The 8 Limbs of Yoga that comprise today’s branch of Ashtanga Yoga are taken from the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras around 400 CE as a synthesis and organization of yoga from older traditions.
The 196 sutras (some say 195) are made up of short simple verses compartmentalized into four topical books:
Samadhi pada (What yoga is)
Sadhana pada (How to gain a yogic state)
Vibhuti pada (Benefits of practicing yoga regularly)
Kaivalya pada (Liberation or freedom from suffering)
Ashtanga yoga is distinct from the Ashtanga Vinyasa style developed by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century. This is also derived from the 8 Limbs of Yoga but synchronizes breath with movement as a flow (vinyasa).
The 8 Limbs of Yoga described in the sutras are Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (yoga postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).
Yama: Your Personal Relationships with Others
Yama means “restraint” or “self-control”. These are ethical rules or moral imperatives.
The 5 Yamas:
- Ahimsa – non-violence, non-harming through thought, word, or deed.
- Satya – truthfulness, nonlying, being honest with yourself and others.
- Asteya – non-stealing, not taking what doesn’t belong to you.
- Brahmacharya – continence, sexual restraint, controlling your senses.
- Aparigraha – non-greed, detachment from material things.
Niyama: Your Personal Relationship with Yourself
Niyama is about becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, and making virtuous choices that are in alignment with your highest self.
The 5 Niyamas:
- Sauca – purity, cleanliness
- Santosha – contentment
- Tapas – austerity, heat
- Svathyahara – self-study
- Ishvaripranidhana – dedication to the Lord, self-surrender
Asana: Physical Positions
Asana literally means “seat”, and refers to the practice of physical postures or poses. The poses should be adopted by working with your body to void strain or discomfort. The asanas provide physical exercises that ease the body and still the mind, allowing for meditation and revelation of our innermost nature.
Pranayama: Control of the Breath
Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga. This is often translated as “breath control,” but a more accurate description is control of prana or life force. The practice of consciously regulating the breath (inhalation, full pause, exhalation, and empty pause) directs the movement of prana through the body. Breathing techniques contribute to our animation and healthy mind and body.
Pratyahara: Withdrawing the Senses from External Experience
Pratyahara is about withdrawing one’s mind from the perception of the sensory world. In other words, it is the practice of retracting sensory experience from external objects and focusing on the internal world. The goal of Pratyahara is to develop inner awareness and relinquish mental chatter. When the mind is quiet, it is easier to focus on the breath and be present in the moment.
Dharana: Concentration and Focus
Dharana is all about a single point of focus. The idea is to concentrate and avoid letting your mind wander to the outside world. This can be done by focusing on the breath, a mantra, or a visual object. We begin to see that we have the power to direct our own attention, rather than being controlled by our thoughts and emotions. Maintaining focus for longer periods of time leads to the state of dhyana or meditative absorption
Dhyana can be done with or without a particular object of focus. This contemplation stills the mind such that, with practice, it can be entered into at any time or place regardless of external distractions. Dhyana is distinct from Dharana in that the meditator becomes actively engaged with its focus.
Samadhi is the final stage or final step in the yogic path, and it is often considered to be the goal of the practice. In Samadhi, the yogi experiences complete absorption in the divine that is blissful and profoundly wise. This state of pure consciousness is often termed enlightenment. The experience of self has completely dissolved such that the awareness of the one that is having the experience has disappeared.