UNFOLDING THE SECRETS OF ASHTANGA YOGA
Ashtanga Yoga is a method of Yoga recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript containing lists of many different groupings of Asanas. It contains original teachings on Vinyasa, Drishti, Bandhas, Mudras, and Philosophy. The text of the Yoga Korunta was imparted to Sri T Krishnamacharya in the early 1900s by his Guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari.
Ashtanga Yoga literally means ‘eight-limbed yoga’ as outlined by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual practices:
- Yama [Morals]
- Niyama [Self-study & Discipline]
- Asana [Posture]
- Pranayama [Breathing Control]
- Pratyahara [Sense Control]
- Dharana [Focus]
- Dhyana [Meditation]
- Samadhi [Absorption into the Universal Self]
The first limb of Ashtanga Yoga, Yama, undertakes one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by”.
The five Yamas are:
- Ahimsa: Non-violence
- Satya: Truthfulness
- Asteya: Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: Continence
- Aparigraha: Non-covetousness
Niyama, the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga, works to achieve self-discipline and spiritual observance. Regularly attending religious services, praying before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone, are all examples of Niyamas in practice.
The five Niyamas are:
- Saucha: Cleanliness
- Santosa: Contentment
- Tapas: Heat; Spiritual Discipline
- Svadhyaya: Study of One’s Self
- Isvara Pranidhana: Surrender to God
The postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. With Asanas, we develop discipline and focus, both of which are vital in meditation.
Pranayama means breath control. This fourth stage consists of methods designed to master the respiratory process while realizing the connection between the breath. the mind. and the emotions. The literal translation of Pranayama is ‘life force extension’. Experts believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice Pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e. simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises) or implement it in your daily yoga routine.
These first four stages of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves which prepares us for the second half of this journey. Dealing with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness, the latter three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga comprise of the following:
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from our senses, we 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 or habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of Pratyahara creates the setting for Dharana, or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself, which is not an easy task. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, 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, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In Pratyahara we become self-observant: and in Dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
The seventh limb of Ashtanga is Dhyana which means meditation or contemplation. It also means an uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (Dharana) and meditation (Dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where Dharana practices one-pointed attention. Dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage. the mind becomes quiet. and in this stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don’t give up. While this may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the ‘picture perfect’ pose. or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of Ashtanga, Samadhi, as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, a sense of interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the ‘peace that passes all understanding’: the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, “holier than thou” kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow not find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: Peace. We might also 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 continuous devotion.
The purpose of Vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Synchronizing breathing and movement in the Asanas heats the blood and cleans it, so that it may circulate more freely. Improved blood circulation relieves joint pain and removes toxins and disease from the internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of Vinyasa then carries the impurities out of the body. Through the use of Vinyasa, the body becomes healthy. light and strong.
With the right application of these methods, one can enjoy the best results of Ashtanga Yoga and move a step closer towards an impeccable physiological condition and attainment of inner peace.