People often ask ‘What is Ashtanga Yoga?’ They have images in their minds of people doing various yoga postures or sitting in Lotus pose meditating, or lying on the floor relaxing. All of these images are correct, in that they represent some of the many practices of Yoga, yet none conveys the full story. Yoga is much more.Men's Club – Онлайн Журнал

One of the six classical schools of Indian philosophy, Yoga is literally a path of self-discovery. Its purpose is to reveal our fullest potential in every aspect of our being, to create health, harmony and balance in body, mind and spirit. The purpose of all Yoga practices is to create unity, within and between us, and to bring us to experience the deep peace that comes with knowing ourselves as we truly are.

This knowing comes from removing the obstacles and impediments that generally cloud our perception; the mistaken beliefs that we have to be a certain way or are powerless to change our own circumstances. The great Sage Patanjali, the author of ‘The Yoga Sutra’, actually defines Yoga as ‘the stilling of the thought-waves of the mind’ (yogashcittavrttinirodhah, YS 1.2). With this stilling comes clarity of perception and true understanding of our Self.

To achieve such clarity, Patanjali, encourages us to practice the different branches of Yoga or Yogangani. He desribes the path of Yoga, being comprised of eight such branches, as Ashtanga Yoga, from the Sanskrit words Ashta, meaning eight, and Anga, meaning limb or branch.

The eight limbs are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.

They can be considered in 2 groups of 4; Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama make up the 4 external limbs, and Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi the 4 Internal ones. Yoga thinking describes us as being comprised of successive sheaths or layers of consciousness, called Koshas. The most obvious and external of these is the Physical Body. Then come the Energetic, Mental, Wisdom and Bliss Bodies. The practice of the eight limbs is a process of gradually clearing the successive layers, external then internal, so that each functions maximally and we experience the world completely on all levels of awareness.

THE EXTERNAL LIMBS

1. YAMA

There are 5 Yama, or observances. Patanjali calls them the ‘mahavratam’ or great vows, which everyone should honour. They are Non-violence, Truthfulness, Not stealing, Moderation, and Non-covetousness. These Yama are to be observed absolutely, in thought, word and deed. This is where our difficulties arise. We may think we live non-violently, but how often do we have angry thoughts or exchanges in our lives. It is not as easy as we think to genuinely observe the Yama. Are we always truthful, even to ourselves? Not stealing means more than just abstaining from theft. Think of the environment, of who may be affected negatively by what we now take from the earth, for instance. Do we really live moderately, or are we still grasping after more, bigger, faster, richer. Consumerism is surely the antithesis of non-covetousness. It is hard in our society to practice the Yama!

2. NIYAMA

There are also 5 Niyama, or personal actions, recommended by Patanjali. They are Purity, or cleanliness, Contentment, Dedication, Self-study, and Devotion. The first, Shaucha, refers to both physical and mental cleanliness. It means maintaining health by eating pure food, by good hygiene, but also by being mindful what we are exposed to intellectually, what we read and watch. Samtosha, contentment means to be truly happy and at peace. It is not about ‘accepting’ or ‘putting up with’- it is about finding how to be truly fulfilled. To do this one needs to be dedicated to the search, to have Tapas, or literally, fire. Self-study means to look deeply into ourselves at every level of our being; physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual, our conscience and even consciousness itself. The last niyama, Iswara pranidhanani, means literally to ‘be humble before the Lord’. This really means to be prepared to acknowledge that we are not the centre of the Universe, and to devote ourselves to the Divine Principle, or God, however we perceive him/her/it.

3. ASANA

It is easy to see that even though we would all generally want, and strive, to practise yama and niyama, we would also often fail. This is because though external in their manifestation, the yama and niyama require us to exercise internal will-power and to be able to master strong, instinctive motivations, which though not always beneficial to us, can seem like a great idea at the time. This is where Asana come in. Yogasana means Yoga postures; the familiar image we have of people bending and stretching in the classical poses of Hatha Yoga, or physical yoga. Because of the difficulties inherent in the first 2 limbs, we begin with something simpler, with asana. Asana works on many levels but its most apparent effect is on Annamaya Kosha, the outer layer of our being, as it is described in Yoga thinking. We start the process of developing clarity with the physical body. Through the practice of Asana, we develop stregth, maintain flexibility and maximise the functioning of our internal organs to correctly nourish us, to remove toxins and prevent disease. The asssiduous practice of asana and the next limb, pranayama, make it easier to incorporate the principles of yama and niyama into our lives, by making the body and nervous system clearer and calmer, the mind more peaceful and capable of choosing the best course of action in any given situation.

4. PRANAYAMA

The second layer of our being is Pranamaya Kosha, the energetic or physiological layer. Western medicine is slow to accept the concept of Prana or Vital Energy as the key ingredient of our being. Yoga sees it as the very essence of life. Alive, we have Prana coursing through us, but a dead body has none. The correct and healty functioning of the organs depends on a healthy flow of prana. We often speak of having ‘no energy’ or ‘loads of energy’. Instinctively we are conscious of prana as part of our make-up. Asana begins the clearing of blockages to the flow of energy in the body, and Pranayama, or breathing techniques, help to generate more energy in the system. Pranayama means literally ‘increasing prana’. These techniques clear and strengthen the Nadi or channels through which prana flows and enable us to absorb more prana from the air we breathe.

As a package, asana and pranayama, informed by and supporting the principles of yama and niyama, give us the capacity to move more deeply into our self-understanding, moving progressively from the physical, physiological and energetic to the sensory, intellectual and spiritual layers of our consciousness.

5. PRATYAHARA

Meaning to ‘move in opposition to input’, Pratyahara is the capacity to be discriminating in how one responds to the information and demands of our senses. The world of the senses is highly attractive and even addictive and it is common for our sensory attachments to dictate our actions, often to our detriment. Pratyahara means learning to understand the nature, role and benefits of the senses, and to use and enjoy them wisely and in a balanced and healthy way. If the body is unhealthy, the nervous system is weak and prana flow is poor. Then we are prone to indulge the senses, allowing cravings to dictate what we eat and how we behave, further imbalancing the whole system. Having created more openness and greater energy flow in the physical and energetic layers with asana and pranayama, pratyahara takes us onward to the deeper level of manomaya kosha or mental layer. Understanding the relationships between body, energy, senses and mind and being skilled at keeping them in balance is the key to a healthy mind and enables us to move through the next limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

THE INTERNAL LIMBS

6, 7, and 8 DHARANA, DHYANA AND SAMADHI

Dharana (focus), Dhyana (Meditation or Absorbtion) and Samadhi (Bliss) flow more obviously one into the other perhaps than the previous limbs. Dharana is the capacity to focus the mind exclusively on a single object of concentration. Usually our minds are fidgety, jumping wilfully from one thought or topic to the next. When we are like this, we cannot fully appreciate the circumstances of our present moment and cannot possibly make the most of it. We get distracted from the present by thoughts of the past or imaginings of the future. This sort of scatttered or fragmented consciousness is a source of disharmony and unease, the opposite of that which we need for peace and clarity. When manomaya kosha becomes clear, dharana is possible. Developing a focused mind removes this distraction and allows us to become totally absorbed in our present, and as our capacity for one-pointed concentration develops it brings us ultimately to the experience of Dhyana.

When we can focus our minds so completely that the stream of consciousness towards our object of concentration remains absolutely unbroken, our experience of that object becomes total visit this site. We become absorbed in it, we experience it as it truly is. This is Dhyana, and it is an eperience made at the layer of our being known in Yoga as Vijnanamaya Kosha, or the layer of wisdom. Dhyana leads us to the eighth limb of Ashtanga, Samadhi or Bliss.

Being fully absorbed in something means being one with it, being in union. This is yoga. The deepest experience of this union is a joyful state of being in which there is no sense of separateness anymore, just the unalloyed peace and harmony of knowing truly what we are, what everything is. This is Samadhi and here we have reached the innermost layer, the Bliss body or Anandamaya Kosha. This is the ultimate goal of all our practices. It is the Yoga, the clarity that we aspire to when we get on our mat in the morning to do asana. All the techniques are stepping-stones to this end. Yoga is both the path and the destination. It is a process by which we evolve naturally towards our innermost Self, a simple progression, achievable and real. All we have to do is practice!

If you would like to read more about how we practice asana in Ashtanga Yoga, see the next Article called ‘Ashtanga Practice, the Vinyasa System’