Did you know that physical yoga postures are only one aspect of yoga? There are eight parts—or limbs—in classical yoga. A few thousand years ago, a remarkable yogi called Patanjali described the eight limbs (among other things) in “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”
Our physical practice on the mat is the third limb. It’s called asana in Sanskrit, the language Patanjali wrote in. Before asana are two limbs that together give us ethical principles for living. The remaining limbs are additional practices intended to lead students to enlightenment, or union with a higher power. (Yoga means union.)
Today, serious yoga students and teachers in training learn Patanjali’s eight limbs. There are whole books and courses on classical yoga you can explore if you’d like to learn more and go deeper into the practice.
For now, here’s a brief look at the eight limbs of yoga.
The First Limb: The Yamas
The Yamas are ethical principles sometimes known as “restraints.” There are five yamas, which can loosely be translated as
- Kindness toward all beings
- Truthfulness, not just in the sense of not telling lies, but in the sense of being authentic
- Celibacy (though not in the way we tend to think of this in the West)
The Second Limb: The Niyamas
The second limb is another set of principles, this time for self-conduct. They are
- Contentment, which can also be thought of as gratitude
- Austerity, or creating an inner fire that drives toward enlightenment
- Surrender to a higher power
The Third Limb: Asana
Asana is the physical practice most Westerners think of when they think of yoga. The term did not originally refer to the wide variety of postures and styles we know today, though. Originally, asana was simply a posture of attention—a physical position to meditate in.
The Fourth Limb: Pranayama
The fourth limb—pranayama—is the part of yoga practice where we do different breathing exercises. Our breath is our life force. We use pranayama to move the life force energy, called prana, through the body more efficiently.
The Fifth Limb: Pratyahara
Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses. It’s movement from the outer world of sights, sounds, and other distractions to the inner world of awareness and peace. Yogis practice pratyahara to we eliminate distractions so we can focus on concentration and meditation.
The Sixth Limb: Dharana
Once we’ve learned to withdraw from the outer world of the senses, we can practice dharana, which is a meditation practice. Here we put our full attention something, such as an object or a mantra.
The Seventh Limb: Dhyana
Like the sixth limb, the seventh limb is also meditation. Sanskrit scholars tell us the English language doesn’t really have words to explain the difference between dharana and dhyana. The closest we can get it to think of dhyana as a deeper, meditative state.
The Eighth Limb: Sadhana
Mastery of the first seven limbs prepares us for to experience samadhi. Again, the term is difficult to translate, but the general idea is union with the divine. Sadhana is a state in which the there is no longer what yogis call “the small self.” We’ve reached a higher state of being and become one with the universe. It’s ultimate bliss!
More Than Exercise
As you can see, to fully practice yoga means to do more than physical exercise. A yoga lifestyle begins with ethics, which give us a basis for growth. Living with ethics and purpose prepares us maybe to expand our understanding of the spiritual aspects of life.
The physical yoga postures and breathing exercises help yogis prepare the body for meditation. These practices help us withdraw from the outer noise of the world and focus on our goal (samadhi).
Whether you only practice one limb or all eight, (it does not matter!!) yoga offers many wonderful benefits, as I’m sure you already know. Western yogis often come to the physical practice for better fitness, pain management, or stress relief.
But it doesn’t take long to fall in love. Once we’re hooked, we realise that yoga is so much more than exercise! I encourage you if you want to explore the practice a little bit more!
If you want to explore a little further maybe one of these books may come in handy 🙂
“Inside the Yoga Sutras” by Reverend Jaganath Carrera OR “The Yoga Lifestyle” by Doron Hanoch
Big love Jo & J xx