Ashtanga Yoga


In his “Yoga Sutras,” Patanjali proposed that yoga consisted of eight distinct areas of practice – the eight limbs of yoga. The system of yoga based upon these eight limbs is sometimes called Raja Yoga (Royal Path Yoga,) while others call it Ashtanga Yoga (Eight Limb Yoga).

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For the casual practitioner, this may come as a surprise

because some of these limbs are not as readily visible in a typical yoga class as are others. (It will become clear why this is the case by the time you finish reading.) Hatha Yoga focuses heavily on two limbs (asana [postural practice] and pranayama [breathwork],) as well as on shatkarma (cleansing practices that fall under Saucha in Niyama — see below.) That’s not to say that Hatha Yoga practitioners don’t ever practice the other limbs of yoga, but rather that their focus is on asana and pranayama as a means to work toward the higher limbs. As we’ll see, the system builds on itself, such that successfully moving onward requires developing competence with the preceding limbs.

The first two limbs of yoga provide its ethical framework. (In a manner similar to Buddhism’s Eightfold Path.) While ethics are applied in a yoga practice, they may not be explicitly discussed and thus remain unfamiliar. That said, ethics shouldn’t be limited to time on the mat, but rather should be quietly carried out at all times.


This portion of yogic ethics deals with how one interacts with the world beyond oneself. It consists of five components: Ahimsa (non-violence,) Satya (truth or right speech,) Asteya (non-stealing,) Brahmacharya (moderation,) and Aparigraha (non-hoarding / non-collecting.) By being at peace with the world as much as possible, one is better able to still the mind as is called for to advance the yogic path.


This section of yogic ethics suggests how one should behave with respect to self. It also consists of five subcomponents: Saucha (cleanliness – including the aforementioned shatkarma,) Santosha (contentment,) Tapas (discipline / austerity,) Svadhyaya (study, especially self-study,) and Isvara Pranidhana (reverence / surrender.) By being at peace with oneself, one can better find the inner stillness needed to pursue one’s path.

Moving beyond the ethics of yoga, the next two limbs present the most physical part of the practice, and they are largely what the average person thinks of when they hear the word “yoga.” This is both because they are the most visible practices, and because they are essential to success further down the line.


This limb includes the physical postures and exercises of yoga: the sun salutations, the forward and backward bends, the twists, the balances, the inversions (e.g. shoulder-stand or headstand,) the seated postures, and the (much-beloved) savasana (i.e. corpse pose.) One shouldn’t conclude that because modern yoga focuses so heavily on this aspect that it is the most  important limb. It’s often pointed out that Patanjali only wrote three sutras (2.46 – 2.48) on asana, and yet we devote the lion’s share of practice to them. It’s not that asana is more important, but rather that most people would have trouble  succeeding with the higher limbs without a sufficiently strong and supple body. [Just as one would have difficulty succeeding in one’s practice without eating reasonable portions of nutritious food (which, by the way, is often considered an element of Tapas and, arguably, Saucha — from the Niyama mentioned above.)]


These are the breathwork practices of yoga. Pranayama includes expansive breaths (e.g. the Yogic Breath,) single nostril / alternate nostril breathing (e.g. Nadi Shodhana,) excitatory breaths (i.e. kapalbhati or bhastrika,) and calming breaths (e.g. bhramari, sheetali / sheetkari, or ujjayi.) Like asana, pranayama is an important precursor to the higher limbs of yoga. The practice of controlling one’s breath allows one to achieve a more balanced state of mind, and the more balanced state of mind makes mental concentration easier. Pranayama allows one to manage one’s energy level. Through pranayama one achieves a state of body and mind that is neither too groggy nor too agitated for meditation.

Limbs five through seven all involve what the general public would call “meditation.” In yoga, these divisions are used to make the stages of development clearer. 


This is withdrawal from sensory experience. If you’ve practiced Yoga Nidra, you’ve seen how this is done. To start, efforts are made to make the environment as free of sensory stimulation as possible – lights are turned off or dimmed and noises that can be controlled are eliminated. Next, the practitioner adopts a position that is stable, comfortable, and which reduces physical stimulation as much as possible. [Have you ever wondered why teachers tell you that your hands should not be palm down in savasana / corpse pose? It’s because your fingertips are densely loaded with nerve endings.] The next step might seem strange. We actively pay attention to the sensory inputs. Once the brain realizes there is nothing interesting in the signals it is receiving, it begins to lose interest, making it easier to avoid sensory distraction. In Yoga Nidra, you can see this in the  internalization phase at the beginning of the practice. A common form of internalization is to have the individual listen to all the sounds without attaching values to them. 


Dharana refers to the practice of training one’s concentration, fixing one’s attention on a single point, or object of attention. When one thinks of Dharana, one might first think of a practice like Trataka, in which one focuses one’s vision and awareness on a single point — traditionally, a candle flame. However, the object of attention in dharana could be a sound (e.g. a mantra,) the feeling of one’s breath, an image [a mental image or a physical one,] or a tactile sensation. Many of the practices that we commonly think of as “meditation” are — in the yogic sense — dharana, at least in the early stages of practice.


“Dhyana” is the word whose meaning most closely translates to “meditation,” and it continues the progression from the practice of dharana. In Dharana, we are training the concentration, but most people will find that the concentration still wavers. Eventually, when one can hold the concentration for extended periods without interruption or distraction, one has entered the realm of dhyana. So, dhyana may be experienced during the same practice one once did for dharana, but it may also represent the carrying over of the state of mind “off the mat,” as they say, into everyday life.

So, the reason we have these three limbs, instead of one called “meditation,” can be summed up as follows: If every sound or ache distracts one, one won’t be able to concentrate one’s attention; and if one can’t achieve concentration, one won’t be able to maintain concentration. So one must develop sensory withdrawal (pratyahara) in order to concentrate (dharana) before one can effortlessly maintain concentration (dhyana.)


The final limb can, in one sense, be thought of as a continued progression from dharana through dhyana and on to something yet deeper and more profound. It can also be thought of as the culmination of yoga. In samadhi, the extended flow of concentration on the object reaches the point at which the individual feels no distinction or separation between self and the object of attention. It’s said that this state cannot really be described or defined, so we’ll leave it at that.

Hopefully, you can now see why yoga classes focus so much on asana and pranayama. Like the limbs of a tree, the limbs of yoga are not equally readily accessed. Instead, the higher limbs can only be achieved by climbing over the lower limbs. Most people would have little hope of success if they tried to launch themselves straight at the experience of Samadhi, without first becoming skilled with asana, pranayama, etc.

Best of luck on your journey into yoga.