If you have ever attended a yoga class, you may have come across the term “Ashtanga Yoga“. In this context, “Astanga Yoga” refers to a stream of hatha yoga based on the teachings of Pattabhi Jois (himself a student of the great yogi T. Krishnamacharya), which is characterized by a fixed set of dynamic sequences. While there are three series, normally only the so-called “primary series” is practiced. Pattabhi Jois brought this style of yoga into the Western world. He only died in 2009, so you can see that this school of yoga is a rather new one.
Originally, the term “Astanga Yoga” has quite a different meaning. It goes back to Patañjali, the old Indian sage who wrote down the yoga sutras and refers to astanga as the concept of the “eight limbs of yoga”: each limb corresponds to one step on path of yoga and has a different purpose. Here is a short overview of what the eight limbs are about (The Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar, p. 3, 12-31):
- Yama: Universal moral commandments.
- Niyama: Self purification by discipline.
In the first two stages, Yama and Niyama, the yogi lays, if you want, the foundations for his path: he follows the common rules of moral for society and the individual, and lives a disciplined, pure life in terms of his body, thought, word and food. „Whether or not to be a vegetarian is a purely personal matter (…) But, in course of time, the practitioner of yoga has to adopt a vegetarian diet, in order to attain one-pointed attention and spiritual evolution“. Niyama also includes the cultivation of a content mind, because this is the prerequisite for being concentrated. „The yogi feels the lack of nothing and so he is naturally content.“
- Asana: Posture.
The purpose of the third limb of yoga, āsana, or posture, is to bring steadiness, health and lightness of limb. However, the objective is not just to keep the body strong and elastic, the practice of the postures also trains and disciplines the mind. Further to that, by performing the āsanas, the yogi assumes positions that resemble a variety of creatures at all levels of evolution which should teach the yogi that they all breath the same Universal Spirit.
These first three stages of yoga are hence the outward quests (bahiranga sadhana), before moving on to the next to stages which are called the inner quests (antaranga sadhana):
- Pranayama: Rhytmic control of the breath.
The first of these two stages is dedicated to breath (prana), the extension of it (ayama) and its control. The purpose of following a proper rhythmic of slow deep breathing is to strengthen the respiratory system and reduce desires and cravings. The thought is, that by controlling the breath, the yogi can control his mind and can also control its constant movement.
- Pratyahara: Emancipation of the mind.
It is the fifth stage, when the process of the withdrawal and emancipation of the mind from the domination of the senses and exterior objects begins. The yogi undergoes a self-examination to learn control his senses and become free of its desires. He can learn to do so by being aware of the qualities that drive him, and will be able to pursue actions prompted by sattva (the ideal, pure or good quality), and will try to eradicate those caused by rajas (the quality of mobility or activity) and tamas (the dark and restraining quality). Ultimately, the sattva quality should remain as the only quality.
The final three stages are also referred to as the „quest of the soul“ as this is what these stages focus on: the Inner Self.
- Dharana: Concentration.
The purpose of this stage is for the mind to be focused on one task. There are five states of mental state. It is only in the fourth state (ekagra), when the mind concentrates fully on one thing. The final stage, niruddha, is when the mind leaves behind intellect and surpasses the feelings of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ and concentrate fully on the Deity, and its symbol AUM. The Sanskrit word Aum means the best praise or the best prayer, its symbol has many meanings and interpretations, which center around omnipresence, living spirit, creation and the triad of Divinity.
- Dhyana: Mediation.
„When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the state that arises is dhyana (mediation)“. When the yogi’s mind is illumined by dhyana, this will transform him and he will share its state of lightness, clearness and serenity by becoming „a light unto himself and others“.
- Samadhi: A state of superconsciousness.
At the end of the quest or at the peak of the mediation, the yogi’s body is as if asleep yet the mind is fully alert yet beyond consciousness. This state is characterized by a silent feeling of truth and joy.
As you can see, the original understanding of yoga goes far beyond the physical practice, it has become known for in the West. While the practice of asanas is an important element to ensure healthiness of the body, it is only one step on the path of yoga. You may choose that this is all you want to take up for yourself. But if you take a deeper look, you may find that there are several other concepts that can also be quite useful to guide you through the ups and downs and challenges of our hectic daily life, by developing a sort of inner compass of what is right and wrong for you. For example, I have learned to respond much better to what my body and mind need, e.g. when it is time for me to take a break and focus on what I need to recharge my batteries.
If you want to read more about the eight limbs of yoga, you can do this in BKS Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”, the source for this article.