The Eight Limbs of Yoga? . . . Think Again.

Why are there eight 'limbs' of yoga? Can't there be ten? Or fifteen? Yes, there can, and there are.

This week's post parallels last week's in that it alerts the reader to systems of yoga that constitute alternatives to the one that has gone global and exerts an unearned hegemony — that is, the eight-limbed yoga of Patañjali's Yoga-sūtra. Yet all these different systems share some elements in common. Curious to find out what they are? Read on. 

While no one can doubt the historical significance of Patañjali's aṣṭānga-yoga, before its late 19th-century revival it was no more significant than the six-limbed (ṣaḍanga) yoga that we find in the scriptures of all three branches of classical Tantra (Shaiva, Vaishvana and Buddhist).* The six ancillaries or 'limbs' of Tantrik Yoga are (not necessarily in this order):

  • prāṇāyāma (lengthening and regulating the breath)
  • pratyāhāra (withdrawing the senses from their habitual foci)
  • dhāraṇā (meditative visualization of fundamental realities)
  • tarka (discernment between what ought to be held close and what is best laid aside)
  • dhyāna (attentive contemplation of one's ultimate object, e.g. the Divine)
  • samādhi (absorption arising spontaneously due to prolonged meditation)

The definitions I give of each limb are translated from the original sources (see the notes for sources). Readers who are familiar with Patañjali's aṣṭānga-yoga will note the absence of the yamas, niyamas, and āsana. Yet these three are always included in Tantrik Yoga, just not as angas ('limbs' or better 'aids' or 'necessary components') of yoga, since the yamas and niyamas are applicable to humans in general, not just yogis seeking liberation. In fact, in one key Tantrik text (the Śāradā-tilaka or 'Sarasvatī's Ornament') we find twenty Yamas and Niyamas, double the number Patañjali has!

The most important element in the list above, missing from the aṣṭāṅga-yoga, is tarka, the cultivation of discernment.** Specifically, this means refining one's ability to discern between what is truly beneficial and what is not, or as beautifully said in the Sanskrit, between what ought to be held close and cherished (upādeya) and what is best laid aside (heya). (NB: in Buddhist sources, the word anusmṛti is used instead of tarka.) 

Since your time is precious, let's skip forward seven centuries to the era of haṭha-yoga, where we find that — lo and behold — now we have a yoga of fifteen limbs!  Where did these 'extra' limbs come from?

You see, by the 15th century, elements of Patañjali's yoga and Tantrik Yoga had merged into the discipline of haṭha-yoga, a simplified but powerful system that was better suited to survival in the Muslim period, when there was no longer state support for yoga of any kind. In the 1700s, we find a description of a fifteen-limbed yoga (pañcadaśāṅga-yoga), which combines Patañjali's eight limbs with a bunch of practices from Tantrik Yoga. I say 'a bunch' instead of 'seven' because in the source text I have in mind (Haṃsa-vilāsa ch. 9), there are actually many more additional elements from Tantrik Yoga that are listed; see the table below (and for more information, see my book Tantra Illuminated pp. 311-15). 

[1.] The five yamas (= those of Patañjali)
[2.] The five niyamas (= those of Patañjali)
        [2a.] The ten niyamas of the Haṭha-pradīpikā
[2b.] The six obstacles and six aids to yoga of the Haṭha-pradīpikā
[3.] tyāga, renunciation (non-attachment of mind and body to worldly things)
[4.] mauna, silence (speaking only the truth if one chooses to speak at all)
[5.] deśa, an appropriate place for practice
[6.] kāla, appropriate time for practice
[7.] mūla-bandha, the 'root-lock' 
[8.] āsana, posture
[9.] prāṇāyāma, breath control (practiced to purify the nāḍī-cakra)
[10.] deha-sāmya, equanimity of the body
[11.] dṛk-sthiti, steady gaze
        Optional aṅgas:
        [i.] ṣaṭ-karma, the six purifications (see HYP 2.22)
        [ii.] aṣṭa-kumbhaka, eight subtypes of breath retention
        [iii.] nāḍī-śodhana, purification of subtle channels (see HYP 2.78)
        [iv.] the rise of kuṇḍalinī 
        [v.] yogic mudrās and bandhas that awaken kuṇḍalinī
[12.] pratyāhāra, withdrawing the senses
[13.] dhāraṇā, meditative visualization
        [13a.] dissolving the mind in the turya-pada, the state of the Fourth
[14.] dhyāna, meditation on Supreme Divinity
[15.] samādhi, absorption in the above
        [15a.] mukti, liberation due to samādhi
        [15b.] nāda, sonic experiences in samādhi
        [15c.] unmanī, the transmental state
        [15d.] siddhi, paranormal powers

We can regard this list as authoritative for its time because its author, Haṃsamiṭṭhu (b. 1738), studied for a number of years at India's foremost center of traditional learning, Vārāṇasī. He explains the limbs by citing the Haṭhayoga-pradīpikā and various Yoga Upaniṣhads. Curiously, Haṃsamiṭṭhu is presenting a comprehensive examination of the limbs of yoga specifically in order to criticize them, since his idiosyncratic view was that all these yogic practices are irrelevant if one can master the subtleties of sexual yoga — but that's the topic of another post. 

Okay, that's interesting. But what's at stake here for modern yoga practitioners? Plenty. As David White shows in his biography of the Yoga-sūtra, Patañjali's text underwent a major artificial revival in the late 19th century — artificial in the sense that the Yoga-sūtra no longer had a tradition of study in India by then, and hadn't for some centuries. All the teachings and practices from that text that yoga practitioners saw as effective had long since been absorbed into living lineages of Tantrik Yoga and Haṭha-yoga. That's why Haṃsamiṭṭhu, in the 18th century, saw no difference between Pātañjala yoga and Haṭha-yoga.

The upshot of all this is that Patañjali's aṣhṭānga-yoga did not survive into the modern period as an independent system; therefore, to study Patañjali's teachings independently of their absorption into later traditions (as is done in countless yoga teacher trainings today) is to ignore more than 1,300 years of development in yoga.

Anyone wishing to create a stronger textual backbone for their YTT should look to the Haṭhayoga-pradīpikā and related texts, like the Gheraṇḍa-saṃhitā. These now exist in clear and lucid translations available from (I don't get any $ from saying so, I just know there aren't better translations available). Furthermore, Haṭha-yoga scholar James Mallinson and his team will soon release authoritative translations of earlier and more seminal texts, since the EU sees the value of funding research on yoga (!). 

Having lauded Mallinson's work, I should also note that doctoral student Christopher Tompkins argues forcefully that Mallinson fails to acknowledge the degree of indebtedness Haṭha-yoga has to classical Tantrik Yoga (see pp. 311-12 of Tantra Illuminated). This is why I say in my book that "there is no direct connection between Patañjali's pre-Tantrik yoga and the discipline of haṭha-yoga" — since that connection is largely meditated through the massive and complex edifice of Tantrik Yoga. This is a debate which remains unresolved, however. 


* This same six-limbed yoga is found in the Maitrī Upaniṣad, which is usually assumed to be the earliest source for it; but there is reason to believe that it is a later interpolation, added to the text precisely to validate the six-limbed yoga for Vaidika brahmins who rejected the Tantras.
** Of course, we find viveka (which also means 'discernment') mentioned in the Yoga-sūtra (2.26 and elsewhere), and it is crucially important for Patañjali; here I'm just pointing out that it does not appear as one of his eight aṅgas of yoga.

Acknowledgements and references: This piece is primarily indebted to the pioneering work of Somdev Vasudeva, one of my three primary academic mentors.
⇒ For Śaiva ṣaḍaṅga-yoga, see pages 367 and following of Vasudeva's The Yoga of the Mālinīvijayottara-tantra, IFP/EFEO, 2004For Buddhist ṣaḍaṅga-yoga, see Günter Grönbold's The Yoga of Six Limbs, 1996.
⇒ For the 15-limbed yoga, see the masterful essay Haṃsamiṭṭhu: 'Pātañjalayoga is Nonsense' by Somdev Vasudeva, in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, 2010. Those who wish to investigate further should note that Haṃsamiṭṭhu presents the 15-limbed yoga specifically in order to criticize it. He favors his version of rājayoga (spontaneous meditation) over the forceful haṭhayoga, and he sees Pātañjala-yoga and haṭha-yoga as being one and the same system. We can presume that this was the common perception of his day because he does not bother to justify the identification.