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)
Asteya: Non-stealing (and non-coveting)
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
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 and at peace. A balance of effort and ease allows the practitioner to stay in stillness in this posture for an extended period of time and continue down through the lower limbs of yoga.
Limb 4: Pranayama – This means energy or can be understood as the life force moving throughout both the gross and subtle body (the physical body we see on X-rays and the non-visible body like the chakras).
Teachers sometimes refer to this as breath during class but that does not encompass it’s full meaning. You’ve likely encountered different breathing practices (ujjayi, alternate-nostril, etc) and those are physical practices or ways of engaging with breath that can have different impacts on how one's energy flows. Vinyasa classes connect movement and breath (timing certain movements and poses to inhales and others to exhales) to unblock and let the pranayama or energy flow throughout the body. While the breath alone is not pranayama, it is used as a tool and as a part of the overall concept of balancing one's energy.
Limb 5: Pratyahara – A withdrawal of senses – turning inward and shutting out external distraction and stimulus.
This limb is considered to be a bridge between the more external focus of the first 4 Limbs and the internal focus of the last 3.
By withdrawing the senses, the yogi connects more deeply with their inner world, and quiets and calms the vritti, or chatter of the mind, to be less influenced by sensory inputs. Outside distraction falls away as a sense of clarity and peace settles within.
Limb 6: Dharana – Deep focused concentration. Some yogis practice this by mentally focusing on a single mantra or image and keeping their attention only on that unchanging, unmoving point of focus, that drishti. Some consider Limbs 6 – 8 to be 3 levels or steps of concentration. Withdrawing the senses and quieting the mental fluctuations via pratyahara (Limb 5) enables the yogi to deeply focus without distraction in dharana (Limb 6) and thus move towards the 7th Limb, dhyana.
Limb 7: Dhyana – Being in the state of meditation. One of our teachers says meditating is not a verb, one does not “meditate” as an action but rather it is a state one accesses via the first 6 Limbs of yoga described above. Dhyana is a state we drop into when we are in the seat of pure awareness. With dhyana we are not taking an action but releasing into an experience of true connection with our complete selves, with the universal energy that flows through us.
Limb 8: Samadhi – The final limb or state of being is one of union, integration, and bliss. Here we are balanced, at union with every aspect of ourselves and with all beings, in harmony with the Universe. That energy that we’ve connected to through dhyana and that flows through us is not just contained within us or unique to us but is the energy that makes up and connects everything.
In samadhi we recognize and remember what we’ve always known -- that we, as the perfect and divine beings that we are, are drops of water that are part of the greater ocean. We’re not individuals separated from others but rather connected to all, part of the whole. When this deep experience is accessed it’s like coming home and settling into the true bliss that exists below the distracting human experiences we deal with in this life.
From the 8 Limbs to Modern Practice
I think it’s amazing that this practice we do is not simply a physical one but can be part of a way of life and meditative experience. By exploring these limbs, you open yourself up to the wisdom that originally informed the modern day practice and you invite your own practice of yoga, of union, to be part of your life in a more holistic way.
If you are interested in the philosophy of yoga, I hope you’ll discover and engage the 8 Limbs of Yoga further.
A few suggestions:
Think about these limbs the next time you take a class -- see if knowing the philosophical foundation impacts your experience on the mat by seeing it not as a fitness class but as a way to unblock energy and settle into deep concentration as you travel towards a meditative state of union and bliss.
Delve more into Patanjali’s Sutras.
Check out our upcoming blog series on the Yamas and Niyamas.
Journal about your experience with any of the limbs and how you may better understand or engage with them going forward – you could take a different yama and niyama each month to journal about and intentionally practice/engage with in your everyday life.
Discuss the roots of yoga, or 8 Limbs specifically, with fellow yogis (maybe form a group to meet regularly with and dive into a topic within this philosophy that interests you) as a way to broaden your practice as a yogi and be one informed by the culture and wisdom that it comes from.