There are many schools to be found in traditional Hindu philosophy, but the one that has managed to travel far and wide across the world is yoga. This is the group of spiritual, mental, and physical disciplines and practices that originated in ancient India. The eight limbs of yoga show us how to live well by yoga’s principles, but can we apply it to modern life?
In these troubled modern times, the 8 limbs of yoga remain as relevant as they ever were, if not more so. Each limb can find appropriate and beneficial applications in our day-to-day lives.
To get a better idea of what such a mode of living would entail, well be looking here at each of the eight limbs as relayed to us by Patanjali. Don’t worry about the Sanskrit terms you’ll encounter here and there; we’ll explain to them as we go, and it’s a good thing to get a bit of familiarity with them anyways. The 8 limbs are as follows:
- Yama, also known as Abstinences
- Niyama, also known as Observances
- Asana, also known as Postures
- Pranayama, also known as Breathing techniques
- Pratyahara, also known as Withdrawal
- Dharana, also known as Concentration
- Dhyana, also known as Meditation
- Samadhi, also known as Absorption
The eight limbs of yoga denote the eightfold path towards nirvana that comprise a set of prescriptions to lead a purposeful, morally disciplined life. Such life is thought to be the way to achieving enlightenment, and the physical yoga asanas the Western world assumes to be the entirety of yoga practice only makes up one of the 8 limbs.
It’s important that we understand this point. Yoga for exercise is a form of yoga as interpreted in the Western world, especially, whereby the spiritual and moral aspects of yoga philosophy and practice are more or less cast aside. Most people barely know that there is a whole other world that yoga seeks to help human beings address and be at peace with.
We know as the eight limbs of yoga are referred to in the original Sanskrit as Ashtanga yoga. In many yoga studios and centers, you’ll still find this name in common use. It is derived from the words ‘Ashta’, meaning eight, and ‘anga’ meaning limb.
Upon closer study and practice, you’ll notice that the limbs of yoga have a concentric sequence, much like the layers of an onion, which seeks to work from the outside of the human being and his environment to his insides and spiritual being.
The personage we might assign most credit for our current possession of the yoga teachings from which the 8 limbs are derived is known as Patanjali. He was a sage widely believed to be the author of the classical yoga text known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is from the 2nd and 3rd chapters of this work.
There is some doubt as to whether he actually wrote all the verses (sutras contained here or whether he only served as a compiler for some of them, but with texts going back five years, we can’t really be sure. In fact, there are a handful of authors who assumed the name over the ages, further adding to the confusion.
After centuries in obscurity, it was through the efforts of such modern yoga revivalists as Swami Vivekananda that the Yoga Sutras found their back into the public limelight and, by extension, saw the modern revival of traditional yoga philosophy and practice take place.
The massive health and wellness industry in operation today, of which yoga makes up a significant part, is doing well in keeping the teachings contained in the Yoga Sutras alive and well. Thousands benefit from its teachings and practices all over the world. As you live your life from one day to the next, let’s hope you can find its wisdom to be of use to you as well.
If you want to know more about Swami Vivekananda and when Yoga started in the US, take a peek at this article: When Did Yoga Start in the US?
There are a lot of tiny details that go into making up a complete and fulfilled life. The teachings found in the Yoga Sutras and outlined in the 8 Limbs of Yoga can be applied to virtually every aspect of daily living. However, it would not serve our purpose here to go into each and every nit-picking detail of your daily routines.
Many other blogs and forums are available for such purposes. Here, rather than go into massive speeches about when it’s OK to kill ants or what you should or shouldn’t keep stocked in your refrigerator, we’ll try and provide more of a guide on the meaning behind the limbs of yoga we’ll be looking at here.
The idea is to give you a general understanding of the intentions behind each prescription or teaching. As you live life with these in mind, you will find yourself eventually conforming more and more to the ideals taught in them. You will find things easier as time goes on as well, so do not worry if things seem out of your reach at first. As we always say, yoga is about progress, not perfection.
Let’s get right into it.
The first 4 limbs among the 8 are the tangible or those involving actions or works to observe. The first of these are the Yamas, which seek to teach us how to interact with the people and creatures around us as well as our inanimate surroundings, while the Niyamas are more centered on how we manage our own internal motivations, thoughts, and feelings.
Now, the Sanskrit term ‘Yama’ itself might be translated in various ways, according to who you listen to, but we can generally take it to mean self-restraint, regulation, self-control, or more along such lines. There are a total of 5 Yamas outlined in the Yoga Sutras, and these are as follow:
The philosophy of nonviolence in Buddhism in general and yoga, in particular, has been the source of great debate over the ages. While it is a key virtue applicable to all living beings, great or small, many feel that it’s almost impossible to observe it in modern times. It doesn’t have to be so.
While a true spirit of nonviolence will not only cause you to avoid harming people or creatures around you but will result in those around you automatically losing any sense of fear or hostility towards you, in modern times where so many are on short fuses, such an aura of peacefulness can be a valuable gift to share with the world around you.
The direct, simple translation for this Yama is truthfulness or truth, but in Sanskrit, the word Satya takes on a deeper connotation of essential honesty, taking into account a person’s speech, action, and thought. As one grows in their practice of Satya, they will continually find themselves shying away from the falsehoods and distortions, great and small, that we are prone to entertain in our daily lives.
Building this virtue within ourselves is no easy task by any measure, especially in the age of fake news and fact-checking, where we can’t be too sure who or what to believe in. Still, by keeping the goal of truthfulness at the forefront of our consciousness as we face each day’s situations and opportunities for honesty, our capacity for truthfulness will inevitably grow stronger.
One will gradually begin to trust the universe more as you grow in your own true nature, eventually allowing you to reach a point where you are very comfortable with your dharma, or the natural and right way of living. Perhaps even more so than with others, being truthful with ourselves is a great challenge, but one that we simply have to take on if we are to achieve our inner peace.
Try and keep track of your words, thoughts, and deeds, especially those that you know to be somewhat less than totally truthful throughout your day. This applies whether you’re at work, at home, with family, or among complete strangers. Ask yourself what prompted the falsehood. Once you can answer this question honestly and correctly, you’ll be halfway towards your goal of eliminating untruth and deception from your psyche.
Also known as Achourya, this is the virtue that relates to not stealing from others in any way, whether in action, thought or speech. Whenever we hear it said that we shouldn’t steal, it seems like a simple principle for a grownup to adhere to. The reality is that this can be one of the more rigorous virtues to live by among all the ayamas we’ll cover here today.
Our first instinct when we think of stealing as a concept is to think about the security of personal belongings such as cash, cars, jewelry, or even our phones. This is perfectly understandable in the modern world we find ourselves in, but it’s by no means the end of the matter. To get a real picture of our culpability when it comes to theft in our lives, we have to look well past our immediate material world.
We all steal a whole lot more than we think we do. We steal from our environment; we steal from our loved ones, and we steal from ourselves. When we take things without asking or without consideration for the other entity involved in the transaction, we are essentially stealing – be it in the currency of time, joy, respect, or even blood and life itself.
Of course, some of the selfish actions we take against nature and others might be necessary for our own life and wellbeing, so what can we do? Well, the incorporation of gratitude and reciprocity wherever and whenever possible goes a long way in offsetting our thieving ways and restoring our dharma to proper balance.
This is one Ayana that’s often misunderstood, perhaps intentionally, by many. Its original meaning refers to living a life of sexual continence, abstinence, or total celibacy to be more to the point. Many feel it is incompatible with their modern householder lifestyle that will, of course, comprise marriage and the begetting of children, but this is not strictly so.
In Yoga tradition, Brahmacharya connotes a conscious control of one’s sexual energies, which are dissipated by way of casual sex before marriage and infidelity within the marriage setting.
Traditionally, one would go through the ages of chastity as a student of fidelity within marriage, of partial renunciation as a yogi living apart from society, with the culmination of complete renunciation towards the end of one’s life. These age-based stages are referred to as the four ashramas.
For the modern citizen of the world, this might be a tall order to live up to, but the concept behind it still holds value to our health and wellness. A person who reserves their sexual energies appropriately for their age and development stage, keeping them in reserve for connections founded upon love and duty, will find themselves filled with vitality and energy.
Abusing these energies will leave one feeling emotionally and physically depleted and diminished, no matter how invigorating these inappropriate encounters may be. Loving everyone does not mean making love with everyone – no matter what Netflix would have us believe.
This is the Ayama that teaches us to guard against greed, covetousness, attachment, and possessiveness. Once more, the initial thinking of most will be that this is with regard to material things, but it goes beyond that.
We are instructed to be wary of becoming too attached to beliefs, ideas, relationships, or even our ideas about who we are. It’s a difficult notion to accept, but it makes more sense when we acknowledge the bittersweet reality that nothing is permanent in this world. Anything and everything can be lost to us in the blink of an eye.
Clinging to anything of impermanence will eventually and inevitably lead to pain. To be more direct in relation to one’s daily life, the principle of aparigraha seeks to teach us, essentially, how to strengthen the muscles that allow us to let go of things once we can no longer call them ours.
Modern living gives us plenty of opportunities where such a muscle comes in handy. We lose jobs; relationships fall apart; loved ones pass away; our favored political candidates lose or are defrauded in the ballots; and so forth.
The mature student of Yoga Sutra will find that such instances do not impact their inner serenity and goodwill towards the world overmuch. Whether we like it or not, all things come to an end, even us as individual beings. No point being down about it, is there?
The observances meant here are the positive duties that a yoga practitioner should make a part of their daily life in order to achieve health and wellness in all senses; physical, social, and spiritual. They are five in number, just as are the ayamas we’ve covered above, but vary in one major aspect – rather than address how we interact with the external world (don’t do this or that), they address what happens within individuals even if in complete isolation (do this and that).
One might refer to niyamas as self-training regimens of a sort. All this may seem like a rather fine distinction we’re making between the two limbs, but things become clearer once we look at what the niyamas in the 8 Limbs of Yoga actually call for. They include:
This observance calls for us to be pure, meaning clean in mind, body, and speech. As one might imagine, this is easier than it sounds. The constant vigilance it takes to build you, such as character, can only come with time, and it will eventually be natural to you.
Modern life offers us many options in hygiene and sanitation, which should be well-considered and taken care of each day to be physically clean. The purity of thought will call for more esoteric exercises such as meditation, which serves to steer our minds away from negative thoughts and impulses.
This may also be translated as a positive attitude towards oneself and the future, towards others, and the acceptance of all that the world brings. It is a sublime state of being characterized by a calm demeanor and unwillingness to allow disappointment to cloud one’s being.
Modern life doesn’t seem quite suited to such an outlook – you might come off as an unrealistic simpleton to those, not in the know. Don’t worry about that; you’re striving for santosha, remember?
Take all that the world has to offer with calm grace and considered humor. Happy people aren’t those with no clouds in their lives. They are those who know the sun is always there waiting to peek out behind them. Cringe all you want – it’s all true.
This also refers to the observance of austerity and perseverance in one’s life. Traditionally, this was achieved by constant meditation and severe deprivation. You may implement this in your life today by paying close attention to your duties, no matter how dull or difficult they may be.
As students, we build up our discipline through study, which carries on through our application in our chosen fields of work. Raising your children calls for stern discipline in a parent, not least because they will depend on you to instill those same attributes of discipline in them, and you can’t give what you don’t have.
Svadhyaya refers to the observation and practice of self-reflection and continuous introspection into one’s thoughts, actions, and speech. We are also encouraged to make use of spiritual texts that speak to us here.
It has been said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the Yoga Sutras affirm this wisdom. The idea is not to live your days as an automaton only and unconsciously going through the motions. True self-awareness is a prerequisite to self-actualization, and so you will need to take some time each day to think about what your purpose, aims, and motivations are.
With time and persistence, you will find that you experience tremendous inner growth, which translates in the real world as self-confidence, purpose, and a greater sense of your lace and significance in the world you live in.
A feeling of attachment to God, the Supreme consciousness, your creator, or whatever higher power you feel comfortable admitting to can only be achieved through deliberate contemplation of its being. It takes a leap of faith, however unsettling that maybe for some, but know that even the greatest leas can be achieved by baby steps. Well, you know what I mean.
To do this and achieve the feeling of being in tune with the purpose this power has in store for you, one needs to take the time to deliberately contemplate what this might be. You will be surprised to find that such contemplation can serve as a powerful tool in getting rid of the anxieties, depressions, and listless feelings that afflict so many modern-day inhabitants of the Western world.
Note: You’ll notice that niyamas by their very nature of being observances that take place mostly within our own hearts and minds are somewhat interconnected and reliant upon each other. Contentment, for instance, will hardly be achieved by a person with impure thoughts and actions. The discipline to sit still and reflect on oneself might only be possible for those with a developed consciousness of a higher power in their lives.
This tells us that we don’t really have cause to place niyamas or ayamas in any particular order of precedence or prominence. Ours is to keep all these observances and abstinence in mind as we navigate through this modern world full of trials and tribulations, but also filled with joy and glad tidings, with a true yogi’s heart – always at ease.
Asanas or postures are the signature moves of what the Western world recognizes as yoga practice. In truth, asanas have not always been the dominant aspect of yoga practice, with the philosophical and spiritual aspects traditionally holding much more emphasis. In fact, out of the 196 sutras treating yoga, there are only 3 of them talking about asanas.
Still, they have their place, and it’s an important one for all that. In the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the term is used to describe any position held comfortably for a long while by the practitioner, with the lotus pose (sitting cross-legged with the wrists resting on the knees or ankles) being the most timeless of these.
Modern yoga iterations falling under the umbrella of Hatha yoga may place more emphasis on asanas, but this will still promote your journey to overall wellness by relaxing your body, relieving stress and anxiety, improving your mood and energy levels, increasing your flexibility and stamina, as well as helping keep you generally healthy and full of vitality.
Pranayama refers to the practice of controlled breathing, as practiced in classical yoga traditions and its modern iterations. Those who practice yoga mainly for exercise will practice breathing control as part of their asanas, but as mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, it is a practice that stands alone from the asanas.
Patanjali instructed adherents to practice pranayama to prepare deeper meditation, meant to take place after assuming an appropriate asana. This rhythmic, steady breathing can be quite a departure from our normal breathing patterns, especially if our days are filled with errands or energetic young ones.
Pranayama can then be incorporated into your day as part of your unwinding routine as a way of soothing our minds and energizing our bodies. Deep breathing exercises such as those involved here are great at increasing blood flow to our brains, improving heart health, and increasing lung efficiency, among other beneficial outcomes.
Take a look at this article if you want to know more about Pranayama.
This refers to withdrawal or denial of the desires that make up a part of every human being’s life. It stems from the belief that the moment we feel that we want something, that thing will have power over us, thus preventing us from keeping in touch or becoming our higher selves.
Don’t let this lead you to think you can’t enjoy things in your day-to-day life – that’s not the idea here. Using your will power to resist your desires is also not the proper term to use here. The way to go about practicing Pratyahara in our modern lives is by turning our attention inwards upon higher thoughts and things.
By doing so, we neither ignore nor desire the objects in question – they simply do not exist for us, leaving us, leaving us free to realize that all we really need lies within ourselves, to begin with.
This is the introspective focus one might practice by focusing on a single inner state, topic, object, or idea. This singleness of mind makes the sixth limb of yoga and requires that you bring your mind back to the subject of your concentration as often as it might wander.
Meditation may be likened to the next level of concentration, in so far as it describes the practice of holding your thoughts on a particular subject, topic, inner state, or object to the complete exclusion of all others. Your mind does not wander off due to your great fixation. This takes practice to learn and achieve, but it is well within the average person’s reach.
If meditation is the next level of concentration, then absorption is the final boss. It translates to joining, combining, putting together, union, or harmonious whole. Here, the practitioner achieves a state whereby they become indistinguishable from the subject they are contemplating. You become one with the object of your attention, losing all personal identity, and you become one with it.
The last three limbs are grouped here because their applications and methods of practice run so closely together. The high school student will call on their concentration to take in whatever they’re trying to study in class, while an accountant might find themselves in a meditative state while deep in a complex spreadsheet.
The professor might find themselves so entirely lost in their chalkboard of equations that you would be quite right to say that they have become one with the equations taking shape on it. These examples only try and show how developing our abilities to achieve the spiritual states can serve us in very practical ways, even if in unexpected ways.
Besides, the meditation that takes place in conjunction with Pranayama and asanas in yoga is believed to be of significant benefit to cognitive function and mental health.
In closing, we may say that the 8 limbs of yoga are not to be treated as anachronistic relics of ancient times. The 8 limbs described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali have very real and tangible benefits to offer the modern world and those making their way through it.
Should your introduction to yoga be of the more physically-oriented brand, you need not let that worry you. Any start will do, as long as you make a conscious effort to explore the other limbs as we know them at your own pace. You won’t regret it.
- Ignite Yoga Dayton: The Eight Limbs as Life Practice
- Yoga Digest: How The 8 Limbs Of Yoga Can Change Your Life
- Yoga Journal: Learn the Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Wikipedia: Ashtanga
- Wikipedia: Yoga
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