Patañjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga


According to Patanjali, there are eight steps that a practitioner must take to acquire discipline and reach, in life or in death, the Great Truth and the union with the Whole. They also serve as a guideline on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. This is explained in the Yoga Sütras of Patañjali in the second chapter, Sadhana Pada, and early in the third chapter, Vibhuti Pada...

The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two steps. They are considered essential prerequisites for the real and profound progress on the spiritual path of yoga. They constitute the ethical guidance of yoga; they are ethical precepts for anyone who seriously wants to practice yoga. Every practitioner should follow the five yamas. The five niyamas are optional, depending on the enthusiasm and aspirations of the practitioner. They are not like the ten commandments of the Christian religion which leave you in sin if not followed. You can practice yoga techniques and lie, but if you really want to grow in yoga, there are guiding principles that must be followed, such as non-violence, not stealing, telling the truth, having sexual control, and having non-attachment to material things, ideas, or thoughts.

1. Yamas

Social constraints that all practitioners should follow that allow us to live in harmony in society and with ourselves.

  1. Ahimsa –  Non-violence.
    Not to inflict harm by actions, inertia, words, or thoughts to another living being, including oneself.
    Hiṃsā means injury, wound, injury, and violence in Sanskrit.
    A-Himsa means the opposite, no harming, zero violence.
    You cannot really practice any yama unless ahimsa is practiced, as in lying, in stealing, in uncontrolled sex, and in attachments, you are harming others or yourself. Ghandi is an example of a practitioner of ahimsa.
  2. Satyam – Truthfulness. Not lying. Being honest.
    Telling the truth. Truth in thoughts, words, and communication.
    Truth that consciously doesn’t harm. Honesty with others and oneself.
  3. Asteya – Non-stealing
    Steya means “stealing” and a means “no” in Sanskrit.
    Non-stealing intellectual and material things. Non-stealing the intangible, like taking away someone’s peace of mind when yelling, or taking away his time because you are not punctual. It is also not to deprive the right that each person has to access health and education; not to steal anyone’s honor or dignity.
  4. Aparigraha  – Practice non-attachment. Graha means “to seize or take”, pari means “from all sides” and a means “no”. Thus aparigraha is not taking, accepting, or accumulating more than is necessary, not being possessive, not coveting others’ goods. Aparigraha is learning to let go; relinquishing our attachment to things, people, and thoughts. This does not mean giving away your car or computer, or not having possessions that bring you pleasure, like an air conditioner in the room. Practicing aparigraha does not cause unhappiness. On the contrary, the person lives happily with possessions that are necessary. But the less stuff, the less you have to worry about losing them
  5. Brahmacharya – Sexual moderation. Sexual control
    Sexual responsibility. The spirit of this precept is to conserve energy.  There is a determined amount of vital energy in our organisms, what is known in tantra as “ojas”. Sexual excesses should be avoided, being that they are the fastest way to exhaust these vital forces. Sexuality is not denied, but one cannot be ruled by it. Tantra yoga allows us to free ourselves from attachments to sexuality without denying its virtues. In tantra, it is believed that man loses many ojas unnecessarily through ejaculation and women during menstruation. There are tantra methods to control and sublimate these flows, as it is believed that when that vital energy runs out, you die.

2. Niyamas

observances and individual cleanings.

  1. Shauca – Purification
    Purity or cleanliness of our bodies, both external and internal, both physical and mental, both our bodies and everything around us. Our environment reflects and influences what is inside us, so we must treasure cleanliness and order in everything around us. We must also have healthy eating habits and treat our bodies with love, keeping them healthy and vigorous. But more important than physical cleansing of the body is mental hygiene, purifying the mind, not allowing disturbing emotions such as hatred, anger, revenge, and greed.
  2. Santosa  – Contentment
    Acceptance and satisfaction with the situation you have in this life. Be happy to be alive, being humble and accepting with grace what you have, which does not mean conformism, but having an attitude that makes you see reality as it is, changing things through right actions and accepting what cannot be changed. Do not be materialistic, meaning do not seek happiness through material objects. It is a state of inner serenity, regardless of the circumstances of life, sensing that everything has a purpose.In II.42, Patañjali asserts that “from contentment unsurpassed happiness arises.”
  3. Tapas -Self-discipline, willpower, austerity
    Discipline, passion in one’s aspirations, fire that burns all impurities. For example, the practitioner can take a tapas to meditate every morning for 30 minutes, do an asana for 20 minutes daily for a month, or practice silence for a week. Every single practice of self-discipline produces some form of purification in the individual in the physical, mental, and emotional levels
    Patañjali explains in II.43 that “through the destruction of impurities and practice of austerities perfection of the body and its organs is achieved”.
  4. Svādhyāya  – Self-study. Spiritual self-education.
    Auto metaphysical investigation. Devoting some time each day to reflect, examining ourselves internally and studying inspiring and sacred texts. Finding the most propitious approach to understanding reality, using reflection and study.
    In II.44, Patañjali claims that “through self-study union with the desired deity is brought about”.
  5. Īshvarapranidhāna – Surrendering and loving God.
    Detachment of the ego. The recognition that there is a higher principle in the universe than our little selves that is guiding the course of our lives. Offering our actions to the Universe without expecting anything in return. Adoration of Ishvara (the Lord, God) with an attitude of surrender and abandonment in order to synchronize with God and his will.
    Patañjali declares in II.45 that “from devotion to God one attains the perfection in Samadhi”.

3. Asana

Postures that strengthen the body, invigorate the mind, balance emotions, and eliminate diseases and disturbances.
Go to Asanas.

4. Pranayama

Control of vital energy through breathing.

Go to Pranayama.

5. Pratyahara

Retraction of the senses. Abstraction.Withdrawal of the mind.

Pratyahara is the deliberate effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. The senses cease to have contact with objects, so we cease to feel, hear, smell, taste and see, directing our attention internally.

Much of our emotional imbalance is of our own creation. When we are influenced by outside events and sensations, the inner peace and tranquility that we are seeking evades us. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves, objectively observing actions, cravings, habits, and attitudes that are detrimental to our health and inner growth.

The relationship of the mind and senses is compared to bees following the queen bee. When the queen moves, bees follow. When the queen rests, the bees rest. Similarly when the mind rests, the senses abandon their activities. This is Pratyahara.

The turtle is an animal that represents Pratyahara. Visualize the turtle withdrawing its head, tail and all four limbs inside its shell, the same way as you withdrawing your senses and focusing your attention inside.  This is Pratyahara.

The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of external distractions, we are ready to deal with the distractions of the mind itself.

6. Dharana

“Fixing the mind on one object is called concentration (dharana)”, writes Patañjali in III.1. Concentration is one-pointedness of mind and the ability to hold that awareness of the mind in one point without fluctuation. This object, point, or impression can be inside or outside our body. There is only awareness of that impression. It’s an intense high. For example, if I focus my mind on my breath, my mind is captivated by that breath and nothing else exists at that moment.

A converging mind is a powerful mind and a diverging mind is a weak mind. Let’s draw an analogy between a light bulb and the mind. The rays of the light bulb go in all directions, the energy spreading. When you are standing ten feet away from the bulb, you can see the light, but you can’t feel the heat, even though there is great heat in the center of the bulb, at the filament. In the same way, the mind has great potential powers, but it dissipates in all directions with uncontrolled thoughts, not making use of all its power. Look now how a laser works. All the rays of the light go in one direction and in unison with each other.  The original source of light can be the same than the one from the light bulb, but if you stand ten feet away from a laser beam source, the beam could burn a hole through your body. That is the difference between diverging light and converging light. Similarly, a converging mind has great powers.

Till Pratyahara, the individual consciousness is not present. In Dharana there is inner awakening. Perfecting concentration leads to the next step, meditation.

7. Dhyana


After concentrating for a while on one point, the point itself disappears and the practitioner achieves greater abstraction, a total disconnection from the senses and thoughts. Thus, meditation or contemplation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration.  Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is a state of intense awareness without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness, it produces few or no thoughts at all.

Swami Hariharananda Aranya comments: “In Dharana or fixity, the flow of similar modifications on the same object is confined to the desired place. But the thought-process on the same object is intermittent and in succession. When through practice that becomes continuous,  i.e. appears as an unbroken flow, then it is called Dhyana…It is a particular state of calmness of the mind…If flow of knowledge in Dharana may be compared to succession of similar drops of water, in Dhyana the flow of knowledge is continuous like flow of oil or honey. That is the implication of the word ‘continuous’. When knowledge is continuous it appears as though a single idea is present in the mind”.

Aranya, S. (2000). Book III. In Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali With Bhāsvatī (4. enl. ed., p. 251). Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

In Dhyana, the mind observes its own behavior. Meditation should be stable, long-lasting and under our control. It can be done in different poses designed for meditation, but it can also be attained while in an asana.

8. Samadhi

Enlightenment/ Absorption / Illumination / Ecstasy

In III.3, Patañjali explains that “when the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost. This is Samadhi.”

In Samadhi, perception of the processes of the mind disappears and there is a total absorption, where the “I” vanishes. Everything is revealed in Samadhi. This is the highest state where the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the experience of peace, of bliss, and of being at one with the Universe. There is no duality of observer and observed, no separation, no time or space; it is one and all at once.

If Samadhi is analyzed while one is experiencing it, one loses it. Samadhi is an indescribable experience that cannot be explained intellectually. A musician who is lost in his music, devoid of ego, gazes Samadhi. A practitioner who is lost in meditation, devoid of herself, experiences Samadhi, the goal of every yogi and yogini. In fact, almost everyone aspires this peace and total contentment.

IrmaPatañjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga