Your Easy Guide to Ashtanga Yoga

The Yoga Sutra by Patanjali’s is the foundational text for most yoga aspirants. Divided into four books (pada), the first two books are the most relatable to us modern yogis. In the first book is called Samadhi Pada, Patanjali presents the definition of yoga followed by the attributes of the human mind.

 

Sutra 1.2: Definition of Yoga

Yoga Chittra Vritti Nirodha

Yoga is the cessation of the mind’s activity.

 

So let’s do some yoga…Close your eyes and stop all rendering thoughts now.

Hm…how long did you last?

Well, it’s quite blatant that this task is insurmountable without some serious contemplation.  Realizing it, the second book (Sadhana Pada) offers a solution. Here Ashtanga Yoga or the 8 limbs of yoga is described in details.

Warning: like a manual for assembling your Ikea furniture, it’s specific enough as a handbook but needs real life experience to really put it all together. 

 

Ashtanga Yoga

(Asht-8 Anga-limb)

 

1. Yamas (Ethical Behaviors

  •    Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (continence), Aparigarha (non-possessiveness)

2. Niyamas (Self-observance)

•   Shaucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (sense training), Svadhyaya (self-study), Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion)[if !supportLists]

3. Asana (Posture)

4. Pranayama (Breath extension)

5. Pratyhara (Sense withdrawal)

6. Dharana (Concentration)

7. Dhyana (Meditation)

8. Samadhi (Union or absorption)

 

I’ve been told in the past that the Ashtanga Yoga can be viewed as a circular space with 7 doors. All 7 doors metaphorically represent each of the 7 limbs and are pathways to the center space or the 8th limb-Samadhi. The reason why it’s a circular space is that we each enter yoga in a different way. Some people may start with asana (posture) while others may start with Dharana (concentration). Well…I agree with this analogy to a certain extent. For example, my Balinese friend has created an altar at his home where he practices meditation every evening. Albeit never done a downward dog before, he is still doing yoga. However, this is a great analogy on how we get to know yoga, yet to truly absorb it, I believe the 8 limbs path is more of a ladder system.

Starting with Ahimsa (non-violence), it is first in the subcategory of the first limb Yama. It’s often related to our diets and the way we treat others. As eating plays a key role in our social, emotional and physical aspects of life, it’s an easy identifier to where we’re at spiritually. In general, a yogi’s diet is vegan and sattvic (neutral). So no meat products and shiracha. One would argue that it’s part of nature to consume other animals just as exemplified in the animal kingdom. From the Darwinian crowd- Survival of the fittest!

Well… a few quick thoughts:

A) One has just equated himself/herself as an animal not a human who can progress in the spiritual paradigm. Hm…

B) Even if you were stranded on an island with just a little pig, you would eat what the pig eats and fair just fine. No need for bloodshed.

C) The likelihood of you finding a vegan restaurant is far greater than you stranded on an island with a little pig. Therefore the argument is invalidated.

Applying Yamas into our daily life is the most important part in becoming a true yogi. Like the LSAT score, getting a high score on your Yamas in a way ascertain a level of success in achieving the other 7 limbs. The other Yamas are quite self-explanatory; one shall not steal, lie, have random sex with random people and indulge in material goods. So basically Patanjali implies here first be a compassionate person then we’ll talk enlightenment.

Niyamas or Self-Observance is often the underdog in this whole kabob. Who has thought of the neti pot as an essential tool to spiritual progression? Well, it probably isn’t. However, “it’s self-evident that it takes a healthy body, clear mind and regulated senses to sit for long hours in meditation.”(Swami Jnaneshvara) Through understanding the self, we remove the coloring of our preconditioned thoughts and become more receptive along our spiritual path. The first Niyama- Shaucha or cleanliness is to purify the body and mind hence developing an inclination towards the divine. Eat healthier, upkeep your personal hygiene or think and speak positively, these are all attributes of Shaucha. Tapas (not the Spanish appetizers) means sense training. Think of the time you’re in a strenuous pose and the body is aching and the mind is screaming, you somehow persevered and survived onto the next pose. Congratulations, you have now burned some serious tapas and became a stronger human being. It is your tenacity in enduring some perceived physical pain that you may have arrived at the concept ‘you’re not your body.’ You’re the consciousness that drives the body! The electricity to a light bulb or the wireless signal to your iphone 6. (A favorite example by Sri Dharma Mittra). Here in Niyamas, we get to learn about ourselves and set the intention to why we practice yoga. It’s the last clearing stage before you get to the fun limb- Asana or posture where we get to talk handstands all day long. So don’t skip it, the very least, take a shower every day.

So here we are at Asana. In a way, it’s the most exploited and popularized by all social media. Hashtag Yoga and you’ll get over a million posts on yoga poses. The world has never been so receptive to Asana! Guilty as charged, I like to pose some wicked postures I did on Instagram too. The color filtering, sound editing, birds chirping… wait. The little likes that pop up under my photo sure feels nice. Guess what? Asana is the ideal arena for the egos! A disclaimer, the ego often has a bad rep for being the mean, jealous and self-centered entity. But really, the ego is the individual self that segregates us from the collective consciousness; the illusion that somehow we’re different from one another.  We need the ego to survive, to have a sense of self and protection. It is only bad when we over inflate the ego and all of a sudden, we’re competing how long we can hold a handstand. The sole purpose of Asana is to open the body for meditation.

Asana is only mentioned once in the Yoga Sutra:

Sutra 2.46: Sthira Sukhum Asanam

The posture for meditation should be steady, comfortable and motionless.

Not

The posture to enlightenment requires forearm scorpion or press up from crow to handstand.

So why all the fancy poses? Well like Sri Dharma said, to a certain point, we all need a distraction to keep the mind occupied. If doing an advance posture makes you fully present in the moment, that’s great! By the same token, a beginner will also receive the same benefit doing a simple posture. The goals are aligned here. If I somehow have let you down on how little emphasis a yogi should focus on Asana, maybe try gymnastic. Really, there is way more eye popping tricks in gymnastics than any other sports combined. The difference is, yoga works on the mind and connects us to a higher force. Eventually it doesn’t matter what the physical form can or cannot do as we’re filled with eternal bliss from the inside.

Pranayama is the fourth limb of Ashtanga Yoga. It means breath extension. From the Hatha Yoga Pradipika ‘ once the breath departs, so does life. Therefore regulate the breath.’  I don’t need to describe to you how important it is to breathe, but it is crucial to know how much your breath impacts the mind. A lot of free divers train in Pranayama to expand their lung capacity and stay calm while under water. When someone experiences an anxiety attack, usually the mind is triggered by a stress factor and causes hyperventilation. This shows the reversible cause and effect between breath and mind. There are different types of breathing techniques, of which they could be calming, sensitizing, energizing and/or balancing. Kapalabhati or Skull Shining breath is to perform forced exhalation in quick repetitions. It energizes the body and creates heat in the abdomen, perfect if you feel a bit lethargic and needs a power boost. On the contrary, Nadi Shodhana or Alternating Nasal breathing clears passage in the right and left nostril creates a calming and balancing effect; an excellent choice before an important meeting or right before bed. It is important to evacuate the bowel, have strong abdomens, a flexible neck (to tuck the chin and hold the breath) and overall stillness to sit for a long period of time when doing Pranayama. That is why one should practice Niyama and Asana before attempting Pranayama.

The fifth limb is Pratyhara or sense withdrawal. Our senses when untrained can turn into a never-ending cycle of desires. Ever had a bag of salty chips and crave a sweet candy bar after? Or you finally landed your dream job but suddenly you feel the need to buy a bigger house. Like domino effects, the trail of desires seems infinite. If Buddha said all life is suffering, then desires sure plays a key role in it. Nonetheless, when used appropriately, desires can help us progress. It is important to have the thirst for knowledge to reach self-realization or wanting to live a healthier and positive life. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, one of the ways to practice Pratyhara is using Dhristi (Gaze). Our eyes are connected to the mind. When tuned to a particular point, we can filter out the other incoming stimulants, thus remained focused. Swami Jnaneshvara claims one should rest on a solid, comfortable meditation posture and smooth, deep quiet breaths that has no pauses. Like anything, it takes practice to get good at sense withdrawal. Luckily, you can practice pretty much anywhere. Next time you’re waiting for the bus, see if you can focus at one point without interruptions. Even better, whenever your spouse nags at you, focus at the space between his/her brows, he/she will think you’re listening intently. Works every time!

The sixth limb of Yoga is Dharana or Concentration. Now we’re getting to the real stuff.  Without the preparation of the previous rungs, it’s pretty hard to master Dharana. Concentration is the process of holding your attention of the mind on one object or place. (Swami Jnaneshvara) It comes easier when there are minimal desires, agitation in the physical body and combined with long smooth breath. Concentration can be practiced during asana. When you’re holding forward fold, focus between your brows center or the base of your spine. Even if you’re only holding a posture for a few breaths, you’ll still receive tremendous benefits!

The repeated process of concentration is called Meditation or Dhyana- the seventh limb of Ashtanga Yoga. Meditation is a state of being rather than an active process. Funny how we still haven’t spoke of the Divine or any spiritual icons yet. That is because meditation can happen anywhere, anytime and in any context. A computer programmer can be so absorbed into this work when hours have gone by he is still ‘plugged in’. When an elite athlete is completely unaware of the millions of fans cheering for him in the arena, he is in a state of meditation. With meditation, there is still the observer, the observing and the observed:

- Computer programmer- programming- the project.

- The elite athlete- performing the sport- the ball/goal.

It is when the three dissolved into one, when the meditator is completely absorbed in the mediated object/ place, is when meditation becomes Samadhi- the last limb of Ashtanga Yoga.

This easy guide is by no means in replacing reading the Yoga Sutras. I encourage reading one or two sutra at a time and contemplate on it for a few days. Remember, the Yoga Sutras usually consists of commentary by well-revered swamis and each commentary signifies years of contemplation. So simply reading the book over a Starbucks latte does not do it justices whatsoever. Take your time, chew on the words and digest them.

This article is written by Annie Au. RYT 500, yoga teacher, vegan and traveler.