Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga are a constant companion in a life-long practice as a student of yoga. Most of the focus of yoga practice in America has been on one of the eight limbs, asana or postures. Without the other limbs, the practice is deprived of its power. Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga outline a very clear path to freedom. While they are called the “Eight Limbs,” they could as easily be called “Eight Petals” or the “Eight Spokes.” No one limb is more important than any other. Each limb can be utilized at any given time. This way yoga becomes lived. Its accessible to us in every moment.

The Yamas

The yamas are a code of ethical principles that establish a value system through which we can observe our thoughts, speech and action. “Yama” has different meanings. It may mean to “rein, curb, or bridle, discipline or restraints.” In the present context, it is defined as “self-control, forbearance, or any great rule or duty.” The yamas have been compared to rules of behavior existing in nearly every religious or social philosophy. All living spiritual traditions have guidelines for behavior: the Five Precepts, the Six Perfections, the Eightfold Noble Path, the Ten Commandments as well as the Vedic Smritis and the Confucian Analects. Traditionally, four of the five Yamas were stated as restraints or simply what not to do. Because phrasing things in the positive seems to provide a clearer path to success, I have reinterpreted the five yamas below in the positive just below the traditional interpretation.

Ahimsa: Nonviolence
Practice Compassion

Practicing ahimsa means we do our best not to and find ways of alleviating suffering whenever we can. We let our conscience be our guide and act accordingly. Those who formally practice non-violence often do not eat meat because of the obvious suffering meat production inflicts upon the living world.

When we are on the mat and practicing being compassionate with ourselves, we engage force without violence. It is what Buddha calls practicing “the middle way,” by learning to work neither too hard nor too easily. As a result we are just beyond a place that is easy and familiar. It also means being sensitive enough to attend and respect the varying climate of our body every time we practice. As a result, we practice being kinder, more accepting, and forgiving to ourselves and others.

Satya: Truth
Be Truthful

The word sat means “that which exists, that which is.” Living anything less than the truth keeps the mind fluctuating with thoughts and anxiety. It also defeats the purpose of yoga, to unite body and mind, mind with spirit, our individual selves with the all living creatures around us. When we are untruthful, we are assuming there is a place in the universe that we can keep from others. All of us have a unique imprint on the world caused by our thoughts, speech and action. We cannot be what we were made to be if we are busy trying to be other than who we are. If truth is allowed to be as it is and not suppressed or denied, thoughts are without the same power as when they are resisted, hidden or unacknowledged. If life is allowed to exist just as it is, there is a lot more room to investigate the source of thought and learn from it.

Knowing when to speak is an important quality of discrimination, especially as it relates to the first yama, ahimsa, or non-harming. If what we wish to say will cause harm, it’s not worth saying. On the mat, satya is essential for constantly recognizing the state of our body and mind in any given moment. Being honest with ourselves means we are listening to the very clear messages our body. This means we are a lot less likely to hurt ourselves. In our daily lives, we learn to recognize fears and negative emotions that may prompt us to bend the truth and twist reality. Once we understand the origin of these fears, our thoughts, speech and actions can be aligned with the truth. As a result we refrain from bending the truth and speak with kindness, compassion and clarity.

Asteya: Non-stealing
Practice Giving

Asteya means “non-stealing” in its broadest possible sense, this includes not wishing to have what another has. We steal or covet what another has when we mis-perceive the universe as lacking abundance or we think that there is not enough for everyone; we will not receive in proportion to our giving. Because of this, asteya not only consist of “not stealing,” but also of rooting out the subconscious beliefs of lack and scarcity that cause any variety of manifestations of greed. The English translation of the sutra states, “For one who is free from the impulse of stealing, one manifests all precious treasures of the Spirit.”

When you feel the desire to take, attempt the Dalai Lama’s recommendation to those who acknowledge having negative thoughts; reverse the thought to make it positive. Should you feel the desire to take, instead, give. This way you are reinforcing the universe as an abundant place and that you are, ultimately, enough. On the mat, asteya means being satisfied with where we are in our practice and grateful to those who practice with us. Because the urge to steal arises from a sense of unhappiness, incompleteness and envy, give at every opportunity. Give food, money and your time. Since wealth is state of mind, you will feel increasingly wealthy and through selfless giving, your sense of inner wealth may bring you outer wealth.

Bramacharya: Chastity
Use Your Energy Wisely

This yama reminds us that our life force is both limited and precious. Traditional yogic philosophy states that unbridled sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete our energy. By living a chaste life, traditional ideals believe that a Yogi is able to transmute sexual energy into spiritual energy. The practice of brahmacharya is not an archaic form of moralizing, but rather a reminder that if we use our energy wisely, we possess the resources to live a fulfilling life. “Walking in God consciousness” is the literal translation of bramacharya.

We practice brahmacharya when we consciously choose to use our life force to express our sense of our highest purpose as a human being. In Buddhist terms this is known as the dharma, rather than to dissipate our life force in endless pursuit of fleeting pleasure. The sages tell us that when the mind is free from domination by the senses, sensual pleasures are replaced by inner joy. In our daily lives we make wise choices about what we eat, including anything we digest with the senses. By doing so, we conserve energy and keep our minds clear and dynamic.

On the mat, we want to learn to use minimum energy to achieve maximum results. This means learning how to reserve our energy when needed and bring our minds into the present moment so that our bodies do not become fatigued. Channeling lines of energy prevents depleting the body. Bramacharya also relates to settling into your practice long enough for the fruits of your practice to appear to you because you have created consistency and stability.

Aparigraha: Non-Attachment
Practice Presence of Mind and Gratitude

Graha means “to grasp” and pari means “things.” Aparigraha means “not grasping things” or non-possessiveness. A yogic maxim says, “All the things of the world are yours to use, but not to own.” Whenever we become possessive we are, in turn, possessed, anxiously holding onto our things and grasping for more. Being present requires that we live as though this moment is enough and that what we have is enough. This principle relates to living without expectation about the ideas one has for the future. Suffering ceases when you free your mind from attachment to the need to control what you have or the way things go. This yama means nothing should be hoarded or collected beyond what is required immediately. The English translation of the sutra suggests, “When one is free from want, it enables one to comprehend the true meaning of life.”

On the mat we relinquish our attachment to a particular posture or outcome. We cherish the experience of being present to whatever is happening in the moment and every movement is an expression of aparigraha. In our daily lives we regularly examine our tendencies toward possessiveness. Do we acquire more of something that we can use? Do we respond too much to others or give more in a relationship than is healthy? Do we attempt to increase our self-esteem by gaining someone else’s love? Joseph Campbell said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” Do your work, your dharma and your practice passionately. Then let it go.

The Second Branch: The Niyamas


A Sanskrit word meaning rules or laws, the niyamas are the guidelines prescribed to help strengthen and control one’s energy through the proper development of one’s will. If we remain attentive to cultivating a strong and sound inner life, we are much more effective as human beings in relationship to everything and everyone we come into contact with.

Saucha: Purity
Create Clarity

The first of the five Niyamas is Saucha or purity, sometimes referred to as cleanliness. The Yoga Sutra states, “As a result of purity one achieves purification of the heart, cheerfulness of mind, and power of concentration, control of the passions and fitness of vision.” (2:41) Saucha refers to the importance of maintaining a clean and clear external and internal environment. By practicing mental purity one acquires cheerfulness, single pointed focus and clarity. All the world’s great traditions speak of inner purification. Every form of inner purification involves an active practice of love and compassion.

On the mat, saucha refers to arriving on the mat in “beginner’s mind,” as if it were the first time, always approaching our practice with the spirit of exploration and openness. In daily life, select with discernment from the many choices of food, emotions and thoughts invited to enter your body and mind.

Santosha: Contentment
Practice Being Content Always

By including contentment as an active practice rather than a reaction to events around us, santosha requires our willingness to enjoy exactly what each moment brings. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that peace of mind can never rely on external circumstances, which are always changing in ways beyond our control. This concept is, in essence, the quality of total acceptance. When we can remain open in the midst of pain we understand what it means to be truly open. We can easily practice contentment when circumstances are going well, but when we are content in the midst of difficulty we are truly free. In fact, the English translation of the sutra states that, “authentic contentment produces unsurpassed happiness.” In our relationships, when we accept those around us as they truly are, not as we want them to be, we are practicing santosha.

In our practice, we have the opportunity to gracefully accept ourselves regardless of what our practice looks or feels like. In our daily life, we continuously practice letting go of the past. We accept today, our wisdom, our wealth and how successful we are. We give up expectations so that we can ride the ups and downs with equanimity. Hold close the yogic premise that whatever we have in the present moment is enough.

Tapas: Discipline
Consistently Challenge Yourself

The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of tapas is “fiery discipline.” It is a necessary, fiercely focused, constant, intense commitment to burn off the impediments keeping us from existing in the true state of union between mind and body. Think of tapas as the consistency in striving toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat, sitting on the meditation cushion every day, or forgiving your partner or your child for the 10,000th time. Tapas accompany any discipline that is willingly and gladly accepted in order to bring about a change of some kind. The practice of asana is a form of tapas for the body. Meditation is tapas that purifies and focuses the mind.

On the mat, tapas relates to our ability to consistently practice with an aim to constantly break through what we thought was possible. This means letting it get “hot in the kitchen,” by working with a degree of intensity that challenges our own notions of what we were capable of: mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. In our daily life, tapas refers to any task we take on, even something as mundane as washing dishes. Whenever we perform our actions with total determination, we are performing with tapas. When making changes in habits, focus on one habit at a time. Take small steps and find replacements for habits that are unproductive.

Swadhyaya: Self Study
Practice Self Inquiry and Learning

The meaning of “swadhyaya,” is derived from “swa,” or Self (soul, atman, or higher self); “dhy,” related to the word “dhyana” which means meditation; “ya,” a suffix that invokes an active quality. Together, svadhyaya means “actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self.” In the context of the niyama, the term is often translated as “the study of ancient texts.” The English translation of the sutra suggests, “examination of the self brings awareness of one’s divinity.” Swadhyaya is the effort to know the Self that shines at the innermost core of your being.

On the mat, swadhyaya is to practice pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). It means turning our attention inward to learn from our moment by moment reactions and responses. Ultimately, deep introspection will tell us more about ourselves than any source outside ourselves. In our daily lives, we begin by reading the texts that support higher wisdom, whether they are traditional yoga texts or other sources. We practice the eight limbs steadily and we watch to see when we are living inside the practice and also when our thoughts, words and actions are not consistent with the practice. As we become aware of our inconsistencies we seek a remedy, noticing when we falter and then realigning ourselves with our best intentions.

Isvarapranidhana: Offering Ourselves to the Source
Offer Ourselves to the Greater Good

Isvarapranidhana means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” The concept of God in yoga is radically different from the idea of God in the world’s religious traditions. In yoga, God is said to be dwelling in us, and in fact is us – even though God is without beginning or end. In essence, God is seen as both pervading all that exists and as residing at the core of our being. Stillness is a prerequisite to knowing oneself, to knowing God, and to knowing our relationship with this world. When we offer our perception of the “way that it is” and step into the moment by moment experience of awareness, we relinquish attachment to belief and fixation, and give ourselves to the moment.

The essence of isvarapranidhana is the ability to relinquish all attachment to the outcome of our actions. Only by releasing our fears and hopes for the future can we really be in the present moment. To surrender the fruits of our actions to God requires that we give up the illusion that we “know best” and, instead, accept that the way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex to understand.

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