What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the word “yoga?” You probably thought about rolled-out yoga mats, women in athletic wear going through yoga poses, and a teacher guiding them through a class. The yoga poses we practice, called asanas, are an essential part of yoga. However, Asana is just one of the EIGHT limbs of yoga. So, let’s discuss the eight limbs of yoga!
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
Are you shocked to discover yoga poses are only one of eight branches of yoga? Don’t worry; you aren’t alone. If yoga is a tree, each of the 8 limbs represents a part of the tree. Let’s discuss all 8 crucial aspects of yoga.
The First Limb of Yoga: Yamas (the roots)
If yoga is a tree, Yamas is the roots. What lies at the root of yoga? Yamas is a set of basic rules for living our lives, like a set of social ethics.
- Ahimsa means non-harming; do no harm to your fellow living beings.
- Satya means truthfulness; be honest in your words and actions.
- Asteya means non-stealing; take nothing that doesn’t belong to you and be generous to others.
- Brahmacharya means temperance; respect boundaries of others and yourself.
- Aparigraha means non-possessiveness; find comfortability in imperfection and recognize that it is a part of nature.
Living by these rules nourishes us like the roots nourish the tree.
Niyamas (the trunk)
Niyamas take the Yamas and incorporate them into personal practice to help purify our minds, bodies, and spirits. These consist of:
- Shaucha, meaning purity: clearness of mind, speech, and body.
- Santosha, meaning contentment: acceptance of others and of one’s own circumstances.
- Tapas, meaning discipline: committing to what is important, perseverance.
- Svadhyaya, meaning self-study: self-reflection, introspection of our own thoughts, speeches, and actions.
- Isvara Pranidhana, meaning self-surrender: understanding unchanging reality and knowing when to let things go.
Asana (the branches)
You know this one! Asanas are the branches of the yoga tree, the physical practice of yoga postures that helps us reach for the sky and expand our bodies. Asanas help us physically prepare our bodies for meditation by establishing and nurturing habits of discipline. Through specific asanas, we garner the ability to sit motionless and comfortable for extended periods and to push our bodies’ physical limits in healthy ways.
Pranayama (the leaves)
Pranayama is the leaves of the yoga tree. Prana means energy or life source, and leaves are the source of life for the tree. They enable photosynthesis so the tree can power the functions it needs to live. Pranayamas are mindful breathing practices, and breath is our source of life. We practice controlling our breathing with both calming and stimulating breathing practices. We can include pranayamas in our asana practice, so the two limbs of yoga are complementary. These breathing techniques help us focus and gain better mastery over our bodies and minds.
Pratyahara (the bark)
Praty means “draw in,” and “ahara” means to take in. To practice pratyahara is to withdraw from interacting with the external world without losing contact. It is a form of meditation where we draw our awareness inward. We close our eyes to remove our visual awareness yet continue to take in the sounds around us without reacting. Pratyahara is a fantastic way to create space between ourselves and the rest of the world, not to avoid our lives but to deepen our sense of self. Just as the tree’s bark protects the tree, pratyahara creates a protective layer between us and the world.
Dharana (the sap)
Dha means “holding,” and ana means “something else.” Dharana consists of mentally focusing on a single object like the flame of a candle, a mantra, or your breath. We use this practice of total concentration to quiet our minds. Dharana is the best way to ready ourselves for the seventh limb of yoga, meditation.
Dhyana (the flowers)
Dhyana is a meditation practice, one that the previous 6 limbs of yoga prepare us for. We become absorbed in the focus of our meditation. We use this practice to separate illusion from reality. When we make this distinction and calm our racing thoughts, we create more space within ourselves to find bliss.
The Eighth Limb of Yoga: Samadhi (the fruit)
The roots, trunk, branches, leaves, bark, sap, and flowers of a tree have one goal: produce fruit. Similarly, in yoga, the first seven limbs all serve to produce the eighth limb, bliss. We focus on our outer and inner worlds to arrive at bliss. Sama means same, and dhi means to see, so samadhi is to realize and see equally. We find bliss when we can see things clearly without disturbance from outer or inner sources. We can view our habits, emotions, likes, and dislikes without judgment or excuses. Samadhi is not a permanent state; it isn’t another box we check off. Reaching samadhi is a continuous practice that requires a commitment to the seven other limbs of yoga.