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The 8 limbs of Yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Yoga and meditation are in modern days commonly seen as 2 separate practices: yoga is about postures and breath, and meditation is about concentration, relaxation, and consciousness. Although yogic traditions may vary in their method, view, and approach, they all agree about 1 thing: yoga and meditation are inseparable. Yoga is directed towards Self-realization and going beyond ego-born identifications, becoming a witness of our body and mind, and abiding in our true being.

Over the last century, Asanas became the central yogic practice, with more focus on the energetic and physical body. But traditionally, Hatha Yoga was mainly associated with Pranayama, Mudras, purifying the energy channels or Nadis, and awakening Kundalini. Traditional Hatha Yoga was born mainly from the Tantric tradition and flourished from the 2nd millennium onwards.

Asanas and Pranayama are a means of awakening the dormant spiritual energy within the body, stabilizing the mind, and making the mind like a cristal mirror for the Divine. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dating back almost 2000 years, we find that the main emphasis of yoga is meditation and Samadhi (ecstatic state of union). Although the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali predate the Hatha yoga tradition, it has enormously inspired and continues to guide Hatha yoga practitioners and pioneers. So, let us explore the 8 limbs of Yoga...

The eight limbs of yoga, called Ashtanga yoga, are often identified with the yoga of Patanjali. It is an extremely accurate description of yoga and is a part of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Other methods like devotion, meditation on the mantra OM, surrender the the divine, dream yoga, and detachment are also offered as Yogic methods. But in this article, we will focus on the 8 limbs of yoga.

A common mistake is to translate Ashtanga yoga as the 8 ‘stages’ of yoga. This would mean that one is progressively practiced after the other. Though this is true in some aspects, in reality, all 8 limbs are always working somehow together and simultaneously, if not yoga would not be complete. So the 8 limbs can be compared to the limbs of the body. When we walk we may move one leg predominantly, but at the same time, the other leg and arms will move along. What are these 8 limbs of yoga?

1) Yamas (restrictions- our attitudes towards others)

2) Niyamas (non-restrictions- attitudes to cultivate mainly towards ourselves)

3) Asana (posture)

4) Pranayama (control or expansion of the vital forces/prana)

5) Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

6) Dharana (concentration)

7) Dhyana (meditation)

8) Samadhi (superconscious ecstasy or bliss)

1) Yamas and (2) Niyamas

Yamas and Niyamas are the moral codes of conduct for the yogis. It is comparable to the 10 commandments in the bible. We may find in every spiritual tradition and religion guidelines of conduct and morality. Yoga does not view this ‘morality’ in the way of good or bad or as sins (like Christianity). The Yamas and Niyamas can be seen as natural attitudes for living in harmony with ourselves and others.

As we practice yoga and integrate and harmonize the energies within our body, we may find ourselves automatically becoming more compassionate, truthful, honest, detached, clean, etc… In a reverse way, the awareness of living in accordance with these moral principles will help to deepen and integrate our practice! The two should be practiced as one. Padmashambava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, said: ‘Ascend with the view, while descending with the conduct. These two should be practiced as one.’

These 10 attitudes and principles are:

1) Non-violence

2) Truthfulness

3) Non-stealing

4) Abiding in Brahman (often translated as celibacy)

5) Non-grasping

6) Cleanliness

7) Contentment

8) Austerity

9) Self-study

10) Surrendering to the Divine

3) Asana: postures

Asana is practiced in Raja Yoga (Royal yoga according to the Sutras of Patanjali) mainly for meditative purposes. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we only find 3 sutras (verses) that directly refer to Asana.

Sutra 2.46: Sthira sukham asanam

The posture (asana) should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable.

Sutra 2.47: Prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam

The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing or loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite.

Sutra 2.48 Tatah dvandva anabhighata

From the attainment of that perfected posture, there arises an unassailable, unimpeded freedom from suffering due to the pairs of opposites (such as heat and cold, good and bad, or pain and pleasure).

As you can see, the meaning given to asana by Patanjali is very different from the modern connotation of physical exercise and movement. The word ‘Asana’, as used by Patanjali, is applied just to meditation posture, although we can also apply these principles in a more dynamic and diverse practice of Hatha yoga. To master any posture, we should feel a background of effortlessness. The effort should be allowed to run through us while we simply observe it from a neutral and stable witness attitude. The posture should include the polar qualities of comfort, which is more yin or lunar, and steadiness, which is more yang and solar. Besides the connotation of Asana as a meditation posture, in Hatha yoga, the use of Asana is also to release energetic, mental, nervous, and muscular knots and includes many more postures. By releasing knots in the body, we work on releasing stored emotions as well as physical, energetic, and mental patterns. Stiffness in the body is often a result of blocked Prana (life energy) and an accumulation of toxins in the body. By creating flexibility in the muscles and body we can release this blocked energy and accommodate a better flow of Prana in the body. As a result, we will feel more at home in our bodies and a natural feeling of grace begins to develop. Asanas further serve to balance all the different systems of the body and create a heightened level of awareness, relaxation, concentration, and feeling of well-being. Everybody who has practiced Hatha yoga (and Asanas) in an integral way, would agree that after the practice, we usually feel way more open, centered, energized, balanced, and joyful. And ultimately, Asanas can give us the necessary preparation to awaken safely Kundalini Shakti, the powerful serpent-like energy that rises from within.

<< Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. >> – Rumi

4) Pranayama

Pranayama is generally practiced after asana, though this is not a fixed rule.

Pranayama can be practiced as well before Asanas, are can be interwoven with Asana practices. For most Pranayama practices we first of all get ourselves comfortable in a seated, meditative asana. It is important that the spine is straight so that the body is aligned and the energy can flow freely along the spine. The body is traditionally said to be equipped with 72 000 Nadis (or according to other scriptures even 300 000 Nadis).

Nadis (energy channels) are very closely linked with the nervous system, although they are not exactly similar to the physical nerves. The most important Nadis all run along the spine. If we want an uninterrupted flow of Prana (vital energy), it is important to keep our spine straight throughout the practice but to keep a relaxed attitude. Posture, breath, prana, and mind all influence each other directly. Pranayama is usually identified as being breathing exercises. Through correct breathing, we can extract an enormous amount of energy. Further, Prana and mind are closely linked. Where the mind goes, the energy flows. So it is not just how we physically breathe, but also how aware we are of the breathing process. Many pranayama practices start by first just witnessing the natural breath.

The way we breathe can tell us a lot about our current state of mind. Irregular, fast breathing and breathing through the upper chest, go together with an agitated state of mind (fires the sympathetic nervous system). Regular, slow breathing through the nostrils and with the abdomen (diaphragm) will invoke and go together with a calm and peaceful mind (makes the parasympathetic nervous system predominant). To understand traditional pranayama a little bit better, we can have a look at the etymological meaning. As we mentioned before, Prana is the vital energy. It is the life force that flows through everything and everyone. Without prana, there would be absolutely no manifestation possible. Without Prana, consciousness cannot express itself, it would stay in a state of inertia. The other part of the word can be interpreted as ‘yama’ or ‘ayama’. Ayama means to expand the dimension. So pranayama in this sense is that practice that expands the dimension of Prana. Another root word is ‘Yama’ which can be translated as ‘control’ or ‘restraint’. So here, pranayama refers to the control or restrain of vital energy. Let’s explore what Patanjali says about Pranayama.

Sutra 2:49 Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is attained.

Sutra 2:50 Pranayama has three movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention; all regulated with precision according to duration and place.

Sutra 2:51 The fourth type of pranayama transcends the external and internal pranayamas, and appears effortless and non-deliberate.

Sutra 2:52 Pranayama removes the veil covering the light of knowledge and heralds the dawn of wisdom.

Sutra 2:53 The mind also becomes fit for concentration.

5) Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal

In the system of Raja Yoga (Patanjali), Pratyahara is the 5th stage or limb. It is the bridge between outward experience and practice and the inner journey that leads to meditation.

Sutra 2:54 Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.

Sutra 2:55 Pratyahara results in the absolute control of the sense organs.

In this stage, the senses are withdrawn or directed inwards. It is important to note that pratyahara is not a practice of numbing the senses. On the contrary, pratyahara starts by sharpening the senses and intensifying the experience. After some time through heightened awareness, interest in the external object will drop and the gates to the inner space will be opened. It could be compared to a child that enters a new room. First, it wants to discover every door and area of the room. After some time of exploration, interest will be dropped spontaneously. On the contrary, if you try prematurely to restrict the child from exploring all the doors and objects in the room, it will keep on thinking about them. From this point of heightened awareness, the senses are directed inward and the awareness is disassociated from the external world.

If Pratyahara is not mastered to some degree, meditation will be an unfruitful struggle. Through Pratyahara, meditation becomes spontaneous and enjoyable. It is the naturalness of being that allows you to feel spaciousness and infinity from within. Although, to remain in this state of surrender, discipline, and alertness may be required so that we don't become immersed in unconscious behavioral patterns of reactivity. In that way, connecting to our natural state may require training and continued attentiveness.

6) Dharana

Sutra 3:1 Fixing the consciousness on one point or region is concentration (Dharana).

Dharana is the state of mind where we keep our awareness on one spot or object. Whenever we drift away in thoughts, we keep on bringing our awareness again and again back to our object of concentration. Concentration should be a natural result of relaxed alertness of mind. It is natural that when we sit for meditation, our work is to invite again and again with great patience the distracted mind to return to the object of meditation and ultimately to rest in its natural state of being (no-mind). When first attempting to meditate, this seems like an impossible goal because the mind is used to running wherever, whenever it likes. It becomes agitated if it is asked to stay attentive to one element, it becomes quickly bored and agitated. In the beginning, it may even look like we are getting more and more thoughts. In fact, we are getting more aware and starting to notice the constant chatting of the dispersed mind. Yet, it is this practice of concentration that strengthens our mind, like we strengthen our muscles with Asana practice. As we become more and more in control of our minds we will also notice lifestyle changes. We may become calmer, our emotions easier to observe, a growing sense of calmness and happiness.

It is almost impossible to reach this state without integrating into our lives the Yamas and the Niyamas. If we keep on creating agitation in our relations and with ourselves, our meditation sessions will reflect the same level of agitation.

For Dharana (concentration), we can use countless different objects of meditation. An object can be a physical or imagined form that spiritually inspires us. This can be seen with the eyes open or with the eyes closed. Examples are a Buddha statue, a cross, a Shiva lingam, a trident, a candle flame, a flower, a crystal, a beautiful landscape, etc. But dharana is not limited to a physical form, you may as well use a mantra or your own breath to focus your awareness on. This focus point will become like an anchor into the present moment that will reveal its specific spiritual power.

The unconscious thinking mind can be compared with muddy water. Whenever we get entangled in repetitive thought processes, we are stirring continuously the water, leaving the water muddy and it is impossible to look through. The result is a confused state of mind. When, through the practice of Dharana, we are focusing our minds and are not feeding the ordinary thought processes, the mud starts to settle and the water itself will become transparent. This gives us clarity, vision, a sense of spaciousness and purity. The next step will be to remove the mud. If not, whenever the circumstances change, again and again, we will be confronted with a confused mind, binding us to the wheel of Samsara and suffering. This is done when our experience turns into realization through the deep-rooted dissolution that happens in deeper meditation and Samadhi. 7) Dhyana

Sutra 3:2 A steady, continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is meditation (Dhyana).

Dharana is characterized by a continuous effort to keep bringing the mind back to the present moment and the object of awareness. In Dhyana, literally translated as meditation, there is no longer an effort. The awareness of the object keeps on flowing steadily and continuously just like a river. When the distractions dissolve and we are able to keep a one-pointed awareness, we automatically settle into a state of meditation. Again we may use any object of awareness in Dhyana that we feel attracted to. A meditative state may occur during a formal meditation session, but also at moments when we least expect it. For example, when a beautiful landscape takes away our breath for a moment and there is a total sense of awe and wonderment, a total absorption into the nature of the landscape, we may see our mind naturally entering into an expanded, peaceful state of consciousness. This state can be called Dhyana. At times, meditation may come so easily and spontaneously, and at other times it may seem impossible. We may keep on falling back into repetitive thinking and old patterns. It is here that faith and acceptance will be our best friends on our spiritual journey. Acceptance is the base, but be aware not to misinterpret it as passiveness. We can often not control what thoughts occur or what state of mind we are in. But we can learn more easily a skillful way on how to deal with these thoughts. And upon whatever we shine the torch of compassion, love, and awareness, that will be transformed into light. So trust that in dark moments of confusion, behind the clouds, the sun is bright! This Sun is the essence of our being, it is an all-knowing and omnipresent consciousness, often speaking in silence. To reveal and experience our infinite, endless nature can be seen as the goal of any meditation practice and it is here that Samadhi begins.

8) Samadhi

Sutra 1:41 The yogi realizes that the knower, the instrument of knowing and the known are one, himself, the seer. Like a pure transparent jewel, (s)he reflects an unsullied purity.

Samadhi is often translated as Trance. It is not a blind unconscious trance. Rather, it is a superconscious state where the inner light fully awakens and illuminates the consciousness. It is ineffable, beyond words and descriptions. In Samadhi, a merging of the seer, seen, and seeing takes place (triputi). Samadhi is the end of duality where only a state of oneness remains. Patanjali names many different stages of Samadhi depending of the nature of the experience. In the first stages of Samadhi there is still a seed of duality, though at the moment of experience, it may seem completely dissolved (Sabija Samadhi). This we can compare with a peak experience where we experience total peace, love, oneness, and grace. After some time, when circumstances change, we may see ourselves falling back into old patterns and a state of separation. This may go on for a long time. But eventually, when all our karma has been worked out and our consciousness is finally freed from ignorance, all seeds will be scorched in the fire of awakening. This is what Patanjali describes as Samadhi without seed (Nirbija Samadhi). It is sometimes associated with the awakening of Kundalini Shakti and results in total freedom. Though Samadhi may be seen as the goal of raja yoga, it is important to focus on what is right here and now with us, rather than trying to grasp some imaginary goal. It is exactly this grasping mind that hinders us from being free.


Yoga and meditation are inseparable from each other. People practice yoga for different reasons. But even when you wouldn't feel inclined towards a spiritual life, or if you have too many responsibilities and duties in life to dedicate yourself to long daily practices, your yoga will become much more efficient and enjoyable by infusing it with the serenity of a meditative attitude. And you may have increased benefits from your yoga practice by simply staying at the end of practice for 5 minutes in a seated meditation posture, focusing on the breath or simply on a sense of being, radiating from the heart,

In loving service, and gratitude to the Yogic tradition


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