Yoga philosophy – The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Yoga philosophy – The Eight Limbs of Yoga

By Solvei McKenna

(Worth .1 CEU)

CEC Objectives:

After reading the article, you should be able to:

  • Identify the eight limbs of yoga
  • Discuss the purpose of the eight limbs
  • Identify how to apply the eight limbs of yoga in your teaching


When you dive into yoga, you will often hear the name Patanjali. Patanjali was an Indian sage who comprised the yoga sutra. The yoga sutra is an ancient guidebook of classical and raja (royal) yoga, written at least 1,700 years ago. Yoga Sutra is made up of 195 aphorisms (sutras).

Patanjali is also tied to writing about Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu system of medicine, which is based on the idea of balance in bodily systems and uses diet, herbal treatment, and yogic breathing.

The practice of yoga is dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to help the practitioner in combining the use of breath and body, to foster an awareness of oneself. Yoga serves as a pathway to intimately connecting to the unified whole of creation. In short, it focuses on balance and creating equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole. This art of a harmonious life with the greater whole was perfected and practiced in India thousands of years ago and the foundations of yoga philosophy were written in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, approximately 200 AD. This sacred text describes the inner workings of the mind and provides an eight-step blueprint for controlling its restlessness so as to enjoy lasting peace.

The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path, it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual, a person can emphasize one branch, then move on to another as they round out their understanding.


According to Patanjali, yoga consists of eight steps or limbs, which are all equally important and are related as parts of a whole. The purpose of these 8 limbs of yoga is discriminative enlightenment or self-realization.(1)

The eight limbs are as follows:

1. Yama: Codes of restraint, abstinences, self-regulations

2. Niyama: Observances, practices, self-training

3. Asana: Meditation posture, physical poses and flow

4. Pranayama: Expansion of breath and prana, regulation, control

5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses, bringing inward

6. Dharana: Concentration

7. Dhyana: Meditation

8. Samadhi: Deep absorption, meditation in its higher state, the state of perfected concentration

First limb- Yama (codes of restraint, abstinences and self regulations):

Yama has to do with ethics, integrity and how we practice yoga off our mat. There are five yamas. The five yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-hoarding. The five yamas are considered codes of restraint, abstentions, self-regulations and involve our relationship with the external world and other people. These apply equally to thought, wordand action. These five yamas are as follows:

1. Ahimsa: Nonviolence, nonharming, noninjury

2. Satya: Truthfulness, honesty

3. Asteya: Nonstealing, to the extent that one should not even desire something that is not their own. It also means we should consider whatever resources are available to us are borrowed from the nature. Using them or acquiring them more than minimum required for living amounts is stealing as these are then not available to others.

4. Brahmacharya: Walking in awareness of the highest reality, remembering the divine, practicing the presence of God. As an effect, it leads to celibacy or what one generally means by brahmacharya.

5. Aparigraha: Nonpossessiveness, nonholding through senses, nongreed, nongrasping, nonindulgence, nonacquisitiveness.

Second limb – Niyama (Observances, practices, self-training):

Niyama has to do with self-discipline and spiritual practices. The five niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, spiritual purification, study of sacred texts and devotion to one’s higher power. The five niyamas are the observances or practices of self-training and deal with our personal inner world. These are a means for self-training in relation to body, senses, and mind. The five niyamas are as follows:

1. Shaucha: Cleanliness and purity of body and mind. It results in purification of the subtle mental essence, brings pleasantness, mastery over the senses and capability for self-realization.

2. Santosha: Contentment or comfortable acceptance of what one currently has. It brings joy and happiness from within.

3. Tapah: Through askesis or training of the senses, there comes a destruction of mental impurities and an ensuing mastery over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions.

4. Svadhyaya: Self-study, reflection on sacred words, and study of the scriptures. Through this niyama one attains communion with the underlying natural reality.

5. Ishvarapranidhana: Surrender and dedication to the Supreme Being or Causal Source, devotion and surrender of fruits of practice. It helps in achieving the state of perfected concentration (samadhi).(2)

Third limb – Asana (yoga poses):

The third limb is the physical yoga practice and is perhaps the most well-known of the eight limbs of yoga. The root of the word Asana means comfortable seat, which says a lot about its original intentions. The physical yoga practice was designed to prepare and strengthen the body in order to be able to sit in meditation for long periods of time. According to Patanjali, Asana aims to keep the body steady and easy for the meditation practice that prepare us to gain mastery of the thought patterns of the mind so that self-realization can be experienced. (3)

Fourth limb – Pranayama (breathwork):

Practice of breath control and breathing techniques with awareness. Prana has several definitions, including breath, respiration, breath of life, vital air, vigor, vitality, energy and spirit. In yoga philosophy, prana is the vital life force that animates and enlivens everything in the universe. It helps in control of mind and concentration (dharana). Pranayama is key in yoga, and prana (life force), is considered to be in everything. Even if it can’t be seen nor touched, it can be accessed indirectly through its physical manifestation, the breath. (4)

Fifth limb – Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses, going inward):

Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the five senses. Through our entire life, the five senses (touch, taste, see, hear, and smell) input information into our being and pratyahara is where we turn those off so we may retreat from the outer world and experience the inner domain of the mind. Withdrawal of the senses of cognition and action from both the external world and the images or impressions in the mind. Pratyahara is a bridge between the external aspects of yoga namely, yama, niyama, asana, pranayamaand the internal yoga. The word Pratyahara comes from two Sanskrit words, prati meaning “against” or “away” and ahara, which means “food.” In this case, we can refer to ahara as any stimuli we take in and ingest. The essence of pratyahara is “withdrawal of the senses” or mindfully filtering what we experience in our outer world.

Sixth limb – Dharana (concentration):

Dharana is sustained concentration, and means “immovable concentration of the mind”. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction.  When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara, the sadhaka (seeker) reaches the sixth stage Dharana. Dharana is about fixing the mind to one specific point. This could be something internal, like part of the body or a chakra (energy center/wheel), or something external like a picture, statue or another object. It’s not so important what this object is that we are focusing on; the purpose is to quiet the mind with this total concentration.

When we focus the mind intensely into one point, the rest of the mind tends to quiet down. When we practice concentration like this, there is less room for other thoughts, memories and planning that the mind tends to otherwise be busy with. (5)


Seventh limb – Dhyana (meditation):

The word dhyana comes from the Sanskrit word dhyai, which means “to think of.” Dhyana involves concentration and meditation on a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. Dhyana is an emotional and mental state where the ego and the mind are at rest, and thoughts come and go in pure self-observation. As quoted here by B.K.S. Iyengar: True meditation leads us to wisdom (jnana) and awareness (prajna), and this specifically helps in understanding that we are more than our ego. For this, one needs the preparations of the postures and the breathing, the withdrawal of the senses and concentration. True meditation is when the knower, the knowledge, and the known become one. This is only possible when one is in a stress-less state.” – B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life. (2)


Eighth limb – Samadhi (absorption in the infinite):

The word samadhi literally means “putting together” and is often translated as “integration” or “absorption. Samadhi is a state of consciousness where individual awareness dissolves into the great Whole. Samadhi is absolute, ecstatic transcendence moving beyond time, form and space. It’s the goal of all yoga and the supreme state of consciousness. The liberation of this state comes from transcending the confines of the ego. Samadhi is a state of bliss, reaching a state of absorption in a subject or in the Divine. Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga, samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. The eight steps of yoga are meant primarily for self-realization. The primary goal of yoga “self-realization or union of self- consciousness with the supreme consciousness” is a goal suggested for mankind in contrast to pure economic and material development as a goal of modern civilization. (6)


Yoga philosophy – The eight limbs of yoga- Reference page

  1. Prabhavananda S, Isherwood C. Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math; Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

2. Iyengar, B. K. S., Douglas Carlton. Abrams, and John J. Evans. Light on Life: The Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace and Ultimate Freedom. London: Rodale, 2008. Print.

3. Bahm, Archie J. Yoga: Union with the Ultimate. A New Version of the Ancient Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: Ungar, 1961. Print.

4. IYENGAR, B. K. S. LIGHT ON YOGA: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Practice. S.l.: HARPER THORSONS, 2016. Print.

5. Sarbacker, Stuart Ray, and Kevin Kimple. The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy. New York: North Point, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Print.

6. Ram, Bhava. The 8 Limbs of Yoga: Pathway to Liberation. Coronado, CA: Deep Yoga, 2009. Print.