If you love yoga, but can’t get to a class as often as you’d like, I have good news: you’re probably still practicing yoga!

What do I mean by this? Yoga is most often associated with asana (posture) practice, which means going to a studio or unrolling a mat at home to do yoga poses. But there are other ways to practice. In Sanskrit, the word for eight limbs is “Ashtanga,” the name of the yoga lineage I practice and teach. While some know Ashtanga by its vigorous sequence that links breathing and movement, the third limb, asana practice, is but one of eight ways to live a more peaceful life.

Definition of Ashtanga Yoga

In Sanskrit, “ashta” means eight, and “anga” means limb. The eight limbs of yoga come from Patanjali’s philosophical text: the Yoga Sutras. This codified collection of “sutras” meaning threads or sayings, was written in 400CE.
Below I’ll describe each of the eight limbs and provide short examples for each element. Read on to see if you, in fact, have been practicing yoga! And if your knowledge of yoga is only physical, consider these other limbs as part of the bigger philosophical perpsective of yoga.

The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

1. Yamas

These are the ethical rules or precepts determined by the outside world. In somewhat oversimplified terms, it means right and wrong behavior. There are five Yamas:

  1. ahimsa (non-violence)
  2. satya (truthfulness)
  3. asteya (non-stealing)
  4. brahmacharya (non-excess or sexual restraint)
  5. aparigraha (greedlessness or non-clinging)

Modern-day examples:

  • Saying something kind (ahimsa) or true (satya)
  • Starting and ending a meeting on time (asteya)
  • Not forcing your sexual energy on someone else (bramacharya)
  • Not buying toilet paper, flour, and disinfectant wipes in excess during a pandemic (aparigraha)

2. Niyamas

Referring to the inner observances of self. There are five Niyamas: 
  1. saucha (cleanliness of mind, speech, and body)
  2. santosha (contentment)
  3. tapas (heat; persistence and self-discipline)
  4. svadhyaya (self-study; introspection)
  5. ishvara pranidhana (surrender to higher power, true self, or what is)

Modern-day examples:

  • Going on a run when you don’t feel like it (tapas)
  • Taking a shower afterward (saucha)
  • Noticing your desire not to exercise (svadhyaya)
  • Feeling grateful that you’re able to move your body (santosha)
  • Trusting your body knows the difference between: “I don’t wanna” and “I need to stop or I’ll hurt myself” (ishvara pranidhana)

3. Āsana

Meaning “seat” or “posture”, this is the form of yoga most visible and known worldwide. Pantanjali gives simple instructions for asana in the Yoga Sutras: steady and comfortable. His direct words are sthira (steady) sukham (comfortable) asana (seat or posture).

Modern-day examples:

  • Investing in a good chair for your home office (asana)
  • Sitting on a blanket or cushion in meditation with your hips higher than your knees (asana)
  • Stretching as far as you can in a yoga posture and breathing at your edge (asana)
  • Practicing yoga in a way that’s comfortable and steady for you on a given day (asana)

4. Prānāyāma

Breath control: prana (breath) and ayama (restraint). There are many ways to control your breath. Ashtanga yoga uses ujjayi (victorious) pranayama – an aspirant and audible breath. It sounds like ocean waves breaking or Darth Vader.
 
Modern-day examples:
  • When you take deep breaths in response to feeling frustrated (pranayama)
  • When you’re blasting “Don’t Stop Believin'” in your car and take a deep breath before the chorus [deep inhale] Doooon’t STOP! Belieeeeevin’! Hold on to that feeeeeeliiiiiiin…” (pranayama)
  • Go ahead and practice that last one right now…

5. Pratyāhāra

The first four limbs focus on external experiences. Pratyahara is the limb where the practitioner’s focus turns inward. It means sense withdrawal from the external world. Drawing the sensory experiences inward. Pratyahara acknowledges the outside world, yet chooses to focus on your experience.
 
Modern-day examples:
  • Choosing not to become overwhelmed by what you cannot control (pratyahara)
  • Reading the news and not reacting with the thought that “everything is bad” just because one thing is (pratyahara)

6. Dhāraṇā

We can define Dharana as maintaining a single-pointed focus. By focusing the mind on one idea, mantra, pranayama technique, or subject, we learn to calm our minds.

Modern-day examples:

  • Driving a car without taking your eyes off the road (dharana)
  • Practicing Metta (loving-kindness) meditation and staying focused on the phrases (dharana)
  • Starting and completing a home improvement project and not leaving it unfinished (dharana)

7. Dhyāna

Related to Dharana (single-pointed focus), Dhyana reflects on the object of contemplation. If Dharana is the doing, Dhyana is the being or the flow state.
 
Modern-day examples:
  • Deciding to cook three meals at home this week (dharana)
  • Following through by buying groceries and making all three meals (dharana)
  • Being in the flow of the process of cooking (dhyana)
  • Knowing which spices would make this meal sing and improvising with what you have in your spice rack (dhyana)

8. Samādhi

This one is the most elusive and difficult limb to define yet easy to imagine. In essence, samadhi means stable concentration in meditation. Samadhi blurs the lines between the person, act, subject, and the meditation process. The full absorption of all sensory features of an experience. It’s sometimes defined as total bliss.
Modern-day examples:
  • Swimming in the ocean and letting the waves wash over and over you (samadhi)
  • Hiking in the forest and smelling the woods and feeling your blood flow (samadhi)
  • Losing complete track of time while tending your garden or pulling weeds (samadhi)
  • Lying in a hammock and feeling the breeze on your skin as you rock side to side (samadhi)
  • Whatever activity helps you relax fully and be present and content with the moment
So are you practicing yoga every day with the eight limbs? I bet the answer is yes!
For many people, the entry point for the eight limbs of yoga is through a physical asana yoga class. If you’re looking for a yoga class, consider joining my online Ashtanga yoga class!
Breathe, believe, and keep practicing yoga, on or off the mat!
XO,
Rachel

Rachel Drummond is a student and teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, handstand enthusiast, and writer. She enjoys practicing and teaching yoga all over the world and writing about how to bring yoga to life off the mat through contemplative physical practices.

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