Yoga Philosophy > The Eight Limbs
By Suzanne Gray
December 1, 2013


As this is the foundation of the yoga system you are studying, it is important to know it early on, and thoroughly. Layers of understanding unfold over time, it is important not to underestimate the importance of this teaching.

Ashtanga  (ashta =  8, anga = limb)

In classical yoga traditions, Ashtanga refers to this system. Colloquially Ashtanga has come to mean the Ashtanga-vinyasa system as taught by Pattabhi Jois. While we will look at that later (and it is based on the eight limbs too) we will first explore the Eight Limbs systemised most notably by Patanjali. The eight limbed system is the foundation of most classical styles of yoga.

The Eight Limbs are:



The first two give instruction on how to live properly
The next three offer instruction on how to practice
The last three tell us how to transcend/become realized

Although they are in order, and mastery of one step has a beneficial flow on effect to the next, they are not purely sequential. They are at the same time mutually influencing. For example, living by the yama/niyama aids in our asana & meditation practice. When we live an ethical life, we have less on our mind to disturb or distract us during our practice. We begin to eliminate habits of the personality e.g ambition which is also beneficial to our asana, and lets us move more naturally into meditative state. When we practice asana, and our bodies feel more free and relaxed, we are more likely to be in a better mood, which will help us as we attempt to live properly in the world, and also reduce distraction in meditation. Similarly, regular meditation practice has a beneficial effect on our asana and how we interact mindfully in the world. Some traditions have taken one or two of the limbs as being most important. Some believe you only have to focus on the asana, and all else will follow. Some believe in the importance of meditation and are less interested in asana, or ethics. Some focus on right living without including postures or meditation. However the complete yoga system recognises all the limbs as being equally important and necessary.

The five yama are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacarya, Aparigraha.
The yama (restraints) allow us to live in harmony with others/within society.

AHIMSA: non-violence/non harm. “Himsa” means violence, the prefix “a” means “not”. Thus this instruction is not passive but active. It is a conscious choice to refrain from causing harm. It includes thought, word and deed. The goal of yoga is union, harm causes separation. Harm also arises out of thinking you are separate from others. The yoga system recognises the interconnectedness of all beings. Thus, when refraining from harm, you are asked to look beyond your immediate actions, to the consequences, the chain of events/outcomes linked to those actions. Thus even when shopping, you may refrain from purchasing anything that contributes detrimentally to the wellbeing of others, or the earth. You are required to be very mindful at all times, of all actions. The exact meaning of this yama is widely debated, some including any act of war, some excluding acts committed during war. Some include all sentient beings, (one of the reasons for becoming vegetarian) some focus on human beings.  Mahatma Gandhi, among others, is said to have thought this to be the most important teaching of all, he also said that if you stand by and allow injustice to happen you are not practicing ahimsa. In this way, we are also called to examine our social conscience and take action when we can. In today's world there are so many injustices, if we responded to everything, we would go crazy. Harm is self perpetuating. Imagine if everyone in history had lived just by this principle alone, there would never have been war in the first place. Unfortunately this is not the case, so we determine in our own lives, to be mindful first and foremost of our own actions and dedicate them to the highest good, and second to step in when we see harm being done when we can. The teachings of the Gita (which we will study later) add another perspective to the difficult question of war and conflict in general.

Satya is generally understood to mean truth/truthfulness. It comes from the root word “sat” meaning pure being. So it is the highest truth that we aim for, beginning where we are with trying to be as truthful as possible in our lives. The Mahanirvana Tantra considers truth the highest virtue, and states without it, no other spiritual practices exist. Truth is more than not telling a lie, it is not exaggerating, it is not misrepresenting a situation, it is not omitting something that might lead to the detriment of another, it is not making excuses instead of owning our behavior, desires or thoughts. Truth is speaking what actually is, not what you want it to be, not what you judge it to be. When you think of it this way, you cannot tell untruth. Instead of saying, “you were mean to me yesterday” you might say “I felt hurt by how I interpreted your behaviour yesterday”. Truth acknowledges that what we experience in the world is subjective. Absolute truth is rarely spoken. Some say it cannot be spoken. But we can use words to cloud truth or reveal it more fully. In the same way, when someone asks for your opinion “does this dress suit me?” you must remember to speak truthfully. “no it looks awful” is not truth. It is only a subjective opinion. Also it goes against the teaching of ahimsa, as it will probably be hurtful to the other person, and does not help either yourself or that person become freer from untruth. Perhaps you could answer “you always look beautiful to me” or “you are one of the loveliest women I know” or “I love how you seem to find your own style”. Something that feels real to you, and does not harm either of you. The sutras say one who has mastered truth controls the fruits of his labour. Some say this means that what you speak shall manifest. Others say it is that his actions and actual reality have become more synchronised. One day, we might find out, but in the meantime, put it to the test and observe the outcomes when you are truthful to the best of your ability, and when you are not. Especially observe the quietness of your mind. This includes white lies. You may have a different result when telling a white lie as opposed to something more serious, or not?

Non-Stealing. Again the prefix “a = not/non” indicates a conscious choice. Aside from the obvious of not taking that which does not belong to us, there are many ways in which we steal. We steal ideas, other people's time (e.g when we are late,  or manipulate them into doing something for us because we are lazy) their emotions (e.g when we play victim and distract them from their own path), pirating CD's and DVD's, keeping money when someone has undercharged us, not paying our due taxes, forgetting to return things, anything we take at the expense of another, that is not rightfully ours, or we gain under false pretences is stealing. Do you have investments? Are they invested in a company that takes the livelihood of others? That destroys the environment and pollutes the air (that belongs to all of us)? Then you are stealing. Ignorance is no excuse, find out where your money is being invested! Are you wasteful, resulting in someone else missing out or in a shortage of a valuable resource (e.g long showers in a drought)? Then you are stealing. The ancient texts also include not performing your duties/responsibilities, again because when you are not taking your share of the load, someone else has to give up their time, energy, money to compensate. You have then stolen from them. Again the challenge is to be vigilent every moment of every day.

This is an interesting one. Many translate it as celibacy or sexual restraint. Some as moderating the senses. This over complicates one of the simpler teachings. “Brahma” comes from “Brahman” meaning “the supreme state of consciousness/some people refer to god”. “Acarya” means “to walk” So Brahmacarya means walking in a state of supreme consciousness/ walking in God consciousness. Quite simply (but not necessarily easily) when you walk in mindfulness of the highest conciousness/god you are naturally led to live in an ethical manner, abstaining from harming others, and with a natural tendency towards harmony and the greater good. Again, try it out! Try holding the thought of highest consciousness in your mind as you move through your day, even for one hour. Notice the difference it makes to the choices you make, actions you take. One of my teachers used to ask “who do you want to serve, the big King or the little king?” The big King is the greater good, the small is the selfish egoic nature (including your emotions). If you stop and ask yourself before every choice/action, the answer soon becomes clear! It's a very useful strategy to help cultivate Brahmacarya, even if you are not always successful.
NB: “Acarya” also is the title given to a teacher who studies the sacred scriptures (of Brahman) and applies them – walks the talk! Brahmacarya can then also mean the conduct of such a teacher, and as such is something to aspire to. (This is where the confusion may come in, as many of these teachers happen to be celibate for various reasons, and as others emulate them, they think this is part of the requirements)

Non-greed/grasping. Literally “a” = not/non “pari” = things “graha” =  to grasp. Not wanting more. Again the “a” prefix suggests some effort is needed. It's hard to not want, you have to make a definite choice. Not wanting more than you need. Not wanting something just for the sake of it. Not wanting what others have. Not using/taking more than you need. Not craving things. Not being possessive. Not being selfish. Not wanting something so that another can't have it. Not wanting something from someone at their expense. Not eating too fast (how often have you gobbled down delicious food so quickly you barely have time to enjoy it and then you want...more!) Not trying to make things last beyond their natural time. Not trying to hold onto things. As humans, our obsession with the material is a large part of our suffering. When we constantly desire things, we become convinced we can only be happy when we have them. But when the desire is achieved, we are not happy (or only fleetingly) because we have already forgotten that, or it has not turned out to bring us the happiness we expected, and we want something else, better, newer, different. The old saying “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” reflects this dynamic. An example, we think we love a certain person, that they will make us happy, eventually we are with that person, but their breath still stinks in the morning, or we then start worrying about losing them, and fall prey to jealousy, or worry about them leaving us. We think we want something, but when we get it, it is never as good as we think it will be, and so we set our sights on something else. Another car, lover, food  flavour, it's endless. Or we try to hold onto something we have enjoyed or try to recreate it, like a blissful experience in meditation, which try as hard as we can, we can't seem to replicate and end up frustrated from trying. Wanting things always leads to suffering. While we want more we will never be satisfied. Therefore, we will always be seeking, our minds will always be disturbed, and we will always be distracted from the present moment (wanting is either in the future, or wanting something that we had is in the past). Yoga asks us to move in the opposite direction, towards a quiet mind, here in the moment, and this is the way to (true, abiding) happiness. Yoga asks us to stop wanting. Some interpret this to be renunciation, and ask to go further and renounce the world, our possessions. Renouncing the world is not necessary. True renunciation is the recognition that these external, material things will not bring true abiding happiness. Nothing will. So we can have a car, a house, good food, use it, enjoy it, but not believe it is the source of happiness and therefore not crave it. Not want it. Not hold on to it possessively. Believing in possessions means believing in the individual identity as separate from the whole. Separation leads us away from the union of yoga.

The Niyamas are: Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Ishwarapranidhana.
The Niyamas (observances) allow us to live in harmony within ourselves.
“ni” meaning inward “yama” meaning restraint.

SAUCHA (shaucha)
Cleanliness/purity. Again this teaching is both obvious and esoteric. It includes external purity (bahya) and internal (abhyantara). The external purification includes cleansing of the body through bathing, pure food & water, and clean clothes. It includes such cleansing techniques (kriyas) as neti (nasal purification) kapalabhati (a pranayama rhythm) and nauli (abdominal rolling). It is considered a practice of discipline as well as an essential ingredient to cultivating a yogic state of mind. Why is physical cleanliness so important? Again, test for yourself. On a day when you have worked and sweated all day and had no time to shower and then come to a yoga class, how do you feel? Energetically? Mentally? After eating “impure” foods such as fast foods, or refined foods & sugars, how do you feel? Energetically? Mentally? Not only is external cleanliness symbolic of the inner purity we seek, but it effects the quality of it. The kriyas go further making sure our nasal passages are clear, so we can enjoy a steady stream of breath and steadiness in pranayama practices. Kapalabhati makes sure our nadis (energy channels) and crown chakra (Sahasra – considered the gateway to higher consciousness) are clear and open and nauli ensures good digestion so we are not disturbed by the many complaints of the body when digestion is not efficient. So we create a calm physical environment to achieve and enhance a pure inner environment. We seek a mind that is sattvic (pure/balanced) and equanimous to allow us to enjoy the fullest experiences of yoga. To do that we must clean away the mala (dirt) of the mind, the illusions, the misidentification, the cravings, aversions and so on. Tools such as pranayama, focus & meditation help us in this process of mental/inner purification. According to the Bhagavad Gita saucha is a manifestation of knowledge.

Contentment. Being content with what you have (in this sense, the opposite of grasping). Being content with what you are able to achieve without undue effort. It is considered a discipline, an attitude you make effort to adopt. Where as grasping leads to an unhappy state/suffering (dukkha) Santosha leads to unexcelled joy (sukkha). It is also considered the fruit of dispassion/indifference. It is being free from the push/pull of craving (raga) and aversion (dvesha). It includes evenness  towards all things, whether hardship or ease, something you have attained or something that seems out of reach. It is being content with the cards fate has dealt you. It is letting go of the struggle against the realities of life and finding joy no matter what. It is a choice you make on what you want to focus on. St Francis of Assisi said that true happiness is not the cultivating of a large congregation, or building a large church, or being praised by one's superiors, true happiness is when it's a dark, stormy evening, and you are cold, wet, starving, and you knock on a door to beg for food, and they slam it in your face, and you can still feel the joy within you. This is the essence of santosha. It frees us from the rollercoaster ride of emotional  highs and lows and allows us to feel instead the expansive joy of being in the moment.

Discipline. The English language is sometimes limited. The word discipline in English has mostly negative/harsh connotations, whereas in Sanskrit, the word “tapas” includes in its meaning the joy/freedom that is the result of that discipline. Both the effort and the fruit of that effort are included in the meaning of tapas. Sometimes it is translated as zeal, which adds a little of that intention but leaves out the action that is included in the Sanskrit. Other meanings include heat/burning. This is closer, indicating when things get hot enough, a chemistry happens, and transformation occurs. The uses of heat are generally to purify, to alchemically change/transform, and so too is the purpose of tapas. Tapas is the effort/discipline we put in, with intention, to transform and purify. Tapas is the constant decision to come back to balance/to the path.Often the obstacles that get in our way are laziness, greed, comfort, which have a slothful feel to them, so we need something to fire us up, and overcome these obstacles. This is tapas. Sometimes the obstacle is scattered thinking, dispersion of energy, and we need focus. This too, is tapas.  We know that the evolutionary/spiritual path is not comfortable, but if we put in enough effort combined with the right intention, we can move forward towards our goal. The fruit of tapas is freedom. Of body, of mind, of limitations. We observe that when we practice discipline in our diet and lifestyle, we have the freedom of better health. When we practice discipline in our speech, we might experience the freedom of better communication and ease with those around us. When we practice the discipline of regular asana, pranayama and meditation, we gain freedom in our bodies, minds and emotions, and we know and trust that tapas will ultimately help us experience full freedom/liberation (moksha)  from the state of suffering/ignorance that we exist in.

Self study. Literally sva = “one's own” adhyaya = going into. Directionally inwards, it is not of the external manifest world. What is the self? The truth of the self? Discovery of the witness. Who is watching the thoughts, the breath, the body, seperate and serene? Who am I ? The quintessential question. What am I ? Who is behind the layers? Testing if we are what we think we are. Testing if we are our emotions. How can you know? What is the evidence? It is said whatever we can observe we are not. Can we observe our thoughts/breath/body? Svadhyaya is more than intellectual learning,  it approaches the quality of meditation (feurstein) Svadhyaya is going inward to discover the truth of one's own nature. Some say this means to discover we are god, we are perfection or that god flows through us. Some dissect the nature of the mind and how it works in order to best use it, but not be ruled by it. What we discover is also unique. We may find we agree with what a teaching has told us, or we may have a new perspective. Vedanta (the philosophy that grew from the Vedas -  the original texts of yoga) is continually open to including new insights and awakenings. This is part of the reason it is still so valid after thousands of years, and applicable even today.

Surrender to something higher/greater than the individual self. Surrender to God, surrender to the greater good, surrender to the laws of the universe, surrender to the truth. Recognising things will not always go the way we want them to, or we will not always have the freedom to pursue the things we want, but trusting it is part of a greater whole, that we may never fully understand.
Some call it taking refuge. Letting go of control and trusting that all will unfold as it needs to for the greater good of all. Some call it surrendering to the greater will, or the collective consciousness. We surrender the idea that we are fully in control. This does not mean that we just float, or drift. I like the old saying “trust in Allah, but tie up the camel”, indicating that although we may surrender/trust, we also take the necessary practical actions. Some translations describe is as “devotion to the Lord” (feurstein). The Lord representing the supreme/ideal.  We can then include devotion to the ideal. It is love that motivates our actions. This is the essence of Bhakti Yoga. Another explanation is the “offering up of all actions to the supreme teacher” This includes the intention of renouncing the fruits of our actions/labour. I.E. We do not do them for our own benefit, but for God, or for the benefit of the highest good, truth, others, and we acknowledge that we have no say in the outcome, nor do we have any expectation of reward. This is the essence of the path of Karma yoga. 

Commonly translated as “posture” or “pose” the literal translation is “seat”. Originally the term indicated the surface on which the yogin is seated. That surface is supposed to be firm, neither too high, nor too low, sufficiently big, level, clean, and generally pleasant.  (Feurstein) The yoga sutras only mention four postures, all of them meditation (seated) positions, and state the posture should be steady and comfortable, and also done “in a state of relaxation” Postures were generally considered only to be relevant for extended periods of meditation. Realising that many physical and mental imbalances were obstacles to meditation, the system of postures evolved to include therapeutic postures to develop a body free from restriction and calm mind more suited to the practice of meditation. This system is known as hatha yoga. Even though they were developed for this purpose, they are beneficial in their own right. The postures, when practiced properly cultivate a meditative state, and offer many of the same benefits as meditation, while being more accessible to the every day person. Ancient lore suggests Shiva developed 840,000 postures, as many are there are species. Only a few of these were recommended by Shiva for spiritual practice. The Goraksha- Paddhati states that eighty-four postures are particularly suited, while the Gheranda Samhita claims 32 are useful for humans. It is said there is a posture for every disease or condition known to man. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika maintains the proper practice of postures leads directly to transcendence.

“prana” = life force/air/breath “yama” = restraint/modification. Pranayama is generally understood to mean modification of the breath. Through breathing rhythms change is effected in the physical body, for example a stimulation or a soothing of the nervous system, and this in turn brings about change in a state of mind. The intention of pranayama is to develop a calm, steady mind and healthy nervous system, again to allow one to practice long periods of meditation without disturbance. As some of the breath rhythms have a stronger effect on the nervous system, body and mind than others, it is essential to learn from a practiced teacher, and to approach pranayama with great caution. It has been said the improper practice of pranayama can be injurious to health, and in the extreme even bring about death. Each rhythm of pranayama has a different purpose, some are to harmonise the body and mind, some to cleanse & purify, some to calm, some to stimulate, some to generate prana, some to gather and store prana. The only pranayama rhythms generally considered safe are nadi shodana and ujjiya. All others must be practiced carefully. According to Feurstein, in secular contexts prana denotes “air”. However in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, prana almost invariably signifies the universal life force, which is a vibrant psychophysical energy similar to the pneuma of the ancient Greeks. The Yoga Vasistha defines prana as the vibratory power (spanda shakti) that underlies all manifestation.  The sutras declare that pranayama removes the covering (ignorance) of the Inner Light (the light of spiritual discrimination between the real and the unreal). With such weighty definitions one begins to understand that playing with pranayama is as significant as playing with life itself, and must be approached with respect. Mr Iyengar determines that only a yogi with an established practice of several years should begin to enquire into the techniques of pranayama. Proper practice of pranayama brings about a blissful calm state, that naturally leads to the next of the limbs….

Translated as “sense withdrawal”, the sutras state “when the mind is withdrawn from sense-objects, the sense-organs also withdraw themselves from their respective objects, and are thus said to imitate the mind. This is known as pratyahara. Thence arises complete mastery of the senses” 
Many yogis observe where the mind/consciousness goes, the body will follow. The example is given (Isherwood) Just as the provinces of a country are controlled by first taking over the central government, so we must begin by controlling the mind before we can control the rest of the body. 
This control is said to produce the ability to “switch off” and produce a state of inward mindedness at will. This switching off does not lead to dullness, but to heightened consciousness. Knowing that the senses are what keep us connected to the external world and all its distractions and disturbances, withdrawing the senses allows us to detach from the external reality (maya/illusion) and focus on the internal reality (sat – truth/pure being). Ultimately we turn from the unreal towards the real. On a more daily basis, pratyahara allows us to maintain an inwardness, that means we are less likely to react to external stimuli/events, i.e we are able to hold our centre more effectively. The tortoise is considered a symbol of pratyahara, with the arms, legs and head representing the 5 senses, which he is able to pull into his shell. This is why kurmasana (tortoise pose) is considered to be such an auspicious posture.

Generally translated as concentration/one pointedness. When our minds are uncontrolled and reacting to one external stimuli after another, they are scattered and unfocused. When we are able to control the mind and withdraw the senses, we are able to achieve one-pointedness (eka graha/grata). The sutra describes is as binding consciousness (citta) to a single locus (desha) This locus can be a center of spiritual consciousness within the body, or some divine form whether inside or outside the body. It is as if we create an anchor to hold the consciousness steady. The Amrita-Nada_Upanishad understands it as the “compression” (samkepsha) of the mind into oneself. Feurstein states “the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, is fundamental to the yogic process of introversion. It represents a gathering of one’s psychic energy, which is accompanied by a high degree of sensory inhibition(pratyahara) and a slowing down of thought. Yogic concentration can have a variety of mental objects ranging from the internalized image of a deity, to internalized sound (nada) to a locus within the body. Deepening concentration leads to dhyana.

When one pointedness can be maintained, it becomes meditation. The sutras define meditation as an unbroken flow of thought towards the object of concentration. The Shiva Purana holds it above any pilgrimage, austerity or sacrificial rite. The Garuda Purana declares “Meditation is the highest virture, the highest austerity, the highest purity. Therefore, be fond of meditation.” (Feurstein)
Various texts observe different qualifications of meditation that either focus on form (murti) or formlessness (amurti). These are called saguna and nirguna meditation respectively. Nirguna  meditation has no immediate object but is a kind of absorption into oneself. The Yoga Yajnavalkya describes nirguna meditation as the persistent feeling of  “I am the absolute”. Some suggest there is a “grading” of the types of meditation, that those using objects are for beginners, while the formless are for the more adept. Others believe the technique is irrelevant, it is the outcome that is important. In either case, prolonged meditation leads naturally to obliteration of the individual identity to merge the absolute reality, or to attain the absorptive state of being called….

Samadhi is sometimes called enlightenment, or realization. It is a natural result of meditation. Enlightenment is merely the processing of bringing more light (truth/knowledge) to a situation. 
The sutras define Samadhi this way: When in meditation, the true nature of the object shines forth, not distorted by the mind of the perceiver, that is absorption (Samadhi). Then the perceiver cannot distinguish himself as separate to the object. Even in Samadhi there are levels of attainment. There are 5 layers of Samadhi : savitarka, nirvitarka, savichara, nirvichara, and finally nirvikalpa (seedless) the absolute attainment.

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