Ashtanga is a Sanskrit compound word that means “eight limbs.” Ashtanga or the eight limbs of yoga were set down before 400 CE by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, which are thought to be a synthesis of many older wisdom traditions. The eight limbs from the Yoga Sutras form the foundation of Ashtanga yoga philosophy.
Together, the eight limbs of yoga form a complete system for purifying mind and body and developing the concentration to achieve Samadhi, a state of insight or bliss. The eight limbs are:
- Yamas – ethical restraints/outer conduct/respect for others
- Niyamas – spiritual observances/self-discipline/inner conduct/respect for self
- Asanas – harmony of the physical body/physical discipline and purification
- Praṇayama – harmony of life force energy/extension of the breath
- Pratyahara – harmony with the emotions/withdrawal of the senses from external objects
- Dharana – harmony with the thoughts/concentration/single-pointed focus
- Dhyana – meditation/contemplation
- Samadhi – the union of individual and Divine consciousness/insight/bliss
What are the Yamas?
The first limb, the Yamas or ethical restraints/external disciplines, have five aspects:
- Ahimsa – non-violence/reverence and compassion for all life
- Satya – truthfulness/integrity
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – moderation/focus of energy toward the Divine
- Aparigraha – non-coveting/greedlessness
What are Niyamas?
The second limb, the Niyamas or spiritual observances/internal disciplines, also have five aspects:
- Sauca – cleanliness/purity of body, thoughts, and emotions
- Santosa – contentment/peace with oneself and others
- Tapas – self-discipline and purification/inner fire
- Svadhyaya – self-study and the study of the sacred
- Isvara pranidhana – surrender to the Divine
What are Asanas?
The asanas or physical postures have been passed down to us from the teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Discipline with a regular practice of the postures purifies the body and focuses the mind.
What is the Purpose of the Eight Limbs?
The eight limbs form a pathway to self-fulfilment and self-realization. The first four limbs can be thought of as “external” as all can be actively developed and practiced. The last four limbs are often thought of as “internal” as these are the fruits of a regular and disciplined practice. The fifth limb, Pratyahara, is a bridge between the external and internal limbs.
While many think only of the physical poses or asanas when talking about Ashtanga Yoga; one can start with any of the first four limbs on the path to Samadhi. The eight limbs are interconnected, and development in one limb encourages growth in the others. Whether you approach Samadhi through the daily practice of the Yamas or Niyamas, the physical postures, breathing or mindfulness practices, you will also develop in the other limbs.
As the body and the breath become steady and at ease, the mind begins to experience moments of clarity, concentration, and peace. It is in this way that we approach Samadhi. Samadhi is a blissful state that cannot be forced but spontaneously arises as we develop our practice through the other limbs.