When we think of what yoga is in today’s day and age, oftentimes we visualize something to the effect of a thin woman making some complicated shape with her body, while still managing to look blissful. I mean, you can see images like that on this very blog or all over my Instagram. So let’s just say I’m guilty as charged.
Modern yoga has become nearly synonymous with fitness, in that the main focus is the physical practice. The truth is, yoga is a holistic practice that is made up of so much more than fitness-like movements. Yoga is a mental, physical, and spiritual practice with a deep-rooted philosophy tracing back thousands of years.
Yoga is less about what you can do, and more about who you can be. To practice yoga is more of a lifestyle, rather than an hour on your mat a few times a week.
To really understand yoga, you must first understand the 8 limbs that comprise the yoga practice as a whole. This post will be dedicated to sharing what the 8 limbs of yoga are, and explain each limb through a modern approach that can be applied to your daily life today.
What Are The 8 Limbs Of Yoga
First of all, what is yoga? Yoga is a Sanskrit word that translates to “yoke,” or “union.” While various teachers describe the union of yoga in different ways, a common form of understanding modern yoga is the union of breath with movement.
Yoga comes from India. And is more traditionally known as a practice that creates union through the body, mind, and spirit.
Now, get on your historian hats, we’re about to time travel back to about 500 BC during India’s medieval age. This was around the time that the sage Patanjali wrote the 8 limbs of yoga to be followed. These 8 limbs are thought to be a sequence of outer to inner evolution of self.
The 8 limbs of yoga as written by Patanjali are tools that can help guide yogis to create a life of meaning and purpose, alike. These 8 limbs are made up of everything from personal ethics, to total enlightenment- and everything in between.
The 8 limbs of yoga are as follows:
- Yamas: Moral restraints
- Niyamas: Observances
- Asana: Postures
- Pranayama: Breathing techniques
- Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal
- Dharna: Focused concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation absorption
- Samadhi: Enlightenment
Why Are The 8 Limbs Of Yoga Important
Even if you go to a yoga studio that primarily focuses on asana (the yoga postures), and seems to be more of a fitness space than a spiritual center- it’s still possible to practice all 8 limbs of yoga.
The 8 limbs of yoga are an important framework through which the practice has been built. And while individual limbs are certainly powerful when practiced alone, they were originally designed to be practiced together in order to really experience the true power of yoga.
There are many schools of thought regarding the practice of yoga. There are different styles, beliefs, and philosophies. The 8 limbs of yoga remain constant amongst these variations. This is why the 8 limbs are so important. The 8 limbs are yoga.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga Explained
You will likely stumble into teachers or fellow practitioners who say that if you’re not practicing all 8 limbs of yoga, then you’re not a real yogi. While, yes, traditionally speaking, this is true. I personally don’t live in this camp of black and white thinking. Plus, I find that kind of judgmental attitude to be pretty contradictory with what it means to be a “real” yogi.
I like to teach yoga in a way that honors its roots, and pays reverence for its origin. While also offering an applicable approach that’s actually attainable with our modern day needs, lifestyles, and habits. So, the simplest way I can describe the practice of all 8 limbs of yoga is simply reminding you to take your practice with you off of the mat.
When you take your practice off of the mat, and apply those lessons into your daily life, you’ll inevitably be practicing at least some of the 8 limbs of yoga. They might not be perfect, and you might miss a few of them, but the effort is there. And, that’s what I like to see the most to start.
Yamas: Moral Restraints
The Yamas are known as the moral restraints in yoga. This is the first limb, because it truly is the foundation from which everything else will be built. There are 5 Yamas within this first limb.
- Ahimsa: Non-violence
- Satya: Truthfulness
- Asteya: Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: Moderation
- Aparigraha: Non-hoarding
I like to think of the Yamas as the perfect off-the-mat practices that can be integrated throughout your day. Remember, you might not be able to mindfully incorporate them all every single day. Start with one that stands out to you, and work with that first. Once that feels consistent, then add another one. So on, and so forth.
Perhaps you start with Satya (truthfulness), because that feels pretty straight forward to. Take time to actually notice the moments where you feel inclined to tell a lie, exaggerate, or willingly omit. Try to shift your language and actions towards more honest, loving, kind language in order to practice Satya effectively.
The Yamas are more social practices, and the Niyamas are more personal observances, rules, or guidelines. These are practices that are meant to promote healthy living on a physical, mental, and spiritual level.
- Saucha: Cleanliness
- Santosha: Contentment
- Tapas: Discipline
- Svadhyaya: Self study
- Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to higher power
Similar to the Yamas, start by taking on just one at a time, and add from there. Try to choose one that feels the most challenging to you first, and implement that first. The great thing about trying the hardest one first is that you’re actually practicing Tapas by choosing challenges through self-discipline, rather than taking the easy way out.
If you’re someone who’s struggling with depression and motivation, work on Santosha (contentment) first. This can be coupled with gratitude to shift your perspective on life at large.
Asana is the one limb most of us know best in through the practice of modern yoga. As we know, the yoga postures are an incredible way to exercise the mind, body, and spirit when done with intention.
My challenge for you in your asana practice is to always set an intention for your movements and shapes. And allow your shapes to be an actual embodiment of this intention. Creating an intention for your asana practice helps to bring more depth to the physical movement. Plus, you can carry your intention with you off of your mat, and into the rest of your day, as well.
Pranayama: Breathing Techniques
Pranayama is probably the next most well known limb in modern yoga, as most yoga classes incorporate some kind of Pranayama in with the asana. Most commonly, you’ve probably heard of Ujjayi breathing in just about every Vinyasa class you’ve ever been to.
Pranayama is something that can be practiced whether you’re moving through asana, seated in meditation, or moving throughout your day. We can all practice it together right now if you sit up nice and tall, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. Start to connect to your breath. Take a full inhale through your nose. And let the breath travel all the way to your low belly so it inflates like a balloon. Hold it there for a beat. Now exhale through the mouth, and try to make the exhalation even longer than your inhale. Repeat this two more times making sure the breath travels to and from the belly.
Afterwards, you’ll probably feel a little more relaxed. This breathing style helps to soothe and regulate your nervous system. I highly recommend carving out short, 30 second pockets of your day- especially when you’re stressed- to do this.
Pratyahara: Sense Withdrawal
We are starting to travel into the more spiritual elements of the 8 limbs as we continue to ascend. When I think about sense withdrawal in today’s modern world, it’s likely going to look a lot different than how it was traditionally done.
Let’s consider all of the stimulation that we experience on a day-to-day basis from screens, to phones, to messages, and social media. There’s a lot of information, connection, and just STUFF flying at us around the clock. A great modern day approach to sense withdrawal can be something like placing boundaries around screen time. Or, taking full days off of social media altogether.
The purpose of Pratyahara is to achieve more inner stability, peace, and relaxation. Think about the things in your life that distract you from those feelings, and notice where you can take a little more intentional space away from them.
Dharna: Focused Concentration
Traditionally, Dharna was practiced by staring at the flame of a candle, focusing on the sound of your breath in meditation, or using a mantra to meditate with. While you can certainly still practice these techniques of focused concentration in an effort to become one with the very thing we’re focusing on.
For a more modern approach, you might try focused concentration through journaling, singing, dancing, or any moving meditation first. Sometimes movement can be a helpful way to drop into that feeling of oneness, especially if you’ve been sitting all day. The real purpose of Dharna is to melt into “oneness,” which can otherwise be described as a flow state. You’re being, rather than doing.
Eventually, you can work towards a more traditional approach to Dharna by focusing on your breath in stillness.
Dhyana: Meditative Absorption
Dhyana is often translated as meditation, while the traditional purpose and meaning of it also focuses on this ability to absorb oneself into the meditation itself. Oftentimes, Dhyana is practiced by focusing on your breath or a mantra within your meditation.
Meditation can seem like an intimidating practice, which is why it turns people off before they even start. Remember, you can always start with a moving meditation first, and then drop into a more still practice.
Since we’re focusing on the idea of dissolving into the meditation, try to think about a way you want to feel, and get absorbed into that feeling. For instance, if you want to feel more peace in your life, try to conjure up that feeling of peace in your body. And then let it overtake you like a tidal wave until you are at peace, and peace is you.
When people think of the word enlightenment, they often scoff, and think: yeah right. I get it. Usually the idea of enlightenment comes along with an image of a monk levitating under a tree, which doesn’t sound very accessible in our modern world.
The truth is Samadhi, or enlightenment, can be experienced in micro-moments throughout your day. Rather than being a destination where you land at the end of the 8 limbs, as it was traditionally practiced- I like to teach Samadhi as something you can catch glimpses of throughout your day when you’re fully present.
To be present is to experience bliss. To be present is enlightenment. It sounds easy when you put it that way. But the truth is we’re often going on autopilot, or thinking about the past or future. True presence occurs only fleetingly, and in those moments the bliss is undeniable. To practice Samadhi in your life, notice where you can be more present. Try to be more, and do less.
Yoga is such a wonderful, intricate practice that can be carried so much farther than a few pretzel-like poses on a yoga mat. Get curious in taking your practice with you off of the mat. You’ll be surprised what you find.