What Are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?
Learn all about the fundamental branches of yoga & how to integrate them into your practice to deepen your spirituality & sense of purpose
If you’ve ever studied yoga, you probably learned that it has 8 branches or limbs.
These foundational elements act as a guide for your yogic journey, showing you the path to spiritual freedom. Or, as it’s commonly referred to, enlightenment.
Now, if that sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry.
That word may come with a lot of pressure, but these principles are meant to light our way toward the things we’re all looking for in life: peace of mind, fulfillment, purpose, and joy.
If you think of following the 8 limbs of yoga as a lifelong practice rather than an achievement to complete, you’ll find that you can embrace each moment with presence and clarity.
Today, we’re going to break down each one of the 8 limbs so you know what they mean, their purpose, and how to incorporate them not just into your yoga practice, but your daily life as well.
Let’s start from the top!
The first limb of yoga, yama, has to do with our attitude toward the world around us.
It encompasses the integrity, ethics, and moral code we use to interact with our external environment.
So, basically, how do you show up in the world?
Are you honest? Are you peaceful toward others? Do you take more than you need? Do you use your energy wisely?
These aren’t aspects to judge yourself on. They’re a compass to guide you toward the life you want.
In Sanskrit, yama translates to “restraint.” In the yogic philosophy, it refers to the five moral disciplines or “yamas” that serve as the foundation for true transformation:
- Ahimsa: Nonviolence, respect for all living things
- Satya: Honesty, restraint from the distortion of reality
- Asteya: Non-stealing — from yourself or anyone else
- Brahmacharya: Control of the mind and body, the right use of energy
- Aparigraha: Non-greed, non-possessiveness, non-attachment
Notice anything familiar?
That’s right, the second limb of yoga contains the first one within it! That’s because they’re two sides of the same coin.
While yama concerns how we interact with the outside world, Niyama is all about the moral disciplines we use to conduct ourselves internally.
Hence the Sanskrit prefix “ni,” which means “within” or “inward.”
And just like there are five yamas, there are five niyamas, which include:
- Saucha: Purity, cleanliness of the body, mind, and our surroundings (eating a healthy diet, keeping our space neat and tidy, etc.)
- Samtosa: Contentment, complete acceptance of the self (much easier said than done!)
- Tapas: Self-discipline, the cleansing or burning of impurities (eliminating actions that don’t serve you)
- Svadhyaya: Self-study, self-reflection
- Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to something bigger than yourself, think and act as if we are all one consciousness.
These character-building practices will not only help you build a stronger connection with yourself, but also everyone and everything around you.
This limb is one you’re probably already familiar with, but it might not mean what you think it means.
Usually, when people hear the word asana, they picture headstands or the classic downward dog pose.
But in reality, the third stage of the yogic path originally referred to the ideal position for your body during meditation.
Asana literally translates to “posture” or “a comfortable seat,” which more accurately reflects the way yoga was practiced in ancient times.
These days, poses have evolved into flexibility, balance, and strength-boosting exercises that improve our mental and physical health.
The fourth step on our journey is another “yama,” or discipline, only this time it involves controlling our breathing.
Pranayama can be translated as either “breath discipline” or “breath freedom,” and putting these breathing techniques into practice can have a profound impact on our bodies and minds.
The stresses of life can often cause us to fall into short, shallow breathing patterns. But when we practice pranayama, we redirect our focus to our breath, restoring our sense of presence and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
Stay tuned for an article on pranayama techniques you can use to come back to your breath and improve your well-being!
Limb number five directly relates to number four, pranayama, in that it involves drawing our focus inward toward what our bodies are experiencing.
If you’ve ever gone through a guided meditation, this was probably the second step your Florida yoga instructor took you through after closing your eyes.
Typically, pratyahara includes focusing on your breath or one or more of your senses, while at the same time building a healthy detachment from them.
This practice serves to deepen your connection to the present moment — the goal being to strengthen your inner concentration to the point where you no longer become distracted by your outer environment.
Like the previous two steps, dharana is also focused on building concentration.
But now that we’ve learned to control our breathing and shut out the distractions of the outside world, it’s time to sharpen the mind’s eye even further.
Dharana is about bringing our focus to a single object of mental attention. It can be a specific part of the body like the heart or the center of the forehead, an imaginary flame, even a simple focal point in space.
Whatever mental image you choose to focus on, the idea is to extend your periods of concentration further and further so you can create more space for the next limb…
Dhyana is the culmination of the three previous limbs: meditation.
When we’re finally able to hold our concentration without being swept away by outside distractions or intrusive thoughts, our mind goes quiet. In that state of mind, we’re free of the demands, stresses, and responsibilities of everyday life.
Laser-focused yet detached.
We are completely still.
Getting to this point is no small feat, but it’s important to remember that yoga is an eight-limbed path for a reason. It may take several years of dedication, but every bit of progress you make along the way helps create a better life for yourself.
The last limb of yoga, samadhi, refers to the enlightenment or bliss that comes from the transcendence of the Self — a joining of the individual and collective consciousnesses.
In the words of Sadhguru, samadhi is a state where:
“Everything becomes one whole, which is the reality. A state like this gives you an experience of the oneness of existence, the unification of everything that is…There is no past or future for you. Everything is here, in this moment.”
Samadhi is freedom from the idea that we’re separate from others and the world around us. It’s a state of bliss and calm mindfulness where we are one with our true selves.
This final stage may seem impossible to reach, but remember, the eight limbs are a lifelong process. If you truly aspire to follow this path, don’t think of samadhi as the “reward” for crossing the finish line.
Each and every limb of yoga comes with life-changing potential, and whether you reach samadhi or not, your dedication to the yogic path will cultivate peace, compassion, and joy in your life.
So, whatever your journey looks like, don’t give up!