top of page
  • Chloe Jay

What are the eight limbs of yoga?

Updated: Mar 21, 2023

If you’re interested in yoga, you’ve probably heard of the eight limbs of yoga. But what exactly are the eight limbs? What significance do they have to yoga as a practice and to modern life?

This guide unpacks these questions, suggesting ways to implement the eight limbs into the modern yogi’s life to remove suffering and help us achieve happiness.

Where do the eight limbs of yoga originate from?

The eight limbs of yoga originate from The Yoga Sutras, a yogic scripture written by the mystical Patanjali.

(Smol furry yogi with her copy of The Yoga Sutras)

The Yoga Sutras were written somewhere between the second and fourth century BC and contain 196 bitesize sutras - ‘sutra’ being translated as ‘rule’ or ‘scripture’.

The Yoga Sutras are a collection of short rules or lessons - the most famous perhaps including the eight limbs of yoga - that help yogis navigate their way to self-realisation and a life of integrity.

Little is known about Patanjali, The Father of Modern Yoga but you can often find him depicted in paintings and statues as half man, half cobra, holding a conch, the 1000-petal lotus chakra and offering Anjali mudra (hands at heart centre in a prayer).

What does it all mean? Well, the depiction of Patanjali is said to represent the yogi and all the qualities he/she/they should have:

  • Half man, half snake - humanity and fearlessness

  • Holding a conch - the sound of which represents kindness in speech

  • Holding the 1000-petal lotus - the crown chakra that symbolises wisdom and devotion to the practice

  • Anjali mudra - this represents an openness and willingness to share

Today, Patanjali remains a highly respected figure in the world of yoga philosophy, often referred to as a Sage and even a God.

Why are the eight limbs of yoga so important?

When it comes to the philosophy of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and particularly the eight limbs remain one of the most renowned reads and are integral to the development of any yogi.

The eight limbs refer to a breakdown of yoga in its entirety. Each limb represents a different part of yoga, helping yogis practise in a manageable way and implementing parts into their everyday lives.

Patanjali believed that when followed in consecutive order, the eight limbs of yoga would remove ‘Chitta Vrittis’. Chitta Vrittis can be translated as ‘consciousness fluctuations’, or the monkey mind.

Another way to think of this is as the cluttered mind, one that is not present; either living in the past or worrying about the future. And so, by decluttering the mind, we are able to live a life of non-judgment and contentment.

The eight limbs of yoga are essentially a blueprint in which to live. When followed we can live a life of integrity and eventually reach a state of self-realisation and bliss - some have even suggested enlightenment.

What are the eight limbs of yoga?

According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are:

Yamas - The laws of life

The five Yamas or laws of life can be loosely translated as ‘restraints’ or ‘moral disciplines’. These are the yogi’s ethics and represent how we should act in life.

There are five Yamas, they include:

Ahimsa (Non-violence)

Acting with non-violence is a no-brainer, right? Of course, this is true but Ahimsa travels deeper than the way we physically behave. It represents non-violence in speaking, thinking and acting.

As humans we are imperfect and can sometimes forget to speak and think with integrity, negatively affecting energy and mood. And even when we treat others with integrity, we still forget to gift ourselves the same treatment.

Ahimsa reminds us to speak to ourselves and others with kindness, think with love and compassion and act with integrity always.

Satya (Truthfulness)

Translated as ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, Satya, in short, refers to living your truth.

The second Yama is often associated with honesty in speech and commitment to telling the truth. Similar to the first Yama, Ahimsa, we should treat Satya with depth; practising it not only externally but internally too.

It’s a given that we should tell others the truth, right? But too often we forget to implement this into our actions - doing things that we don’t want to do and not setting boundaries, for example - and lying to ourselves through fear of discomfort.

Satya represents the bravery of breaking away from the fear that hinders our truthfulness and in essence, means being true to yourself in all your expression.

Asteya (Non-stealing)

Asteya symbolises non-stealing or the restraint to take what is not ours to take.

This covers physical things but also speech, thoughts and energy. Withholding knowledge or ideas that could positively impact others can be considered stealing, as well as disrupting someone’s peace or energy through your actions - this is considered stealing someone’s peace or energy.

When we withhold and take things that don’t belong to us, we are acting on feelings of inadequacy; that we are not enough and therefore need what others have.

Asteya encourages us to be satisfied with what we have and actively share with others what we can, whether that is kind words, knowledge or a physical object.

Brahmacharya (Fidelity)

Our fourth Yama is a little tricky when it comes to interpretation. Because Brahmacharya has traditionally been translated to ‘celibacy’ or ‘chastity’, the modern connotations of these words have somewhat clouded the Yama’s essence.

Brahmacharya is typically translated as “going after Brahman” or “behaviour that leads to Brahman,” with Brahman being the Divine creator, or higher Self, in Hinduism and yoga.

We can therefore interpret Brahmacharya as the behaviour that leads us to the higher power. Rather than focusing our energy on external, material things, we redirect our energy internally and concentrate our energy on dedication and vitality.

Aparigraha (Non-attachment)

Aparigraha, when practised, can be liberating. The final Yama represents ‘non-attachment’ or ‘non-possessiveness’ and refers to the restraint of attachment to things - tangible and intangible.

This Yama suggests that attachment to material things, unhealthy possession of people or relationships and the yearning for ‘more’ can be detrimental, leaving us dissatisfied and unfulfilled.

When we flip this idea on its head and detach from acquiring things and believing that we own others, we become free. We become content with what we have.

Niyamas - The rules of living

The five Niyamas focus on self-improvement. While the Yamas help navigate the external, the Niyamas guide us within. They can be translated as ‘positive duties’ and can help us cultivate happiness. They include:


The first Niyama, Saucha refers not only to physical cleanliness (again, a given, right?) but purity of the mind, speech and action.

Practising Saucha requires discipline. Identifying habits or associations that are bad for you either physically or mentally - or both - takes some honest introspection and that isn’t always easy.

In short, Saucha represents a form of cleansing whereby we let go of things that no longer serve us.


Santocha or ‘contentment’ when practised allows us to be grateful and fully satisfied with what we have without the desire for the ‘next thing’.

This Niyama reminds me of the concept of ‘unconditional happiness’ - a term coined by the author of Untethered Soul, Michael Alan Singer. We humans, particularly in Western culture either consciously or subconsciously believe that when we get ‘X’, then we will be happy. “When I get the job promotion”, “When I find a partner”, “When I buy a house” and so on.

The issue here is that we are chasing an unrealistic idea of what happiness is. The idea is that happiness is a destination when rather, it is the journey; what we have now rather than what we anticipate we will have.

Just like the idea of unconditional happiness, Santocha cultivates liberation from suffering, and gratitude for what you have, making way for contentment.


Self-discipline is having the strength to do what you should do when you need to do it, even when it feels challenging. This is what Tapas encapsulates and can be super rewarding.

Tapas refers to the discipline, mental strength and courage to follow the healthy habits that help us remain on the correct path - even when we take a wrong turn and have to begin again.

Tapas is said to fuel the fire of passion and purpose. It is the inner voice living within our conscience, one that is too often ignored.


Svadhyaya means self-study and self-reflection. While traditionally it represented the study of staple yogic philosophy (the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavadavad Gita etc.), for modern-day day yogis, Svadhyaya means to progressively further their knowledge of the practice. The study of yoga in its entirety.

The Niyama of self-study is about bettering ourselves; becoming the ‘best versions of ourselves’ if you will.

Beyond self-study (and this goes beyond studying yoga, this can involve devoting yourself to anything that will contribute to self-development) self-reflection is also a critical component of Svadhyaya.

Self-reflection means being totally honest and brutal with yourself, it means looking introspectively and promising to be truthful. When practised, it’s a powerful tool that can help us on the path of fulfilment. If we don’t look inside and ask ourselves the tough questions, then how will we improve as humans? Sometimes we won’t always like the answers and the process itself can feel ugly but it’s all part of the growth - the transformation.

In short, Svadhyaya cultivates self-study and also helps us measure personal progress to make sure we remain on the path of self-development.

Isvara Pranidhana

Our final Niyama can be translated loosely as ‘surrendering to the higher power’. And whilst yoga by no means forces any kind of religious belief of anyone, nor does it exclude anyone for their religious beliefs, we can interpret this Isvara Pranidhana as surrendering the ego to the higher power - whatever that means to you.

Perhaps that does mean God in some form, perhaps it’s the universe as a whole or perhaps you believe the higher power lives in light or unity. Whatever you believe applies.

This Niyama represents dropping the ego; so instead of constantly thinking as “I”, we begin to think of ourselves as part of the higher power. A nice way to think about this is that we are all made up of the same energy and atoms as the universe and therefore we are a collective rather than a singular entity.

When we change our way of thinking and understand that we are part of something bigger, we surrender the ego. This often humbles us mere humans and helps us work selflessly and in union.

Asana - Physical postures

In the West particularly, there is a misconception that the Asana practice or the physical practice, that includes holding and transitioning to and from postures is yoga. But if you’re reading this you know that Asana is in just ⅛ of yoga, but a critical one still.

Asana translates as ‘posture’ and covers everything from downward facing dog to headstand. If you’re been to a yoga class you will have heard ‘Trikonasana’ or ‘Savasana’. Let’s dissect these words:

  • Trikona (triangle) + Asana (posture) = Trikonasana (Triangle pose)

  • Sava (corpse) + Asana (posture) = Savasana (Corpse pose)

There is more to the physical Asana practice of yoga than keeping fit, flexible and strong (although these are great benefits of yoga).

Patanjali spoke about three key elements of Asana and how they are integral to our mental state:

  1. Sthira - The physical poses should be steady and comfortable, helping to open our energy centres or Chakras.

  2. Sukham - Developing control in Asana so that a sense of effortlessness is achieved helps to control the mind.

  3. Asanam - The goal of Asana is the settled mind; victory over duality so that we are left with neutrality and nothing can disturb us.

If you are a beginner, don't let these rules dishearten you. We all have to start somewhere. I couldn't touch my toes when I started practising Asana. Think of Sthira, Sukham and Asanam as goals to work towards.

There are many types of Asana practice, from Ashtanga to Hatha and Vinyasa flow to Yin, each serving very different energies and outcomes. You might want to practise one or a variety depending on you.

Pranayama - Breathwork

Our fourth limb, Pranayama, represents the importance of breathwork and breathing exercises. With Prana meaning ‘life force’ and Yama meaning ‘control’, Patanjali emphasises the power of various types of breathing and the effect they can have on our bodies and mind.

According to Patanjali life energy can be increased when we learn to control the breath: “The life energy is increased by regulation of the out-breath, the in-breath, or the breath mid-flow.”

In order to encourage vitality and the healthy flow of energy we can practise different types of Pranayama, for example:

  • Nadi Shodhana can help to regulate energy, a great way to settle the nervous system when we are on overload or feeling anxious.

  • Kapalbhakti uses the breath to stimulate the nervous system, producing energy amongst other benefits.

Pratyahara - Withdrawal of senses

Patanjali’s fifth step or limb of yoga is Pratyahara, which translates as withdrawal (Prati) of food (Ahara). Food refers to anything external that we consume; those that affect our senses.

Pratyahara is the foundation of meditation and helps us prepare for the state of Dhyana (meditation). We must first start with building the discipline whereby we can withdraw from outside influences.

Patanjali suggested that once we can control the distractions that come from sound, smell, touch, taste and sight - that they no longer affect us mentally - then we have mastered Pratyahara.

This limb requires practice with many yogis observing silence, sitting quietly or practising mindfulness as a starting point.

Dharana - Steadiness of the mind

Once Pratyahara has been mastered, the next limb to focus on is Dharana, our sixth limb that refers to concentration or ‘steadiness of the mind’.

Where Pratyahara helps to eliminate any external disruptions, Dharana helps us channel our attention into one single object, such as:

  • The breath

  • Chanting a mantra

  • A body part

  • A Chakra (energy point within the body)

An interesting form of Dharana is known as Trataka. It is a type of observation or ‘steady gazing’ and commonly involves yogis concentrating on the flame of a candle. This helps to focus attention on a single object, the flame.

When the yogi is unaffected by the flame, i.e. they are not having thoughts regarding the flame: “Cool-looking flame” and they instead just concentrate on its state of being, Dharana is said to be cultivated.

Dhyana - Meditation

Before attempting Dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga, we must first master Pratyahara and Dharana.

Where Pratyahara focuses on withdrawing the senses and Dharana concentrates on one object, Dhyana, or meditation, eliminates thoughts and feelings so that we can bring awareness to our consciousness.

Dhyana aims to quieten the mind which can prove difficult when we have so many thoughts, feelings and emotions orbiting our minds every day.

If the concept of meditation feels daunting to you, think about your thoughts as clouds. If you notice them, that’s okay. Witness them without frustration and allow them to simply float away with ease, always bringing your awareness back to the present moment.

Samadhi - The settled state

Some translate Samadhi as enlightenment, others ‘the settled mind’. Either way, we can consider Samadhi as the highest point of concentration and as our final limb of yoga, the state in which to strive.

The settled state is said to be cultivated when a yogi stays in Dhyana for prolonged periods. During these periods, there is no ‘monkey mind’, or Chitta Vritti. There is no good or bad, there just is.

Samadhi is not something that is easily attained, it is the ultimate step on the spiritual path - one that has seven preceding steps to it! Samadhi might be achieved over a lifetime and therefore should not be viewed as something to reach quickly. You might think of it as a journey rather than a destination - a ‘long game’ - and one that will look different to every person.

The eight limbs of yoga: final thoughts

The eight limbs are a beautiful set of rules to follow in life and as Patanjali intended, a means to liberate our minds from suffering.

Each limb can be seen as an elixir that once attained, not only means that you have experienced spiritual and personal growth but that the next limb can be practised until you eventually reach Samadhi.

Whether one meets Samadhi or not, weaving the eight limbs into your life will undoubtedly steer you on a path to humility, happiness and love.

Love and light,


26 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page