Get to Know the Eight Limbs of Yoga

Patanjali's eight-fold path offers guidelines for a meaningful and purposeful life. Delve into this prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline.


MARA CARRICO | YOGA JOURNAL | UPDATED: JUL 10, 2017 | ORIGINAL: AUG 28, 2007

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means "eight limbs" (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.


1. Yama


The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."


The five yamas are:

Ahimsa: nonviolence

Satya: truthfulness

Asteya: nonstealing

Brahmacharya: continence

Aparigraha: noncovetousness


2. Niyama


Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.

The five niyamas are:

Saucha: cleanliness

Samtosa: contentment

Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities

Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self

Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God

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3. Asana


Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.

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4. Pranayama


Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, "life force extension," yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.


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These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.


5. Pratyahara