As it is September and a new beginners class is starting up, I thought it was a good time to write about the meaning of 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 life.
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 mat.
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 practice.
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 perfect.
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 begins.
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”.
(For more historical information on the development of Ashtanga Yoga please refer to my blog post “a brief history of Yoga”)