Ashtanga Yoga (अष्टाङ्गयोग – the eight limbs of Yoga) is Patanjali’s classification of classical yoga, as set out in his Yoga Sutras. He defined the eight limbs as Yamas (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (postures), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (absorption). The eight limbs form a sequence from the outer to the inner. Postures, important in modern Yoga as exercise, from just one limb of Patanjali’s scheme. He states only that they must be steady and comfortable. The main aim is Kaivalya, discernment of Purusha, the witness-conscious, as separate from Prakriti, the cognitive apparatus, and disentanglement of Purusha from its muddled defilements. However, Siddha Spirituality of Swami Hardas Life System also adopts part of ashtanga yoga for achieving complete health, peace, and progress.
Definition of Yoga according to Patanjali
“Yogah Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” – Chitta – mind, Vritti – functioning of mind, Nirodha –control Yoga is to control the functioning of the mind. We have our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and conditionings in the mind, which is very difficult to control. Yoga is the technique to control all these functions of the mind.
Definition of Yoga according to Bhagavad Gita
Lord Krishna defines Yoga as “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate” – Samatva – balanced state, Uchyate – said to be. Yoga is a balanced state. It is a balanced state of the body and mind. Yoga is a balanced state of emotions. It is a balanced state of thoughts and intellect. Yoga is a balanced state of behaviour. We are excited in the situation of pleasure and we become sad when it is a negative situation. Yoga is to maintain the equilibrium of the mind in any situation. This equanimity of mind is the ultimate objective of yoga.
Yoga Sutras of Ashtanga Yoga
The basis of Ashtanga Yoga is the Yoga sutras (Sanskrit Verses) of Patanjali. We will consider the different aspects of Yoga while remaining under the guiding principles of Patanjali’s Yoga (Ashtanga yoga). The Asana, Pranayama, Dharana, Dhyan, and Samadhi, or the Yama and Niyama are systematically described by Patanjali in his Sanskrit Sutras (verses).
- Yama (Principles)
- Niyama (Personal Disciplines)
- Asana (Yoga Positions or Yogic Postures)
- Pranayama (Yogic Breathing)
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses)
- Dharana (Concentration on Object)
- Dhyan (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Salvation)
Eight limbs – Ashtanga Yoga
Patanjali set out his definition of yoga in the Yoga Sutras as having eight limbs (अष्टाङ्ग aṣṭ āṅga, “eight limbs”) as follows:
The eight limbs of yoga are Yama (abstinences), Niyama (observances), Asana (yoga postures), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (absorption).”
The eightfold path of Patanjali’s Yoga consists of a set of prescriptions for a morally disciplined and purposeful life, of which Asanas (yoga postures) form only one limb. Navnath (9 Nathas) also practiced this Yoga as a spiritual commitment. Astanga Yoga is explained as follows:
1. Yamas – The first step of Ashtanga Yoga
Yamas are ethical rules in Hinduism and can be thought of as moral imperatives (the “don’ts”). The five Yamas listed by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 2.30 are:
- Ahimsa (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings
- Satya (सत्य): Truthfulness, non-falsehood
- Asteya (अस्तेय): Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): Chastity, marital fidelity or sexual restraint
- Aparigraha (अपरिग्रह): Non-avarice, non-possessiveness
Example of Yamas
Patanjali, in Book 2, states how and why each of the above self-restraints helps in an individual’s personal growth. For example, in verse II.35, Patanjali states that the virtue of nonviolence and non-injury to others (Ahimsa) leads to the abandonment of enmity, a state that leads the yogi to the perfection of inner and outer amity with everyone, everything.
2. Niyamas – The second step of Ashtanga Yoga
The second component of Patanjali’s Yoga path is Niyama, which includes virtuous habits and observances (the “dos”). Sadhana Pada Verse 32 lists the Niyamas as:
- Shaucha (शौच): Purity, clearness of mind, speech and body
- Santosha (संतोष): Contentment, acceptance of others, acceptance of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self
- Tapas (तपस्): Persistence, perseverance, austerity, asceticism, self-discipline
- Svadhyaya (स्वाध्याय): A study of Vedas, study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speech, and actions
- Ishvarapranidhana (ईश्वरप्रणिधान): Contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme being, Brahman, True self, Unchanging reality)
Example of Niyamas
As with the Yamas, Patanjali explains how and why each of the Niyamas helps in personal growth. For example, in verse II.42, Patanjali states that the virtue of contentment and acceptance of others as they are (Santosha) leads to the state where inner sources of joy matter most, and the craving for external sources of pleasure ceases.
3. Āsana – The third step of Ashtanga Yoga
Patanjali begins a discussion of Āsana (आसन, posture, seat) by defining it in verse 46 of Book 2, as follows:
The meditation posture should be steady and comfortable. — Yoga Sutras II.46
Asana is a posture that one can hold for a period of time, staying relaxed, steady, comfortable, and motionless. The Yoga Sutra does not list any specific asana. Āraṇya translates verse II.47 as, “Asanas are perfected over time by relaxation of effort with a meditation on the infinite”; this combination and practice stop the body from shaking. Any posture that causes pain or restlessness is not a yogic posture. Secondary texts that discuss Patanjali’s sutra state that one requirement of correct posture for sitting meditation is to keep the chest, neck, and head erect (proper spinal posture).
The Bhasya commentary attached to the Sutras, now thought to be by Patanjali himself, suggests twelve seated meditation postures:
- Padmasana (lotus),
- Virasana (hero),
- Bhadrasana (glorious),
- Svastikasana (lucky mark),
- Dandasana (staff), Sopasrayasana (supported),
- Paryankasana (bedstead),
- Krauncha-nishadasana (seated heron),
- Hastanishadasana (seated elephant),
- Ushtranishadasana (seated camel),
- Samasansthanasana (evenly balanced), and
- Sthirasukhasana (any motionless posture that is in accordance with one’s pleasure).
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā (Sanskrit: haṭhayogapradīpikā, हठयोगप्रदीपिका or Light on Hatha Yoga) is a classic fifteenth-century Sanskrit manual on haṭha yoga, written by Svātmārāma, who connects the teaching’s lineage to Macchindranath of the Navnathas. It is among the most influential surviving texts on Haṭha Yoga, being one of the three classic texts alongside the Gheranda Samhita and the Shiva Samhita. Over a thousand years later, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika mentions 84 asanas taught by Shiva, stating four of these as most important:
- Siddhasana (accomplished),
- Padmasana (lotus),
- Simhasana (lion), and
- Bhadrasana (glorious).
In modern yoga, asanas are prominent and numerous, unlike in an earlier form of yoga.
4. Prānāyāma – The fourth step of Ashtanga Yoga
Prāṇāyāma is the control of the breath, from the Sanskrit prāṇa (प्राण, breath) and āyāma (आयाम, restraint).
After the desired posture has been achieved, verses II.49 through II.51 recommend prāṇāyāma, the practice of consciously regulating the breath (inhalation, the full pause, exhalation, and the empty pause). This is done in several ways, such as by inhaling and then suspending exhalation for a period, exhaling and then suspending inhalation for a period, by slowing the inhalation and exhalation, or by consciously changing the timing and length of the breath (deep, short breathing).
5. Pratyāhāra – The fifth step of Ashtanga Yoga
Pratyāhāra is a combination of two Sanskrit words prati- (the prefix प्रति-, “against” or “contra”) and āhāra (आहार, “bring near, fetch”).
Self-extraction and abstraction
Pratyahara is drawing within one’s awareness. It is a process of retracting the sensory experience from external objects. It is a step of self-extraction and abstraction. Pratyahara is not consciously closing one’s eyes to the sensory world/ It is consciously closing one’s mind processes to the sensory world. Pratyahara empowers one to stop being controlled by the external world, fetch one’s attention to seek self-knowledge, and experience the freedom innate in one’s inner world.
The transition of yoga experience
Pratyahara marks the transition of yoga experience from the first four limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga scheme that perfect external forms, to the last three limbs that perfect the yogin’s inner state: moving from outside to inside, from the outer sphere of the body to the inner sphere of the spirit.
6. Dhāraṇā – The sixth step of Ashtanga Yoga
Dharana (Sanskrit: धारणा) means concentration, introspective focus, and one-pointedness of mind. The root of the word is dhṛ (धृ), meaning “to hold, maintain, keep”.
Dharana, as the sixth limb of yoga, is holding one’s mind onto a particular inner state, subject, or topic of one’s mind. The mind is fixed on a mantra, one’s breath/navel/tip of tongue/any place, or an object one wants to observe, or a concept/idea in one’s mind. Fixing the mind means one-pointed focus, without drifting of mind, and without jumping from one topic to another.
7. Dhyāna – The seventh step of Ashtanga Yoga
Dhyana (Sanskrit: ध्यान) literally means “contemplation, reflection” and “profound, abstract meditation”.
Uninterrupted train of thought
Dhyana is contemplating, reflecting on whatever Dharana has focused on. If in the sixth limb of yoga one focused on a personal deity, Dhyana is its contemplation. However, the concentration was on one object, Dhyana is non-judgmental, non-presumptuous observation of that object. If the focus was on a concept/idea, Dhyana is contemplating that concept/idea in all its aspects, forms, and consequences. Dhyana is an uninterrupted train of thought, current of cognition, the flow of awareness.
Process of mind
Dhyana is integrally related to Dharana, one leads to the other. Dharana is a state of mind, Dhyana is the process of mind. Dhyana is distinct from Dharana in that the meditator becomes actively engaged with its focus. Patanjali defines contemplation (Dhyana) as the mind process, where the mind is fixed on something, and then there is “a course of uniform modification of knowledge”.
Stream of continuous thought
Adi Shankara, in his commentary on Yoga Sutras, distinguishes Dhyana from Dharana, by explaining Dhyana as the yoga state when there is only the “stream of continuous thought about the object, uninterrupted by other thoughts of a different kind for the same object”. Dharana, states Shankara, is focussed on one object, but aware of its many aspects and ideas about the same object.
Example of Dharana
Shankara gives the example of a yogin in a state of Dharana on morning sun may be aware of its brilliance, color, and orbit. The yogin in dhyana state contemplates on sun’s orbit alone for example, without being interrupted by its color, brilliance, or other related ideas.
8. Samādhi – The eigth step of Ashtanga Yoga
Samadhi (Sanskrit: समाधि) literally means “putting together, joining, combining with, union, harmonious whole, trance”. In samadhi, when meditating on an object, only the object of awareness is present, and the awareness that one is meditating disappears. Samadhi is of two kinds:
- Samprajnata Samadhi, with support of an object of meditation, and
- Asamprajnata Samadhi, without the support of an object of meditation.
Samprajnata Samadhi also called Savikalpa samadhi and Sabija Samadhi, meditation with support of an object, is associated with deliberation, reflection, bliss, and I-am-ness (YS 1.17).
The first two associations, deliberation, and reflection, form the basis of the various types of Samāpatti:
Savitarka, “deliberative” (YS 1.42)
The Chitta is concentrated upon a gross object of meditation, an object with a manifest appearance that is perceptible to our senses, such as a flame of a lamp, the tip of the nose, or the image of a deity. Conceptualization (vikalpa) still takes place, in the form of perception, the word, and the knowledge of the object of meditation. When the deliberation is ended this is called nirvitarka samadhi (YS 1.43).
The Chitta is concentrated upon a subtle object of meditation, which is not perceptible to the senses, but arrived at through inference, such as the senses, the process of cognition, the mind, the I-am-ness, the chakras, the inner-breath (prana), the nadis, the intellect (buddhi). The stilling of reflection is called nirvichara samapatti (YS 1.44).
Last two associations of Samadhi
The last two associations, Sananda Samadhi, and Sasmita Samadhi are respectively a state of meditation and an object of savichara samadhi:
- Sananda Samadhi, ananda, “bliss”: this state emphasizes the still subtler state of bliss in meditation;
- Sasmita: the Chitta is concentrated upon the sense or feeling of “I-am-ness”.
Status of Ananda and Asmita
According to Ian Whicher, the status of Ananda and Asmita in Patanjali’s system is a matter of dispute. However, according to Maehle, the first two constituents, deliberation, and reflection, form the basis of the various types of samapatti. According to Feuerstein,
“Joy” and “I-am-ness” […] must be regarded as accompanying phenomena of every cognitive [ecstasy]. The explanations of the classical commentators on this point appear to be foreign to Patanjali’s hierarchy of [ecstatic] states, and it seems unlikely that ananda and asmita should constitute independent levels of samadhi.
Eight types of Samapatti
Ian Whicher disagrees with Feuerstein, seeing ananda and asmita as later stages of nirvicara-samapatti. Whicher refers to Vācaspati Miśra (AD 900-980), the founder of the Bhāmatī Advaita Vedanta who proposes eight types of Samapatti:
- Savitarka-samāpatti and Nirvitarka-samāpatti, both with gross objects as objects of support;
- Savicāra-samāpatti and Nirvicāra-samāpatti, both with subtle objects as objects of support;
- Sānanda-samāpatti and Nirānanda-samāpatti, both with the sense organs as objects of support
- Sāsmitā-samāpatti and Nirasmitā-samāpatti, both with the sense of “I-am-ness” as support.
Ananda is not a separate stage of Samadhi
Vijnana Bhikshu (ca. 1550-1600) proposes a six-stage model, explicitly rejecting Vacaspati Misra’s model. Vijnana Bhikshu regards joy (ananda) as a state that arises when the mind passes beyond the vicara stage. Whicher agrees that ananda is not a separate stage of samadhi. According to Whicher, Patanjali’s own view seems to be that nirvicara-samadhi is the highest form of cognitive ecstasy.
Asamprajnata Samadhi, also called Nirvikalpa Samadhi and Nirbija Samadhi, is meditation without an object, which leads to knowledge of purusha or consciousness, the subtlest element.
Social goal of Ashtanga Yoga: Kaivalya
Ashtanga Yoga is liberation from suffering
According to Bryant, the purpose of yoga is liberation from suffering, caused by entanglement with the world, by means of discriminative discernment between Purusha, the witness-consciousness, and Prakriti, the cognitive apparatus including the muddled mind and the Kleshas. The eight limbs are “the means of achieving discriminative discernment,” the “uncoupling of Puruṣa from all connection with Prakṛti and all involvement with the Chitta.”
Attaining a state of consciousness
Bryant states that, to Patanjali, Yoga-practice “essentially consists of meditative practices culminating in attaining a state of consciousness free from all modes of active or discursive thought, and of eventually attaining a state where consciousness is unaware of any object external to itself, that is, is only aware of its own nature as consciousness unmixed with any other object.”
Knowledge is a sufficient means to Moksha
The Samkhya school suggests that jnana (knowledge) is a sufficient means to Moksha, Patanjali suggests that systematic techniques/practice (personal experimentation) combined with Samkhya’s approach to knowledge is the path to Moksha. Patanjali holds that avidya, ignorance is the cause of all five Kleshas, which are the cause of suffering and saṁsāra.
Ashtanga Yoga is the removal of ignorance
Liberation, like many other schools, is the removal of ignorance, which is achieved through discriminating discernment, knowledge, and self-awareness. The Yoga Sūtras are the Yoga school’s treatise on how to accomplish this. Samādhi is the state where ecstatic awareness develops, state Yoga scholars, and this is how one starts the process of becoming aware of Purusa and true Self. It further claims that this awareness is eternal, and once this awareness is achieved, a person cannot ever cease being aware; this is moksha, the soteriological goal in Hinduism.
Ashtanga Yoga is a state of self-awareness, freedom, and liberation
Book 3 of Patanjali’s Yogasutra is dedicated to the social aspects of yoga philosophy. Patanjali begins by stating that all limbs of yoga are a necessary foundation to reaching the state of self-awareness, freedom, and liberation. He refers to the three last limbs of yoga as samyama, in verses III.4 to III.5, and calls it the technology for “discerning principle” and mastery of Chitta and self-knowledge.
The goal of a Yogi
In verse III.12, the Yogasutras state that this discerning principle then empowers one to perfect sant (tranquility) and udita (reason) in one’s mind and spirit, through intentness. This leads to one’s ability to discern the difference between sabda (word), artha (meaning), and pratyaya (understanding), and this ability empowers one to compassionately comprehend the cry/speech of all living beings. Once a yogi reaches this state of samyama, it leads to unusual powers, intuition, self-knowledge, freedoms, and kaivalya, the redemptive goal of the yogi.
Amazing health benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
As with most forms of Yoga, Ashtanga yoga will gradually improve your flexibility over time. Although it’s important to listen to your body and go slowly, I found my flexibility started improving after a few weeks of practice. Can’t touch your toes? Start Ashtanga yoga and I bet you’ll be able to within just a month if you work consistently and mindfully.
There are sixty Vinyasas (configuration) in the Ashtanga yoga primary series (that’s the flow you do between every posture). For a lot of the movements, you are working to hold your bodyweight upon just your hands or you are balancing on one leg – this builds a ton of strength in your core and increases your overall body strength.
Increase muscle tone
All that increased strength is possible because whilst doing those movements you are building muscle all over your body. Ashtanga yoga gives abs. It happened to me! My arms and shoulders also look more firm and toned (if I do say so myself!)
Improve cardiovascular fitness
If you’ve ever made it through a full counted-led primary series then you’ll know how much you sweat in Ashtanga yoga. The constant configuration (Vinyasas) between each pose keeps your heart rate up throughout the practice. Not only are you building strength and flexibility but you’re also working your cardiovascular system.
Reduce body fat
What happens when you build more muscle and do cardio? You burn fat! Since committing to a daily Ashtanga yoga practice I’ve noticed less fat on my arms and around my stomach area, so if you’re looking to drop a few pounds then this is the yoga style for you.
Reduce stress and anxiety
Some people think that doing the same sequence of postures every day is too repetitive and they lose interest. Each to their own – it won’t work for everyone! But when you learn the sequence off by heart, you no longer have to focus so much on where you’re placing your foot or your hand. Your awareness can start to shift to your breath instead.
This makes your practice more of moving meditation and leaves you feeling relaxed and stress-free.
Increase focus and creativity
When you are totally relaxed and calm, without stressing about the future or dwelling on the past, your mind becomes (almost!) clear. You are free to completely enjoy the present moment. In this state, I have experienced the most creativity than ever before in my life!
I’m not generally an arty person so my creativity comes in the form of inspiration for new business ideas. It almost sounds counter-intuitive that if you’re in the present moment you are thinking about future business plans! But it’s just that your mind is rarely empty so these ideas never have space to emerge unless you make space for them!
Lower blood pressure
In Ashtanga yoga, we practice a breathing technique known as Ujjayi. This involves a slight contraction of the glottis at the back of the throat to make the sound of the ocean as you breathe in and out of your nose. Extending your inhalations and exhalations to create long, deep, and calm breaths.
Many studies suggest that this breathing technique lowers blood pressure over time.
If you practice Ashtanga in a safe, mindful way, you will develop a strong, flexible body that is much less prone to injury. This means it can be a great complementary activity for other forms of sport.
As you get older your body becomes more prone to injuries and practicing Ashtanga yoga is a great way to stay fit and supple so you can enjoy a better quality of life for longer.