The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe the 8 limbs of Yoga which when followed allow the yogi to reach a peaceful state of mind. This state of mind refers to a calm mind which does not easily fluctuate in thoughts and emotions.
As defined by BKS Iyengar in Light on Yoga, the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj.
“Yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrates one’s attention on, to use and apply.”
While we all love our Vinyasa flow, Yin, or Hatha Yoga practice, there is more philosophy, wisdom and history behind the scenes than we learn during a regular yoga session. Here at Alma Story, we’ve been diving deeper into the essence of Yoga. Let's explore together why Yoga is so special and what's stays in the background of the yoga postures we see everywhere.
The first limb acts as a set of ethical codes one should follow. There are 5 yamas which act as a blueprint, telling us how to interact with the world. When we follow these yamas, we’re acting morally responsible and good to others and the environment. We’re treating others the way we want to be treated. Following the yamas allows us to grow as individuals and gives us internal peace.
1.1 Ahimsa – non-violence
By following ahimsa, we pledge not to hurt others and ourselves via actions, thoughts, and words. If we allow anger to overcome us, our judgment becomes clouded. Rather, it’s important to strive for gentleness. Instead of spreading violence, we should practice loving-kindness.
1.2 Satya – truth
We must always be truthful to others and ourselves. Satya tells us to be sincere and honest in our thoughts and words. It’s important to be authentic and not try to misrepresent ourselves or spread disinformation.
1.3. Asteya – non-stealing and non-covetousness
Asteya not only says not to steal but to not misuse others’ belongings, therefore, breaking trust. We should also not desire what others are or what they possess. Rather, if we follow Asteya, we know the minimum we need and do not crave for more as it is believed to be theft.
1.4. Brahmacharya- abstinence
Traditionally, brahmacharya is known as celibacy, but historically it does not require abstinence. In modern times it attempts to direct people to use their energy wisely. By practicing monogamy, and properly directing our energy, we can become more creative and wiser. This allows us to overcome difficult problems.
1.5. Aparigraha- non-possessiveness
Following aparigraha means we cannot be greedy and possessive in nature. We do not need to collect things unless we require them. Following aparigraha lets yogis thrive in simplicity. If we possess too much, we become overwhelmed and potentially disturbed.
We can look at the Yamas for guidance in living an honest and pure life. Not only do the 5 Yamas provide important insight on interacting with others, they are also important for inner peace of mind. If we learn to be peaceful, tell the truth, not to steal, use our energy for good, and learn to share, we develop an inner joy, peace, and acceptance. We become more in tune with ourselves and the outside world by living a life that stems from love, not greed.
While the yamas teach us how to interact with the outside world, Niyama’s 5 rules teach us self-discipline. By practicing self-discipline and restraint, we can have a more productive and happier life.
2.1. Saucha- purity of the mind and the body
By attempting to purge our minds of hatred, anger, greed, and pride, and by eating healthy we can purify our bodies and mind. With the purification of the mind and body, we become more virtuous.
2.2. Santosa – contentment
Being content with what we are and what we have frees us from conflict. If we become accepting of ourselves, others, and our place in the world we discover what authentic peace is. We learn that happiness comes from within, not from the outside.
3. Tapas- self-discipline
Tapas tell us to become goal-oriented. We give purpose to our actions and speech. Practicing tapas allows us to overcome challenges without any selfish motivations. It teaches us not to be lazy, and instead, develop courage and strength.
4. Svadhyaya- self-study, introspection
We should practice introspection and learn more about ourselves. Doing this allows us to understand our place in the world, gives us peace and awareness.
5. Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to God
We should recognize there is something greater than us. Whether you believe in one or many Gods or some sort of higher power, we should give respect to God . Doing this helps to ground us and leads us to the final limb of Yoga, samadhi which is self-realization and complete absorption.
Upon reflection of thes 5 steps of Niyama, we can take away how to act.
We should look at life in a positive manner, with acceptance of what we have and what happens to us. Each morning if we take time to think about people we love and things we appreciate, we cast hatred and anger from our minds.
If something negative happens to us throughout the day, we can realize it was never under our control. Getting angry affects us more than anyone or anything else.
It’s important for us to stay disciplined in our actions as we look to act with purpose. We have the option to do something everyday that we may not want to do, but with discipline we can, for a greater good. For example, making our beds or cleaning the kitchen daily is a simple act to fight laziness. Doing something like this spreads motivation and strength in the rest of our actions.
Everyday it helps if we attempt to learn about ourselves through introspection. By accepting there is something greater than us in the world, we can develop a greater understanding and appreciation for our lives.
3. Asana - posture
Practicing asanas is what most people think of when they think of yoga. This is the physical practice of the poses we attempt in a yoga class. Asanas require steadiness, strength, focus, and attention to detail. With effort and dedication, our bodies and minds become healthier and stronger. We develop balance, energy, vitality, and stamina. The process of practicing asanas gives us control over our bodies and makes our bodies healthy and ready for self-realization.
Each asana has a different purpose for the body. Over thousands of years they have been developed to target all our muscles and nerves. We should not be overly strained as we practice these asanas but rather be steady and natural.
Taking time each day to practice asanas will benefit us mentally and physically. We can practice a morning flow, restorative flow, or a more rigorous sequence depending on how we feel. A little practice each day goes a long way in our mental and physical health.
The practice of asanas should be combined with the next limb of yoga, pranayama.
4. Pranayama- control of the breath
Pranayama is focused on the power of controlling the breath which is linked to our state of mind. If we’re stressed our breath will become fast and uncontrolled. By breathing deeply and slowly, we can relax our minds.
“The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths”
We can reduce our desires, purify and control our minds and bodies by maintaining steady breath. Additionally, while practicing asanas we should be completely focused on our breath. Doing so makes our practice smooth and natural. It helps us stay in the moment, fall deeper into concentration and posture, and even enter a meditative state. Only by controlling our breath will we be ready for the next limbs.
If we take time each day to focus on our breathing, we can relax ourselves and get ready for the day. Even taking 5 minutes a day to sit still and breathe deeply and slowly can change our mood and mental state.
5. Pratyahara – Controlling our Senses
By following pranayama, we control our breath and attempt to calm our minds. We are then ready to control our awareness and focus by disregarding outside distractions. Too often outside circumstances that we have no control over affect us greatly. Instead of giving energy and attention to these events, as well as desires, fears, and cravings, we should bring our awareness inside ourselves. We should practice self-examination.
Putting pratyahara into practice can be difficult because it’s such an abstract concept upon initial study. We can interpret living by pratyahara by withdrawing our senses, thoughts, and emotions from outside stimuli.
For example, if someone cuts us off while driving, or we miss our train, there is no need to get upset. We can accept the event and withdraw our emotions from it. We should not let our anger develop from outside stimuli.
6. Dharana- Single-pointed Concentration
Practicing awareness on a single focal point gives us strength in our minds. We learn to control our attention on singular events or topics of thought. It takes intense practice to be able to concentrate fully on one point, but it puts us in a state where we are mindful, undisturbed, and peaceful.
7. Dhyana- Meditation
Reaching a state of Dhyana requires us to be fully concentrated with no distractions or interruptions in our concentration. We obtain full awareness. Reaching Dhyana gives us tranquility and bliss.
“As the filament in an electric bulb glows and illumines when there is a regular uninterrupted current of electricity, the yogi’s mind will be illumined by Dhyana.”
We can practice Dhyana in combination with Dharana. By fully concentrating our awareness on a single point, like the breath, we are strengthening our minds. We can all take time each day to sit comfortably with our eyes closed and simply breathe. When we focus all our attention on our breath we are practicing both Dhyana and Dharana.
8. Samadhi- Complete absorption, self-realization, true Yoga
Samadhi occurs only when we follow all the other 7 pillars. We must be meditating with a single point of focus to reach Samadhi. The state is described as feeling as though the self and object of focus lose their identity and become one. There is no more “I”. Many refer to this as “ego death” or “awakening”.
It’s important to note that this state is not easily achievable. Rather, it’s something we work towards. Samadhi is a desired end goal, but the process, meditating and practicing full awareness, is what’s truly important.
That wraps up the 8 Limbs of Yoga! Hopefully you’ve learned more about the history of yoga and what it means to be a yogi. By following these 8 components we can become better individuals, neighbors, friends, and family members. We can obtain peace and happiness by ourselves, with nothing from the outside giving us that peace. These 8 limbs are meant to guide us through life to living a happy life full of love and acceptance.
Here at Alma, we look to provide the best materials to supply you on your Yoga path. Whether you’re practicing asanas or meditating, it’s highly encouraged to have a comfortable, safe place to do so and find a high-quality yoga gear which will inspire you to practice more often. Check out our Eco-friendly Yoga mats and yoga blocks here to choose the best one for you.
Andrew is an avid writer, traveler and a yoga enthusiast. He is constantly looking to improve his skills and practical knowledge. As an extreme optimist, he is dedicated to improving the lives of others around him through creation, conversation, and education.