A few weeks ago, I posted a blog that sketched out a very basic outline of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Of course, the sutras can’t be captured in a single blog post, or even a series of them. It’s best when we digest them over time. And it’s even better when we consider them in the context of our own lives.
The sutras are divided into four padas (chapters). These days, the second pada is the one that’s most often cited by yoga teachers and practitioners. This is because the second pada includes the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Eight Limbs provide a scaffolding for the whole system of yoga, according to the sutras.
While the limbs are presented in a particular order, they are not hierarchical. They’re not like a ladder with eight steps. Instead, all the limbs feed into the whole, kind of like the limbs on a tree. Practicing any one of the limbs supports all the others.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Here’s a short synopsis of the limbs. I’ll elaborate on each one in coming posts.
- Yama: Yama means “restraint.” The yamas are ethical or moral precepts for living peacefully in the world. They include ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy), and aparigraha (non-greed).
- Niyama: The niyamas are personal practices that help us create a healthy foundation for our daily lives. They include saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (energy or commitment to practice), svadhyaya (self-study and study of inspiring texts) and isvara pranidhana (dedication of our practice to something larger than ourselves).
- Asana: This is the limb most often associated with yoga—the physical postures.
- Pranayama: Pranayama is the practice of controlling and expanding the breath.
- Pratyahara: This limb is often defined as “withdrawal from the senses.” I interpret it as a refinement of our relationship with our senses.
- Dharana: Dharana is defined as concentration. It’s the collecting of the mind onto a single object.
- Dhyana: Dhyana is meditation. It’s the ability of mind to stay present no matter what we are experiencing through our senses.
- Samadhi: Samadhi is the completely settled, expansive mind.
This is just a bite-sized description of the framework for yoga practice. Any of the limbs—or even any part of the limbs, say one of the yamas—could be fodder for years of practice. In future posts, I’ll elaborate on each limb.
But for now, if you’re interested in learning more, my book Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, is structured around the Eight Limbs and goes into detail about each one. There are also suggestions for ways to practice each one.