When talking about yoga, most of us primarily think about the different postures we use when moving our bodies on the mat. But what most of us aren’t aware of is that yoga is not all about those postures known as asanas.
You might also think that yoga includes meditation and pranayama, the ability to sit still and control the mind and breath. You’re right. But those are also just a fraction of what yoga is.
Yoga consists of many parts. And together, they’re building a holistic philosophy and a way of living a more disciplined and purposeful life.
When going back to the roots of yoga, devotional and spiritual practices have primarily been used rather than moving postures. And still today, yoga in India is often more about sitting meditation, practicing mindfulness, self-discipline and pranayama rather than moving postures.
Thousands of years ago, the Indian sage Patanjali wrote a roadmap for everyone striving to reach the “high state of yoga”.
Those guidelines, known taoday under the name “eight limbs of yoga”, unite eight steps or branches. Those steps are a life-long process where we try to remove impurities and seek the inner light of wisdom, also known as samadhi.
Read about the eight limbs of yoga in the book The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidanand
What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
To give you a brief understanding about what those branches are, here are the eight limbs of yoga explained.
1. Yamas (Restraints)
You can think about some kind of code of conduct when talking about yamas. Yamas are rules or ethical standards guiding us on how to interact with others and with society.
Yamas consist of:
- Ahimsa: non-violence
- Satya: to speak the truth
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: control and mindful use of (sexual) energy. Sometimes also restriction of sexual energy
- Aparigraha: no greed, jealousy, envy or possessiveness
2. Niyamas (Observances)
Niyamas are guidelines on how to improve one-self. Contrary to the Yamas, Niyamas have an inward-focus. They are:
- Sauca: Purification
- Santosa: Contentment
- Tapas: discipline or persistence, also heat. For example, the effort we apply in yoga
- Svadhyaya: Self-study or self-reflection. Study of spiritual texts
- Isvarapranidhana: Dedication to god or the supreme self
3. Asana (Posture)
Asana means physical posture. Through moving our bodies, we want to increase our flexibility, detox our bodies and allow a free flow of energies.
Originally, the word asana comes from As , meaning seat in Sanskrit. Initially, asanas were designed for mastering our body to sit still and to prepare for the internal practices that follow (e.g. meditation).
According to Patanjali, a steady and pleasant movement allows us to eliminate all tension, with only the amount of effort necessary to maintain integrity of the asana.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
Pranayama is the practice of consciously controlling the breath. Whereas prana is the life force or the breath, ayama means restraining, extending and stretching. This means that pranayama is the constant rhythm of inhalation and exhalation and the cultivation and mindful use of this vital energy.
Pranayama leads to concentration, to clarity and brings us into the present moment. As we’re turning our focus inward, we are expanding our energy and turn it from the physical part to the more subtle layers of the body.
5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
Pratyahara is the mastery of the senses. As we normally gather all information around us, in yoga we want to mindfully filter what information we are collecting from the outside or even try to switch our senses off.
In pratyahara, we are going to revert our focus off external impulses by practicing mindfulness: our senses (smell, taste, sound, touch, sight) are just being observed, but don’t affect us anymore. Instead, we are going to improve our internal awareness in order to prepare for meditation and for the final three limbs.
6. Dharana (Concentration)
Through dharana, we want to set the attention on a single point of focus. It can be a part of the body like the third eye, a finger or the navel but it can also be a certain image or a mantra which is repeated over and over. Through this practice, the mind is trained to be still and become fully present.
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
When doing dharana long enough, you will finally reach dhyana, the state of meditation. It’s a peaceful state where you are aware and in present but without
attachment and desire at the same time. In dhyana, you are losing the feeling for time. Instead, you experience a state of flow that you have when you fully dedicate yourself to the present moment.
8. Samadhi (Pure Consciousness)
In samadhi, you’re reaching the final stage of yoga where you’re becoming one. One with yourself, one with the universe, and one with the divine.
At the same time, as there is no more ego in samadhi, it’s not an experience of emotion. It’s a state of pure bliss, pure consciousness and ecstasy beyond time and space.
Patanjali describes the state of samadhi as the completion of the yogic path.