A Little Bit of Yoga History #3 – Astanga: The Eight Limbs

(Image by Coby Jones)

So what exactly does the word “astanga” mean?

In accordance with Patanjali’s yoga sutras, the definition of the sanskrit word “astanga” is “eight limbs”  and Astanga-Yoga consists of eight components.   Patajanli is sometimes described as “The Father of Modern Yoga (you can read my short piece about him  here).

According to Patanjali the eight limbs of yoga are:

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyhara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi

As you can see from this list, asana, or postures / exercise – the aspect of yoga most people are familiar with – is only one small part of a much wider philosophy.

The yamas and niyamas are pretty much rules for life and living. Observing the yamas is about how we behave in the world; our intentions, restraints, ethics, morals and integrity. The niyamas tend to come back to personal observances while remaining disciplined in daily life. You can read my explanations of the yamas and niyamas here.

We know what asana means, so let’s briefly go through the rest:


Pranyama is the yogic aspect of breath- work or “breath control”.  Although we talk about the breath quite a lot in relation to yoga, pranyama is really the art of breathing less, not more.  The challenge for most of us stress heads  here in the Western world is to patiently find our way back to natural, soft, slow, diaphragmatic, nostril breathing before we embark on the more ambitious yogic breathing exercises.


Pratyhara means to withdraw the senses. The human mind and consciousness is very much driven by our senses which is how we interpret information, particularly on an emotional level. Pratyhara is the practise of taking our awareness deep within and resisting thoughts, judgements or assumptions based on sensory perception.

This is BKS Iyengar practising sanmukhi mudra (“the closing of the six gates”) which is arguably a form of pratyhara. Taking our hands and fingers into position, we can ohm or engage the humming bee breath (brahmari) and in this way, it is possible to block out all but the sound and feeling of the vibration.


Dharana means concentration. It’s perhaps the way we learn to meditate or begin practising mindfulness. Instead of over-thinking and allowing our mind to wander and drift all over the place, we work towards keeping our attention steady by noticing what thoughts are popping in and out of our head and continually bring our focus back to one thing or one idea. This helps us stay present for longer and longer periods.  Trataka (candle gazing) is a good example of dharana, as is yoga nidra and most physical yoga classes generally.  In the practise of dharana, we as the subject are focussing on an object of sorts – either a thing or an idea that is exterior and separate.


Dhyana is a deeper form of meditation and is a little more challenging for the majority to master. Dhyana is where we are no longer focussing on some kind of exterior object or even  ourselves as the subject. This deep meditation state occurs when subject and object have merged and there is no sense of separateness. Phew!


Samadhi is the state of euphoria where there is no sense of time, space, past, present or feelings of separateness. All is one. The union with the divine has been reached. Sometimes described as satchitananda – truth, consciousness, bliss.

In other words, the realisation that we are one with the universe.