Ashtanga Yoga is a Vinyasa style of yoga in the lineage of Shri. K. Pattabhi Jois (26 July 1915 – 18 May 2009).
Often referred to as a form of classical Indian yoga. ‘Ashtanga‘ literally means ‘eight limbs’ or ‘8 branches’, of which asana or physical yoga poses are merely one branch.
The 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
Yamas, the first limb covers one’s ethical standards and integrity, focusing on our behaviours, how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the biblical ‘Golden Rule’, in other words, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The five Yamas are: Ahimsa – nonviolence, Satya – truthfulness, Asteya – nonstealing, Brahmacharya – chastity and Aparigraha – not coveting that which others have.
Niyamas, the second limb, involves your self-discipline and spiritual observances. For example, regularly attending services, saying a prayer before meals, developing your own personal meditative practices, even making a habit of taking walks in contemplation are all examples of the Niyamas in practice, in your life.
The five Niyamas are: Saucha – cleanliness, Santosha – contentment, Tapas – to burn/self-discipline, and Svadhyaya: study of sacred writings and also study of one’s self, Isvara Pranidhana – surrender to supreme consciousness, the divine, your higher self.
Asanas, the postures practised in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic ideology, the body is a temple of spirit, physical self-care is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of Asanas, (postures) we develop habits of regular practice, including discipline and ways to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation.
Pranayama is generally translated as breath control or breath awareness. The fourth limb of yoga consists of breathing practices designed to master the flow of breath, the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotional part of your being. As implied by the literal translation of Pranayama, ‘life force extension’, yoga practitioners believe it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends your life cycle. You can practice Pranayama as an isolated technique (e.g. sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or combine it with your daily yoga routine (all of our Yoga classes at Bo Tree Therapies include Pranayama practices).
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal of the senses. It is during this stage, we make the conscious effort to withdraw our awareness away from all that is external. Maintaining awareness, and cultivating detachment from our senses, we can then direct our attention internally. The practice of Pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are potentially harmful to our health and which may interfere with your inner growth.
Dharana, Each of the 8 limbs prepares us for the next. Having removed the outside distractions, we can now address the distractions of the mind itself. Not as easy as this simple statement makes it sound! As much as the practice of Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal) paves the way for Dharana (concentration), the practice of concentration, comes directly before Dhyana (meditation). We learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on something, it could be an energetic centre in the body (Chakra), an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. In Asana and Pranayama, whilst we pay attention to actions, our attention moves. Our focus is constantly travelling as we organise ourselves into a particular posture or breath awareness. Longer periods of concentration work organically towards a regular meditation practice.
Dhyana Meditation (also referred to in Yoga texts as contemplation), the seventh limb of Ashtanga, is the constant flow of concentration. Although concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana) may seem very similar, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where Dharana practices singular attention, Dhyana is ultimately a state of being aware without a point of focus. At this stage, the mind is still and silent, and in the stillness it produces less or ultimately no thoughts at all. The strength and endurance necessary to reach this state of stillness can seem unattainable, however we don’t give up. While it may seem at times difficult, remember yoga is a process of practice. Even though we may not attain the “yoga journal picture perfect” pose, or the “guru in a cave state of consciousness”, every stage of our progress brings huge benefits to our entire being.
Samadhi Patanjali (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) describes this eighth and final stage of Ashtanga; Samadhi, as a ‘state of ecstasy’. Here, the person meditating merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the ‘Self altogether’. The meditator comes to realise a profound connection to the Universe, experiencing an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realisation comes the “peace that surpasses all understanding”; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be an ‘enlightenment’ kind of goal. However, if we pause to ask ourselves what we really want to get out of life; joy, fulfilment, freedom of ourselves and all sentient beings may be on our list. “What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what all of us as human beings aspire to as peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant”.