Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Never heard of the 8-limbed path of yoga? You're not alone. Personally, I had never heard of it until I did my yoga teacher training. Since then, I've done my best to practice all 8 limbs on a consistent basis, and I have witnessed an extremely positive transformation in my life. I have cultivated more self-awareness, a stronger ability to regulate my emotions, and an ongoing feeling of connection to myself and to the world around me.
Essentially, the 8-limbed path of yoga is a structured set of 8 "milestones" (limbs) that lead to enlightenment (total liberation and freedom from the suffering and limitations of the mind). It is believed that living this path will help us feel more fulfilled in life and more able to show up in the world as the best version of our self. The limbs are meant to be practiced on an ongoing basis. They are meant to be integrated into your lifestyle and because of this, you can truly make them your own. No one's path will look the same. You have to decide for yourself what makes you feel in alignment with your best self.
This article will give a brief overview of each limb. If you'd like to learn more about how to embody these limbs and integrate them into your life, I'm happy to explore this with you.
Limb #1: Yamas
The Yamas, in a nutshell, are how we interact with the external world around us. They include non-violence (committing the least amount possible; we still exist in the food chain after all), non-hoarding, non-attachment (to things, ideas, people, etc), honesty, and abstinence (not necessarily from sex, just from over-indulgence of anything, for example: sweets, drugs, TV, etc).
Limb #2: Niyamas
The Niyamas, in a nutshell, are how we interact with ourselves, our inner world and body. They include cleanliness of mind and body (examples: showering and brushing your teeth, not giving into the mean thoughts about yourself), contentment, tapas (building heat in the body and mind to "burn off" what no longer serves you), self-study and reflection (through journaling, self-talk, etc), and devotion to Oneness/God/Spirit/Universe/etc (recognizing that you are part of the oneness).
Limb #3: Asana
This is the limb that most people in the West believe yoga to be. The word asana means posture, pose, or seat. It is the physical practice of yoga; moving your body with awareness and presence. The purpose of this limb is to bring your awareness to your breath and body, steady your mind, and ultimately prepare you to sit in your seat for meditation.
Limb #4: Pranayama
Pranayama is the practice of controlling the breath and the movement of prana (life force energy). If you can change your breath you can change your experience. There are many ways to practice pranayama, but you can start by bringing awareness to your breath and starting to control it (for example, breathing in for a count of 3, breathing out for a count of 3).
Limb #5: Pratyahara
Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing from the senses and beginning to turn inward. This is the beginning of meditation. It can be done by simply closing the eyes and starting to let the external world around you fade away.
Limb #6: Dharana
Dharana is the practice of focusing all of your attention on one thing. This could be the breath, it could be how much you love your pet, it could be a spot on the wall, it could really be anything at all. One way to practice Dharana is through “loving kindness meditation” - this is where you focus on one person or thing for a period of time, and energetically send them love and kindness with your thoughts.
Limb #7: Dhyana
Dhyana is a deeper meditation where your separateness from others begins to dissolve and you begin to feel oneness with Nature/God/Spirit/Universe/etc.
Limb #8: Samadhi
Samadhi is complete bliss and enlightenment. It is freedom and liberation from the limitations and suffering of the mind. It is not possible to be here all of the time, but once it is reached it is easier to return to. It is the ultimate goal and the final limb of the 8-limbed path.