Understanding Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga has never been intended as a purely physical Asana practice and I
believe it is important to understand, at least in the very basics, the philosophy of
Ashtanga Yoga.
The name itself – Ashtau (eight) + Anga (branches, or limbs) = Ashtanga Yoga (the
Yoga of the eight limbs) tells us that there is much more to the practice than only a
physical exercise.
Only if all eight limbs are practiced, it is truly Ashtanga Yoga.
What are these eight limbs? Scripted in the famous “Yoga Sutra” written about 200AD
by the Indian sage Patanjali, they give us a concise description of the theory and
practice of Yoga, including the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga:
Yama – (controlling our behaviour toward the external world)
Niyama – (controlling our behaviour toward ourselves)
Asana – (posture practice)
Pranayama – (breath control)
Pratyahara – (withdrawal of the senses from external to internal awareness)
Dharana – (concentration)
Dhyana – (meditation)
Samadhi – (deep contemplation or the blissful state that arises from merging with the
object of meditation)
All Yoga should really be drawing instruction from these 8 limbs but the difference in
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is that we attempt to practice all these 8 parts together in a
daily practice.
Asana (Posture) Practice is only one eighth of the full practice that makes up a true
Ashtanga Yoga practice.
It does however play a particularly important part, as it becomes the entrance point
through which we begin to connect to our inner self, working our way from the
physical body (which is immediately available to us through our senses and nervous
system) through the breath, calming our mind and in this stillness, finding a better
connection to ourselves. This connection is vital for all of us, whether we strive to find
spiritual enlightenment or merely look to achieve better health and more happiness in
I will explain the eight limbs in a little more detail:
A set of 5 guidelines that, if we follow them, can help us to achieve a better and more
peaceful relationship with the world around us. We can practice them in our daily
Asana practice so that we become familiar with them and plant seeds that can grow
into better habits and attitudes for the rest of our lives, on and more importantly off the
These guidelines are
Ahimsa (non-violence), the first and most important principal of the practice of Yoga.
On the mat we should practice to treat our own bodies kindly and with love, never
push or pull in an attempt to stretch further than we can or work harder than what is
good for our bodies. Once we become familiar with an attitude of non-harming
ourselves, it will make us more aware in our daily life and it will be more natural for us
to take peaceful actions rather than those that cause harm to any other person or
living being.
Satya (truthfulness) – when practicing on our mats, at home or in a class, we need to
be very honest with ourselves and assess where we are at in this moment in time.
Even though the Ashtanga sequence is always the same, your practice will never be
the same. It serves like a mirror. A constant measure against which you can measure
the state of your body and mind and breath each day anew. We need to look at it and
accept it with love and honesty, even if we may wish ourselves to be different. To truly
see and accept ourselves as we are is the basis for any kind of happiness. Over time,
we become more in touch with ourselves, more happy with ourselves and ultimately
with the world around us.
Asteya (non-stealing) is something very important that we need to practice on our
mats in order to become aware of it in our everyday lives. It doesn’t only mean to not
take our friends pens and lighters or shoplift, etc. It means to not want or take what is
not ours and follows on from the practice of truthfulness. On the mat we often look
around, if we are in a class situation and see someone stronger, more flexible,
younger, thinner, etc and we become envious and competitive. We want to look like
them, practice “advanced” postures like them, etc. This is when we have to remember
the practice of Asteya.
Brahmacharya (continence) has often been interpreted as “sexual abstinence”
however this would have been in a cultural context. Literally it means to “walk with the
divine”, meaning to acknowledge the divine in everything we do and not waste our
actions (and our energy) on unimportant things. It means to save our energy for
things that truly serve us and others. On the mat it means to use your energy wisely,
look for good concentration and good alignment, don’t lose you’re breath, modifying
or slowing down when needed, etc, rather than racing through the sequence. To
become wise with how to use our energy will obviously be an advantage in all our
actions in life.
Aparigraha (non-grasping) – meaning that we should practice with dedication but
without grasping on to any outcome we may desire. We should just be in the moment
when we do our practice, not focusing too much on any goal we might have, as this
would just keep us from being truly present. A goal, whether it is to achieve a certain
posture, calm our mind, heal our body or even to be enlightened, should never be the
focus of our practice. Any goal will either be achieved, or not but practice should be
done anyway. It’s about the process, not the achievement.
Sauca (Purity/Cleanliness) – refers not only to the necessity of showering regularly
and keeping a good hygiene practice but also, maybe even more importantly, of
internal cleanliness. Yoga Asana practice in itself is in part designed to detoxify, purify
and activate the self regulating systems of our bodies but how helpful would it be if we
went straight from the mat to the table to eat a big bacon and sausage breakfast? Any
regular practitioner will have experienced the difference in practice after a heavy
evening meal or drinking wine, or during a phase of eating a lot of junk food. It is not
pleasant and in our regular practice of the same sequence we begin to realise those
differences in the state of our body and mind that is influenced by our diet and
lifestyle. The desire to eat more healthy foods often naturally follows a regular yoga
Santosa (Contentment) – not to be confused with the western notion of complacency.
Contentment in the yogic sense is one of the highest forms of happiness, as it does
not depend on outer circumstances. It does not mean to be passive in our life choices
and just put up with anything we experience, but it means to be able to truly be happy
with what we have been given in life. On the mat, we may experience restrictions in
our body, feeling that we “should” be stronger, more flexible, better able to
concentrate, etc. But wherever we are at in this moment in time, can be a source of
happiness, if we don’t take things for granted and wish our life away. We are all
Tapas (discipline) – meaning “heat”, it refers to the fire of motivation that we need in
order to even get up and go on to our mat to practice. Without it, there is no practice.
We need to find what motivates us, learning that discipline is not a rigid thing, forced
upon us by some external force or even by our logical mind, but a motivation from
deep inside us. What this motivation is, is different for everyone, but we need to find it
in order to become disciplined, in our practice as well as in daily life.
Svadyaya (self-study) – an important part of our practice is the continuous learning
process. We need to learn about ourselves, on the mat, when we pay close attention
to our physical sensations, strength and weaknesses, the state of our breath, our
energy levels, the state of our mind, our emotions, our insights. In our daily practice
we have a great opportunity to study ourselves. In addition, reading the underlying
philosophies and texts of Yoga will help to deepen this understanding.
Isvara Pranidhana (dedication) – to dedicate our practice to a higher purpose, to
acknowledge that there are greater forces than ourselves and that in the end, we are
all part of the same, beautiful, omnipotent forces of the universe, means to transcend
our own Ego nature. Transcending the Ego is a necessary step in order to see the
“bigger picture”, to see things not through the lens of our limited, emotional reactive
egoic selves but from a higher perspective, really is one of the highest goals of the
practice of Yoga.
This is the practice of postures. Although Yoga in itself is an ancient practice,
originating more than 5000 years ago, Asana practices have been evolving, always
changing with the needs of the people of the times. Postures as we practice them
today are merely about 200 years old and are influenced by western exercises as well
as eastern philosophy. The primary series of Ashtanga Yoga (also called Yoga
Cikitsa, or Yoga therapy), has been designed to strengthen, cleanse and relieve
tensions and tightness in every part of the body, not only superficially but also deep
inside our core, even having a healing effect on our organs and particularly on our
nervous system. They work not only on the physical body but also on the system of
Nadis (Energy channels, in Chinese medicine known as meridians). It is a set
sequence that should be used continuously as a guideline but modified in whatever
way needed individually. It is likely that during practice, imbalances and weaknesses
will show up. If this is the case, they will need to be addressed by further modifying,
adding appropriate postures and where needed seeking other more specialised
therapies before returning to the full sequence again. Whatever shape our posture
practice takes, each Asana should be practiced with a balance between being
grounded and strong, being dynamic and active and also expanding in all directions,
creating lightness in our body.
Breath control – The breath has a direct influence on the nervous system and is the
link between body and mind. Our breath is influenced by the state of our emotions
and can in turn influence them, calming our mind almost instantly. By learning yogic
breathing techniques we can learn to control the breath and therefore our nervous
system and our mind. In Ashtanga Yoga there are many pranayama practices but, to
begin with, we just use mainly one technique called Ujjayy breath (“victorious breath”)
which helps us in many ways. By learning this technique (which at first can take a
little practice) we can keep our breath long and even, therefore sending messages to
the nervous system to relax the body and mind, even though we are moving a lot,
even sweating through our physical practice. This will help to stay centered and
focused and we learn to keep our concentration for longer. Ujjayy breath also keeps
our core activated during the practice, which is of great importance for proper function
in postures. It can also help to create heat and fire in the body (if practiced strongly),
which is what helps with purification.
All the attention we give to our physical body, our breath, our sensations and
emotions during our practice session helps us to stay present in the moment. We
need to learn to disconnect our senses from the outside world. In a class situation, we
may be tempted to check the time, see how strong the person next to us is, get
distracted by noises etc…but the practice of Pratyahara allows us to access a deeper
place within ourselves, away from the everyday noise of the world and getting a little
closer to the core of our being.
Once we stop getting distracted by the outside world, concentration can begin to
happen. During our practice we concentrate on our breath and on our focus points
(drishti). Drishti helps us not only to direct energy to a certain point or direction, but
also it helps our vision and inner focus to stay steady and concentrated on one
particular point in space. This trains our ability to concentrate our mind and stay
focused on one particular object of attention.
As we get more and more practiced in concentrating on one object of attention, our
state of concentration begins to remain for longer periods without interruption. This
state is a state of meditation (dhyana). Here is where the real practice of the mind
With even more practice (a lot of practice!) this meditative state of the mind begins to
deepen and our awareness seems to completely merge with the object of meditation
(ie we feel as if we ARE the breath, there is nothing but the breath, or the body). This
is accompanied with a feeling of complete bliss, were we are one with ourselves and
the object of our meditation. It is also accompanied by the ability to completely let go
of everything we hold on to, to experience only oneness, even just for a moment.
In conclusion, we can see clearly that there is a lot more to Ashtanga Yoga than just
ploughing through a series of postures and achieving more and more difficult shapes
with our bodies.
We can also see that an advanced Yoga practice really does not mean that we can
wrap our legs behind our head or stand on our head for a long time. It does however
mean that we have achieved a regular and consistent practice of all of the above
limbs (at least up to Dharana – the rest will come by itself) and we are able to
maintain concentration and an even breath throughout the practice. It also means we
have studied ourselves enough to know where our weak spots are and where we
need more or where we need less of something. We need to know when it is wise to
modify and take it easy and when it is wise to overcome fears or feelings of laziness.
All this is part of our practice and if we keep that in mind, Ashtanga yoga will be a
truly healing method for anyone, old or young.
Or, as my teacher David Collins put it by quoting Dr. Jigar Gor and Judith Hanson:
“Yoga is not about touching your toes but about what you learn on the way down”.

Share on Social Media