The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Our teacher and friend, Dr Vijaya Kumar visited us from India for the first time last week, and has now returned home. He gave some inspiring talks, classes and a retreat while he was here that were eye opening. He will return next year, so we will keep you posted. I have recorded and condensed his last talk here at MMYoga for all who would like to read it.

Ashtanga: The Eight limbs of yoga

Patanjali’s System


This paper has been constructed in order to put down is the simplest way the essentials of yoga philosophy so the student has a clearer understanding of why we do what we do! It also helps me to keep it clear in my own mind. Our Guruji Dr. Vijaya Kumar is an amazing man. I was introduced to him by my dear friend Yumi Kanoka, who happened to meet him by the slimmest of chances. It would be impossible to listen to his discourses and not be changed. His depth of knowledge and ability to pass it on are uncanny for a man of his years. At the time of writing, Guruji is a young man in his early thirties. He is a scholar, a yogi, a priest and a householder. He spent his late childhood and adolescence studying Sanskrit, Vedic scriptures, and Yoga, as is the duty of one who takes a Brahmin birth in a family of Yogis. He was the national champion in India for chanting the vedas as they have been chanted for thousands of years, pure and unchanged. He, along with his peers, can recite reams of ancient scriptures in Sanskrit, word for word, without skipping a beat. He comes from a 1000+ year lineage of Rk Veda Brahmins. He lives in his family home, where his forefathers all lived, in Pandeshwara near the town of Udupi in Kerala, Southern India.

On this land, there is a house where he lives and a residence for students, traditionally called a Yogagurukula. This is the traditional way of learning yoga…being observed and taught by a teacher at his place of residence. Here there is also a temple within a temple where there is an ancient statue of Shiva which was found buried there over a thousand years ago, and it was thousands of years old when it was discovered. There is a special energy here which is worth the trip just to experience.

We recently were lucky enough to have him come to our part of the world. It was a joy to have him here to teach us, and those who attended his talks certainly had their eyes opened. We also had the pleasure of teaching him to surf while he was here!

This paper is a summary of the talks we attended in India and Australia, with some references to Edwin Bryant’s book on the Yoga Sutras.

Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras

Patanjali did not invent yoga, rather, systemized the preexisting traditions and authored what came to be the seminal text for yoga discipline, the Yoga Sutras. It was designed to be incorporated into preexisting knowledge based traditions providing them with a practical method and technique for attaining an experience-based transformation of consciousness. This systemization emerged as the most dominant, but not exclusive version. (1)

It is uncertain when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. Scholars have agreed that it was no later than the fifth century, and could have been as early as a few centuries BCE. (1)

The Yoga Sutras

Yoga is no more than knowing oneself. Not you, the person who is born, ages and dies, but YOU who transcends this process.

“Sutra” comes from the Sanskrit word “su” which means thread…as is to sew. Patanjali has written this text in a form where each thread is a sentence in which is contained the maximum amount of information with a minimum number of words. These sutras can then be “unpacked” and the information deciphered and remembered. (1) It is beyond the scope of this paper, and indeed myself, to unpack the yoga sutras! But suffice it to say that just one sutra can take a long time to fully understand. Those who study the sutras with a teacher say that just one word holds days’ worth of learning. Learning the sutras in depth as opposed to reading them is likened to the difference between going for a walk on the beach and to donning scuba gear and going into the blue depths with a guide.

I have heard it said that when one comes to the realization that one can get no lasting satisfaction from the world, that as we fulfill one desire, it is quickly replaced by yet another, then one is ready for the study and practice of yoga. The first sutra of the first pada is: athayogānuśasanam; and NOW, we come to the practice of yoga. Commentaries have also pointed out that the ”NOW” means that there is some understanding of eastern philosophy already in place before the student comes to yoga. (1)

There are four “padas” or chapters in the Y. Sutras, each with a different theme, and 196 sutras all together.

The four padas are about meditative absorption, practice, mystic powers and absolute independence. (1)

The Gunas

Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.

Before we go any further, it is useful to acquaint ourselves with the three gunas as reference is made to this concept quite often in the sutras, and the concept is foundational in the study of yoga. These gunas are energies or qualities that pervade existence in the universe. Every object, action, feeling, situation etc. in this creation is pervaded by all these three, but in differing ratios. Sattva is the intelligence that pervades the universe. It is the deeper wisdom, the idea that gave rise to creation. Rajas is the energy that is needed to get things happening. Without rajas, nothing would appear to happen. No heat, no light, no noise etc. Nothing that could be perceived. Sattva would just be pure intelligence with nothing to show for it. On a cosmic level, tamas is when the energy generated by rajas slows down in vibration to become dense matter, stuff we can touch and feel. Without tamas, energy would always just be energy, but not substance. We can look at the big bang theory in this light. Prior to the big bang, there was nothing…except the idea that there could be something. The intelligence or Sattva was dormant. Then in an infinitely small microsecond there was a massive expansion of energy. Scientists say that this was only just energy… heat, light and noise, for millions of years. This is rajas. Then this energy cooled and slowed and gathered to form dust clouds, which formed clusters of gas and dust, stars and elements were formed. This is tamas.

In our lives, we can see the three gunas everywhere. An example of how they manifest in our body is this:

Sattva is when higher wisdom and peace prevails, we feel a sense of peace and equanimity. There is a lack of passion and desire and all is well with the world. We are able to problem solve and plan our lives intelligently and lovingly. We know that calm and yet focused mind we experience just after a lovely asana practice. The calm peace that comes from a long walk on the beach at dawn, or watching a sunset. This is sattva. Sattvic foods are nourishing, easily digested, fresh, unprocessed whole foods which stimulate digestion and leave us feeling energized and satisfied.

Rajas gives us the energy to put plans into action. Without it we would stagnate, but in excess, we can feel stressed and scattered. We run around chasing our tails getting nowhere. Insomnia, mental and physical restlessness, hyperactivity…these are rajasic experiences. Rajasic foods are strong tasting, spicy, stimulating, inflammatory, they tend to upset the digestion, cause diarrhoea. Think chilies, nightshades, chocolate etc.

Tamas gives us our rest time. Without it we would not be able to sleep. In excess, it can make us lazy and tired. We can’t get motivated to do anything. We procrastinate. We can’t concentrate. Think hangover…a typical self-induced tamasic state. In extreme cases, we see illnesses like chronic fatigue and depression…classic tamas. Tamasic foods are stodgy, fried, bland foods which make us feel sluggish. Think of pasta, sugar, chips, alcohol, starchy, processed and constipating foods.

Modern life is characterized by fluctuating between rajas and tamas most of the time. Stressed out running around followed by falling in a heap and collapsing in front of the tele binging on episodes of our favourite TV show, or drinking ourselves silly on a Friday night to come down from a hectic week. We drink coffee in the morning to rouse ourselves from tamas. Caffeine induces rajas. So we then have energy to get things done. Alas the energy is borrowed from the future, so when the caffeine high wears off, we have another coffee, or we collapse into a deeper tamas. Dull mind, slow body, running on three cylinders. We have all experienced it.

Yoga is about cultivating sattva through our practice. This is neither of the above extremes. Once it is cultivated, the energy feels different…not borrowed from the future…but ever present in a calm and focused way. Any kind of asana practice, for example, done in the morning on rising can shift the tamas and cancel out the need for rajas inducing activity. Followed by a fresh wholesome breakfast, the great feeling can stay all day! Once this is incorporated into the lifestyle, the rest seems to follow naturally. This then gives us the impetus to achieve some success in the application of the 8 limbs of yoga.

The 8 limbs of yoga

The eight limbs are described in the second pada…yoga now gets practical. These limbs as set out by Patanjali are to help the aspirant to function in the world in such a way that true freedom or enlightenment is possible. We are not ascetics, that is, we aren’t generally able to give it all up and take ourselves off to a cave in the Himalayas and be fully absorbed in the Absolute like the Sanyasis of India. We live in the world and need to function effectively within it. So how do we act? How do we move through life in a way that brings harmony and peace? How do we live in such a way that we contribute to the whole rather than take from it?

Patanjali sets out a list of things we can work on in order to bring about if not enlightenment, then a life of inner peace. This list is viewed by many like a staircase…at the bottom is where we begin, as just an embodied being acting on impulse, looking in vain for lasting worldly satisfaction. The top is Samadhi…the goal of yoga.

Think of the limbs as starting from the most external; the gross, tangible outward projecting behaviours, moving to the more internal; the progressively subtler aspects of our embodiment.

The limbs are:

1. Yamas: The SOCIAL observances. Dealing with our role in nature. How we behave in the world. Our relationship with those around us. How we deal with “other”.

2. Niyamas: The PERSONAL observances. After the social life is taken care of: we now relate to ourselves. How we conduct our own personal internal life. We can’t practice yoga properly if these things are not in order.

3. Asana: This is a very small part of yoga, although it defines yoga in the west! Only three sutras out of 196 describe asana. It is an entrance to yoga, however…a good place to start. Keep the body strong, healthy, comfortable and feeling good, purified. You can feel yourself in your body. The when this is taken care of, we naturally want to go deeper.

4. Pranayama: Breath control. This is the gateway to controlling the senses and mind. Purifying the breath. When we control the breath, we can control the mind as they are connected.

5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses. The world is full of temptations. Even though you cannot disconnect with all the objects of this world, we develop control over where our senses are going in order to move forward.

6. Dharana: Focus of the mind on one object. This takes a concentrated effort. Modern science has now discovered that there are actual measurable changes within the brain after repeated practice of this. It is also called mindfulness.

7. Dhyana: The meditative process where the focus above becomes automatic…little effort required.

8. Samadhi: The ultimate state where one merges with the object. We become the knower, the knowledge and the known, duality disappears.


  1. Ahimsa: Literally means non-violence. Nonviolence in word and deed. Not causing pain. Not hurting/harming…either in word or deed. Discrimination is necessary in order to see that sometimes there is to be some pain in order to gain long-term happiness (true ‘happiness’ is not necessarily instant gratification). An example is creating boundaries for a child. Ahimsa also includes how we treat ourselves. Our self-talk for example. Do our habits harm us in the long run? If so, this is violence.

  2. Satya: Truthfulness. Honesty. Non-lying. Living an authentic life. Being yourself, not trying to emulate another. This does not come at the expense of Ahimsa however…we don’t tell someone the brutal truth in the name of Satya if it is going to hurt them. As you can see, wise discrimination is needed. And this can be cultivated over time with dedicated practice.

  3. Asteya: Non-stealing. Apart from the obvious meaning…this meaning can be more complex, subtle. Not taking what is not necessary for my life. Not hoarding things away for tomorrow. Trusting that tomorrow will take care of itself. Not taking someone’s energy…are we unloading our “stuff” on someone…leaving ourselves feeling better, and them feeling depleted? Think of Ahimsa and Asteya. Even taking the mini shampoo from the hotel…do we need this for our life or do we take because we feel entitled? Self-discipline when it comes to belongings. In life, we tend to become fearful of not having enough. Do duty honestly and things will appear in front of you.

  4. Bramacharya: This is continence or restraint…usually refers to sexual restraint. Sense control. Diverting energy in a “proper” way, not losing it through sexual incontinence. Limiting sexual activity, not taking advantage of others, gaining pleasure at the expense of another, including yourself. Gratuitous sex, pornography,’s all out there in abundance. Bramacharya can also be seen as restraint in other areas of life. Not being excessive in any activity, but this is explored under Pratyahara to follow. The world offers us so many fruits. Which do we take, and when do we refrain. Moderation. Middle ground.

  5. Aparigraha: Non-grasping. Not accepting or taking what is not needed. See the hotel situation above. Also, accepting bribes, or gifts offered by someone who wants something in return. Gifts that make you feel obligated. Guruji says if you are offered an apology, accept it but if it is offered with a gift, this gift is a “problem object”. Also, look at not being able to walk past a bargain…even if you don’t really need the object. Acquiring, preserving and maintaining objects perpetuates attachment, and attachment is counter to success in yoga.


  1. Saucha: Purity. Cleanliness in body, mind, speech, home, etc. Not going overboard though. This is to help us come to the realization that ultimate cleanliness is impossible. Guruji says the body has 9 holes…they are always leaking! Don’t become too attached to this smelly vessel! Also speech and thoughts. Our living space. Creating space for Sattva in our lives. When our body and surroundings are pure, we can progress through the limbs with grace. Eating sattvic foods help to purify the body as well.

  2. Santosha: Contentment. Satisfaction. Knowing that you have enough and not scrambling to get more. Not wanting what others have. Watching desires and attachments and keeping them in check. This is similar to Asteya and Aparigraha…but Santosha is not even desiring the objects in the first place. It’s all very well to quell the desire, but the desire was still there to begin with. Mastery of Asteya and Aparigraha leads to Santosha. This is a practice. It doesn’t come on its own, we need to make the effort. In order to do this we need to cultivate Sattva and observe the yamas.

  3. Tapas: This is the practice of self-discipline, austerity. We are purified when we set a disciplined routine for ourselves. An example is this: We are lying in the comfort of our warm bed on a cold morning. We want to stay right there, but we know that if we emerge from that warm cocoon and roll out the mat for our daily asana or meditation routine, or go for a walk, we become purified and better able to move through the other limbs. We all know the benefits of brushing up against discomfort in order to achieve a higher goal. We know how we feel after we make an effort. Tapas is to burn. We burn away impurity through Tapas. Throw our inertia into the fire of Tapas and it returns to us purified, transformed. Tapas can be found on the yoga mat when we cultivate and maintain steadiness in our posture and breath and diverting our minds away from distraction by focusing all our attention on our practice and actively avoiding attempts by the mind to distract us. This is then taken from the mat into life. The fruit of Tapas is dispassion.

  4. Swadyahara: Self-study. Studying the true nature. This cannot be done really without help from one who has the knowledge to guide us. Also, studying scriptures or reading what has been written by the wise ones. Furthering our higher knowledge by studying, discussing, striving to understand. Deciphering the wisdom from the rubbish is a challenge too. You can practice Swadyahara with others or a teacher, whereas tapas is what you do alone.

  5. Ishwara Pranidhanam: Surrender to Ishwara. Ishwara is the higher power of creation in the form that you see it. Some call it god. Some call it nature or creation. To act in the world and not expect anything in return. Devotion. Accepting what comes with equanimity. The fruit of Ishwara Pranidhana is Samadhi.


Asana is such a small part of yoga, that if one concentrates on Asana only, the full benefits will not be found. Asana is a gateway to a deeper inquiry, a further exploration and discovery of our true selves.

Asana is mentioned in sutras 46,47 & 48 of the second pada.

sthira-sukham āsanam


tato dvandvānabhighātah.

This translates as: Posture should be steady and comfortable. [Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite. From this, one is not afflicted by the dualities of the opposites. (1)

Asana is physical posture. This limb is described in 3 out of the 196 yoga sutras. Here in the west, Asana IS yoga. We see a yoga sign, and it means a class where we roll out our mat and bend ourselves into all kinds of different physical shapes, most of which were only invented in the 20th century. It is a limb that has been often commodified, changed, shaped and used to signify status in the western yoga world. You only have to visit the internet to find “the most effective yoga poses for weight loss”, and “how to lose those love handles with yoga” paradigms! I am going to upset some by stating this point of view! It is, however, a necessary and effective step to the deeper aspects of yoga no matter which “type” you choose. Asana helps to purify the densest matter that is part of our existence…the body. The nadis are the Indian version of the meridians identified in Chinese medicine. These nadis are purified. The body is made comfortable and steady. We are ready to sit in meditation without getting too tired or weak. The fruit of asana is the release from the sense of duality…the sense of seperateness.

Control of the body is the first step to control of the mind and onward through the rest of the 8 limbs. Asana is presented in this position on the 8 limbs because it is to be practiced in conjunction with the yamas and niyamas, and once this is underway, we continue to control of the breath/mind in the next step. Breath is an integral part of asana. We find our focus in the breath, release effort and relax into the posture to find equanimity of mind no matter what the body is experiencing (except pain signifying impending injury of course). When the body is comfortable and steady we can move easily into the next step.


Pranayama is the connection between the first 3 limbs and the last 4 limbs. Sutras 49,50,51 &52 of the second pada:

tasmin sati śvāsa-praśvāsayor gati-vicchedah prānāyāmah

bāhyābyantara-stamha-vrttih-deśa-kāla-sańkyābhih paridrsto dīrgha-sūksmah

bāhyābyantara-visayāksepī caturthah

tatah ksīyate prakāśāvaranam

dhāranāsu ca yogyatā manasah

When that [asana] is accomplished, prānāyāmah, breath control, [follows]. This consists of the regulation of the incoming and outgoing breaths. [Prānāyāmah] manifests as external, internal, and restrained movements [of breath]. These are drawn out and subtle in accordance to place, time, and number. The fourth [type of prānāyāma] surpasses the limits of the internal and external. Then, the covering of the illumination [knowledge] is weakened. (1)

Prana has a deeper connection with the mind. Breath control is the key to mind control. Stretching the breath is accomplished with practice. As the student progresses, more advanced prānāyāma practices are used. Suspension of the breath for varying lengths of time take skill and the instruction of a competent teacher.

Control of the breath and the use of various energy locks are practiced with care and diligence with good results. The best time for prānāyāma is after asana and before meditation.


Sense withdrawal. Real sense control is when the mind is restrained.

Sutras 54 &55 of the second pada:

svavisayāsamprayoge cittasya svarūpānukāra ivendriyānām pratyāhārah

tatah paramā vaśyatendriyānām

Pratyahara, withdrawal from sense objects, occurs when the senses do not come into contact with their respective sense objects. It corresponds, as it were, to the nature of the mind [when it is withdrawn from the sense objects].

From this comes the highest control of the senses. (1)

The mind is strongly connected to the senses: taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. Through these senses, we experience the world. Throughout life, if the mind is not restrained as is the case with most of us, we find ourselves surrounded by objects of “desire”. Our mind tells us we want these things, and we strive actively to get them. Our mind creates a story around this situation that propels us toward the object of desire and away from not obtaining that desire. An example offered by Guruji was this: Imagine we are hungry. Our nose (or memory of taste) tells us that pizza is obtainable. We begin to salivate and our desire for pizza becomes strong. We “like” all actions and situations conducive to obtaining pizza and dislike, disregard, reject any obstacles arising between us and the pizza. Our higher wisdom might be telling us that pizza is probably not so good for us, but we “want” it…our mind wants it.

Another example is the TV. It is 9pm, and we have been watching our favourite programs. It is time for sleep but our mind tells us that there is more joy to be had if we watch another episode. We know that if we stay up later, we will not be able to get up early enough for yoga practice. We know that daily yoga practice results in long term happiness. But the desire for immediate satisfaction can out rule the desire for long term happiness. This is the nature of the unrestrained mind. Having the self-discipline to turn off the TV and hit the hay is restraining the wayward mind. We miss out on the short-lived joy and obtain a higher pleasure that is conducive to our long-term goal…liberation.

Because the mind and the senses are so closely bound, controlling the senses leads to control of the mind and it’s fluctuations. Living in the world as we do, it is impossible to disconnect the senses from all the objects around us. They pull us this way and that 24/7. The first step in restraining the senses is becoming aware of this process, and finding a healthy balance.

It is like creating boundaries for a child…reigning in the senses and limiting the outward projection of the senses to all the objects presenting themselves before us. It does not mean living like a monk, abstaining from all pleasures, it simply means finding a balance. “Ok…enough for today”.

When the social life (yamas), the personal life (niyamas), the body (asana) has been taken care of, the breath (pranayama)… therefore mind is within our immediate control, we are then in a position to reign in the senses (pratyahara). At the beginning of our meditation, or during our āsana practice, we first take or senses inward to the breath. We may fix our gaze on one point in āsana (drishti) or close the eyes for meditation. Then we unhook ourselves from distracting sound. Withdrawing from the senses is a precursor to the next step…


Concentration. Fixing of the mind on one thing.

Sutra 1 of the third pada:

deśa-bandah cittasya dhāranā

Concentration is the fixing of the mind in one place. (1)

If the mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, then chasing this monkey is useless. It is quicker than us and will just jump faster. We can work with the mind and give it one thing to fix upon…like a banana. We must give the mind this one object to focus on…this is dhāranā.

Give the object to the mind, over and over again, constantly. This is a skill and strengthens with practice. For example, the mantra “om” is an object on which we can focus. We can chant out loud or inwardly. As we chant the mind will continue to present distractions. Instead of allowing the distractions to “hook” us, we repeatedly bring the focus back to the manta. Even if this happens once every second, which is the case in the early days. Don’t be put off by the restlessness of the mind. This is the natural state of the mind, it’s job. It is the constant bringing back to the object of focus which holds the power. Science has shown in recent years that new neural pathways are developed in the brain by this practice. The ancient Yogis already knew this.



Sutra 2 of the third pada:

tatra pratyayaika-tānatā dhyānam

Meditation is the one-pointedness of the mind on one image. (1)

This is the natural evolution of Dhāranā. With Dhāranā, effort is needed. It’s a constant action…to bring the focus back over and over again to the banana. Dhyāna is when something switches over and the process of focus becomes effortless and automatic. Everyone experiences this differently. There is no set timeframe. Some people find it easy to go from monkey mind, to focus, to meditation in a short time, others may spend years before they even get a glimpse. The main thing is that we continue toward the goal regardless.

The mind rests effortlessly in the object. Guruji states that the commentators on the yoga sutras liken this to be like the flow of oil from a jug as compared to the flow of water The flow of water is interrupted, broken up, not continuous, whereas the flow of oil is one smooth continuous flowing line. This might be experienced in a split second, like a flash, then the mind goes “oh wow, there it is”…then of course the mind is swinging through the branches yet again.

So back to the drawing board to start again. Eventually with concentrated daily effort, the oil flow becomes longer as we begin to disconnect from the predictable delight of the mind, and the tendency of the ego to feel pride at “it’s” achievement.

The effort of Dhāranā brings the fruit of Dhyāna, but a daily 10 minute practice is much more effective than an hour a week.


Meditative absorption. The goal of yoga practice.

Sutra 3 of the third pada:

tad evārtha-mātra-nirbhāsam svarūpa-śūnyam iva samādhih

Samādhi is when that same dhyāna shines forth as the object alone and [the mind] is devoid of it’s own [reflective] nature. (1)

This is after the purification that comes from the other 7 limbs, desire has been removed. We become one with the observed object. We are the observer, the observing and the observed. The only pleasure is that of the true self. After letting go of our body, our mind, and even our intellect, all that is left is the bliss of the self, our true nature. We cannot lose this part of ourselves, it is formless, has no beginning and no end, is permanent. When we rest in this nature, this is yoga, samādhi.

Our practice on the mat is the preparation for what we practice off the mat…in life, in the world…this is real yoga. When we come to the realization that the world can give us no lasting joy, that our desires come no matter how much we satisfy them, we are then ready for the practice of yoga. The skills we acquire on the mat… with adherence to the 8 limbs…prepare us for the true satisfaction of realizing that the only lasting joy is in our eternal nature, and to know our eternal nature requires that we still the fluctuations of the mind.

Sutras 2 & 3 of the first pada:

yogaś citta-vrtti-nirodhah

tadā drastuh svarūpe ‘vasthānam

Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.

When that is accomplished, the seer abides in it’s own true nature. (1)

Works Cited

1. Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York : North Point Press, 2009.

2. Dr. Vidwan Vijaya Kumar, PhD;

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