The history of yoga can be traced back 4,000-5,000 years, but in the second century B.C.E., the “8 Limbed Yogic Path” was introduced. The 8 Limbed Yogic Path is a step-by-step guide on how to attain the realization of yoga, or union, with the universal self. Credited to a sage by the name of Patanjali, the 8 Limbed Yogic Path was likely created by a group of individuals.
If you’re looking for ways to expand your yogi lifestyle both on and off of the mat, having a basic knowledge of the 8 Limbed Yogic Path is a great way to start.
Below we’ll scratch the surface of the 8 Limbed Path. If after reading this you’d like to learn more, we encourage you to check out The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (by Sri Swami Satchidananda) or The Yamas & Niyamas (by Deborah Adele). You should also consider signing up for Yoga Teacher Training where we discuss these concepts at length.
Patanjali lists five yamas, or moral restraints, which apply specifically to how one should behave towards other humans:
- Ahimsa – Non-violence, freedom from harming
- Satya – Truthfulness
- Asteya – Non-stealing, freedom from stealing
- Brahmacharya – Moderation
- Aparigraha – Non-hoarding, freedom from grasping
Paired with the yamas are niyamas, or observances, which apply to how you should conduct yourself on a more personal level. Like yamas, there are five niyamas:
- Saucha – Cleanliness
- Santosha – Contentment
- Tapas – Self discipline
- Svadhyaya – Self study
- Isvara-pranidhana – Surrender
We dive deeper into yamas and niyamas here.
If you have practiced yoga before, you’ve likely heard the word “asana”. Let’s face it – who doesn’t love final Savasana (corpse pose)? Originally, asana was tied to a yogi’s meditation seat; the word literally means “seat.” Asana also referred to one’s perspective based on the seat or situation a person was in. As the practice of yoga has evolved, asana has become associated with the practice of all physical yoga postures. This limb is about gaining control over our physical bodies. As asana is practiced and redefined, challenging poses become more accessible and the practitioner is able to find more comfort in each pose.
The fourth limb, pranayama, refers to one’s own vital energy and life force. Our breath is the most tangible way to work with our own energy and life force. This is why breath is such an important part of each yoga class, and why it can be used to manage personal energy off of the mat as well.
Pratyahara means “withdrawal from the senses.” In practicing pratyahara, one stops reaching out through the senses (sight, touch, etc.) toward external stimuli. Energy and attention is directed inward toward the heart and mind as opposed to what is going on outside of ourselves. Being less focused on the outside world allows one to meditate without becoming easily distracted (as you will read, meditation is the 7th limb).
Through the practice of dharana, we train the mind to focus on a single point or object for a prolonged period of time. The cultivation of a single point of focus requires patience, persistence and compassion towards oneself.
Once the body and mind have been prepared, we enter the seventh limb, dhyana, or meditation. In a true meditative state, the meditator is not aware of the act of meditating, they are only aware of the meditation object itself. Examples of meditation objects are: sound, mantra, image, intention and open awareness. The ability to meditate first requires the ability to concentrate. You can’t sit down and force yourself to meditate, but you can sit down and practice concentration. This will lead to longer and longer moments of meditation.
The last part of the 8 Limbed Yogic Path is samadhi, the experience of enlightenment and non-duality; the experience of yoga. Samadhi refers to a state of complete evenness or equilibrium of the mind. In this limb, you no longer experience yourself as separate from everything else. Instead, there is no separation between the individual and the universal – oneness is realized.
Achieving all of the steps of the 8 Limbed Yogic Path is not done overnight. To start, focus on a few of the aspects that personally speak to you. Like everything in yoga, these teachings take practice. Enjoy learning more about them!