There are 196 verses in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The verses are divided into four sections, and it’s not until we are close to halfway through these verses that we encounter the eight limbs of yoga.
The second second of the Yoga Sutras is about the spiritual discipline. In sutra 2.28, Patanjali tells us to practice yoga! In sutra 2.29, he tells us more about the practice, noting that there are eight aspects of the practice—the eight limbs of yoga. Note that in the translation below uses the word “union” instead of yoga. Yoga, of course, means union.
The eight limbs of Union are self-restraint in actions, fixed observance, posture, regulation of energy, mind-control in sense engagements, concentration, meditation, and realization. (Sutra 2.29)
The eight limbs of yoga today
In your yoga classes, may hear the Sanskrit terms for the eight limbs of yoga. In fact, the Sanskrit terms may be more familiar to some than the English translations. They are:
- yamas (self-restraint in actions)
- niyamas (fixed observance)
- asana (posture)
- pranayama (regulation of energy)
- pratyahara (mind-control in sense engagements)
- dharana (concentration)
- dhyana (meditation)
- samadhi (realization)
Moving Through the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Most of us focus on the third and fourth limbs. In fact, in some cases, we only practice postures—the third limb. Sometimes we sprinkle in breathing techniques and meditation. It’s important to note that meditation may refer to a variety of practices that are a bit different from meditation in classical yoga.
Take your yoga practice to the next level
If we want to approach the goal of yoga—union with the divine—we need to practice all eight limbs of yoga. For many of us, that means a look at our actions and how we carry ourselves (the yamas and niyamas). There are five yamas and five niyamas Patanjali offers as tenets for living our daily lives. Very briefly, the yamas are kindness, truthfulness, refraining from taking what is not ours, chastity, and non-possessiveness. The niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and faith in a higher power.
In addition to modifying the way we conduct ourselves as yogis, our practice may benefit from more emphasis on breathing practices (pranayama). We practice pranayama to regulate energy and use it more effectively. By energy, I mean the life force known to yogis as prana.
We may also need to spend more time on mindfulness and meditation and less time on things that distract us from our goal as yogis. The goal of physical yoga and breathing practices is to prepare the body for meditation, which ultimately leads to samadhi, or union with the divine.
So, yoga is more than an hour on the mat doing physical postures and a few moments of breathing practices and meditation. Of course that doesn’t mean that hour isn’t wonderful if it’s as far as you go. But in its fullness, yoga is a lifestyle practice with many aspects.
Do you practice all eight limbs of yoga, or do you tend to emphasize asana alone? Is there a limb you’d like to explore in more depth? There are many ways to learn more. Read books, attend workshops or immersions, or maybe even become a yoga teacher! There are endless ways to continue the yoga journey!