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The term “Ashtanga” means “eight limbs” in Sanskrit, referring to the eightfold path of yoga as described by Maharishi Patanjali in his Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Ashtanga Yoga is a yoga system that involves a specific sequence of postures (asanas) practiced in a flowing and dynamic manner, synchronized with controlled breathing. It is said that Ashtanga Yoga is 95% practice and only 5% theory. We will understand that it is mainly practical in nature when we discuss the eight limbs in detail.

Ashtanga yoga is characterized by its emphasis on breath, movement, and a specific point of gaze called drishti. The practice follows a structured series of asanas, beginning with the primary series (Yoga Chikitsa) and progressing to more advanced series. Each series consists of a set sequence of postures that gradually become more challenging.

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What are the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga?

According to the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Maharishi Patanjali provides a comprehensive framework for practicing and integrating yoga into our lives through eight limbs. These eight limbs of yoga are known as Ashtanga Yoga. They are:

1. Yama (Restraints)

Yama refers to the ethical principles that should be practiced to clear out mental blockages. It is said to be the code of conduct for interpersonal relationships. Yama purifies the mind by eliminating negative behaviour, thereby cultivating the positive behaviour. There are five yama (restraints):

a) Ahimsa (non-violence) – Do not harm any living being.

b) Satya (truthfulness) – Not telling or supporting falsehood.

c) Asteya (non-stealing) – Stealing nothing.

d) Brahmacharya (celibacy) – The renunciation of sexual activities.

e) Aparigraha (Non-obsession) – Not holding on to materialistic things or past events.

2. Niyama (Observances)

The human body and mind need frequent purification and cleansing. Niyama helps our body follow the rules of self-discipline required to balance daily routine and long-term productivity. Niyama includes:

a) Saucha (cleanliness) – Personal hygiene, cleanliness of the environment and eating clean food.

b) Santosha (contentment) – Being satisfied and happy, without greed to want more.

c) Tapas (discipline) – Following pre-set rules and regulations to do something.

d) Svadhyaya (self-study) – Studying one’s self to understand oneself better.

e) Ishwar Pranidhana (Devotion to God) – Surrendering everything to God by doing Bhakti.

3. Asana (Body Posture)

Asana means a posture. Although there are 84 basic asanas, there exists more than a thousand variations in which our body can be formed. The Human body is capable of acquiring seated, standing, forward-bending, backward-bending, inverted and twisted postures to perform various asanas. To begin with, Surya Namaskar is the most famous, effective and beginner-friendly set of 12 asanas. Undoubtedly, asanas improve body strength, flexibility, overall productivity, body pain, body stiffness, and various internal health problems.

4. Pranayama (Breath Control)

‘Prana’ means ‘life energy’ and ‘yama’ means ‘control’. Here, the emphasis is on the breathing techniques to control and improve the prana (life energy) of our body. Breathing is closely related to the mind, so we need to focus on breathing to control and balance our mind. There are various breathing techniques that are part of Pranayama such as Kapalbhati, Anulom-Vilom, Ujjayi, Bhramari, Shitali, Shitkari, Bhastrika, etc. Despite the above facts, Pranayama also creates balance in the doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha.

5. Pratyahara (Withdrawal Of Senses)

Pratyahara teaches us how our senses lose contact with external objects and become introverted. It means to controlling the intake of our body and mind, for example, what we eat, what we hear, what we see, or what we focus on. While practicing pratyahara, we withdraw our senses from external distractions and focus inward, just as an infant follows its mother and knows no one else.

6. Dharana (Concentration)

Dharana speaks about the nature of the soul, which says, “I am neither this perishable body nor this mind and these senses.” The soul is a part of the divine. Dharana refers to the mind’s concentration on a particular object, which can be internal or external, one at a time. Internal objects can be a thought, a mantra, or an imagination. An external object can be a lit candle (trataka), the image of a deity, or even your favorite flower! Therefore, Dharana helps our mind and senses remove the focus from multiple objects and direct it to a single object, which further nourishes dhyana.

7. Dhyana (Meditation)

Dhyana is effortless dharana. It means that we no longer need a single object to focus on, but are completely absorbed in the present moment. During meditation, our mind is free from thinking about anything and it becomes still. In this stage of Ashtanga Yoga, the mind experiences relaxation. We experience the tranquility of feeling, free from thoughts, goals and duties.

8. Samadhi (Blissful Union)

Samadhi is the highest goal of yoga. The highest level of consciousness merges our soul with the divine. The brain reaches a state of neutral acceptance where it connects our soul with the universal force i.e. Parmatama (Divine God). Therefore, the practitioner considers himself as part of the universe beyond all worldly influences.

Conclusion

The eight limbs of yoga provide a holistic approach to yoga practice that encompasses the physical, ethical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. Ashtanga yoga, as a specific style, integrates these eight limbs into its practice and philosophy, emphasizing a systematic and disciplined approach to yoga.

The development into an Ashtanga yogi is based entirely on mental and physical discipline as explained in the eight limbs. On the way to becoming a yogi/yogini, one must acquire and balance the limbs in order to reach a higher level of consciousness.

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