When most people think of yoga, they think of the asana practice of yoga. The physical practice of stepping on your mat and moving from posture to posture to strengthen, lengthen, and create space in your body. But… Yoga is more than just an asana practice.
The asana practice is only 1/8th (or 12.5%) of what a yoga practice truly entails. In yogic philosophy, there are eight limbs (or parts) of yoga and the physical practice of asana is not even #1 (in fact, it’s number three!).
I think a lot of people miss out on the greatness of yoga because they assume that to be a yogi, you have to be a really flexible contortionist. That really breaks my heart, because I know the healing and the self-actualization that occurs with a complete yoga practice, one that encompasses all eight limbs.
What are the eight limbs of yoga?
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- Niyama (Personal Observances)
- Asana (Physical Postures)
- Pranayama (Breath Control)
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the Senses)
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyana (Meditative Absorption)
- Samadhi (Englightenment)
It is with these eight limbs of yoga that we can learn to live a more mindful, conscious, enlightened, and blissful life. These limbs were outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras more than 1,700 years ago. Today, they still hold so much weight and value in how we live our lives.
What do they all mean?
Here’s a high level download of the 8 limbs of yoga:
The first limb of yoga is the yamas or the moral code by which all beings should live their lives. They deal with our integrity and our moral (+ ethical) compass. The yamas are often described as our external observances, in other words, how we interact in the world. There are five yamas.
1. Ahimsa: nonviolence
2. Satya: truthfulness
3. Asteya: non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya: moderation
5. Aparigraha: non-possessiveness
The second limb of yoga is the Niyamas. Like the yamas, the niyamas are observances, but the niyamas are internal or personal observances. The niyamas are disciplines that we place into our own lives. There are five niyamas.
1. Saucha: cleanliness
2. Santosha: contentment
3. Tapas: self-disciplines
4. Svadhyaya: self-study
5. Isbara pranidhana: surrender to God/the divine
The third limb of yoga is Asana. Yogis believe that your body is simply the vessel that contains your soul/spirit, so it is imperative to care for your vessel. With the discipline of a physical practice, yogis are able to create not only a stronger body, but also a stronger mind + spirit.
The fourth limb of yoga is Pranayama. This is breath control or breath work. In Sanskrit, Prana means “life force” or “life energy.” Yogis have long believed that your breath is your life force, and the ability to control it and master it can rejuvenate + elongate your life.
The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara. This limb is based around the withdrawal of the senses. It is taking a step back and withdrawing our awareness from the outside world. When we take the focus off of external stimuli, we are able to look inward and objectively understand our reactions to the world. I like to think of Pratyahara as the ability to control your reactions and not let external disturbances (sounds, events, circumstances) get underneath your skin. You withdraw and do not let external stimuli have power over your inner peace.
The sixth limb of yoga is Dharana or concentration. Dharana is the concentration of the mind on one focal point. It is a practice of intense focus. When we are able to concentrate fully on one thing, we are able to quiet the mind. This is an integral limb of yoga, because without the ability to find intense focus, we will be unable to move forward to the next limb of yoga, meditation. Dharana is like the prerequisite to meditation. Once you are able to control your focus, you will be able to meditate.
The seventh limb of yoga is Dhyana or meditation. Dhyana is the meditative state in which you still the mind + body. This may sound similar to Dharana, but the difference is that with Dharana, you are intensely focusing, and with Dhyana, you release the control and focus. In Dhyana, you are reach a state of awareness without focus. You are fully in the present moment. Your mind is quiet and you have reached a spiritual and mindful stillness.
You simply “are.”
The eighth and final limb of yoga is Samadhi. Samadhi is enlightenment. It is reaching the highest level of consciousness. Samadhi is often explained as a state of pure bliss or ecstasy. In Samadhi, you transcend the Self and you realize that interconnectedness of all things. Oneness. Peace. It is this peace that is truly what most of us are looking for in life — in a deeper fulfillment and meaning of life. It is the culmination of all eight limbs to reach the final point of bliss.
Now that you have a better understanding of what a complete yoga practice entails, I hope you re-think being (or becoming) a yogi.
P.s. Still not sure on stepping on your mat and calling yourself a yogi? Read about the life lessons I’ve learned from yoga and maybe you’ll reconsider.