top of page

Eight Limbs of Yoga: A beginner's guide

The path of yoga is often symbolized as a tree with eight limbs growing from the center. Each limb is independent of one another but they call contribute to the growth and stability of the tree.
A tree must create a stable foundation before it rises out of the grow towards the infinite sky

What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?

The Eight Limbs of Yoga are guiding principles on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They provide us with a foundation of moral and ethical behavior, self-discipline, personal development, attention toward our well-being as well as the well- being of others, and helps bring awareness to how we define and integrate spirituality into our lives. They are a pathway that can lead to physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

In the second century C.E., Sage Patanjali compiled 196 aphorisms in four books, or chapters, called the Yoga Sutras. In these passages, Patanjali describes the eight aspects of a Yogic Lifestyle and called it Ashtanga Yoga or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are outlined in the second chapter, Sadhana Pada (the chapter on practice): sutras 2.29-2.55, and the beginning of the third book, Vibhuti Pada (the chapter on the progression of the practice): sutras 3.1-3.8.

Ashtanga is the Sanskrit word that means, “eight limbs'' (ashta = eight, anga = limb). These “limbs” can be thought of like the limbs of a tree; each limb does it’s part to catch rain water and sunlight in order to support the center of the tree and its roots. Practicing each limb strengthens the self in it’s own way and through the practice of the eight limbs we are able to be our truest version of ourselves. The first two limbs deal with our moral and ethical conduct and cultivating self discipline, then the focus on the physical and mental health and the higher practices are more subtle and lead to absorption with the Universal Consciousness.

To practice the 8 limbs of yoga, start by picking one limb and working with it for some time, it can be a week, 2-weeks, a month. The point isn’t to rush through just to say you did it, you want to take your time with each one so that you can fully understand them and figure out how you can integrate them into your life. Once you have practiced each one separately, try to be aware of all of them throughout your day.


Yama (Social restraints)

These are ways to conduct yourself in society. Yama means restraint in Sanskrit so these can be thought of as the “don't” list and are things that we should be mindful of while interacting with the world around us. They are listed in order of importance and should be followed in that order if there is a conflict. Say, for example, that you are struggling between not hurting and being truthful, non violence should color your decision more than truthfulness. The good news is that if you adhere to Ahimsa, being Satya comes naturally. If you are truthful and honest, then Asteya will also come naturally and if you

don't steal it means you are content with what you have, so you are naturally practicing Brahmacharya. When you live in moderation you are content, you are right where you want to be, so Aparigraha will arise naturally. When you don't want to take from anyone because you feel content with what you have, it becomes easy to practice non-violence and the cycle continues.

Ahiṃsā: nonviolence, non-harming other living beings

Satya: truthfulness, non-falsehood

Asteya: non-stealing, not taking what isn’t freely given

Brahmacharya: wise use of energy (including sexual energy), self-control, moderation

Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, not accumulating what is not essential

Niyama (Observances or the “Do's”)

The niyamas are positive habits or routines that help to create structure and consistency in Yogi's life. These things help us build character and stay focused on our dharma (duty)

Śauca: Purity, clearness of mind, speech and body

Santoṣa: Contentment, acceptance of others and of one's circumstances as they are, optimism for self

Tapas: Dedication, discipline, patience

Svādhyāya: The study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self's thoughts, speeches and actions

Īśvarapraṇidhāna: Devotion, dedication to the ideal of pure awareness, true self


“That posture which is steady and comfortable is asana.” -Yoga Sutras 2.46

Asana means posture in Sanskrit. We practice asanas to keep the physical body strong and healthy as well as to help pull toxins out of the body. Asanas help to strengthen the muscles, especially around the spine, so that we can sit in one place for extended periods without constantly shifting and moving to extinguish those sensations. The purpose of asana practice was actually to prepare the body to be still for long periods of time during meditation, so we have to stay active in order to be able to remain still. When the body is quiet and content, our awareness can move inward and concentrate on the more subtle aspects of the self without being distracted.

“The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing, of loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite.
-Yoga Sutras 2.47


Pranayama has three movements: prolonged and fine exhalation, and retention; all regulated with precision according to duration and place.”
- Yoga Sutras 2.50

Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is achieved.” -Yoga Sutras 2.49

Prana = Life force energy and Ayama = not to restrict or to lengthen, so pranayama is the practice of liberating the breath. Prana is life, Yogis believe that our life is dependent on the amount of breaths we take. The more breaths we take, the more life we are using and the quicker we die. The goal of pranayama is to control the flow of prana and concentrate it so that we can take fewer breaths to sustain our lives. The average person takes about 15 breaths per minute but the yogi can slow the breath down to about 5 breaths per minute, maybe even less. What we discover through the practice of pranayama is that the breath is intimately linked with the mind and we can use that relationship to take control of how we feel and react in life. There are practices that will build heat and raise energy when we feel tired or burnt out, and there are practices that will elicit calm and relaxing energy into the self when we are too excited and need to calm down.


When the mental organs of senses and actions cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara, and is the fifth step.”
-Yoga Sutras 2.54

Pratyahara comes from two Sanskrit roots; Prati meaning “against” or “withdraw”, and ahara meaning “food” referring to anything taken in from the outside. Pratyahara can be understood as controlling the senses or withdrawing our attention from external influences. This stage is an important bridge from the external practices of the first four limbs and the more subtle and internal practices of the later limbs. Our attention is always pointed out, constantly searching for stimulation, lights, sounds, smells, touch, our senses use these to interact with the world around us. We actually begin to believe that the senses are all there is in the world because we don't allow ourselves to detach from them, and as a result our actions end up being ruled by them. We only want to accept the “good” things and avoid or ignore the “bad” things but this seesaw relationship leads to a constant desire to search out the “good” and a terrifying fear when a “bad” situation comes around.

Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.”
-Yoga Sutras 2.55

Pratyahara is turning our attention inward, to notice the act of taking in the outside world. Our senses are like the instruments through which we experience the beauty of the world and sense withdrawal is turning our attention to each sense individually and watching how each works to interact with the world. When we are not bothered by every new noise or flashing light, we are able to concentrate our attention on what we choose to instead of allowing the senses to pull your awareness all over the place. When we are able to concentrate for extended periods, it opens us up to the practice of meditation (dhyana), the next limb of yoga.

candle gazing meditation is a great way to practice pratyhara, or sense withdrawal. As you fix your awareness on the candle flame all of the other senses begin to withdrawal. eventually your eyesight becomes hyper focused on the flame. The rest of the world seems to fade away and all that exists is your awareness and the flame.
Trataka- Candle gazing meditation


Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place, and is the sixth of the eight rungs.”
-Yoga Sutra 3.1

Dharana means “concentration” in Sanskrit and is the sixth limb of yoga. This is the first of the final three limbs, known as sanyam which means “control.” In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says the last three limbs should be considered progressive stages of deeper and deeper concentration. Cultivating our concentration will lead to meditation (dhyana), which is sustained concentration. Meditation then leads into samadhi (Absorption), which is the deepest state of concentration. Dharana helps to make our concentration one-pointed so that we aren't distracted by other stimuli. We can learn to remain focused no matter what is going on around them. Dhyana (meditation), the next limb of yoga, is being able to maintain concentration for extended periods of time.


The repeated continuation, or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called absorption in meditation (dhyana), and is the seventh of the eight steps.”

-Yoga Sutra 3.2

Dhyana comes from the word dhyai which means “ to think of.” When our concentration

becomes one-pointed and all the stimulation from the external world quiets down, we can begin to hold our attention in one place for an extended period of time. Dhyana is an intense concentration on an object with the intent of knowing the truth about it. When we practice trataka (candle gazing) we are focusing on the candle flame as if we have never seen it before, like we are trying to learn something new from it. Sustained one-pointed concentration leads to absorption with the object of meditation. This deep meditative state of mind can separate illusion from reality and lead to samadhi, the eighth limb.


When only the essence of that object, place, or point shines forth in the mind, as if devoid even of its own form, that state of deep absorption is called deep concentration or samadhi, which is the eighth rung.
-Yoga Sutras 3.3

Samadhi comes from the Sanskrit root words; sam meaning “together” or “completely”, a means “toward” and the meaning “put.” It is usually translated as “bliss”, “liberation”, or “absorption.” When we are practicing yoga we are always aiming toward samadhi, transcending the sense of self and merging with Universal Consciousness. It is a blissful form of total meditative absorption that can be reached through the continual practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. When we transcend our individuality we can release karmic seeds from our psyche and attain samsara (the release from the cycle of death and rebirth.)

The Eight Limbs of Yoga might be a little overwhelming at first but after a while they just become part of who you are. Pick one limb and explore it by itself for up to a month to really gain an understanding of it and to figure out how you can integrate it into your life. Take your time and explore each practice with curiosity and openness. After a while you won't have to think about what asana means, or how to practice ahimsa, they will be second nature to you.

Suggested Reading

bottom of page