8 Limbs of Yoga

What are the 8 Limbs of Yoga?

Yoga involves eight areas including 1) self-restraint, 2) observance, 3) postures & movement, 4) breath, 5) focusing inward, 6) concentration, 7) meditation and 8) culminating into a union of body and mind. 

When practicing yoga, we need to involve all areas as we hold postures (asana), take deep breaths (pranayama), focus inward/being mindful of how we feel (pratyahara), concentrating on the present moment (Dharana), and meditating on a mantra (Dhyana). 

Being mindful of what is happening in our body and mind, and letting go of things we cannot control. 

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali refers to 8 limbs of yoga, each offers guidance on how to live a meaningful & purposeful life.

The building blocks of the sutras:  

These first 5 limbs can and should be practiced simultaneously

1- Yama (Self-Restraint)

Yama translates to mean abstinences.  These are things we remove from our life to bring ourselves into alignment as we move towards a union of body and mind.  One also refers to the yamas as moral disciplines or moral vows.

The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." 

Mental Health: We need to remove things in our lives that exacerbate our mental health. This includes learning more about a specific topic of mental health and knowing what things are in our life that we can remove to improve our healing. This could include removing unhealthy foods, eliminating toxic conversations, reducing social media if it's pulling us down or drawing us away from more important things, etc.  

For Example:  
1- With depression, we need to first learn about depression and the type of depression you are wanting to heal from. How does depression impact your body and mind? What things or experiences trigger depression for you? 
2- Second, Identify things that trigger depression or lengthens depression for you once it arrives.
3- Next, make a conscious effort to avoid or remove these items, triggers or experiences from your life. This could be as simple as taking a walk outside or talking to a friend when you're feeling sad. 

2- Niyama (Observance)

Positive duties or observances.  Niyamas are a combination of attitude and action.  Developing purity and contentment manifesting in our actions.    These are standards to move towards over a lifetime. These standards include choosing purity, contentment, pairing passion and non-attachment, self-reflection and devotion. 

Purity comes through simplicity. Simple living means we choose to have and do less, but as a result, we enjoy more.  -True Yoga, Jennie Lee  "Through study of sacred text and introspection, one communes with the divine self,"  Sutra 2.44

Mental Health: We need to add things to our lives that help us heal. This starts by knowing more about our mental health and knowing what things help us heal.  This could include adding healthy foods, getting involved in social activities that can help our mental health, adding a meditation practice, etc. 

For Example:
1- With anxiety, first we need to learn more about anxiety and how it impacts the body and mind. How does anxiety show itself in your body and in your mind? What things or experiences trigger anxiety for you? 
2- Identify things that trigger anxiety in your life and what types of things tend to help you work through your anxiety.
3- Make a conscious effort to add these things to your life to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety or prevent anxiety in the future.  This could be as simple as adding a mantra to your morning routine or before a big game that might cause anxiety for you, where you repeat a positive and calming phrase to yourself to help yourself remain calm. 

3- Asana (Movement & Postures)

Don't force a perfect posture.  Instead, notice how the body is feeling.  Adapt the practice to your body's needs.  There are two ways to approach asana practice; 1) repetition and 2) holding. 

All asana postures have different forms from gentle to challenging. Be mindful to apply the principles of peacefulness to each movement.  

The 5 General Categories of Asanas;

1- Back bending postures: open the chest in front of the torso. These postures energize the body and increase inhalation. 

2- Forward bending postures: open the back, enhance elimination and digestion, and calm the nervous system.  

3- Asymmetric or lateral bending postures: address unevenness in the body. And tightness in the back, shoulders and pelvic girdle. 

4- Twists: liberate tension in the spine and release vital energy. They assist digestion and metabolism.

5- Inversions: strengthen the spine, deepen respiratory rhythms and reverse the effects of gravity on the body.   -Source: True Yoga, Jennie Lee

Mental Health: We need to better understand the poses and movements that enhance our mental health. As we understand the different areas of mental health, we come to recognize that slower movements and holds might be better for us one day.  While the next day, faster transitions and movements can help us refocus back to our body and out of our mind. 

For Example:  Those who deal with depression often are helped by arching the upper back that stimulates and energizes the body. These asanas could include cobra, upward dog, etc. Those dealing with anxiety often have a racing mind. Asanas that have been known to help are sun salutations or flows that could refocus the mind on the body and the breath, calming the body from anxiety. Better understanding how each pose impacts the body could help in your mental health journey. 

4- Pranayama (Breath)

When we breathe, it's important to breathe slowly, which streamlines the breath, with the free and easy movement of the diaphragm, engaging the entire torso (in fact, the entire body).  Practice breathing through the nose, which naturally slows the exhale, because the nostrils offer more resistance to the breath than the mouth, and gives the lungs enough time to extract the  maximum amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body.  This type of breathing activates the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and the relaxation response.  -The Yoga of Breath, Richard Rosen.

An advanced practitioner of pranayama can regulate the movement of energy through breath to less than one cycle per minute (one breath in, one breath out).  Slowing the breath dramatically like this prolongs life by decreasing stress on the organs and cortisol levels.  Deep breathing maintains elasticity in lung tissue. - True Yoga by Jennie Lee.

5 Pranayama Techniques 

Mental Health: The breath is a great tool when helping to calm your body and your mind. Understanding how the breath impacts our mind and body, and knowing which breathing exercises can help in the healing journey. Keeping in mind that when you inhale, the heart rate naturally speeds up -- when you exhale, the heart rate naturally slows down. This information is helpful as you bring awareness to your breath.

For Example:  It's important to know what you need, which will help you decide which breathing approach is best for you. Knowing whether you need to calm down by lengthening your exhale and slowing your heart rate.  Knowing whether you need to speed up your nervous system and lift your mood by using an energetic breathing exercise to lift your mood, "Breath of Joy". 

5- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses)

Pratyahara can be seen as withdrawing from the senses and choosing to focus inward.  Pranayama (breath work) prepares the body for pratyahara and asana, which helps to prepare the body for meditation. It is the connection between the inner and outer aspects of yoga.

How can one practice Pratyahara?

One way to begin to understand pratyahara on an experiential level is to focus on a familiar yoga posture, Savasana (Corpse Pose). This pose is done lying supine on the floor and is the practice of relaxing deeply. The first stage of Savasana involves physiological relaxation. 

Mental Health: Start by recognizing withdrawing from things that trigger our symptoms of mental health, and then removing ourselves from those things. Find a place where you can focus on yourself.  Choose something to focus on that allows you to bring you balance. Pratyahara is a was to prepare yourself to engage the breath (pranayama) and poses (asanas), allowing you to find peace and move through the healing process. 

6- Dharana (Concentration)

Dharana means “holding,” “concentration,” or “steady focus.”  When you practice Dharana, you are “binding” the mind to one place, idea, or object.  

How can one practice Dharana?

Taking a steady and comfortable seat (asana), controlling the breath (pranayama) and restraining the senses (pratyahara),  focus your mind on one of the following: 

Mental Health: Depending on the area of mental health you are dealing with will depend on what type of things you will want to focus on. If you are dealing with anxiety, you might want to consider focusing on movements and flowing through different poses to take your focus away from racing thoughts and onto your movement and breath. If you are dealing with depression, focusing on your breath while holding a specific pose (ie cobra, hastautthanasana) could be a good way to lift your mood as you bind your thoughts to your breath.

7- Dhyana (Meditation)

Dhyana is a meditative state of being.  The practice of Dhyana brings about keen awareness without focus and moves us from a state of doing to being.

Although Dhyana sounds and seems similar to Dharana (the preceding limb of the Eight Limbs of Yoga), it is subtly different.  While Dharana teaches us a one-pointed focus, encouraging us to concentrate all of our attention onto the breath, or a sound, or a visualisation,  Dhyana brings about keen awareness without the focus.

So while Dharana requires us to concentrate on one object, Dhyana teaches us to observe it without judgement, without attachment – instead contemplating it in all its colours and forms in a profound, abstract state of meditation.

When you practice dhyana, you focus your mind on a particular object or concept with the goal of becoming one with it. The best way to prepare for a dhyana practice is to first do some yoga to bring your body to a calm and relaxed state. Then you'll be ready to shut down your senses and focus your mind. 

Mental Health: Meditation can be a powerful tool to help bring awareness to a variety of different elements. For example, as we sit in stillness, we can be aware of the thoughts that come into our mind. This allows us to become aware of the things we are worried about or the things on our mind. We then train ourselves to acknowledge those thoughts and then consciously let them go, bringing ourselves back into a state of stillness. Another example, as we engage in guided meditation instruction, this allows our thoughts to focus on the voice giving us the instructions.  By following the simple cues of the instructor, this allows us to relax our muscles, calming our mind, and bringing our body and mind into a state of stillness. The style of meditation can depend on the needs of the individual.  

8- Samadhi (Union of Body & Mind)

Only by relaxing, reposing in the self, by practice of resting, conscious relaxation and conscious rest can you achieve this state of samadhi. Unconscious rest is sleep which we are forced upon by nature. In sleep you are not really resting. It is possible only in deep meditation, because you are consciously resting. 

The 8 Steps To Having a Samadhi Experience

-Source: The Samadhi Experience

Mental Health: In yoga philosophy, the union of body and mind brings peace, called Samadhi.  Even though our lives are often chaotic, we can learn to live in a way where we can be mindful of our emotions and needs. Once we are mindful of  these needs, we can give ourselves experiences to help bring balance to our body and mind when imbalance happens. This is an ongoing process and can be a nourishing journey.