When people talk about the “Eight Limbs of Yoga,” they are likely referring to the section of the Yoga Sūtras, beginning at 2.29, where Patañjali outlines the concept of aṣṭāṅga, which literally means “eight limbs,” derived from aṣṭa (eight) and āṅga (limb, part, a subordinate division).
Yama (restraint), niyama (observance), āsana (posture), prāṇāyāma (regulation of breath), pratyāhāra (withholding of senses), dhāraṇā (fixity), dhyāna (meditation) and samādhi (perfect concentration) are the eight means of attaining yoga.1
yama-niyamāsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāv aṅgāni ॥29॥
This single statement sums up the systematic steps of the Yoga system. Even if it doesn’t seem apparent at the outset, there is a sequential relationship to the limbs, and to become established in any step requires some level of mastery in those that precede it.
The first five limbs are considered bahiraṅga (external) and the last three are considered antaraṅga (internal). If we look pragmatically at the five external limbs of Patañjali’s system, we can see how the focus turns inward. Yama and niyama address moral processes, āsana and prāṇāyāma address the processes of the gross and subtle body, and pratyāhāra addresses sensory processes. The three internal limbs address purely mental phenomena which together are successive stages of a singular process called saṃyama.
- Yama (यम, yama) - abstentions
- Niyama (नियम, niyama) - observances
- Asana (आसन, āsana) - posture
- Pranayama (प्राणायाम, prāṇāyāma) - control of prana
- Pratyahara (प्रत्याहार, pratyāhāra) - abstraction
- Dharana (धारणा, dhāraṇā) - concentration
- Dhyana (ध्यान, dhyāna) - contemplation
- Samadhi (समाधि, samādhi) - absorption
- Ashta (अष्ट, aṣṭa) - eight
- Angani (अङ्ग, aṅgāni) - limbs, parts (plural stem: aṅga)
Abstention (YS 2.30)
- Ahimsa - nonviolence
- Satya - truthfulness
- Asteya - abstention from stealing
- Brahmacharya - continence
- Aparigraha - nonacquisitiveness
Observance (YS 2.32)
- Saucha - purity
- Santosha - contentment
- Tapaha - austerity
- Svadhyaya - self-study
- Ishvara pranidhana - devotion
Posture (YS 2.46-48)
Even though it appears to be today’s principal infatuation with Yoga, Patañjali mentions āsana just once and devotes only three sutras to the topic of āsana in the entirety of the Yoga Sūtras. Regardless, several systems of āsana have been developed throughout history that view the body in different ways.
In an overly simplistic analysis, Hatha-Yoga identifies the physical body as a tool while Raja-Yoga identifies it as an obstacle.
“Hatha-Yoga is based upon the principle that changes in consciousness can be brought about by setting in motion currents of certain kinds of subtler forces…in the physical body. The first step in contacting the deeper levels of consciousness is…to make the physical body perfectly healthy and fit for the influx and manipulation of these forces.”2
“In Raja-Yoga…the method adopted for bringing about changes in consciousness is based essentially on the control of the mind by the Will and the gradual suppression of the Citta-Vṛttis…So the Yogi must eliminate completely the disturbances which arise from the physical body before he tries to tackle the problem of the mind itself.”3
The Tibetan Yogi Milarepa explains, “I have understood that this material body, made of flesh and blood along with mental consciousness, is gathered together by the twelve chains of cause and effect—one of which is volition—originating from ignorance. This body is the blessed vessel for those fortunate beings who wish for freedom, but it also leads sinners into the lower realms. I understand that in this body lies the vital choice between enormous profit and loss, relating to eternal happiness or misery on the border between good and evil…”4
B.K.S. Iyengar comments that perfection of āsana brings about the divine union of puruṣa and prakṛti through the unifying of the various sheaths of body and self.5
Prana control (YS 2.49-53)
Prāṇāyāma is often seen translated as “breath control.” This is fine as an elementary explanation but lacks the depth of its intent. The breath is merely our most visceral experience of prāṇa in the body and therefore the most effective mechanism for accessing it.
Prāṇa is a word that has no definitive equivalent in English. It can be conceptualized as “the infinite and omnipresent manifesting power or energy in the universe.” In a dualistic framework, it is the counterpart to ākāśa—the infinite, omnipresent material of the universe.
Āsana is prāṇāyāma when done correctly. If you cheat in āsana, then prāṇāyāma will cause lots of anxiety. Noah Williams
On February 10, 2020, I spoke with my teacher Noah Williams about the best time to do prāṇāyāma. Noah said that his Guruji taught to wait 20 minutes after āsana—no sooner—and that prāṇāyāma is only to be practiced during Brahma Muhūrta—approximately one and a half hours before sunrise when the air is coolest and most oxygenated since the trees and plants “exhale” at this time. Noah added that prāṇāyāma before āsana is also an option. When I asked if he teaches prāṇāyāma, Noah responded that he makes people practice 20 years of āsana before teaching prāṇāyāma. After 30 years it can become a focus and after 40 years it can take priority over āsana. For the first 40 years, āsana should be priority. He said, “Āsana is prāṇāyāma when done correctly. If you cheat in āsana, then prāṇāyāma will cause lots of anxiety.”
Abstraction (YS 2.54-55)
Pratyāhāra means something along the lines of “the withdrawal of the senses.” Because the senses follow where the mind leads, logically, when the mind is directed externally, internal phenomena is inaccessible; when the mind is directed internally, external phenomena is inaccessible. Whereas substances, physiological trauma, as well as hysteric and suggestible temperaments can manifest a sort of involuntary pratyāhāra like state in individuals, the Yoga system advocates for a completely self-regulated state of pratyāhāra.
Development of pratyāhāra makes perception subject to the individual’s will rather than the individual being subject to involuntarily mutations of the senses. For a mind not established in pratyāhāra, the smallest distraction will attract the senses.
It should also be noted that Yoga is not a proponent of aversion to sense objects. In a state of pratyāhāra, sense objects are no longer perceived consciously resulting in the dissolution of effort required to subjugate their influence.
Concentration (YS 3.1)
Holding the mind on a single point.
Contemplation (YS 3.2)
A state of meditation.
Absorption (YS 3.3)
A merging with the object of meditation.
- Patañjali, Mukerji, P. N., & Āranya Hariharānanda. (1983). Yoga philosophy of Patañjali: Containing his yoga aphorisms with commentary of Vyāsa’s commentary in Sanskrit and a translation with annotations including many suggestions for the practice of yoga, pp. 207. State University of New York Press.↩
- Patañjali & Taimni, I. K. (2007). The Science of Yoga: The Yoga-Sutrutras of Patanjali in Sanskrit with transliteration in roman, translation in English and commentary, pp. 252. The Theosophical Publishing House.↩
- Taimni 2007, pp. 253.↩
- Heruka, T. (1992). The Life of Milarepa, pp. xix. Penguin Books.↩
- Patañjali, & Bryant, E. F. (2009). The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali: A new edition, translation, and commentary ; with insights from the traditional commentators, pp. x. North Point Press.↩