Ashtanga Yoga – Introduction
Thousands of years ago, the great sage Patanjali summarized the whole philosophy and practice of Yoga into a set of 196 Yoga Sutras. It was an amazing achievement, and he compiled and codified all the knowledge that existed in his day on the art and science of Yoga in order to arrive at this treatise. One of the core aspects of his work is the framework he developed of 8 main attributes or limbs of practice needed to attain the state of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Today we know these 8 as Ashtanga Yoga.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras continue to be a definitive reference today on all aspects of Yoga. They are presented in four chapters:
Samadhi Pada – concentration
Sadhana Pada – practice
Vibhuti Pada – experiences
Kaivalya Pada – absolute freedom
Chapter 1 is about the spiritual uses of concentration and focuses on:
– What is Yoga?
– What are the mental deviations and obstacles that take us away from the balanced state?
– The importance of one-pointed practice and renunciation
– Types of concentration and practice, including through OM
– The results of stabilizing the mind
Chapter 2 is about practice and focuses on:
– Removing mental deviations, complexities and impurities, including subtle thoughts, so as to remove the hold of karma
– The first five of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga – Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara
Chapter 3 is about experiences and focuses on:
– Samyama – the last 3 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga – Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi
– Liberation and higher discrimination
Chapter 4 is about freedom and focuses on:
– The three gunas
– Impressions and karma
While the information in all 4 chapters is relevant, chapters 2 and 3 contain Patanjali’s presentation of Ashtanga Yoga to the world. By studying these in detail, we learn about the qualities of these 8 limbs needed for a yogi. But while Patanjali tells us to practice, and extols the benefits of practice, there are no specific methods given in his Sutras. Perhaps he did give practices to his followers but they were not written down. For example, he described in detail how impressions complicate our mind, but he fell short of giving the solutions to not forming impressions and removing them once they do form. He also described the 24 mental deviations associated with these impressions, but again there are no methods given.
Even the later treatises on Ashtanga Yoga, by yogic scientists such as Swami Vivekananda and Osho, do not give specific methods to follow, and today most people associate it with the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga of K. Pattabhi Jois, which focuses greatly on the physical body.
This is part of a larger trend: over the centuries, and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, people have focused more on the body, gravitating towards the external practices of Asana and Pranayama. Without all eight limbs, however, nothing will work. Also, Asana in its true and original form is not actually so much a set of physical exercises as an inward turning of the body in preparation for diving into the inner universe. Pranayama is the practice of moderating the energy flows of the Pranamaya Kosha in preparation for diving into the inner universe. In fact, the eight limbs are designed to help us turn every aspect of ourselves inwards so that we can journey to the Center of our universe.
In this series of articles, we will explore all eight limbs, how they dovetail together, and why each is important for a yogi. Though Patanjali continues to inspire us, we also need a practical approach to complement this great work, a minimalistic approach that can be followed by people from all backgrounds, cultures and walks of life. So here we will discover a set of modern-day practices that allow us to develop all 8 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga simultaneously, in an effortless way. This may sound unbelievable, given that since ancient times yogis have undergone such strict tapasya and rigorous physical discipline in order to achieve anything. Think of the Buddha and the hardships he endured to reach Nirvana. But this is a new era of Yoga and spirituality – an era in which we have the support of the most refined and subtle form of Prana emanating from the very Source itself in the form of Pranahuti. As is the nature of all life, spiritual practices have also evolved, and what was possible only for the likes of the Buddha in ancient times is now possible for every sincere seeker of Truth. These practices are known as Heartfulness, and here we will link them with the eight limbs of Patanjali, bringing Ashtanga Yoga into the modern era.