Wisdom Beyond the Mat: The 8 Limbed Path of Yoga

Updated: Jan 19

Yoga teachers often talk about “living your yoga” or connecting the practice we do in classes to our lives off the mat.

But as yoga has evolved over thousands of years and there are many expressions of it today, where does one go to begin learning about the deeper roots of yoga philosophy?

And what do the classes we do today have to do with ancient spiritual texts from India or experiencing union with oneself and the broader universe?

I think a great place to start is with contemplation of the 8 Limbs of Yoga as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

The following is a brief introduction and overview of the limbs from my personal perspective (as with all ancient texts, interpretations vary). My study of these limbs is young so the below scratches the surface of a deep topic as a reflection of where I am as a student of this philosophy and how I understand it to connect to the practice I do on my mat.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Note that the limbs are linear, the idea being to travel through them in order to ultimately experience the final limb of bliss.

Limbs 1 + 2: The Yamas and Niyamas Foundational principles for everyday life. These are the practices and values you live out in your everyday actions and interactions.

Yamas – 5 ethical standards, social practices and behavior; how we interact with the external world and each other.

  • Ahimsa: Non-violence (towards self as well as to all beings)

  • Satya: Truthfulness

  • Asteya: Non-stealing (and non-coveting)

  • Brahmacharya: moderation

  • Aparigraha: non-attachment (including forgiveness)

Niyamas – 5 internal disciplines and personal practices including spiritual observances.

  • Saucha: Purity (of body + mind)

  • Santosha: Contentment (and gratitude)

  • Tapas – Discipline and balance

  • Svadhyaya: Self-study

  • Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to/embracing of the Divine

Cultivating a life based on the values set forth within the yamas and niyamas enables the yogi to travel more meaningfully through the lower limbs, accessing the deeper states of yoga or union. The idea is that as one increasingly lives these practices in daily life, they are better able to engage with the other limbs via personal practices, yoga classes, energy work, and meditation.

Limb 3: Asana – We often hear this word to mean any pose in modern yoga but in the Sutras it specifically means a seated meditative posture in which one finds both stillness and comfort.

Patanjali does not talk about movements or a variety of postures but rather refers to the balanced stillness in a seated physical posture where the yogi is engaged (think of cues like “ground down through your sitz bones” and “reach tall through your spine”) as well as relaxed an