The eight limbs of yoga – asana and beyond

Two kittens curled up together
I’m sure there’s eight limbs in there somewhere. Image CC from Flickr.

Eight limbs of yoga? Does that mean even more contortions? No, it’s a reference to the eight stages of yoga as described by Patanjali around 2000 years ago. I realised that for a yoga blog, I hadn’t done much on discussing yoga history, yoga asana, and where it all fits in, so this will be the first in a series of related posts over this year.

So, to start somewhere in the middle, Patañjali is regarded as the author or compiler of the Yoga Sūtra, a text made up of 4 chapters with a total of 196 sutras* (short, pithy sentences) encapsulating complex philosophical ideas on yoga. Over time this approach came to represent an authoritative system of yoga that began to gain favour, despite the numerous other yoga schools that existed then (and now). The Yoga Sūtra work was probably compiled between 200BCE and 200CE and is now the framework for the system of yoga that we know of as Raja or Classical yoga.

Within the second chapter of the Yoga Sūtra, he outlines the ‘eight stages’ (ashtanga – asta is eight in Sanskrit) or eight limbs of yoga (Chapter 2, sutra 29). (This ashtanga yoga is not to be confused with ashtanga yoga as popularised by Pattabhi Jois). Asana is mentioned within the list of eight limbs but there are no specific asana listed in the rest of the Yoga Sūtra. The eight limbs are:

  • Yama – ethical restraints (the don’ts x 5)
  • Niyama – ethical observances (the dos x 5)
  • Āsana – postures, to be steady and held with ease
  • Prāṇāyāma – conscious control of the breath
  • Pratyāhāra – withdrawal of the senses
  • Dhāraṇā – concentration, one-pointedness of mind
  • Dhyāna – meditation
  • Samādhi – a superconscious state

It was generally expected that a student of yoga would start at the beginning, mastering the yama and niyama and progress through the limbs. Asana therefore, are an aid towards being able to focus the mind, meditate, and achieve a state of profound inter-connection:

The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to Samadhi.” (Yoga Sutra, chapter 2, sutra 2, translation by Iyengar, 2002).

“Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness” (S1.2) (Iyengar, 2002)

It’s generally accepted that in the West ‘yoga’ tends to mean asana. And to some extent, that’s great as lots of people have benefited hugely from practising yoga asana, and it can be a great way of someone incorporating exercise into their life. It can be therapeutic for specific conditions, it can be a useful form of exercise for cross-trainers, good for runners and cyclists, pregnant women, good for people managing stress etc.

And to a yoga beginner, it may be scary enough to come to a yoga class where people might be doing strange things with their arms and legs, without trying to understand the finer points of pratyāhāra (or trying to remember and pronounce odd names).

But if you’ve been practising yoga for a while and are interested in finding out more, you may want to begin to explore some of the other limbs of yoga. I’ll work my way through the eight limbs on the blog this year.

Further reading:

  • Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.
  • Yoga Journal: Learn the eight limbs of yoga (article)
  • Feuerstein, Georg (2008). The Yoga Tradition: Its history, literature, philosophy and practice..

* Sutras are a particular style of literature. Because each sutra is concise, further explanation was given in additional texts or commentaries. Different people wrote their commentaries from different perspectives. At that time, yoga would most likely have been practised by men in remote ashrams and secluded communities. Prior to written texts, learning was passed on directly from guru to student orally and through living it daily.

Links to my blog posts on each of the 8 limbs:

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