Monday, November 25, 2013

The Eight Limbs of Yoga - Astanga Yoga

Although the practice of yoga is often assumed to include only the postures or asanas that are cycled through during a class, this is only 1/8 of the story. There are a total of 8 different limbs of yoga. Yoga, which means to unite, is a practice designed to shed light on ourselves and unite our physical body and mind with our Higher Self and the universe at large. To achieve this, yogis from many thousands of years ago identified and practiced the eight limbs of yoga known in Sanskrit as astanga yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are yama (abstinence), niyama (observances), asana (posture practice), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), Samadhi (blissful absorption, super-conscious state). The following article will describe the eight limbs of yoga and discuss how each is used during an astanga yoga class.

"By the practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment," (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.28).


The Yamas are moral guidelines or vows on how a yogi can best interact with the outside world and other people to live an enlightened life. The Yamas consist of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (continence), and aparigraha (non-greed, non-grasping). Some of the Yamas one would abstain from while others are ways to regulate behavior and thinking. For a yogi, "these great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance," (Patanjali, 2.31).

With the practice of ahimsa one not only refrains from aggressive and violent behavior but also stops all violent thinking towards others. If we have a judgment towards someone, in a way we are creating a violent experience toward them. In class, we can practice this yama by withholding judgment of others’ asana practice. If it seems like the person in front of you doesn’t know how to perform trikonasana, instead of thinking, “they should have their hips in line and not lean over so much,” we can bring ourselves back to our breath and relax. In this way we are practicing ahimsa while at the yoga studio.

Satya refers to the absolute and unchangeable truth. This truth lies deep within us as the unchanging nature of our spirit. Everything else in the world is destined to change. Our feelings, life circumstances, relationships, the Earth, solar system, galaxy and physical universe are always in flux and changing. The practice of satya not only asks us to identify the infinite within us but also to respect that divine nature in all and speak its truth. We refrain from lying and offering up a false image. In class we can practice satya by recognizing our body’s limits and not going any further in those poses where our body asks us to stop. If we try to go beyond where we are in the moment, we are not listening to our inner truth and are trying to portray ourselves as “flexible” or “a great yogi.” By recognizing the truth within us, we are never wrong and can live in harmony with the universe.

The next yama is quite self-explanatory. Asteya or non-stealing directs the practitioner away from actions of stealing and eventually removes the root of this assiduous desire. B.K.S. Iyengar is his book Light on Life describes the depth of this practicing and how it can move beyond the non-stealing of another’s property or ideas. He describes how a more advanced yogi may be careful of saying a bad word about another so as to not steal one’s reputation from them and thus cause them to lose future money or property. In class and in the studio, we must foster an attitude of asteya because if a studio has a reputation for people’s things being stolen, practitioners will be distracted and keep thinking about the safety of their belongings. Thus holding strong to this yama, the yoga studio can be a welcoming place to all.

Spiritual advancement by education and training, sexual restraint and continence is categorized under the yama known as brahmacarya. If one’s mind is constantly distracted by desirous thoughts, there will be a struggle to maintain inner peace. In the same way, a yoga class should cultivate a space for self-study and peace so the time on one’s mat can best be used by avoiding desirous thoughts and maintaining focus on the breath and asanas.

The final yama, aparigraha is perhaps the most important and yet remains subtle in practice. This yama pertains to ego and one’s desire for more. On the yogi path, a practitioner keeps watch and does not grasp for what one does not need. There is modesty to life. A yogi need not eat more than he or she needs to horde more than is necessary for their living. In class, as yogis we don’t strive for others’ approval, we appreciate where we are and keep practicing.


Whereas the yamas described how the yogi should interact with the outside world, the niyamas are personal, inner observances. The Niyamas include saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (spiritual effort, austerity, and continuous practice), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidha (the practice of self-surrender, worship of God). The niyamas are personal practices for a yogi. How the yogi lives with his or her own self.

As a human being our bodies are constantly creating waste: exhaling carbon dioxide and releasing toxins, making new skin cells and hair follicles fall out. Cleanliness and purity of our home, body and mind are reflections of our inner peace and an important step on the path toward yogic enlightenment. It’s a process that never ends. In the yoga studio, we can teach the practice of saucha by encouraging students to come to class with maintained personal hygiene and minimized body odor. Students should respect each other’s space and not step on each other’s mats. After class, the teacher should encourage their students to place all props back where they were found and clean the sweat off their mats with a cleansing spray and towel.

The next observance is santosha which means good contentment. In no way is this to be confused with apathy or excessive passiveness. Instead santosha teaches a yogi to be grateful for their life circumstances, their body, their relationships and everything else that goes into life. There is much to be content with and as the yoga sutras explain, with good contentment comes joy and blessings. In class the practice of santosha can be taught to students who are straining to achieve more advanced postures or deeper stretches. By being appreciative with where we are in our bodies and our path, we can let our expectations go and live in the present moment. In that moment, we have infinitely more power and grace than when we live in the future or past. If students’ faces are tense and it seems they are pushing, the teacher can encourage them to appreciate where they are and relax into the asana with focus on a calm breath.

In my yoga practice especially with my experience in teacher training at Jai Yoga Arts, I have seen how not practicing santosha in one’s life can bring misery and pain. If I don’t recognize where I am in the moment and all the great steps I’ve taken to get to where I am, I fail to see how it’s possible for me to reach my next goal or achieve my next dream causing me to feel down on myself. By appreciating where we are and how we got there, we are gifted with a strength that can propel us toward any future with passion and grace.

Tapas is the practice of effort through the application of heat. This niyama helps a yogi burn through their karmas which are the buildup of their actions. When we do something it causes something else. These results can build up in our bodies, especially if our actions are causing stress and tension. Through tapas we are able to burn through these karmas and achieve a more open body and existence. Consistent practice is important for a yoga student; the dedicated student must practice every day. Tapas is also linked to austerities and inflicting pain on oneself. This could include not eating ice cream for a year and although this may be a painful experience since ice cream is so delicious, it is done to strengthen oneself and grow.

When students seem to get lazy in class or succumb to a bit of tiredness, the teacher can encourage the practice of tapas by heating up their breath with ujjai practice and with a physical assist to remind them to expand into the asana. One must learn to balance tapas with santosha (contentment). If there is too much tapas the yogi will be pushing too hard and cause harm to his or her body.

People are not just drawn to yoga class for physical activity. Those drawn to yoga enjoy the mental and spiritual practice as well as the physical asana practice. The fourth niyama is svadhyaya which is self-study, the study to know more about the Higher Self and the soul. This introspection leads to a greater awakening to the Soul within. As a yogi, there are several ways to practice svadhyaya. The first way is to read yogic texts like the Yoga Sutras or Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar. When studying these texts, the yogi can reflect on their contents and how the words connect to their inner life. But svadhaya is largely accomplished by careful self-awareness and observation. By looking within, we experience the universe.

In a yoga class, teachers can encourage their students to take an inward focus and feel what is going on within their bodies. The student is learning about the muscles in their body and the thoughts in their mind and thus practicing self-awareness which is the foundation of svadhaya. The teacher can also remind his or her students that the practice of yoga is for the individual alone and they are not in competition with their neighbors to get deeper into an asana.

The last niyama, ishvara pranidhana is total surrender to the higher power or the Self. With this observance comes the culmination of all the other niyamas, and life will naturally flow. If every action and moment of our life is dedicated to the Supreme, we cannot but live in peace. Everyone is part of a universal force that connects everything in the universe. We cannot control the results. We can only control our intention and effort in the moment. Once we can let go of our expectations and give them to a higher power and just do our best here in this moment, we will experience a more peaceful existence with more happiness and bliss.

In an asana class, students can be reminded of this principle with verbal cues that help them feel connected to the bigger picture. Through yoga, students will begin to see how their actions are part of a much larger universal stage and they are just playing their part in its perfection.


The third limb of yoga is by far the most recognized and widely practiced in America. The third limb pertains to our connection on earth. As a human being we bridge the gap between the earth and the heavens, and in order for us to truly reach our spiritual potential, we must be grounded firmly here on earth. This practice is known as asana, a steady, comfortable posture.

As many know, asanas are the “yoga poses” and postures we put our bodies into during class. It is a chance for us to release tension, strengthen our bodies, and connect with the earth.

A sequence of poses was designed to be practiced along with the other limbs of yoga. The ashtanga asana consists of sun salutations (Suryanamaskara), standing poses, seated poses and savasana. The sequence can be viewed as a metaphor for life and prepares the practitioner for death. With Suryanamaskara the infant awakens and begins to take form and build energy. The standing series of poses fosters the adolescent as he or she begins to find his or her balance and a sense of surefootedness. The adult finds their place in the seated postures until they finally pass on in savasana.

The practice of asana prepares our bodies for meditation and a higher state of consciousness. If our bodies are in dis-ease we will be uncomfortable and continuously distracted from our meditation. Asana practice prepares our bodies for the inward journey which begins with pranayama.


Pranayama is the mindful control of the breath. The inhales, exhales or retentions are to be regulated by either space, time or number and can either be long or short. During pranayama practice we bring our attention onto the breathing process. As we begin to control our breath, we start to regulate the flow of our vital life force, prana. The reason pranayama follows asana in the eight limbs is because pranayama begins to tap into universal forces outside the body and flood the body with strong energies. If there is a kink in the body’s energy lines, the prana can get stuck.  Asana works to release the blocks. Pranayama is a powerful practice that requires experience and readiness. Depending on the level of a class, the teacher must be aware of which pranayama practices they employ as uncomfortable sensations and thoughts are likely to arise during the process if the students are unready.

There are many techniques that can be used to practice the fourth limb of yoga pranayama. In class, pranayama is practiced through the consistent use of the ujjai breath. The ujjai breath builds heat in the body and creates a sound so the practitioner can more easily focus on their breath. Yoga students also practice pranayama when they link their breath with the Vinyasa flow sequence. They are using their breath in a controlled manor. In my experience, pranayama practice can deepen my relaxation into a pose. During my first year of yoga practice, after a vigorous vinyasa heat-building sequence, I settled into pigeon pose. With all my focus on breath, I used it as a tool to release the muscles in my hip. I felt the energy flowing through this previously blocked spot and I received a surge of power.

Other pranayama practices include nadi shodhan and kapalabahti. The first is a beautiful practice to promote a peaceful mind and can be used at the beginning or end of a yoga practice depending on the teacher’s style. Kapalabahti which in Sanskrit means “shining skull,” is an ancient technique used to energize and cleanse. It clears the mind, cleans the lungs, and strengthens the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.


The fifth limb of yoga is pratyaharah or sense withdrawal. "When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects (of meditation) and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyaharah," (Patanjali, 2.54). As a yogi, the practitioner recognizes that their senses are always screaming out for their attention. By practicing pratyaharah, the yogi can withdraw inside and prepare for meditation.

The practice of pratyahara becomes evident in class when loud sounds arise outside of the yoga studio like when a big truck drives by and honks its horn. If the student withdraws their sense of hearing away from the horn and back to their breath, they are practicing this limb of yoga. This also happens when the sensation of discomfort arises in an asana and if the student recognizes it and then diverts their attention to their breath, they once again are withdrawing a sense and practicing detachment from it.

Dharana & Dhyana

After one has skill in withdrawing their senses from all the stimuli of the environment, pratyahara, then the sixth limb of yoga dharana can be practiced. Dharana is one-pointed concentration on an object, place or idea. Dharana inevitably leads to the seventh limb dhyana or meditation. As described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dharana and dhyana are intrinsically linked. “Concentration or dharana is the beginning of meditation or dyhana; dhyana is the culmination of dharana, thus the two are two ends of the same process,” (Patanjali, pg 161). With the practice of single-pointed concentration on the object of meditation, the meditation process can evolve into the true meditation of dhyana which is an uninterrupted stream of consciousness. "Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward that object," (Patanjali, 3.2). "In meditation you have three things: meditator, the meditation and the object meditated upon," (Patanjali, pg 165).

Throughout the class, there is likely too much going on to have a single-pointed direction. The yogi is focusing on moving their body, breathing and taking directions from the instructor. However, toward the end of class when they are entering the practice of seated meditation, then the practice of dharana can be begun. The practitioner focuses meditation on some object which could be their breathing, a beautiful object like a rose or vast ocean, the light within their soul or anything they find enlightening. Dharana is an effort. One must continuously bring oneself back to the object of meditation and work to maintain a constant stream of consciousness. When the effort subsides and the meditation becomes effortless, then dhyana is reached. During the process one will not recognize they have reached a state of meditation because that will have broken the meditation. Only afterwards will it become clear that the practitioner was in a state of meditation.

While studying meditation on a retreat in Los Angeles, I once had an experience of dhyana that was amazing. Throughout the course of a year, I participated in five weekend retreats that consisted of sitting meditation, walking meditation and dharma talks, and little else. I had been practicing sitting meditation all morning during the fifth and final retreat. The practice was challenging and I welcomed the lunch break with my fellow practitioners. After we returned from lunch, we again took our cushions in meditation. My dharana was on my breath. I began to meditate on the oxygenation of my blood as my heart pumps blood and the blood reaches my lungs where it meets the breath and gets oxygenate. From this moment, I reached a state of meditation and saw the insides of my body sustaining my life in a beautifully complex breathing process. Time slipped away and nothing existed except the object of meditation.


The last limb of yoga is samadhi which is a super-conscious state of blissful absorption. Samadhi is not a sustainable state that can be maintained in everyday living but an experience one can have as an extension of mediation. Whereas meditation consists of three objects: the mediator, mediation and the object of meditation, in samadhi there is neither the object nor the mediator but only the shining of the object alone, as if devoid of form. One has communed with the divine.

Samadhi is a state where the observer leaves their body and even this realm. They have an experience where they are one with their object and transcend this plane of existence. Since samadhi is communion with the Higher Self, it is the only state of being or experience that is unchanging. If experience in class, samadhi would likely occur during meditation practice after the body and mind are quieted and one has connected deep within with their object of meditation.

Astanga Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga guide a yogi to enlightenment. Outlined many thousands of years ago, these eight limbs yama (abstinence), niyama (observances), asana (posture practice), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadhi (blissful absorption, super-conscious state) are still applicable to daily life and every situation within it. Whether our thoughts, relationships or life circumstances, as yogis we can use astanga yoga as a tool to shed light on our ignorance and imperfections in these areas and continuously grow toward an enlightened existence.

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