The journey of the self, through the self, to the self.
Ashtanga yoga is an ancient Indian science of the mind. It is an ancient system of self realisation and is a powerful and effective means of discovering truth and attaining freedom. Through the practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we are able to “suspend the fluctuations of the mind” and find sustainable inner peace and stillness. Ashtanga yoga integrates the practices of postures, breathing techniques, lifestyle choices, and mental exercises to bring the mind under control and enable a life of peace and happiness.
The Eight Limbs
The eight limbs of Ashtanga can be categorised as Hatha yoga and Raja yoga. Hatha yoga comprises of the first five limbs, which are externally oriented and purify and balance the body, nervous system, and mind of the practitioner in preparation for Raja yoga, or higher royal yoga. The last three limbs (Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi) can be described as Raja yoga, and are the internal practices and meditation that lead us to the realisation of higher consciousness.
Growth between the eight limbs must be simultaneous so one’s practice can be homogenous and balanced. The ancient sage Patanjali describes the eight limbs in his Yoga Sutras as follows:
There are five yamas that regulate our inner behaviour and thus how we interact with the external world. They are non violence, truthfulness, non stealing, celibacy, and non possessiveness.
Ahimsa – non violence. This means to be non violent in word, thought, or action. “Becoming established in non violence, those around cease to be hostile.” YS 2.35
Satya – truthfulness. To be truthful in both words and actions and to follow a path that is true and honest. If you speak the truth your words become powerful and you become aligned with truth. “By being truthful, whatever action you take will be successful.” YS 2.36
Asteya – non stealing. To not steal the property, wealth, work of ideas of others. “When one is established in non stealing, all jewels present themselves.” YS 2.37
Brahmacharya – abstinence. Living a lifestyle conducive for attaining higher truth and restraining from multiplying our desires to retain energy for spiritual development. “When celibacy is established, vitality is attained.” YS 2.38
Aparigraha – non possessiveness. To not be greedy and to not grasp or seek to possess things or ideas. “One who overcomes possessiveness and a grasping mind, he will gain knowledge of the past, present and future.” YS 2.39
There are five niyamas that function as the values with which we interact with ourselves. They are purity, contentment, self discipline, self study, and devotion to the Divine.
Sauca – purity. Maintaining internal and external purity by keeping the mind, body, and environment clear and clean. “From cleanliness, an aversion to one’s own body and contact with the bodies of others arises.” YS 2.40
Santosha – contentment. To be happy with what we have, which leads to inner joy. “From contentment, one gaines supreme happiness.” YS 2.42
Tapas – self discipline. Through tapas the body and senses are purified, resulting in clarity and spiritual power. “By practicing self discipline, impurities are destroyed, then the body and the sense organs will gain spiritual strength.” YS 2.43
Svadhyaya – self study. To engage ourselves and further our studies. Self study will result in the experiential realisation of the chosen scriptures, discipline, and deities. “While practicing self study, we totally submerse ourselves inn the deity that we have chosen.” YS 2.44
Isvara pranidhana – devotion to the Divine. To surrender everything to the supreme being, dropping the sense of ego or doing and see that all action is done with the intention of the Divine. “By surrounding to God, one will attain Samadhi.” YS 2.45
Asana means to sit comfortably and steadily. Through the practice of posture we purify the body in preparation for transcendence. “Posture should be stable and comfortable.” YS 2.46
Pranayama: breath control
By controlling the breath the mind comes under our control. Through the practices of pranayama we expand and purify the pranic body. Pranayama practice will destroy the veil over the inner light, a new clarity and perspective emerges, and the mind becomes fit for meditation. “Thus, begins the slowing of the unregulated movements of inhalation and exhalation by means of extension and expansion of breath.” YS 2.49
Pratyahara: sense withdrawal (independence from external stimuli)
The binding of the senses and retuning the senses from the external world to the mind. When pratyahara has arisen then we are prepared for concentration. “When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyahara.”YS 2.54
Dharana: one pointed concentration
The focus of the mind on a single object, such as a mantra, or the deep concentration on the chakra centres to bring the subconscious mind under complete control. “Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” YS 3.1
Effortless continuos concentration where the mind is under complete control and there are no disturbing thoughts. “Dhyana is the continuos flow of cognition towards that object.” YS 3.2
Samadhi: super conscious state, self realisation, absorption, mystical experience
The state in which the individual consciousness is dissolved in the pure cosmic consciousness. “Samadhi is when that same meditation shines forth as the object alone and the mind is devoid of its own reflective nature.” YS 3.3
Through the practice of Ashtanga yoga, simultaneously using Vinyasa, Bandhas and Tristana, the poisons that surround the spiritual heart will be burned away and the light of our true self will shine through. Patanjali writes that yoga should be practiced consistently and with faith. With regular and devotional practice one acquires strength, steadiness, and openness of the mind and body. The mind becomes clearer, precise and lucid. Only through practice are we able to realise truth.
The modern method of approaching Ashtanga yoga is known technically as the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, which was passed to Sri T. Krishnamacharya by his guru Rama Mohan Brahmachari and subsequently to his disciple, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in the early 20th century. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system is known for its power, attention to detail, and dedication to tradition. The integrity of the lineage is maintained through parampara, or, the unbroken transmission of knowledge from teacher to student.
The practice of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga is comprised of three powerful groups of asana sequences in ascending order of difficulty that effectively purify, strengthen and open the body in preparation for higher yoga and meditation. The three groups of Asana sequences in the Ashtanga Vinyasa system are referred to as series. The sequences of asanas function like a combination lock. When preformed correctly, with correct alignment, and in the proper order, the body and the mind open.
The first sequence is known as the Primary Series (Yoga Chikitsa, Yoga Therapy). Primary Series functions to heal, detoxify and align the body, with focus particularly on the realignment of the spine. Through consistent practice of the first series, foundational strength, endurance and flexibility are built in preparation for fully accessing the benefits and effects of the subsequent series.
The second sequence is known as Intermediate Series (Nadi Shodhana, cleaning of the Nadis). With the appropriate preparation through practice of the first series, the second series purifies and balances the nervous system. By opening and clearing the subtle energy channels and the chakras, the second series purifies the complex nadi system and balances the duality of energies within us.
The third sequence is known as Advanced Series (Sthira Bhaga, Divine Stability), which is divided into four parts (A,B,C,D) to make it more approachable. The third series combines the lessons of the previous two series. It integrates the power and grace of the ashtanga practice into divine balance, which requires high levels of determination and humility.
The sequential order of each asana is to be followed systematically within the series, developing the appropriate strength, balance and openness before move further to the next asana. The series themselves should also be practiced in sequential order, ideally with the guidance of a teacher. The practitioner should fully integrate the physical and energetic lessons of each series, often requiring years of consistent practice, before proceeding to the next series.
Vinyasa means breath synchronised movement. Vinyasa is a breathing and movement system maintained during asana practice to generate internal cleansing. For each movement there is a corresponding breath. One breath equals one movement.
All asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas. For example, in Surya Namaskara A there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling and raising the arms above the head with the palms pressed together. The second vinyasa is exhaling and folding forward and placing the hands besides the feet, and so on and so forth. For the beginner the correct number of vinyasas may not be possible. This is appropriate as long as the practitioner adheres to the correct inhalation and exhalation movements. With time and practice the correct vinyasas will become possible.
In asana practice, vinyasa is the foundation of our inner purification. By moving and breathing together the blood is heated, which removes disease causing impurities from the blood and makes the blood thinner and lighter, so that it may circulate freely. As Sri Pattabhi Jois said, vinyasa will “boil the blood”. Vinyasa causes us to sweat, which is the vehicle by which the toxins are removed from our bodies, leaving the body pure, strong, light, and healthy. After the body becomes pure, we can then work to purify the nervous system and the mind. In this sense Vinyasa is the foundation for our complete purification.
Tristana means three points of attention or action: posture (asana), breath (pranayama), and gazing point (dristi). These three points also cover three levels of purification: the body (posture), the nervous system (breath), and the mind (gaze). During yoga practice all three should always be performed in conjunction with one another. Through the correct practice of Tristana with regularity and devotion we acquire steadiness of the body and mind, gain control of the senses, and cultivate a deep awareness of ourselves.
Asana, translated from Sanskrit as “to sit”, is what we know as physical postures. Asana is the foundation from which all other yoga limbs and techniques arise and often functions as the gateway for many into the Ashtanga yoga practice. Patanjali describes asana in the Yoga Sutras as being steady and comfortable. The Bhagavad Gita presents the quality of asana is being stable and erect. Asana should be practiced with effort but without strain until the posture becomes effortless. Through the effortlessness of the asana, we are able to transcend the physical body and merge the mind into the infinite. As Patanjali says, asana needs to have the dual qualities of firmness and lightness. When these dualities are balanced, effort ceases and one can transcend duality and attain equanimity.
Asana functions to purify and align the body. It also begins the processes of purifying and aligning the nervous system and the mind, which are then firmly established by the practices of pranayama and meditation. Through asana practice the body becomes strong, pure, and flexible.
There 8,400,000 asanas in the entire yoga system. In the Ashtanga Vinyasa system of yoga selected asanas are strung together in a set sequence to create a series. Each asana is dynamic and effective in its own way. The practice of asana requires the body to be placed into a complex position, often times asking the practitioner to transcend their preconceived limitations. Types of asanas include but are not limited to standing postures, seated postures, forward bends, backward bends, twists, hip openers, inversions, and arm balances.
Breath is life. It is fundamental to every action and holds within it divine potential and divine essence. Breathing is rechaka and puraka, meaning inhale and exhale. Every inhalation is our inspiration from god, and every exhalation is our surrender to god. Life begins with an inhale and life ends with an exhale. Within the breath there is the potential for everything.
The function of breath in the Ashtanga yoga system cannot be emphasised enough. Yoga is a breathing practice. In the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, if you are not breathing you are just bending, not doing yoga.
All breathing should be done through the nose (unless otherwise specified) as breathing through the mouth weakens the heart. The breath should be deep, smooth, and consistent. Our breath is the momentum behind our movement and our stability within the posture. Correct breath allows for every movement and posture to be gentle, precise, powerful and steady. Both the inhale and exhale should be even, meaning, the length and intensity should be the same. Breathing in this manner purifies and stabilises the body, mind, and nervous system.
In Ashtanga yoga we practice Ujjayi Pranayama, meaning, Victorious Breath. By slightly constricting the throat we create a deep hissing sound as we breathe. Ujjayi breath maintains the balance and homeostasis within the body during practice, cultivates and expands prana, circulates the blood, builds the internal heat of purification, and is the vehicle by which we can overcome obstacles and control our mind and body.
Dristhi, meaning gazing point, is the place where you look while in the asana. Translated from Sanskrit as “perception”, Drishti is our specific point of focus while practicing yoga, which directs our mind and energy. When we steady our physical site to a fixed point, our inner world also becomes steady, purified, focused and concentrated. Drishti brings about oneness during the practice and presence within the postures. The focus and awareness cultivated by Dristhi also manifests itself in our daily lives.
There are nine dristis:
Urdvha dristi – up to space
Brumadhya dristi – third eye
Nasagra dristi – tip of the nose
Parsva dristi – right side
Parsva dristi – left side
Nabhi dristi – navel
Hastagra dristi – tip of the middle finger
Angusta dristi – tip of the thumb
Padagra dristi – tip of the big toe
The use of bandha is the exploration of our connection to our inner world as well as the environment around us. Bandha has the potential to lift us up, but it also is our roots into the earth. Through the engagement of bandha we return to a state of conscious connectedness.
Bandhas are energy locks that are engaged during yogic practices to seal in and intensify the heat and energy that is being created during the practice. Intense internal heat is produced, which functions to purify the body and expand our life force and pranic body. Combined correctly with Vinyasa and Asana, the body becomes strong and light. Bandhas are a vital component of yoga practice and without them perfection and benefits of the asanas, correct breath, and control of the mind are not possible. By practicing Bandhas the body becomes healthy, strong, pure and radiant.
There are three bandhas in the body, which are the anal, navel, and throat locks. Mula Bandha is the anal lock, located in the perineum. To activate Mula Bandha the practitioner focuses on tightening the muscles around the genitals and anus and lifting the perineum up towards the navel. Uddiyana Bandha is the navel lock. To activate Uddiyana Bandha the practitioner pulls in the belly, bringing the navel closer to the spine and then lifting the navel up towards the solar plexus area. Jalandhara Bandha is the throat lock. While practicing Asana, the activation of Ujjayi breath subtly engages Jalandhara bandha. In order to increase the intensity of Jalandhara Bandha during Pranayama and Meditation practices, the practitioner lifts the chest and tightly tucks the chin towards the sternum.
In the beginning the yogi should continue to draw their attention to the activation of the bandhas on a physical muscular level. With time and consistent practice, and as the yogi becomes physically stronger and more aware of the pranic body, the bandhas become less physical and more energetic and eventually mentally automatic. When the bandhas are perfect the mind comes under control.