Ashtanga yoga literally means “8 limbs yoga.” These limbs are defined in the the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The following are the 8 practices or limbs:
1. yama (moral restraints) – how we relate to others
2. niyama (observances) – how we relate to ourselves
3. āsana (posture) – how we relate to our body
4. prāṇāyāma (breath extension) – how we relate to our breath or spirit
5. pratyāhāra (sensory withdrawal) – how we relate to our sense organs
6. dhāraṇā (concentration) – how we relate to our mind
7. dhyāna (meditation) – moving beyond the mind
8. samādhi (meditative absorption) – deep realization and inner union
The “Yamas” or the first limb consists of five parts: ahimsā (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (directing one’s energy towards the Divine), aparigraha (greedlessness, non-hoarding).
The “Niyamas” the second limb also contains five aspects: śauca (purity), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (purifying practices), svādhyāya (self-study, and the study of sacred texts), Īśvara praṇidhāna (surrender to the Divine, Universal Self).
The “Āsanas” we practice have been given to us by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois who believes it necessary to enter into the 8 limbs through the physical postures.
The first four limbs are often referred to as “external yoga,” and the last four limbs are called “internal yoga.”
The fifth limb, pratyāhāra, acts as a bridge between the external and internal limbs. As students of yoga we are able to actively practice the external limbs, believing the internal limbs are the fruits of a sincere and continual practice. These final limbs of our practice are a manifestation of grace that arise spontaneously, and are not something we can bring about through our own efforts. The eight limbs are interconnected, and not separate steps along this path. Whether one starts by practicing the physical postures, breath awareness, or mindfulness in the daily practice of the yamas and niyamas, each limb encourages growth in the others. As the body becomes steady and at ease, the breath starts to come under control, and the mind begins to experience moments of clarity, and peace.