Off the Mat: The 8 Limbs of Yoga


Today I'm introducing a new series on this here blog that I am super excited about. Off the Mat will give some insight into what it means to take your yoga beyond the physical practice and into your every day life. You often hear teachers and gurus talking about yoga on vs. off of the mat, but what does that even mean? I'm hoping this series will clear up some of the confusion about that, ignite some thoughtful discussions and shed some light onto the ethical, breath, and meditative components of yoga.

I'm kicking off the series today with a quick run down of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. What are the 8 Limbs of yoga? Where did they come from? What do they mean? How do they apply to life today? Let's get right into it!


A Brief History of Yoga and the 8 Fold Path

The 8 limbs of yoga originate from the ancient text The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, written in approximately 200AD. In this text, Pantanjali lays out an eight-fold path for living a meaningful and peaceful life. In today's society, when most people think of yoga they think of the physical practice. And while that is an important part of the practice as a whole, the other 7 components are equally as significant. In fact, the purpose of the physical practice is to facilitate the real practice of Yoga - the understanding and mastery of the mind. So what are these 8 steps, you ask? Here's a mini breakdown

1.) Yamas

The yamas deal with the ethical side of yoga and are made up of the following 5 principles:

  • Ahimsa - nonviolence
  • Satya - truthfulness
  • Asteya - nonstealing
  • Brahamacharya - continence
  • Aparigraha - noncovetousness

2.) Niyamas

The second limb, niyamas, deal with self discipline and personal observances. Like the yamas, the niyamas are made up of 5 principles;

  • Saucha - cleanliness
  • Samatosa - contentment
  • Tapas - heat
  • Svadhyaya - the study of sacred scriptures and of ones self
  • Isvara pranidhana - surrender

3.) Asana

Asanas are postures that make up the physical practice of yoga. As I mentioned earlier, their purpose is to facilitate the other limbs. Yogi's believe that the body is a temple and must be cared for accordingly. Further more, a physical practice will teach discipline and concentration, preparing you for the other limbs.

4.) Pranayama

Pranayama translates to breath control. This 4th limb is about learning to gain control over the respiratory system and how that breath connects with and relates to the body, mind and soul.

5.) Pratyahara

Pratyahara is the practice of drawing attention within and away from the outside world.  It is a state of conscious awareness that allows us to observe our own habits and cravings. Pratyahara is what we practice during savasana.

6.) Dharana

After we remove ourselves from the distractions of the outside world in pratyahara, we our now ready for dharana, which is concentration. Dharana is the practice of focusing on a single mental object.

7.) Dhyana

Practicing Dharana for extended periods of time will lead you to Dhyana. Dhyana is best explained as an escalated version of mediation. It is here that we learn to go beyond focusing on one thing and into a state of being completely still, keenly aware, and with few or no thoughts. 

8.) Samadhi

Samadhi is a state of ecstasy, a feeling of being at one with the universe. 

How Do the 8 Limbs Apply in Today's World?

It is amazing that teachings from over a thousand years ago can have so much relevance in today's society, but The 8 Limbs of Yoga are a testament that they can, and do. The purpose behind the 8 fold path is to learn how the mind works in order to achieve peace and meaning in life. Isn't that what so many of us are seeking today? Can you imagine what the world would be like if we were all chasing that dream via the guidelines above? If we were all committed to being truthful, self-aware, non-violent, etc?