The Eight Limbs of Yoga, Explained for Normal People

The Indian sage Patanjali is thought to have written the Yoga Sutras around the year 400 AD, paving the way for much of the philosophy we currently apply to classical yoga studies. The impact of the Sutras on yogic philosophy prior to the 20th century is unclear (Wikipedia is telling me that it was the “corporate yoga subculture” that spread the word about the Yoga Sutras), but their impact now is undeniable: Many yogis see the Yoga Sutras as a guide for living ethically, pursuing enlightenment, and cultivating a life-sustaining yoga practice.

The Yoga Sutras describe the eight limbs (some call them petals) of yoga that we must pursue in our lives and practices. As we practice yoga both on and off our mats, we strengthen these eight behaviors within ourselves, building the mental and physical strength we need to achieve enlightenment.

When I was in Mexico City a few weeks ago, I read “Light on Life” by BKS Iyengar. Iyengar just passed away a year or so ago, when I was living in New Zealand. I remember the exact moment I heard of his death. I was leaving an Ashtanga class at a yoga studio in central Auckland, when I saw his photo displayed at the front desk. It was surrounded by candles, flowers, gems and stones. When I logged onto Facebook an hour or so later, my feed was flooded with yoga friends’ posts about Iyengar’s passing.

BKS Iyengar was a beloved figure in modern yoga. He founded Iyengar yoga, a school based on the principles of physical alignment as well as classical texts like the Yoga Sutras. He was also an author, teacher and spiritual leader for many. Before reading “Light on Life,” I’d never really delved into his work or teachings. I’m still not completely finished with the book, but so far, I’m really impressed by it. He has a knack for describing why yoga principles are important, how they apply to our lives as modern people, and how to conceive of them as we practice and pursue our paths.

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I’m obviously not a yoga teacher (yet) or a spiritual leader – heck, I’m not even a published author – but I thought I’d explain the eight limbs of yoga as described by Iyengar. Remember, he’s expounding on yogic texts from 400 AD, so this is by no means the only way to practice yoga. But his explanations (as well as the yoga sutras themselves) really resonate with me, and I believe passionately that these principles aren’t just for spiritual seekers or yogis – they are useful for helping everyone live their best life.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

In order to achieve enlightenment, Iyengar explains, we must struggle through bettering ourselves in eight different realms. It is the combination of these eight behaviors that paves the way for deep spiritual enlightenment, intelligence, emotional understanding, and an accurate interpretation of life.

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Yama: The first limb is yama, the embodiment of external ethical principles. The five yamas (essentially, five rules for ethical living) are similar to the moral rules proposed by Christianity or really any spiritual code: Treat others kindly, and as you would want to be treated. The five yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual ethics, and non-jealousy.

BKS Iyengar explains why the pursuit of a sound moral and ethical compass is so important for enlightenment. He says “the demonstration of one’s spiritual realization lies in none other than how one walks among and interacts with one’s fellow human beings.” Truth.

Niyama: The second limb is niyama, which refers to internal ethics – in other words, how you pursue spirituality within yourself. I’m a seeker by nature. I always have been. But it’s easy to get caught up in the world, with its pleasures, expectations, adrenaline rushes and seemingly “important” decisions. This, according to Iyengar, prevents us from immersing ourselves fully in our pursuit of realization. The five niyamas are cleanliness, contentment (that’s a big one that many of us, myself included, need to work on), a passion for purity, scriptural- and self-study, and spiritual surrender.

Asana: The third limb of yoga – notice that we don’t get here until we’ve covered our moral and ethical bases – is asana, or posture. In other words, the physical practice of performing yoga poses. This is the limb that most people associate with yoga. In fact, many people seem to ignore the other aspects of yoga altogether, focusing solely on the poses. Don’t get me wrong, the physical aspect of yoga is incredibly important. It just makes me sad when people’s practice of yoga ends when they leave their mats.

Little do they know, though, that the asana can push us in the right direction, whether we’re looking for it or not. Iyengar explains why the postures are so important for pursuing the other limbs of yoga. In order to truly get into a meditative state (we’ll get to meditation in a minute) we need to learn focus. We need physical endurance, so that we aren’t hankering after respite for our bodies. We need to get swept up in the mental work and concentration that are necessary to improve our asana. In Iyengar’s words, “we are going to try to use the asana to sculpt the mind.”

When we practice yoga, we should be thinking about how to improve our posture. The work doesn’t end once we master a pose, either. Even one we work our way into a difficult pose, we must constantly concentrate on muscle engagement, stretching, body expansion … the physical improvement aspect of asana simply never ends. It is through this physical engagement that we develop the mental faculties and focused state of mind required to meditate.

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Pranayama: The fourth limb of yoga, then, is pranayama, or breath control. We often do this in tandem with our asana practice, but pranayama is also useful all by itself. Pranayama doesn’t just entail breathing in and out: There’s a multitude of pranayama techniques (such as nostril breathing, rhythmic breathing, etc.) that people enjoy using in order to control their breathing. Like the asana practice, the pranayama practice encourages the mind to engage, bringing a certain physicality to an otherwise heady space. When the mind is concentrating hard on breathing and physical work, it frees up space that would otherwise be taken up by worldly concerns. That’s when we become capable of moving into the next few limbs of yoga.

Pratyahara: Next up is pratyahara, or sensory withdrawal. You may hear of people meditating to guided audio recordings or nature sounds, but that’s actually not really what the whole thing is about (not that I’m judging if you do this – I love a good guided meditation myself). At this point, we’re still not ready to try meditation (notice that meditation is like, almost last on the list – let that be an indication of how difficult it is to truly be ready to meditate). Pursuing enlightenment is about learning to focus your senses inward, toward the Universal Soul or God, rather than outward, toward worldly sights and sounds. This is why you often see monks and yogis praying or meditating in huge crowds or on noisy streets: They’ve learned to focus their senses inward, rather than on what’s going on around them.

Dharana: The sixth limb of yoga is dharana, or concentration. Iyengar makes a great comparison about dharana in his book. When we think of concentration, we often think of focus. We can concentrate on a book, for example – but it’s a one-track pursuit that’s linear in nature. Iyengar says dharana is more like the way a deer stands on alert when he hears a sound in the woods. Rather than focusing on the direction from which the sound came, he stands alert, with every cell in his body vibrating in total awareness. Don’t confuse this with sensory overload, though – remember, we’ve deprived ourselves of our outward senses. Rather, this attention is focused inward.

Dhyana: Finally – at long last – we get to meditation, or dhyana. Iyengar stresses that meditation is not about stress relief. Pure meditation in the yogic sense isn’t about listening to tapes or breathing in and counting to 10. A pure mind and a stress-free state are required in order to begin meditating, they aren’t the fruits of it. This is why it’s so important to practice asana and pranayama before attempting to meditate. When we get into a state of mental and physical focus like we achieve through asana, we deprive our minds of the clutter that everyday life brings to them. We develop a deep focus on our physicality and breathing over the course of an hour or two, and then we hopefully arrive at a place of mental quietness in which we can begin to meditate.

Samadhi: After we’ve developed these seven limbs within ourselves, we may be able to reach the eighth limb of yoga, samadhi. Iyengar refers to this as “blissful absorption,” though it’s been called “enlightenment,” and “oneness with God.” I can’t write too much about this particular state – I’m not sure I believe in it, or even know what it would entail – but the idea is that by pursuing the other limbs of yoga, we prepare ourselves to come into awareness of our divine nature as part of one Universal Soul, or God.

What Does “Enlightenment” Even Mean?

I think it’s important to take the term “enlightenment” with a grain of salt. I’m not personally expecting some kind of transcendental experience when I practice yoga. I like to think of this spiritual path as more about the journey than the end result. If you think reflectively about these eight limbs, you’ll see what kinds of attributes we can cultivate by mastering them: self-denial, empathy, compassion, mental focus, wisdom, clarity, physical discipline, spiritual understanding.

I like to think of enlightenment more in these terms. Though I certainly have a spiritual side, I’m much more of a realist. I think that mastering these traits within ourselves has the benefit of making us better, more intelligent people, which trickles out into the world around us and impacts the people around us in positive ways. If I were to have some kind of transformative moment, that’d be cool. But as I work through these eight limbs, I see that yoga is already at work transforming me, every day, little by little, with no end in sight.

Header photo by Ryan McGuire.

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