Introduction to Patanjali’s Eightfold Path

Learn about Patanjali's way of life through the Eight Limbs of Yoga, an ancient prescription on how to live a purposeful and meaningful life through yoga.

Vinyasa Yoga School
Updated over a week ago5 minute read

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is an age-old scripture, a collection of 196 Indian sutras that explain the yogic philosophy on how to live life and walk the path of self-realization.

The ancient sage Patanjali describes the yogic path to self-realization as ashtanga (अष्टाङ्ग), or eight limbs:

  • ashta = eight
  • anga = limb

The second chapter, Sadhana-Pada, explains the aspects of the eightfold path and some of the motivations to live this way of life.

Sutra 2.28 | योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवेकख्याते: yoga-anga-anusthanad-asuddhi-ksaye jnana-diptir-a-viveka-khyateh
  • By practicing the limbs of yoga, impurity is destroyed and the radiance of jnana (wisdom) leads to viveka (discernment).
Sutra 2.29 | यम नियमाअसन प्राणायाम प्रत्याहार धारणा ध्यान समाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि: yama-niyama-asana-pranayama-pratyahara-dharana-dyana-samadhayo stav-angani
  • The eight limbs of yoga are: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

These limbs are sequential steps on the path to enlightenment through yoga.

1. Yama (self-restraint)

The first limb, yama, explains the codes of ethical behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yama remind us of our responsibilities as social beings and has 5 principles:

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence to ourselves and others
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: nonstealing
  • Brahmacharya: chastity
  • Aparigraha: freedom from desire

2. Niyama (right observance)

The second limb, niyama, prescribes the self-discipline that molds our morality and behavior. This code of conduct has 5 principles:

  • Saucha: cleanliness
  • Santosa: contentment
  • Tapas: austerity
  • Svadhyaya: study of one's own self including body, mind, intellect, and ego
  • Isvara Pranidhana: devotion

3. Asana (right alignment)

Most of the world understands yoga as primarily as the physical practice of asanas. In Patanjali's Eightfold Path, we practice asana to deepen our ability to meditate, concentrate, and ultimately achieve Samadhi (more on that later).

The third limb, asana (as = to sit), is where we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate.

Through a steady and comfortable sitting position, Patanjali describes that we loosen the tension in our bodies allowing us to merge our attention with the infinite.

Sutra 2.46 | स्थिरसुखमासनम्: sthira-sukham-asanam
  • The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and comfortable
Sutra 2.47 | प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम्: prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam
  • The means of perfecting the posture is that of relaxing or loosening of effort, and allowing attention to merge with endlessness, or the infinite.

4. Pranayama (regulation of breath)

The fourth limb, pranayama, is generally described as breath control or regulation.

To master this regulation, we begin to direct our energy inward to our breath as a means of expanding and extending our energy or life-force (prana = vital energy, ayama = stretch, expansion and expansion).

Patanjali encourages that pranayama should only be attempted after the asanas are mastered so that we can more easily direct our energy inward.

Sutra 2.49 | तस्मिन् सति श्वासप्रश्वास्योर्गतिविच्छेदः प्राणायाम: tasmin sati shvasa prashvsayoh gati vichchhedah pranayamah
  • Once that perfected posture has been achieved, the slowing or braking of the force behind, and of unregulated movement of inhalation and exhalation is called breath control and expansion of prana (pranayama), which leads to the absence of the awareness of both.

5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

With a comfortable and steady posture (asana), as well as with our energy directed inward through pranayama, we can begin the fifth limb, pratyahara, or withdrawal of our senses.

This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings and attachment to senses. As our mind is released from the power of the senses, it turns inward and becomes passive.

Sutra 2.54 | स्वविषयासंप्रयोगे चित्तस्य स्वरूपानुकारैवेन्द्रियाणां प्रत्याहारः sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah
  • When the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas) cease to be engaged with the corresponding objects in their mental realm, and assimilate or turn back into the mind-field from which they arose, this is called pratyahara.
Sutra 2.55 | ततः परमावश्यता इन्द्रियाणाम्: tatah parama vashyata indriyanam
  • Through that turning inward of the organs of senses and actions (indriyas) also comes a supreme ability, controllability, or mastery over those senses inclining to go outward towards their objects.

6 - 8. Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (mediation), and Samadhi (free attention)

Patanjali groups the last three limbs under the term samyama - the integration of hte body, breath, mind, intellect, and self.


The controlled mind that is gained in pratyahara (the 5th limb) gives rise to our abilty to intensify our attention on a single point which is dharana.

Sutra 3.1 | देशबन्धः चित्तस्य धारणा: deshah bandhah chittasya dharana
  • Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place, and is the sixth of the eight rungs.


When this concentration is prolonged through an uninterrupted flow, it becomes dhyana. In dharana, we experience release, expansion quietness and peace, freeing us from attachment. This freedom results in the indifference to the joys of pleasure or the sorrows of pain.

Sutra 3.2 | तत्र प्रत्ययैकतानता ध्यानम्: tatra pratyaya ekatanata dhyanam
  • The repeated continuation, or uninterrupted stream of that one point of focus is called absorption in meditation (dhyana), and is the seventh of the eight steps.


The final limb of yoga, samadhi (sama = level or alike, adhi = over or above), is achieved when the object of meditation engulfs the meditator and self-awareness is lost.

In this state the knower, the knowable, and the known become one. This is the final stage on the eightfold path and is ultimate fruit of yoga.

Sutra 3.3 | तदेवार्थमात्रनिर्भासं स्वरूपशून्यमिवसमाधिः tad eva artha matra nirbhasam svarupa shunyam iva samadhih
  • When only the essence of that object, place, or point shines forth in the mind, as if devoid even of its own form, that state of deep absorption is called deep concentration or samadhi, which is the eighth rung.

Learn more

Here is a wonderful video from our friends at The Yoga Institute on Patanjali's Eightfold Path.

Continue Yoga 101 with What Are the Different Types of Yoga?

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