A beginners guide to the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga and my own experience

Although in the Western world yoga is predominately seen as a physical form of exercise, the ultimate aim of yoga is to unite body, mind and spirit so as to live in peace, good health & harmony. 

Yoga has been practiced for many thousands of years, surrounded in mysticism at first as it was perfected by the ancient sages in India and passed down verbally from sage to sage until approximately 200AD when the sage Patanjali wrote the "Yoga Sutras", a sacred text describing the inner workings of the mind and eight steps to master to achieve this harmony. 

Patanjali explains the results of practicing the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga in sutra 2.27:

"By practice of the stages (limbs) of yoga, all the impurities are eliminated and a (gradual) kindling of knowledge occurs until the (full) illumination of awareness of reality occurs".  

By practicing the eight limbs of yoga we can begin to remove the impurities of mind, body and spirit and find harmony with ourselves and with the universe.

Most people are surprised to hear that asana (physical yoga as practiced in most yoga classes) is only one of the eight limbs, so without further ado the eight limbs are:

  • Yamas: Restraints
  • Niyamas: Observances
  • Asana: Posture
  • Pranayama: Breath control
  • Pratyahara: Control of the senses
  • Dharana: Intense Focus
  • Dhyana: Meditation
  • Samadhi: Union 

This (very home-made) diagram might help to visualise it more. No laughing at my stick yogi, unfortunately I wasn't blessed with great artistic talents!!

The 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga

The first two limbs relate to moral, personal development and are further broken down into 5 points. The five Yamas, or restraints deal with ones ethical standards, sense of integrity and everyday behavior. They are broken down into the following 5 restraints:

  • Ahimsa, which relates to practicing non-violence in your daily life. Non-violence and non-harm or injury toward any living thing including, plants, animals, other humans and, of utmost importance, yourself. It encompasses three levels of violence: physical, verbal and the most subtle, thought level violence. Thought level violence is perhaps the hardest to control, it involves eliminating all negative thoughts and feelings of hatred, malice, jealousy etc not only towards others but also towards yourself. Personally I have stopped eating meat, and am changing my attitude towards creepy crawlies in my home (I'm still working on cockroaches, but I have made my peace with spiders!) as they are living things too! I try to consciously do all acts with kindness, although, of course I am human and sometimes fail, I am better person for trying. Thought violence has been the most challenging to master as it requires a significant shift in attitude from within. Everywhere we look we are surrounded by media promoting unreachable, impossible standards of beauty which can make one feel inadequate entering into negative, violent thought patterns toward the self. Really though, even if you did have slightly bigger boobs and a flatter tummy you would still find something else to attach to and think negatively about. I am working on accepting myself as I am and turning any negative thoughts into something positive!  
  • Satya translates to truthfulness. Truth not only in your words, but in acting true to your thoughts and words. Lying creates many thoughts in the mind which goes against the aim of yoga to calm and unite the mind. Personally, I am working on being true to myself in a world that is constantly trying to turn you into something else, being true to myself rather than a liar to everyone else.
  • Asteya relates to non-stealing. This one doesn't need much elaboration! Although I may have some bad karma from the stone I put in my mouth and swallowed in a shop as a one year old, since then I have been doing my best to refrain from stealing. Phew.
  • Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy, rather, it encourages responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth. It means that we don’t use sexual energy in any way that might harm others or cause dis-respect to others and yourself. My personal interpretation of brahmacharya is that in this day and age total celibacy is unrealistic, but rather respecting yourself and your body at all times.
  • Aparigrah relates to non-hoarding and non-attachment. It inspires us to not be possessed by our possessions, rather as Ghandi once said to be "free from greed" and happy and content with what we have, not accumulating beyond our needs. This has been one of the hardest yamas for me to grasp, I seem to like collecting things! Furthermore, having spent the majority of my life living in London, it was difficult not to be engulfed in a world of pretension and material goods, but I am trying to undo all of that! Whilst I am not quite ready to send my Mulberry bag to the charity shop yet, I certainly do not feel the need to buy anymore, and have significantly cut down on unnecessary purchases and am happy with all I have! I still have a lot more work to do on this one....

The five Niyamas, also known as observances also deal with moral, personal development and are broken down into the following five observances:

  • Sauca, or purity, relates to external purity in cleanliness of body, dress and surroundings but also the deeper, subtler internal purity of the mind's thoughts and feelings, and the purity of a healthy body. External purity may seem like an obvious, easy one but I have found it amazing what having a clear, clean and calm external space can do to help with the purity of the mind. I am still working on the internal purity, aside from the thoughts I relate this to diet and any skincare products too - if I am not eating well and putting clean food into the body then you can't expect to have a 'clean, healthy' body. I try to eat organic as much as possible, and also to use organic products free from SLS, parabens and phthalates (see my blog post on these nasties here). Of course I am human, and I can't pretend that I don't like ice-cream and tequila too but I am trying to cut down (especially on the alcohol) and I feel much better for it, both inside and out.
  • Santosa means contentment with what we have. To be at peace within, and content with one's lifestyle. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything (even the bad things)- yoga calls it karma – and aim to cultivate contentment 'to accept what happens'. My personal interpretation of this one is working at being perfectly happy with what I have rather than being unhappy about what I don't have. We have too many reasons to be grateful in life, sadly we take most of them for granted and focus on what we don't have instead.
  • Tapas, unfortunately does not relate to the Spanish cuisine, instead it relates to austerity. It is willful self-denial to certain things that you have daily in order to gain mastery over the mind and strengthen ourselves both physically and mentally. Daily practice of yogic principles is considered tapas, and that is how I am observing this niyama. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way of a daily practice, but I am learning to be more disciplined with myself.
  • Svadhyaya is the process of self-study or self inquiry. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies. I am currently working on accepting my limitations, both physically and mentally and the hardest part about it is that these change daily so also having to accept that change really is the only constant in our lives.
  • Ishvara Pranidhana is the celebration of the spiritual. It is the surrender to cosmic will and accepting life and all it's experiences, the favorable and the unfavorable are a result of our past actions. If we accept every experience without resistance the mind can be free from negative emotions and thoughts. I truly believe that everything (the good and the bad) happens for a reason, and that everyone you meet is brought into your life for a reason. Most of the time we are not wise enough to be able to see the reason, but I have absolute faith it is there!

The next two limbs, asana and pranayama, deal with the physical body. Asana which literally translates to postures refers to the physical yoga we practice in a yoga class. Besides the hundreds of physical benefits (in a nutshell: improved health, strength, balance and flexibility but I'll do a proper post on these soon, I promise!) gained from a regular physical yoga practice, asana prepares the body for meditation. One can only begin to calm the mind when the body is calm and comfortable too; as the body and mind are intimately connected if the body is agitated the mind will be agitated as a result. In order to meditate successfully one must develop a very steady posture. Furthermore the posture must be kept still for a long time and therefore it needs to be extremely comfortable. I aim to practice asana daily, and aside from all the amazing physical benefits of this practice I believe it also makes me a better person. After my asana practice my mind is calm, released from stress and I find that I handle situations throughout the day in a much better way thanks to this inner calm. I am also now able to sit comfortably in a steady posture for a good length of time. During my yoga teacher training course this was not the case, much to my frustration! I couldn't sit still for more than a few minutes without needed to wiggle slightly, or without my leg falling asleep and getting pins and needles. I thought I would never master the art, but as with most things in life practice, practice practice. 

Pranayama and asana are intimately connected as pranayama should be practiced throughout any asana practice too. Pranayama refers to measuring, controlling and directing the breath. Pranayama controls the vital energy (prana) within the body, in order to restore, rejuvenate, maintain health and to promote evolution.  When practiced together, asana and pranayama are considered to be the highest form of purification for the body, mind and spirit.  The practices combined light an internal fire of purification which help to purify the energy channels within the body (the nadis). The promotes general wellbeing by strengthening the respiratory system and soothing the nervous system as well as calming the mind. Since deepening my yoga journey, I have become a convert to the power of the breath. Once you can begin to breathe deeply, freely and properly and stop holding your breath (why do we all do this?!) life changes! Practicing asana without pranayama is a hugely different experience to when the two are connected. Pranayama helps you sink deeper into each pose, to focus and to let go.

The next two limbs are pratyahara and dharana which focus on your psychological, emotional personality development.  Pratyahara refers to control and withdrawal of the senses. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli,  for example closing the eyes. Staying aware of, yet not attaching to our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth. This is my first stage of my meditation practice, closing my eyes and turning the outside world off, beginning to watch your thoughts as an observer without actually engaging with them. It's not easy, and I have to keep bringing myself back to just watching not engaging, but each day I can watch for that little bit longer.

Dharana relates to intense focus, one-pointedness. Having relieved ourselves from outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind.  In dharana we create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and the focus on this one point that we have chosen becomes more intense. We encourage one particular activity of the mind and, the more intense it becomes, the more the other activities of the mind fall away. Extended periods of this concentration naturally lead to dhyana, meditation. Dharana is stage two in my meditation practice,  personally I focus all of my energies onto my third eye and begin to feel a flow of energy here as the distractions melt away. This experience is totally unique to you, and will never be the same as what someone else experiences so just go with it. 

The final two limbs, dhyana and samadhi deal with spiritual personality development. Dhyana is translated as meditation, it is an extension from dharana but whereas dharana requires effort to focus, dhyana is a very natural, effortless state. The mind has quietened and is still. The perseverance it takes to reach this stage can be tremendous, but don't give up, I'm not giving up! It seems totally impossible at first, my mind refuses to quieten but with practice and perseverance, I am gradually begin to notice slightly longer pauses between each thought and I relish that space between each thought, calm and still. 

The final limb samadhi, is described as a state of ecstasy, of peace and blissfulness and oneness with the world. It is the ultimate aim of yoga, the ultimate union between body, mind and spirit and a profound connection with the divine and all living things. A state of peace, joy, fulfillment and freedom, what more could you desire! States which cannot be bought, only experienced. Much practice is needed to enter samadhi, and a regular daily practice of all eight limbs must be adhered to. 

I still feel light years away from reaching samadhi, and I am not sure if my penchant for a little shot of cafe patron will ever allow me to reach it fully, however I do feel that, even though I am not perfect and never will be, practicing the eight limbs is making me a better, happier person allowing me to worry less, smile more and be grateful for the little things in life.