When it comes to yoga, there's no denying that a consistent practice can have great health benefits. Studies suggest that yoga can improve heart health, reduce stress, and help manage anxiety and depression, but there’s more to the practice of yoga than its physical benefits. Traditionally, yoga (also referred to as Raja Yoga) involves more of the mind than the body with morals, ethics, concentration, meditation, and more to help you live a more meaningful and purposeful life through a set of guidelines called the eight limbs of yoga.
The eight limbs of yoga (also called Ashtanga Yoga) are described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are ancient texts written in Sanskrit by sage Patanjali Maharishi. The Sutras, which translates to "thread," explain the study and practice of yoga that can ultimately lead to enlightenment and self-actualization. You can think of the Sutras as a framework to or code of conduct for a yogic lifestyle, whether you’re on or off the yoga mat.
Here’s our guide to the eight limbs of yoga.
The first limb of yoga is Yama, which involves restraints and moral and ethical guidelines that you can apply to daily life, anytime and anywhere.
There are five Yamas to live by: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. Ahimsa means non-violence and non-harm, which can be practiced through being kind and compassionate to yourself and to others. Satya means truthfulness, which can be practiced through honesty despite fear. Asteya means non-stealing, and not only in terms of possessions. It can also involve the ‘stealing’ of peace, time, or attention.
Brahmacharya traditionally involves sexual restraint or celibacy, but in modern yoga can be considered the moderation or conservation of energy through focusing inward rather than on external factors or desires. Lastly, Aparigraha means non-greed, which can be applied to not taking more than you need and non-attachment to intangibles.
The second limb of yoga is Niyama, which involves duties or observances. There are five Niyamas: Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. Saucha is purity or cleanliness and can be applied internally with your mind and body and externally with your environment. On top of eating healthy, it can also mean thinking positively or keeping your space tidy.
Santosha is contentment, which can be practiced by being happy with and accepting what you have. Tapas—which translates to "heat"—stands for self-discipline, which can mean building new habits that aren’t always easy to uphold but are good for you.
Svadhyaya is self-study. It allows you to be self-aware and see your true self (the positives and negatives), which can help you learn and grow as a person. Ishvara Pranidhana means surrendering to God or a higher power by setting aside your ego and trusting in the universe.
The third limb of yoga is Asana—which translates to "seat"—involves the physical movement and postures of yoga. It’s the part of the practice that most people are probably familiar with if you enjoy taking weekly yoga classes or the first part of yoga beginners may be introduced to.
Although challenging, acrobatic poses may come to mind when it comes to modern yoga, Patanjali describes Asana as a steady and comfortable posture. Asana was initially created as a way to prepare the body for seated meditation but could be difficult to achieve. Hatha Yoga—the combination of Asana and breath control called Pranayama—was created to help cleanse the body through different poses to obtain a comfortable meditative posture.
The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama—prana meaning "life force energy" and yama meaning "control"—through breathing techniques. It involves using breath control to activate, regulate, and expand energy, allowing you to focus and steady the mind, too. But it’s not as simple as breathing in and out. According to Patanjali, the breath should be gentle, slow, and controlled, which can help you become more disciplined over time.
The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara is the control and withdrawal of senses. Through the practice of Pratyahara, you can draw energy inward and focus without being distracted by your external environment. By being present and aware but not engaging with the senses, you can dive deeper into meditation and self-introspection.
The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana is concentration. Although all eight limbs are connected, practicing Pratyahara is closely intertwined with Dharana. Through controlling the senses, you can dive even further to concentrate and focus your attention on one thing only, taking you closer to a meditation, which is essentially concentrating for an extended period of time.
According to Patanjali, when you practice Dharana, you are training your mind. One way to practice Dharana is to use mantras, which is the repetition of a word or sound. Another way to practice Dharana is through Tratak, or gazing. You can look at an object, such as a candle flame or another visual, for as long as you can without blinking. You can then gently close your eyes and try to imagine the object in your mind, almost like taking a mental picture.
The seventh limb of yoga is Dhyana, the practice of meditation. Although Dhyana and Dharana may seem interchangeable, Dharana can be considered concentrating on one thing, whereas Dhyana can be thought of as the continuous flow of cognition. But long periods of Dharana can bring about Dhyana, resulting in awareness without the focus.
A great example of Dharana vs. Dhyana is described in the sutras as sitting down to meditate for an hour, but feeling like that hour was only five minutes. If you are thinking about the time that has passed, it can be considered concentration rather than meditation. According to Patanjali, meditation can feel a lot like sleep.
The eighth limb of yoga is Samadhi—contemplation, a super-conscious state, or enlightenment. It’s the ultimate goal of the eightfold path, bringing about a state of union and oneness with the divine or universe.