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The 8 Limbs of Yoga: An Introduction

The word yoga literally translates as ‘to yolk’ or ‘union’. In yoga we try to harmonise our body with our mind and spirit but also with people and the world around us. Yoga isn’t just about our physical practice on the mat but is just as much, if not more, focused on our relationships with ourselves and with others.

Somewhere around 200BCE the great sage, Patanjali, composed the Yoga Sutras in which he outlined an 8 fold path that defined classical yoga. Commonly known as the 8 limbs of yoga, Patanjali not only gave attention to the physical postures, or asanas, but also put importance on other areas of personal and spiritual development such as the codes of ethics to be followed by a yogi, breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditation.

This post is just a short introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga and their functions and benefits. In future pieces we’ll focus more deeply on each limb individually but, for now, lets get our heads around the general guidelines of this classical yoga system.

#1 Yamas (Restraints)

The yamas, translated as to 'curb' or 'rein', are 5 ethical disciplines that guide us in how to live in relation to other people and the world around us. While they may seem quite straight forward, putting them into practice can be trickier than anticipated when you extend them to apply to your actions, words and thoughts.

Ahimsa: Non-violence or harming

Satya: Truthfulness and non-lying

Asteya: Avoidance of stealing

Brahmacharya: Practicing moderation and temperance

Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness and practicing detachment 

#2 Niyamas (Observances)

Translating as 'observances' or 'positive duties', the niyamas are 5 virtuous habits and behaviours that guide us in how to live in relation to ourselves. These observances lead us further down the path of self realisation and liberation.

Saucha: Purity of body and mind in what we do, say and think

Santosha: Practicing acceptance of, and contentment with, others and our situation

Tapas: Self discipline and perseverance in our yogic practices

Svadhyaya: The study of spiritual texts but also the spiritual study of the self

Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrendering of our actions to a higher power/source/God

#3 Asanas (Postures)

Although, in the west, we generally assume that asanas are the be-all and end-all of yoga, in reality, they make up just one of the eight limbs of the yogic practices. Saying this is not, in any way, an attempt to undermine their importance but is just a little reminder that, while they have their value, there are other aspects of yoga to bear in mind as well.

There are many reasons as to why we practice asana which we'll look at in more detail in another post. For now though, generally, the poses are designed to strengthen and lengthen the muscles allowing us to sit in meditative positions for longer periods of time. With a regular physical practice comes good physical health and, with the body in good condition, we have more time to focus on the mind and spirit.

#4 Pranayama (Breathing Exercises)

The word pranayama can be divided into two parts: prana, meaning 'life force' or 'vital energy', and 'ayama', meaning 'to extend'.

 Pranayama is made up of a variety of breathing exercises which, on a physical level, work to develop a healthy respiratory system and, on an energetic level, work to purify and balance the nadis (subtle energetic channels)

#5 Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal)

Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing the senses from external distractions and turning the consciousness inwards. This detachment from our five senses prepares the mind for the next steps of yoga: concentration and meditation

#8 Samadhi (Oneness)

The ultimate goal of yoga, Samadhi, or the absorption into the absolute, is achieved by long time practitioners and yogis who have dedicated their lives to the practice of yoga and meditation. In Samadhi, the yogi experiences their true self as one with the universe and the supreme source/God.

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Written by Ishtar Darlington

20 Comments

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  1. Interesting and very informative. In my journey in learning the Japanese martial art Aikido, I have become aware that some the concepts (and exercises) are similar to Yoga.
    However, after reading this, I realized that there are more similarities between the two. Like, one main purpose of practicing Aikido is to unify the mind, body, and spirit – which you described here as the purpose of practicing yoga.
    Another significant similar concept (but perhaps different in application) is the avoidance of violence. Though Aikido is a martial art, it aims to teach the students how to resolve conflict without violence.

    Here in the Philippines, I have observed that there are Yoga practitioners who focuses only on the postures and perhaps the breathing and concentration maybe even meditation. I think the reason for this is because of the people’s religious beliefs and practices that they think it is against our religion (generally Christians – and I am a Catholic) to practice yoga.

    But with the concepts presented here, I don’t find any reason that practicing Yoga would go against Christianity.




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    • I didn’t know that about Aikido, thank you for sharing that.

      No, I don’t see any conflict in being any religion but still practicing yoga. Yoga isn’t a religion, just a guideline (which geberally compliments other religions’ guidelins) on how to live a meaningful life.

      Thanks for having a read and for such a meaningful comment and feedback




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      • Sadly some Christian church leaders relates the practice of yoga or even other form of meditation to the occult. Some sect would even teach that any teaching that is not written in the Bible is evil. 😕
        But I know at least one order of priests that practices and even teaches Zen meditation.




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          • I see.
            Personally, I had been incorporating some yoga poses on my exercises specially when I was younger. Whenever I get a chance to lead our Aikido class I would include some basic poses, explaining the physical benefits of each pose.
            After reading this, I think will go further.
            S




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