpretations by some of the most important traditional commentators. A tad dry, but you can’t fault it for its rigor and detail.
What are The 8 Limbs of Yoga?
The first limb. The yamas are attitudes and observances towards our environment. There are five of them in total:
Ahimsa — Non-violence
This one is my favorite. This means not causing harm towards other living things through words, actions, or thoughts but also to ourselves. Being vegan and shopping from ethical companies where possible are important elements of ahimsa for me — as is self-forgiveness when I fuck up!
Satya — Truthfulness
This means being authentic and truthful, seeing things as they are. It also means communicating and acting in a way that aligns with this authentic way of being.
Asteya — Non-stealing
The third limb can sound a bit odd and simple on the surface, literally don’t steal! But it means noticing and resisting the desire to have what others have. This can be someone else’s clothes, life, or yoga practice, and Asteya essentially encourages us to examine our toxic desires and where they stem from so we can be more content with what we do have.
Brahmacharya — Moderation
Okay, fine, the literal translation is abstinence. But that’s outdated, ineffective, and unrealistic. What this Yama is asking is that we don’t go to excess, especially sensual excess. I see it not as ‘don’t have sex, party, take drugs, or drink’ but don’t go too wild on the hedonism.
Aparigraha — Non-greediness
This literally translates as non-grasping, as in not grasping for excessive material possessions, wealth, or fame. Not only is it encouraging us to live moderately, but also to recognize the worth of what we do have, whilst also not being excessively attached to our material things.
(For more on the yamas see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: II. 30, 31, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39)
The second limb is niyamas, or attitudes and observances towards ourselves. There are also five of them:
1.Saucha — Cleanliness
Pretty self-explanatory; try and keep your body, your home, your work desk, and your desktop neat and clean — it will make you feel better and keep your housemates happy. (but also, don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t keep on top of this from time to time, adulting is hard).
2. Santosha — Contentment
This is our ability to be happy with what we have and don’t have, but I also like to think of it as that little well of inner peace and warmth even in the face of difficulties. We don’t have to be content with the status quo, but having an inner space of okayness is important for keeping us well and happy.
3. Tapas — Discipline
This basically means committing to our positive routines and self-care practices. It means showing up on your yoga mat, even when you don’t want to, making sure you drink enough water, eat enough vegetables, and making time for work, rest, and play.
4. Svadhyaya — Self-Study
Traditionally, svadhyaya was the study of sacred texts, but it also means putting in the time, conscious effort, and commitment to truly knowing yourself. I like to combine these sentiments and think about how resources — books, teachers, good conversation, therapy — can take us on a journey of personal insight.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana — Surrender to the Divine
This means surrendering to God, the universe, a higher power, or whatever makes sense to you! This niyama can cause a stumbling block for some people due to its overtly spiritual/religious nature (interestingly, The Yoga Sutras are completely atheistic except for this one niyama). Another way of framing it is by honoring yourself and your journey, and trusting in the process. A nice way to tap into the sentiment of ishvara Pranidhana in yoga is through intention setting.
(For more on the niyamas see Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: II. 32, 33, 34, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45)
I told you you would be familiar with at least one of the limbs! Asana represents the physical postures, and probably what most of us think of as yoga today.
Interestingly, although asana is an entire limb, Patanjali only dedicates two sutras to it (II.46, 47) because asana meant something a little different than the physical practice of yoga back then. Asana, in Patanjali’s sense, means an appropriate seat or posture for meditation. According to Patanjali this is:
‘Stirha sukham asanam’ (II. 46)
This translates as a stable/strong/alert/steady (‘stirha’) relaxed/easeful/sweet/comfortable (‘sukha’) asana/posture/seat (asana). Although our practice of asana today consists of more than just meditation postures, this is still excellent advice. Our asanas are ideally a combination of strength and ease where we combine alert physical stability with the necessary softness for freedom of movement. We can also think about how our asanas require a focused but open mindset, so we don’t become too serious or rigid about them.
In sutra II.48 Patanjali goes on to say that by becoming competent in asana, physical extremes or discomforts (hot, cold, injury, illness, ageing, change in environments) no longer impact us. Again, this is a pretty tall order, but I take it to mean that through mindful asana practice we become better capable of enduring physical and environmental changes and challenges.
You may also be familiar with this stage. Pranayama are our breath control exercises. Once we have prepared the body through asana we can then start to work with the breath.
At the time Patanjali was alive, pranayama practices were far more developed than asana, with mentions in various Upanishads (circa, 7th and 4th centuries BCE) and the Bhagavad Gita (5th to 2nd century BCE). Pranayama are considered to be some of the earliest documented yoga practices. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Patanjali goes into more detail about pranayama in sutras II.49-52, discussing various forms of regulating the inhale, exhale, and breath retentions. That being said, pranayama practices have developed a long way since the fairly extreme criteria of Patanjali.
What is interesting is what Patanjali states the purpose of pranayama to be; a tool to help shift our consciousness and settle the mind so we can now better focus for meditation.
Pratyahara is translated as sense withdrawal of the senses. It is the first stage of meditation; Patanjali goes on to unpack the deepening stages of meditation in the next two limbs.
This stage of meditation is about acknowledging our sensory experience (smells, taste, sound, sight, and touch) but not letting ourselves get distracted by them. For example, if we are meditating on the breath, our intention is to keep our awareness focused on the breath and not get distracted by the sensory going ons of our surroundings and bodies. We cannot turn our senses off, but we can relegate them to a backseat as we learn to…
(for more on the practice of pratyahara see sutras, II. 54-55)
… find focused concentration in our meditation practice. Dharana (discussed in sutra III. 1), our focused concentration, is the next stage of meditation according to Patanjali. For this element, we have the focus of our meditation that we are training our attention on, such as the breath, a mandala, a candle flame, or even a specific sensory experience such as sound (when it comes to meditating on the senses, the challenge is not to get caught up in the stories about them and reactions or memories they trigger) and stay in the present moment.
Once our meditation skills have improved and we can keep our awareness focused on a singular object we shift into a state of…
… meditative absorption, aka dhyana (discussed in sutra III.2), the seventh limb. This is the state of meditation where we are completely present and absorbed in the practice. It’s not the easiest thing to describe, but it is the meditative stage where you can sustain an easeful interrupted focus on your object of meditation. Unlike the perseverance required for dharana, where the mind wanders and we must actively guide it back to our object of meditation, when we attain dhyana we can stay present in our meditation for sustained periods of time with minimal effort.
If you want to hone your meditation abilities to experience dhyana (or something close!) check out my silent retreat recommendations. I know my own silent Vipassana retreat was life-changing for developing my meditation skills.
This, for Patanjali, is the final stage of yoga (or arguably, the first stage of actual true yoga). Samadhi (discussed in sutra III.3) is a state of complete meditative absorption — so complete that the practitioner isn’t even aware they are meditating, where the boundaries of the self versus the external world have dissolved completely. There is a complete, blissful merging with the object of meditation, or, perhaps even the universe.
Some people consider samadhi to be enlightenment. Many people frame it in relation to yoga as union, or oneness, due to the merging of the mind with the object of meditation. Throughout the rest of part three of the Sutras, Patanjali continues to take a deep dive into this refined state of being, and ultimately a state of samadhi can be reached where you no longer need meditation to access it and you gain insight into true pure consciousness.
I won’t lie, by the time we get to samadhi in the Yoga Sutras we are getting into some pretty esoteric territory. It only continues to get more and more out there where Patanjali starts discussing magic powers (siddhis) that come from achieving deep states of meditation — although he ultimately deems these as a distraction from the actual path of yoga, which is liberation… yeah, as I said, preeeeeeetty out there.
How Do I Practice The 8 Limbs of Yoga?
There are so many different ways you can explore the eight limbs of yoga, which elevates your yoga practice from just something physical to something that aligns more with what yoga is really all about: a journey of self-discovery, greater joy, living a more meaningful life, more inner peace, and — if you really want to go all out — complete spiritual liberation (superpowers optional).
Although how eight limb yoga is set out can make it seem sequential, with different goals at each stage, for me personally (and everyone else I know who practices yoga) this doesn’t work for them. Some traditional commentators say that you practice the limbs by mastering each limb before moving on to the next — but in reality, I find an integrated way of practicing both more manageable and more effective. After all, most of us came to yoga not through the yamas, but through asana.
It’s worth placing the Yoga Sutras in its historical context, where yogis were hermits and ascetics that renounced all material goods and society and went off to caves and forests to spend their days meditating in an effort to achieve the most realized, highest spiritual state possible. So, unless you want to renounce everything and find a cave to spend your days meditating in, try reimagining the yoga sutras and the eight limbs to suit a more contemporary lifestyle.
It’s important to understand the traditional context and interpretation as a way of honoring yoga’s roots. However, if you are interested in practicing the 8 limbs without giving up all your possessions, sex, and physical asana (you will only be sitting from now on!) to become an ascetic, they do need some recontextualizing. The best way to go forth is to figure out why yoga is important to you, what keeps you practicing, and to work with the eight limbs in line with this.
Ideas for Practicing the Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Learn more about the yamas and niyamas by reading a few different commentaries and interpretations, and then see what resonates most for you. Michael Stone’s books and podcasts offer really great contemporary interpretations of the different yamas and niyamas. From here, create your own idea of what these different qualities and practices mean in your life, noticing where there is room for growth.
- The yamas and niyamas also make great journaling prompts. Pick one that resonates most or is most interesting to you and reflect on its role in your life (this is itself an act of svadhyaya).
- If you don’t already, start meditating. The eight limbs show us that the intention of our other yoga practices is to support a meditation practice.
- Introduce an intention practice into your asana practice. At the start of your class or practice, think of a quality (it doesn’t need to be profound) you would like to cultivate in your practice. Or, you can even dedicate your practice to a person or cause that you care about or could do with some good energy. This is a way to make our asana more than just movement but connect it with other elements of yoga.
- Develop a home practice where you start with asana, then do some pranayama, before finishing with meditation. Think about how your asana prepares you for breathing exercises and how breathing exercises and physical movement influence the quality of your meditation.
- Take your yoga practice off the mat. This could be by learning more about yoga through books, films, and podcasts, or attending online and studio workshops, retreats, or trainings that emphasize more than just asana.