Beyond Asana: The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

In the science of yoga there are eight (ashta) limbs (anga) or aspects that comprise the tree of yoga. These eight limbs are part of the work of Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras. Of these eight main branches the third, asana is the one most familiar and initially most accessible to North Americans. Asana refers to the physical postures performed in Yoga, all of which, regardless of the specific style, fall under the umbrella of “Hatha Yoga”. One who has mastered all eight limbs is referred to as a “Raja”. This title implies complete mastery of Self – one who has mastered the senses, the physical body and the mind. Considering the scope and volume of information and knowledge there is to know, it is comforting to have a system so simply laid out by Patanjali.

    “Comprehensive, systematic and remarkably precise, the Yoga Sutras organize the essence of all spiritual practices into a basic plan for living. You’ll find nothing in this ancient text that contradicts the precepts of any religion. Instead you will find a step-by-step guide to right living, a guide that compliments the goals of any spiritual tradition.”
    Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat.

The yoga sutras outline a plan for living that flows from action to knowledge to liberation. This plan or path has eight limbs which are more like spokes on a wheel than like steps on a ladder. The first four limbs are considered tapas or spirituality in action. They include the yamas and niyamas – the five moral restraints and the five observations of yoga; asana – the science of will; and pranayama – the science of breath.

The next two limbs are considered svadhyaya (or self study). They represent the point of turning inward, or the withdrawal from the senses of perception: pratyahara – control of senses, and dharana – concentration. The last two spokes on the wheel concerned with ishvara pranidhana (Divine Will) are dhyana – meditation, and Samadhi – union of complete consciousness with the Divine.

Patanjali recognized the difficulties we all face as we journey. His methodology is simple: practice the eight limbs entirely and interdependently and you will find the goal of yoga – personal liberation. I suggest taking one yama and one niyama per week and truly embodying them. Notice how they affect your day, on and off the mat. I am sure that you will be amazed at the poignancy of these simple principles.

Listed below are the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga and in greater detail the “Yamas and Niyamas”, perhaps best understood as the ethical aspects of Yoga. They are placed in order of deliverance or discovery, which eventually leads to total awareness of the true self, and bliss.


  1. yama – the restraints, or things to avoid
  2. niyama – the observances
  3. asana – the practice of postures
  4. pranayama – the withdrawal of the senses
  5. pratyahara – the withdrawal of the senses
  6. dharana – concentration
  7. dhyana – meditation
  8. samadhi – bliss or complete consciousness


The yamas and niyamas mentally and spiritually prepare us for the physical postures, or asanas. It is easy to see why these two limbs are placed first, as they are fundamental for any sincere yogic practice. Without these observances and restraints we are subject to the many trappings of the mind; prone to overdo it, injure ourselves and forget to accept what is.

YAMAS: universal principles and disciplines

  1. Ahimsa – Non-Violence
    Avoiding the injury of any living creature, in thought, or word or action. Perhaps the most elemental place to begin is with oneself. Ask, is this harmful?
  2. Satya – Truth
    Your truthfulness with others will lead to the same energy coming back to you. Untruthfulness in thought, word or deed will create a sympathetic nervous system discharge, and is more trouble than it is worth. Ask, is it true?
  3. Asteya – Not Stealing
    Theft refers to taking what does not belong to you. This means stealing in thought, words or deeds. Ask, does this take away from anyone?
  4. Brahmacharya – Self-Restraint
    Reverence for the divine life-force that moves through us, in us and around us. Not squandering your life-force. “Celibacy” is often associated with this Yama and in the truest sense of this word means celebration of your essence. Ask, is this act honoring the life-force within me and those I encounter?
  5. Aparigraha – Free from hoarding
    Moderation in all things. Being non-attached, free from covetousness and possessiveness. This frees us from identifying ourselves with things. It is a practice of letting go and trusting. When you are needy you cannot have what you need; when you no longer need it – you get it. Ask, do I really need this? Can I get involved without getting attached?

NIYAMAS: inward practices and observances

  1. Saucha – Cleanliness
    External and internal cleansing and purity. Caring for oneself with respect. Disorder contributes to disordered consciousness. Practice, meditation.
  2. Santosa – Contentment
    Acceptance of situations. Being able to meet and deal with events as they present themselves. Relating to situations without effort. Events are the results of past actions; past actions are the results of prior perceptions. Therefore, accept and learn from these events. Practice, total accountability and personal empowerment.
  3. Tapas – Self-discipline
    Purification and self-discipline to achieve a definite goal in life, ultimately freedom. A motivational force awakened within you, tapas is the alchemy of transformation. Practice the removal of obstacles which stand in your way of achieving your true goals, be motivated on your path.
  4. Svadhyaya – Self-Study
    Using the art of reflection and contemplation to gain awareness and understanding. Practice the art of self-study and this will lead to a broader understanding of the universe.
  5. Ishvara pranidhana – Divine Will
    Literally means “the surrender of oneself to a higher purpose”. To be in the presence of the creator, spirit. To open one’s self to the greater meaning. Practice contemplating on the higher power that guides the universe.

Our true self is discovered through a conscious awareness of the conflict arising from the polarization of opposites present within us. Simply speaking, this conflict is between the external and the internal worlds. Yoga allows us to experience every level of our being, the unity behind the opposites, and the relativity of all tendencies. Having the tools to deal with life’s challenges are what yoga and specifically “the eight limbs of Patanjali” is all about.

Blessings on your journey,