A comprehensive guide to the 8 Limbs of Yoga

^^^^ Check out a photo shoot I did with Rachael, a beautiful yogi. Her spirit is so amazing, and as I let her do whatever pose came to her while a thunderstorm echoed under the bridge, I realized how the 8 limbs of yoga can translate from the art form of yoga to my art form, photography.

The 8 limbs of yoga. Us yogis, we live by them in our practice, and we all aim to take them from the mat and into our daily life. And the truth is, without them, where would the evolution of yoga have gone (if anywhere)?

Click the link up there ^^^ for a very cool timeline of important moments in the shaping of modern yoga, including when the sutras were written.

Confession: I didn’t know about the 8 limbs until I bought a new mat about 4 months ago. I know I know, I’m sorry! I’m not worthy! But better late than never, right?
On the paper label wrapped around the mat, there was a section entitled “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.” The description was this:
“The following wisdom is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written thousands of years ago. The practice of mystic yoga can be categorized into the following eight parts:” etc etc. Obviously I cut it out, and it now lives on a shelf above my bed. I read it from time to time to remind myself why I came to practice, how far I’ve come, how far I have to go and what yoga is meant to be. And let me tell you, as a twenty-one-year-old whippersnapper in the midst of a city, they mean something totally different than older yogis who are wise and more stable than I am. But that’s also what yoga is about: applying these basic principals to ourselves, no matter how different we may be. So here’s what they mean to me, and how I learned about them. I could go on and on about these eight limbs, as I’m sure you can too, but I’ll keep it brief so you don’t fall asleep on me (or quit reading because you’re bored, that woud be bad too). Bear with me, there’s some really cool infographics to simplify all this for you as you go along.

  1. Yama: universal morality, control of the senses. Yamas are our attitude toward others and how we are to deal with things outside of ourselves. The five wise characteristics in yamas kind of remind me of the commandments of the Bible, except softer, gentler (and totally less daunting). The gist of them is this: don’t take more than you need (don’t steal), neutralize your greed, have compassion for all living things, speak the truth and control yourself. Pretty easy, right? Simply put, control yourself. Think about your actions, pay attention to the world around you and live to your means.
  2. Niyama: Personal observances, or how we relate internally to ourselves. There are also “rules” for this, ranging from cleanliness, finding self awareness in everything we do, staying fit, keeping pure and being content with what we have. Personaly, I need to remember this one. It’s really easy to get caught up in all the latest trends and technology, especially when you’re in college and you’re trying desperately to fit in. I also lose track of myself in all the homework and other obligations I have. I need to stay in touch with myself and deal with my internal self more.
  3. Asanas: body postures. Ahhhhh, if you weren’t familiar with the yama and niyama, you are most definitely familiar with asanas. Practicing postures is the most familiar limb of yoga, as it’s the most widespread. We all know the health benefits of practicing, and if you’re a yogi, you probably feel them every time you practice (and even off the mat too). Practicing postures quiets the mind. It prepares us for meditation, and it allows us to feel, something we often stop doing so that we can get through the million tasks we have to accomplish each day. It reattaches us to our bodies.
  4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises, and control of prana (breath). Since I started this blog I’ve talked to a lot of people about what they love about yoga, and many of them tell me that they develop a relationship with their breath. It’s always there, you know? We don’t have to think “breathe in, breathe out” every second to survive, it just happens. We don’t pay attention to our life force, and yoga helps us start. Sometimes, when life is just so crazy, I step somewhere where I’m alone for a minute and just breathe. I think sometimes in this hectic world, that’s all you can do.
  5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses. This is a tough one, both in theory and very much in practice. Our lives are dominated by our five senses, inputting data into our bodies, and then letting us deal with everything accordingly. The goal is pratyahara is to shut those five senses off, allowing us to move completely into our minds and feel things from the inside. When we focus, we find our inner peace within ourselves. Meditating allows us to do that naturally, probably without us even knowing it.
  6. Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness. Huh? This is the point when you’re in the zone. You all know what I’m talking about too, don’t you? That zone where you are so focused and at peace, where things so intense but so easy to concentrate on because you’re at that beautiful point of contentment in your mind. This point is often reached through practice, yes, but also through concentration and reflection. Take the mantra “so hum,” which translates to “I am that.” If you sit and inhale, internally thinking “so” (I am), and exhaling whilst thinking “hum” (that), your mind starts to open, reflect and concentrate at the same time.  “So” connects you to the internal you, while “hum” connects you to the external world. This contemplation meditation is designed to help us focus our minds on becoming one with the universe around us, that which breathes us all. Try it sometime, and contemplate the mystery of just being.
  7. Dhyana: Devotion, Meditation on the Divine. When I first experienced an “om” in a class, I really didn’t understand what it was all about. Consequently, I had homework then to look up the meaning of “om” and what the hell it was all about. So I did, and I found this paragraph: “The syllable OM, which is the imperishable Brahman, is the universe.  Whatsoever has existed, whatsoever exists, and whatsoever shall exist hereafter, is OM.  And whatsoever transcends past, present, and future, that also is OM.” Um, what. So I kept reading, and found that “om,” while it means the universe, is a chant to remind us of the link between ourselves and the world around us. It also represents states of consciousness (which I won’t get into here or we’ll be reading for days). In meditation, we experience the inner peace we work really hard to get to. We go to our happy place, we explore it and we find our reality with clarity.
  8. Samadhi: Union with the Divine, or perfect union of the soul and Soul. This is the supreme clarity of mind, body and consciousness. All yogis strive to reach this point, and why wouldn’t we? Once we reach here, our spirit has been through a journey, an awakening and an experience. Personally, I don’t think I’ve made it to this point yet. I cannot bring myself out of the life I am living currently to transcend into my beyond. But I’ll get there, and I can’t wait until I do.


All of that information above, simplified into a word cloud based on frequency of the word usage.

All of that information above, simplified into a word cloud based on frequency of the word usage.

Above: notice how the words ‘mind,’ ‘body,’ ‘means,’ ‘senses,’ and ‘inner’ are the biggest words. In association with the 8 limbs, they are the most commonly used words (besides yoga, of course). 

Still thinking, “holy crap that’s always so much to process”? Here are some breakdowns for you to make some profound realizations about all of that data. Note: all of the network of words you are about to see was generated through the analyzation of this awesome informational article: http://www.expressionsofspirit.com/yoga/eight-limbs.htm
word associations in a very large yoga articleAbove: a word connection chart, generated from the article link above. A simplified version of the article shows key words that are linked together, and it came with some interesting results.

All of the limbs relate to our practice, our ritual, whether it be meditation, postures or just sitting in the quiet space, breathing. As we practice, we explore ourselves, we find our peace, and we find our true selves. Here’s what the article linked above found about our practice. In a word tree, the word “practice” relates to other words in the article in eleven different ways. Check out each saying individually:

And there you have it: Cam’s guide to the eight limbs of yoga. See, that wasn’t so bad now, was it!
Throughout this semester, I’ve learned more about the eight limbs of yoga than I have in the past three years of practicing combined. By no means am I quitting this blog with this post, but I want to personally thank you all for bearing with me these past four months. Thank you all for your comments, your encouragement and your suggestions. And feel free to continue all of those things. By creating this blog I have strengthened my practice, and I hope I have helped at least one of you strengthen yours.

Namaste, all. And see you soon (as a college graduate)!!


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