The Eight Limbs of Yoga are described in chapter two of the Yoga Sūtra, a key yoga text credited to Patañjali and dated to as early as 500BC.
The eight limbs clearly present yoga as a path of meditation. While contemporary yoga practice is often represented by postures (they are easy to photograph), these eight limbs remind us that yoga is a holistic practice, affecting every aspect of our lives, from the social to the spiritual via the body, breath and mind.
There are many scholarly books about the Yoga Sūtra and many people have translated and interpreted the eight limbs slightly differently. For an excellent and practical introduction to the Yoga Sutra I recommend ‘Embodying the Yoga Sūtra’ by David Charlton and Ranju Roy, which can be purchased directly from the authors at Sadhana Mala.
What I am sharing here is simply my own current understanding, which is often changing and likely simplistic. I believe yoga philosophy can only be understood through practice, and so ultimately becomes very personal.
The eight limbs (aṣṭa-aṅga) are presented in sūtra 29:
Here are they are presented with a simple translation and some personal interpretation of my own.
- yama: restraints, cultivating good relationships with others
- niyama: not-restraints, cultivating good habits for myself
- āsana: posture or seat, cultivating a relationship with my body
- prāṇāyāma: breathing practices, cultivating and conserving energy via a relationship with my breath
- pratyāhāra: sense withdrawal, cultivating a relationship with my senses (and the things which attract/distract them)
- dhāraṇā: the practice of concentration or focus
- dhyāna: the practice of continued concentration or focus, to the point of meditative absorption
- samādhi: a state in which I am relaxed, focused and at ease
I think it is worth noting that dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi are all to do with the mind and that at the very start of the Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined as “the containment of the fluctuations of the psyche” (translation by Paul Harvey at Centre for Yoga Studies).
A final thing I would like to share is that, for me, the eight limbs of yoga now make more sense as a kind of circle or cycle. I will never have mastered any one of these eight limbs, but continue to cycle through them. It doesn’t matter whether I start with body, breath or mind, morality or meditation, each limb is connected and interrelated.
For the practice to be well rounded and whole I must grow all eight limbs simultaneously.