the shannon caldwell logo(1)
how to live life like a yogi eight limbs of yoga

Eight Limbs of Yoga, How to Live Like a Yogi

Derived from the classical text “The Yoga Sutras” by Patanjali, the eight limbs provide a holistic guide to living a purposeful and harmonious life. From ethical guidelines to physical postures, breath control to meditation, these eight limbs offer a comprehensive roadmap for anyone seeking a more mindful and balanced existence.

Links related to this episode:

Live Like a Yoga Eight Limbs of Yoga Transcript

Hello Cozy Crew, in this episode I’m going to do an overview of the foundations of yoga, those guiding principles that help set the stage for weaving yoga into all the different aspects of your life. What you might call living the life of a yogi or a yogic lifestyle.

I love seeing how individuals take those guiding principles and mold them into what interests them and motivates them, brings them peace and harmony.

There are so many different ways and so many different combinations you can create that it truly becomes a personalized and customized practice based on who you are as an individual.

That’s one of yoga’s beauties, the ability to appeal to so many different people. If you like A and I like B, yoga provides an A and a B so we can both be excited, passionate, and adopt these principles into our lives.

Yoga is More than Postures

Unfortunately, what’s happened over the last couple of decades is that the term yoga has become synonymous with one concept, and that’s postures.

And to me that’s really sad because there are so many different ways of practicing yoga. Because yoga is synonymous with postures, there are too many people who won’t try yoga because they think it’s only [complicated] postures.

They believe since they can’t do certain postures like the splits, or contort their body, they can’t practice yoga. And there is nothing that is further from the truth than that.

In today’s episode, I am going to highlight all the limbs of yoga, all the different ways that you can practice yoga. And there are eight of them.

Some of you may have never heard of the eight limbs. Some of you may have heard them in passing. But truly too few of us dig deep and study them and actively apply them to our lives.

I hope that this episode changes that for some of you.

Where to find eight Limbs of Yoga

It’s helpful to know where the eight limbs come from. Where do these guiding principles originate? They originate from a yoga text called the Yoga Sutras.

The Yoga Sutras were said to have been systemized around 600 BCE. Now, notice that is systemized. We’re not really sure when they were authored or who actually authored them.

Credit is given to a man by the name of Patanjali for organizing, or systemizing, these aphorisms or sentences into a logical progression.

Sutra [a Sanskrit term] means thread because each of the sentences were short and easily memorized in order to pass from teacher to student. It was typically done through memorization because this was before people could readily read and write. So sutra is a thread, meaning something that weaves everything together.

The Yoga Sutras is divided into four books or what you might think of as four sections. We find the eight limbs in the second book, Practice.

Ethical and Moral Guidelines

Limb number one is yama, and there are five of these. You’ll also notice when we get to niyama, which is the second limb, there are five niyama as well. We’ve got ten plus the other six limbs, so we really have 16 guiding principles that help us create a foundation for a yogic lifestyle.

Let’s look at limb number one, those five yama or restraints. One way to think about yama is this is the way we want to interact with our external world.

There’s:

  • Non-violence
  • Truthfulness
  • Non-stealing
  • Moderation
  • Non-greediness.

Limb number two is niyama. If yama is our restraint or how we’re going to interact with our external world, niyama is an observance, and this is how we’re going to interact with our internal world.

And as I mentioned, there are five:

  • Cleanliness
  • Contentment
  • Burning impurities
  • Self-study
  • Surrender to the divine.

Limb #3 Asana

This is the limb that most practitioners and aspiring yoga teachers are familiar with, and that is asana. In modern terms it relates to the postures or the exercises and stretches we do.

Traditionally, thousands of years ago, asana was what you sat upon to meditate. That could have been the dirt. Or banana leaves woven into a mat. It could have been a rock.

So traditionally asana meant something very different than what it means today. The more modern usage of asana has only been around for about 100-150 years.

One thing that I like to point out when I’m doing yoga teacher training is that in the whole 198 sentences included in the Yoga Sutras text, there’s only two sentences dedicated to asana.

I’m sharing the one that gets quoted the most: “asana should have the dual qualities of steadiness and ease.”

What is ease and steadiness?

What does steadiness and ease mean? There’s certainly a lot of interpretations. That’s one of the things about the Yoga Sutras being written in Sanskrit, there’s always different ways of breaking it down and interpreting it.

For me, steadiness and ease means that if I’m practicing a posture, I’m able to maintain that posture with effort that doesn’t change my breath and that I’m not pushing myself so hard that I feel like I’m struggling to hold that posture.

How do we know if we’re not practicing steadiness and ease in our asana? One of the best indications is to always follow your breath.

If your breath is coming in short, shallow pants, or you’re breathing extra hard, or your breath is just changed in any different sort of way beyond deep and consistent, that’s a good sign to back off the effort. Be a little bit more gentle until your breath evens out once again.

Limb #4 of the eight Limbs

Limb number four is pranayama. This is made up of two Sanskrit words, pran, meaning life force, and ayama, meaning extension. Together we have pranayama, which is life force. extension.

If you’re new to the eight limbs and pranayama, this idea of life force extension can feel very esoteric, not quite tangible for you to get a handle on it.

What does it mean to extend my life force? The way we begin to understand this concept is through conscious breathing.

The beautiful thing about breath is that it’s automatic and it happens unconsciously. Your brain is taking care of it without any thought or effort from you.

Once we become present-minded, where we’re really focusing on deep quality inhalations and exhalations, that’s when we’re changing from unconscious breathing into conscious breathing.

And once we’ve moved into conscious breathing, we’ve laid that first brick for practicing pranayama. What I tell teachers-in-training is that you can have breathing without pranayama, but you cannot practice pranayama without breathing.

Limb #5 and #6

Limb number five of the eight limbs is pratyahara which means sense withdrawal. One way to think about sense withdrawal is that if you were to sit still, say in a meditation position, you would no longer be tempted by the sensations of your body.

No longer would you be distracted by sense, by sounds, by twitches and tics that are happening in your body. You would move beyond that. You might have a sensation, but you wouldn’t be drawn away from your meditation. You wouldn’t be distracted by it. You’d be able to say, “Oh, I have an itch on my nose,” and move on from that.

We have to have sense withdraw before we can move into limb number six which is dharana. Translated [from Sanskrit] that means concentration. You have get to where you are no longer distracted by those little outside cues, those Internal sensations.

Limb #7 and #8

Once you concentrate long enough, then you’re moving into limb number seven which is meditation.

To help you better understand the concept of concentration versus meditation and how they work together, I want you to think of concentration, or dharana, as a single pearl. One pearl that you have found inside of a shell. When you have that single moment of concentration, that single pearl of concentration, that’s dharana.

When you begin to piece the pearls together, string them together one after the other, that is when you’ve moved into meditation. So concentration, or dharana, is a single pearl. Meditation, or dhyana, that is a string of pearls.

So even when you put two pearls together, you’ve moved from that single point of concentration into the practice of meditation.

Aim of the eight limbs of Yoga

A interesting note about the Yoga Sutras, if you get into studying them beyond the eight limbs. The entire practices of yoga, not only are they there to bring us peace and harmony, they’re there to prepare us for meditation.

In the Yoga Sutras, the ultimate aim is to be able to meditate. Because once you’re able to meditate for lengths of time, consistently over time, that is going to lead you to limb number eight, which is samadhi, roughly translated to bliss.

If you are meditating consistently, you’re going to feel lighter and better and more rejuvenated once you’ve completed your meditation. Over time, consistent meditation leads to the experience of samadhi.

Wrapping up the eight Limbs of Yoga

That was a super quick overview of the eight limbs, something yoga practitioners spend lifetimes studying. But I at least wanted you to have that introduction so in future episodes you would be familiar with what I’m talking about.

If I’m talking about pranayama, about meditation, about yama and niyama, you’d know I’m talking about those guiding principles that are leading us to live life like a yogi.

I hope you were able to take away a better understanding of the Yoga Sutras and the eight limbs and are looking forward to learning more about yama and niyama in a future episode.

Join the Library Now!

Get instant access to resources (like sequences and scripts) designed to make your teaching life easier!

Thank you!