Yoga Means Union ― The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Yoga Means Union ― Eight Limbs of Yoga

The practice of Yoga Asana is good for our health.  But this is only one aspect of Yoga.  The well-known Yoga postures are only one of the eight limbs of Yoga.

The physical postures of Yoga Asana make Yoga a popular household term.  This aspect of Yoga ranges from gentle and restorative to athletic and gymnastics.   In Western culture it is a form of exercise devoid of its spiritual context.  But some believe its use helps to pave the way for inner work.  What do you think?

Yoga Means Union

The term Yoga refers to the development of the union between mind, body, and spirit.  In Western culture, the focus is on the physical aspect.  So, the popularity of Yoga Asana is also responsible for misconstruing Yoga as a form of physical exercise.  To be sure, there are health benefits for this aspect of Yoga.  The physical aspects are meant to enhance the other seven branches of Yoga.

Yoga means union, not exercise. Today people use the term Yoga interchangeably with other forms of physical exercise. Yoga has become something you add to your exercise routine, along with resistance or cardio training.  It is something much more diverse and different from exercise.

There is nothing wrong with exercise. We need to exercise to maintain a healthy body. But taking one aspect of a spiritual practice and turning it into a form of gymnastics misses the point. Rather than achieving union, you are creating more division.  You reinforce the illusion between the observer and instrument of observation.  The intent of Yoga is to unify the mind, body and spirit.  This differs from using Yoga out of context as a type of exercise. — Guru Tua

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The Hindu Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the historical authority on Yoga.  Patanjali was born in Kodar.  This is a village of the Vajirganj area at Gonda district Uttar Pradesh about 5,000 years ago. Patanjali also called Gonardiya or Gonikaputra.  He was the author, or at least one of the authors of two great Hindu classics.  The first, his famous Yoga Sutras.  The second is the Mahabhashya (Great Commentary).  This work is elaborates on the Sutras outlined by Pāṇini in the Ashtadhyayi and by Kātyāyana in the Varttika. 

He synthesized many practices into one comprehensive system of only 196 verses. The Sutras he used come from much earlier oral traditions.

The eight limbs of yoga represent a diverse system of human development.  Here are the key terms with definitions to help you understand this system:

    • yama = external discipline
    • niyama = internal discipline
    • âsana = posture
    • prâñâyâma = breath regulation
    • pratyâhâra = withdrawal of the senses
    • dhârañâ = concentration
    • dhyana = meditative absorption
    • samâdhayaï = oneness, integration

The following order is consistent with their presentation in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  However, you may want to start with eight entitled Samadhi first. It will help you put things in a proper perspective.

Samādhi is the unifying field of consciousness.  This personifies why Yoga means union.  Samadhi is the heart of the eight limbs of Yoga.  You reach this state of consciousness using a mantra.  There is a simple process for its use.  The generic name for this method is Japa Meditation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi calls this technique Transcendental Meditation (TM).

As you read this article, one thing should become obvious.  This is not a spiritual practice for the beginner. But, if you are a beginner, it gives you an idea about the processes and possibilities.

These eight philosophies and processes are just one way of looking at consciousness.  Learn more about the complete Rainbow of Consciousness that is available.  There are other altered states and higher states of awareness.

1. Yama:

Yama refers to external behavior.  These are things you should not do.

    • Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings.
    • Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood.
    • Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing.
    • Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): marital fidelity or preoccupation with instinctual passions
    • Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-avarice, non-possessiveness.

2. Niyama:

Niyama refers to internal or personal ethical guidelines. These are things one should do. The five internal disciplines are;

    • Self-Purification (Shaucha)
    • Contentment (Santosha)
    • Self-Discipline (Tapas)
    • Self-Study (Svadhyaya)
    • Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)

Bodily purification, equates to eating healthy, exercising, and taking care of your wellbeing. It is being content and thankful for what you have. Self-Discipline equates to living with the intention, being conscious “living in the now.”

Self-study is exploring one’s personal divinity. This includes self-observation, emotional reflection, and eliminating boundaries of belief. And, last, Self-Surrender pursuing the ideal of increasing awareness and consciousness. This is engaging in spiritual exploration.

So, together, Yama and Niyama make up the philosophical and intellectual components of the Yoga Sutras.  It also contains many of the preparatory functions that enable one to apply the Sutras.

3. Asana:

This is the term most people associate with the practice of physical yoga postures. However, it should be noted that in the time of Patanjali the word asana is the term for ‘presence.’ This was a misunderstanding of the term ‘seat’.  The seat here referring not to physically sitting, but being aware or present.

The creation of modern yoga postures didn’t occur until much later.  So, the practice of yoga Asana is is the practice of being present. This more closely relates to the practices of seated and moving forms of mindfulness meditation.  It’s also more akin to the practice of Kundalini Yoga.  Here one activates a type of energy, Chi or Ki enabling us to feel “presence” flowing up the through us.

4. Pranayama:

This practice refers to a variety of breathing exercises.  It includes practices to align, attune, and in some cases engage in semi-hypnotic altered states of consciousness.  Altering, expanding, and reaching higher states is one of the primary purposes of practicing Yoga Sutras.  Most people are familiar with altering waking consciousness via chemical stimuli like alcohol.  Here one learns to alter awareness using the breath.

5. Pratyahara:

The literal translation of this is “withdrawal of the senses”.  But in practice, it’s much more than that.  It involves the progressive use of Mantra and Sutra. Withdrawing from the senses is the first part.

This is the use of the Mantra to reach the silence of the transcendent state.  Then, while in this silent state, one introduces the proper Sutra, properly.   This returns an experiential result. This practice is known as Siddhis.

Patanjali refers to the Siddhis as extraordinary powers. There are many schools of thought, as there are interpretations of these formulas.  Perhaps it’s the controversy that kindles so much interest.  There is no doubt about the historical and spiritual significance of this aspect of Patanjali’s work.

6. Dharana:

Engaging the mind’s analytical powers. This is learning to reason with the least undue influence from external or internal boundaries.  In short, using logical tools to counter the effects of cultural programming. This is an ideal of the freethinker.  It involves conscious mental techniques for expanding awareness.  It reinforces internal and external observational skills.  And it shapes thinking through common sense and reason.  So, those who prefer the analytical approach find this one appealing.

7. Dhyana:

This brings the concepts of Dharana, Pratyahara, and Samādhi together.  It’s the fusion of the analytical mind and our transcendent awareness. It melds 4th state with the waking state.  This is a separate state of consciousness known as Witnessing.

One achieves this state through regular Japa or TM meditation. The mind is naturally drawn to the state of bliss. So, it is a natural progression to bring this quality into the waking state of ordinary reality. The resulting experience is often referred to as “witnessing.”

In this state of consciousness, there is an expansion of the mind’s ability to perceive two realities simultaneously. There is a conscious awareness separate from the corporeal body while being fully “present” in mind and body.

8. Samadhi:

This is the first building block of consciousness exploration.  It’s the 4th state of consciousness beyond the default settings of waking, sleeping, and dreaming. Some call it pure consciousness or bliss consciousness.

However, with some exceptions, it remains hidden to the untrained mind.  Hence, we learn to reach this state through specific meditation techniques.  Japa meditation is the generic form of Hindu practice.  It is also commercially known as Transcendental Meditation.

So, although this is the last of the eight limbs of Yoga, it is the foundation for all the other Sutras of Patanjali.  This is the primary tool for integrating our mind, body, and soul.  It is the platform for developing other higher states of consciousness.

In Conclusion

If you think of Yoga only as a form of exercise, you are missing the point.  Remember, Yoga means union.  Expand your practice to include all the elements of Yoga.  This will transform exercise into spiritual practice.

We hope you found this article helpful, maybe even thought-provoking.  You will find more interesting posts on our blog page. Use the “search” option on the blog page to find articles by key terms, topics, or category.

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Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia
Transcendental Meditation, Wikipedia

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