Yoga goes far beyond honing postures and breathing exercises; yoga is a holistic practice that brings together different aspects of the mind, body, and spirit. In the historical teachings of yoga, Patanjali documented eight realms of ashtanga, also known as the eight limbs of yoga. While these ideas can be interpreted in many ways, having a general idea of these eight limbs can help deepen your practice and hone your understanding of yoga. For seasoned yogis and newcomers to the practice alike, here is an overview of the eight limbs of yoga.
1. Yamas: Ethical Standards, Moral Practices
The yoga yamas are five ethical standards and moral practices that yogis incorporate in their lives. Patanjali described these practices as universal vows to be practiced through words, thoughts, and actions. These ideas can be thought of as the first fundamental steps of your yoga practice, and as values to incorporate in our daily lives.
- Ahimsa: This yama is typically interpreted to mean “non-violence.” This does not only mean refraining from acts of violence, but also finding compassion for all things, and making a conscious effort to be compassionate in your life.
- Satya: The second of the yoga yamas, satya, means “truth.” This yama speaks to ways to practice honesty and candor in your life.
- Asteya: At its most basic level, asteya means “non-stealing.” This can literally mean refraining from stealing, but in a larger sense, it means not taking what is not yours: not wasting time, not draining natural resources, and being mindful when asking for other’s time.
- Brahmacharya: There are many interpretations of brahmacharya. Many translate it to mean celibacy, or in a general sense, exercising continence and impulse control within your body. Others interpret it to mean “the right use of energy,” and making an effort to channel your body’s energy in a productive way.
- Aparigraha: Often explained as “detachment,” and “non-coveting,” aparigraha speaks to finding ways to let go and focusing on what is truly important.
2. Niyamas: Self Discipline, Spirituality
Niyamas speak to self-discipline, observance, and spirituality in yoga and in life. While yoga yamas speak to our morals and internal practices, niyamas speak to your how you interact with the world around you. These five practices are:
- Saucha: Saucha encompasses cleanliness or purification. This can mean detoxifying your body, cleaning your space, and clearing your mind.
- Santosha: This niyama speaks to contentment with our lives. It means not desiring or envying that which others have, and instead finding peace and joy in your current state.
- Tapas: Often interpreted as asceticism or self-discipline, this practice calls us to do things we may not want to, but we know are good for us. Also explained as “the burning desire to better ourselves” the practice of tapas focuses on the grit needed to push oneself through challenges, even when it is difficult.
- Svadhyaya: Svadhyaya speaks to the study of oneself, and the ability to look inward to improve. This practice ranges from introspecting to learn from your mistakes, to contemplating your true hopes and desires.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: This niyama also has several interpretations. Often translated as “surrendering to a higher power” or “devotion,” ishvara pranidhana speaks to giving in to authenticity and that which is true for you. For some, that may be a religious experience or devotion to a higher power. For others, that may mean living fully and being empowered from within.
3. Asanas: Postures
Asanas, or yoga poses and postures are the third limb of yoga. Patanjali described asanas as “mastering the body to sit still for meditation.” Today, these poses are practiced around the world to enhance balance, coordination, and body control. From downward dog, to poses for better sleep and many more, asanas enables yogis to challenge themselves and hone their ability to move and control their bodies.
4. Pranayama: Breathing, Control of Breath
The fourth limb of yoga is pranayama, breathing and control of breath. Prana means “energy” or “life force,” and the practice of pranayama means honing your breath and the energy within your body. Taking the time to focus on your breath can increase your self awareness can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and increase blood flow.
5. Pratyahara: Sensory Control, Withdrawal
Pratyahara translates to “gaining mastery of external influences.” This can be interpreted as making wise choices about everything from the food you put in your body, to ideas you let in your mind. Practicing pratyahara means freeing yourself from external sensation and focusing your energy inward. One might think of this idea as refraining from the wrong external influences; for example, staying away from unhealthy foods and people who do not enhance your life. Instead, that energy is shifted towards healthier and more fulfilling external influences.
6. Dharana: Concentration
Dharana means taking on a deep concentration and aiming your mind toward a singular focus. This practice can start simple, such as focusing your entire mind on bringing energy to one area of your body, or even setting your sight and mind on one fixed point. This practice helps the yogi focus on one single element of their practice and quiets other things on their mind.
7. Dhyana: Meditation, Contemplation
The seventh limb of yoga encompasses meditation and meditative absorption. Highly correlated with the concentration practiced in the sixth limb of yoga, dhyana takes it a step further and deepens that focus. A phenomenon that has been described as “setting you free from yourself,” the practice of meditation calms the mind and can benefit your full-body health.
8. Samadhi: Integration, Divine Connection
The final limb of yoga, samadhi, translates to “putting together” or “integration.” Historically, many have interpreted samandhi to mean finding connection with the divine through yoga, and a sense of holistic peace with yourself. Others interpret this to mean mastery and understanding of all eight limbs of yoga. If you have reached this stage in your practice, you have focused energy on moral practices and self-discipline. Through this holistic practice, you have put time and energy into fueling your mind and body, and you have honed your concentration through meditation and withdrawal from distractions around you.
At Cody, we believe in honing all eight limbs of yoga, and living a full and authentic life through this practice. To get started on your practice of the eight limbs of yoga, checkout The Yamas: The First Branch of Yoga with Janet Stone and Essence of Yoga Bundle with Sri Dharma Mittra.