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What are the 8 limbs of yoga?

The eight limbs of yoga represent different values.
The eight limbs of yoga represent different values.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Although it may seem like you need eight arms and legs to do some of the more advanced yoga postures, that's not what the term "limbs of yoga" refers to. The eight limbs of yoga is actually a set of guidelines on how to live, practice and worship, laid out in Patanjali's Yoga Sutra text in the second century BCE.

In Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Yoga Sutra, the word ashtanga means "eight-limbed." (This is where Ashtanga Yoga, a type of yoga characterized by its specific flow of postures and an emphasis on breath and gaze, gets its name.) According to the text, the ashtanga, or eight-fold path, is what yogis should use to make ethical and moral decisions, to achieve a meaningful life, and to incorporate spirituality into their practice.

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Only a few of these limbs involve yoga as you might typically think of it -- on a mat, during a structured class, breathing and stretching, says Brigitte Bourdeau, a certified health counselor and yoga instructor in New York City. "Some of the limbs are ways of conducting your life -- how you treat others, the environment, society," she says. "Others are about how you treat yourself -- in terms of cleanliness, how you use your energy and your personal values. Basically, they're things you'll find in any religion or any major philosophy on life."

The limbs are usually presented in a specific order, because it's traditionally believed that one should gain experience with the first limbs -- those that deal with the physical parts of yoga -- before they can move on and truly achieve the emotional and spiritual benefits of meditation and enlightenment. And it's true that someone who takes yoga once or twice a week at a local gym may never get a taste of all eight limbs -- no matter how good they get at Downward Dog.

"Some people may only ever do the asanas; while other people may only ever try meditation, and others only study the scriptures and learn Sanskrit," says Bourdeau. Still, for a true practitioner of the full ashtanga yoga philosophy, one limb is not generally considered more important than another; ideally, they all work together to help one realize true peace and happiness.

These eight limbs make up the basis for Ashtanga Yoga and for many other branches of yoga taught in the United States today, including Iyengar, Vinyasa, and Hatha Yoga.

  • Yama

This limb might be described as the "Golden Rule": Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yama focuses on ethical principles and integrity, and states that yogis should live their lives nonviolently and truthfully; should exercise self-control; and should not covet, steal or hoard.

  • Niyama

This limb is more self-reflective than the first, focusing on religion, spirituality and personal care. It states that a yogi should work toward cleanliness, contentment, spiritual purification, and knowledge about and devotion to God. This limb encourages having good hygiene, regularly praying and attending church services, studying religious scriptures, and establishing a personal meditation practice.

  • Asana

This is the limb that most modern-day yoga students know the best: the physical practice of moving the body into asanas, or postures. Asana is important because it can keep the body strong and flexible, but also because it helps yogis develop concentration and discipline skills necessary for deeper meditations.

  • Pranayama

Along with asana, pranayama is often practiced during modern yoga classes, as well. It's the process of breathing -- or, more specifically, having control over one's breath. Pranayama means "life force extension," which reflects the belief that proper deep breathing can invigorate and even extend life. Pranayama breathing can be done along with asanas, or it can be done on its own.

  • Pratyahara

Known as the withdrawal of the senses, pratyahara is the practice of turning off the outside world – and the senses of smell, sound, touch, taste and sight -- in order to withdraw and focus on ourselves.

  • Dharana

Once pratyahara is achieved, one can move into the stage of dharana, or concentration. During this practice, one might focus intensely on one object, sound, or word in the mind, repeating it over and over and thinking about every little detail. This precedes and sets the stage for meditation.

  • Dhyana

This stage occurs when the intense concentration of dharana becomes mindful awareness without focus. This uninterrupted flow, also considered meditation or contemplation, is characterized by a quiet mind, with few or no thoughts at all. Beginners may find this to be an nearly impossible task, but just the process of quieting the mind can be beneficial.

  • Samahdi

Patanjalii describes the eighth limb of yoga as a state of ecstasy, achievable only with much practice and mastery of the first seven limbs. It is a type of transcendence, when one becomes aware of his or her connection to God and to all living things.

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Sources

  • Bourdeau, Brigitte. Personal interview. May 28, 2013.
  • Carrico, Mara. "The Eight Limbs." Yoga Journal. (May 28, 2013) http://www.yogajournal.com/basics/158
  • Eliot, Travis. "8 Limbs of Yoga: A Brief Overview." MindBodyGreen. Oct. 8, 2012. (May 28. 2013) http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-6391/8-Limbs-of-Yoga-A-Brief-Overview.html
  • Hagen, Annelise. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.

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