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The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Updated: Sep 15, 2023


8 limbs of yoga


In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps, commonly known as the 8 limbs of yoga, basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.


What are the 8 limbs of yoga?


1. Yama

The first of the 8 limbs of yoga, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behaviour and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


The five yamas are:


  • Ahimsa: Nonviolence

  • Satya: Truthfulness

  • Asteya: Non stealing

  • Brahmacharya: Continence

  • Aparigraha: Non-covetousness


2. Niyama


Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.


The five niyamas are:


Saucha: Cleanliness


Samtosa: Contentment


Tapas: heat; Spiritual austerities


Svadhyaya: Study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self


Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to God



3. Asana


Asanas, the postures practised in yoga, comprise the third of the 8 limbs of yoga. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate.


4. Pranayama


Generally translated as “breath control,” this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. You can practise pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily yoga practice.


5. Pratyahara


Pratyahara, the fifth of the 8 limbs of yoga, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from, our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.


6. Dharana


As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. No easy task! In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic centre in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.


7. Dhyana


Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practises one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness, it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don’t give up. While this may seem like a difficult, if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the “picture perfect” pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress.


8. Samadhi


Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga, samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realisation comes the “peace that passeth all understanding”; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, “holier than thou” kind of goal.



The first four limbs – yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama – are known as the outer limbs, and they deal with our relationship to the world around us.


The next four – pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi – are known as the inner limbs, and they deal with our relationship to ourselves.


Each step on this journey is important, but we must not get too attached to any one of them. For example, we should not get so focused on our asanas that we forget about the other limbs. Instead, we should see each step as an opportunity to grow in our practice.


By keeping all eight limbs in balance, we can achieve the ultimate goal of yoga: self-transcendence.


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