The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga are eight different sorts of practices or skills which one needs to follow or acquire, in order to work towards reaching ‘enlightenment’. Some say yoga is the ‘Quest of the Soul’. Enlightenment could be described as a deep understanding of the meaning of life and our place in the world.

Patanjali, an ancient sage, wrote about the eight limbs of yoga:

  1. Yamas
    Restraints or things we should avoid doing (the code of conduct).
  2. Niyamas
    Observances or things we should do to be healthy and happy (also the code of conduct).
  3. Asana
    Exercise or postures to keep the body healthy.
  4. Pranayama
    Breath Control.
  5. Pratyahara
    Withdrawal of the senses.
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi
    Spiritual or super consciousness, or bliss.

First we need to be living in harmony with ourselves and other people. This is where the moral code and code of conduct comes in. We call these the yamas and niyamas, these two make up the first two limbs of yoga.

Then we need to improve our health and energy levels by practising physical exercises, the asanas, and breath control known as pranayama. These are the third and fourth limbs.

If we are doing our best to follow the yamas and niyamas, and our health is good enough for us to be able to work on our minds without the distraction of pain, we may be ready to move on. The next limb will lead to the ability to meditate. Some people who are in pain a lot actually train themselves to meditate to relieve pain, but for most of us pain is too much of a distraction.

In order to learn to meditate first of all we have to learn to withdraw the senses from all the distractions of daily life. All the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that constantly attract our minds can be shut out temporarily when we learn pratyahara or sense withdrawal, the fifth limb. We don’t try to withdraw ourselves from what life has to offer permanently. It is something we learn to do in order to meditate for short periods of time.

When external things do not distract us then we can practise dharana or concentration, the sixth limb.

When we can concentrate on a chosen object or idea for a certain length of time, perhaps five minutes, we find we can start to meditate. The seventh limb, dhyana or meditation, can lead to a wonderful sense of being at peace.

The eighth limb of yoga is this state of peacefulness or bliss known as samadhi.

We may consider how these eight limbs of yoga can be included in everyday life. When we follow the code of conduct we feel calm and peaceful. We enjoy the company of others and they appreciate us too. This gives us confidence in ourselves. Physical exercise keeps bodies healthy and breathing exercises draw more energy into the body, so now we are healthy and energetic as well as calm and confident. The last four limbs relate to spiritual practises, which put us more in touch with our ‘Higher Selves’ or the ‘God Force’. This brings a much deeper meaning to life and helps us through life’s difficulties. Yoga is a way of living, as you will see on your journey through this book.

The eight limbs are explained in more detail in the stories that follow.