Patañjali’s Ashtanga Yoga – the system from which the Yoga I practice & teach is derived – is a practical philosophy engineered to bring the body and thought energy under progressive control as a means to accomplishing (Sadhana) Self-realisation whereby human consciousness and its manifestations are transcended. Achieving this state is both the system’s ultimate goal and its definition of Yoga:
1/2. Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ – The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga
The system is composed of eight stages, or limbs, as it literally translates (asha = eight, anga= limb) and is subsequently referred to as the ‘eight-limbed’ path. The practice (abhyāsa) of and non-attachment (vairagya) to the limbs facilitates the restraint of the mental modifications. But only when well attended to for a long time, without a break and with full attention.
The system is laid out in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, a treatise of the theory and practice of yoga representing the climax of a long development of yogic technology at the turn of the Common Era. Within 196 sūtras or ‘aphorisms’ (concise statements containing general truths), the Sūtras delineate the entire science of Yoga across four padas (books):
1. It’s aim: Samādhi Pāda – 51 sūtras on contemplation;
2. *The necessary practices: Sādhana Pāda – 55 sūtras on practice;
3. *The results from dedicated practice: Vibhūti Pāda – 56 sūtras on accomplishments;
4. The ultimate goal: Kaivalya Pāda – 34 sūtras portraying the yogi who has gained independence from all bondages and achieved the absolute true consciousness. (A continuous state of samadhi, the eighth limb)
*The major details and parts of the Ashtanga system are contained within the second and third padas (the bulk of the Yoga Sūtras deals with Kriya Yoga, the Yoga of Action). The eight limbs are introduced in Sadhana Pada:
2/29. Yama niyamāsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo’
1. Yama – abstinence, regulation;
2. Niyama – observances, training;
3. Āsana – meditative posture;
4. Prāṇāyāma – breath control, regulation or expansion of breath;
5. Pratyāhāra – withdrawal of senses, inward flow of senses;
6. Dhāraṇa – concentration;
7. Dhyāna – meditation;
8. Samādhayaḥ – contemplation, superconscious state, perfected consciousness.
The five yamas that constitute the system’s first limb explain the principles of ethical behaviour one should follow in everyday life, in our relationship with others and with ourselves. Patañjali referred to them as the mahāvratam, or great vows, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance. They are introduced in 2/30 and elaborated on in 2/35 39:
2/30. Ahiṁsā satyāsteya brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ.
• Ahiṁsā – nonviolence/non-hurting/not causing pain. Hiṁsā means “to cause pain”, thus ahiṁsā means to not cause pain. In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, all hostilities cease because that person emits harmonious vibrations (2/35). When it is practiced continuously in thought, word and deed for some time, the entire personality brings out those vibrations. Practising ahiṁsā begins with respecting one’s own body and extending this respect to all other beings in the world.
• Satya – truthfulness; to one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient (2/36). By the establishment of truthfulness, a time will come when all you say will be true; first follow truth and then truth will follow you. In other words, things come automatically and with honesty established, the state of fearlessness comes. The Mahabharata addresses the possible contradiction that arises between ahiṁsā; satya (what if the truth hurts?): ‘Truth should be told when agreeable, said agreeably, and should not be said that does harm, however, never lie to give pleasure’.
• Asteya – non-stealing; freeing oneself from the desire to have something that one has not earned or paid for. To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes (2/37) – if we are completely free from stealing and greed, contented with what we have, and if we keep our minds serene, all wealth comes to us. A carefree life is possible only with a well controlled mind, one that is free of anxiety, one without personal desires or possessions.
• Brahmacarya – continence, moderation of any sense drive, i.e. celibacy; expressed as honouring yourself and others in intimate relationships, or as the right use of energy towards a higher ideal. By establishing continence or celibacy, we save energy. Brahmacarya pratiṣṭhāyām vīryalābhaḥ – By one established in continence, vigor is gained (2/38); Vīrya means vital energy. Lābha means profit. When there is no loss of vīrya we gain energy. Teachers must impart a life force— a little current—into others.
• Aparigrahā – non-greed, non-grasping, non-covetousness; not accumulating beyond our capacity to use things in the proper way. When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes (2/39).
These five principles make up the yamas, the abstentions.
Deliberately kept short, the sūtras were intended to be learned, memorised and chanted with reverence and understanding in order to facilitate the development of a deep sense of quiet and inner contemplation.
The second limb, niyama, concerns personal observances, a means of well-being that brings our attention from relationships with others to the intimacy of our relationships with ourselves. Living the niyamas leads to deeper authenticity in our teaching practice. Whilst there are ten or more niyamas discussed in the Upanishads, only five are discussed in the Yoga Sūtras:
2/32. Śauca saṁtoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ.
• Śauca – purity, cleanliness; when we cleanse the body and mind we are more attentive to the higher aspects of living consciously. By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies (2/40).
• Saṁtoṣa – contentment, liberated from expectations; from a place of purity, we become humble and content in the modesty of how things are, as well as with the past and our sense of future.
• Tapaḥ – accepting pain (heat), to be purified by austerities – By austerity, impurities of body and sense are destroyed and occult powers gained (2/43). The burning fire of daily practice that creates austerity allows us to treat every experience as a tool for self- realisation.
• Svādhyāya – self- or spiritual- study; intentional self-awareness in all that we do. By study of spiritual books comes communion with one’s chosen deity (2/44).
• Īśvarapraṇidhānā – surrender to God, letting go of the ego; By total surrender to God, samādhi is attained (2/45). This is the practice of being grounded in a sense of being that is greater than the individual self.
The third limb: asana, refers to any physical posture that brings comfort and steadiness:
2/46. Sthira sukhamāsanam.– Āsana is a steady, comfortable posture.
The verbal root asana; means to sit or to be, conveying the sense of being present in one’s body. The physical asana practice is designed to cultivate the comfort and steadiness needed to achieve such physical presence by eliminating toxins and building strength and flexibility. Patañjali explains this in 2/47-48:
2/47. Prayatna śaithilyānanta samāpattibhyām. – By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered.
2/48. Tato dvandvānabhighātḥ.- Thereafter, one is not disturbed by the dualities.
Here we see how integrated the limbs are, as the first niyama (sauca) contributes to the detoxification/purification of the body and mind via cleanliness to achieve higher consciousness.
Only after mastering asana, can we practice the control of prāṇa – the cosmic force without which nothing moves or functions – by controlling the motions of inhalation and exhalation. This practice of breath control defines the fourth limb of the ashtanga system – prāṇāyāma:
2/49. Tasmin sati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedḥ prānāyāmḥ. – That [firm posture] being acquired, the movements of inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. This is prāṇāyāma.
By practicing prāṇāyāma, we deal with prāṇā directly, so we must be careful – it’s not easy to control the cosmic force and takes time to master. According to Patañjali, there are three types of concentrated prāṇāyāma: the bāhya vṛtti, ābhyantara vṛtti and staṁbha vṛtti – or inhaling, exhaling and retention. By regulating the prāṇa, we regulate our minds; if one is controlled, so is the other…wherever the mind goes, prāṇa follows. This explains the importance of prāṇāyāma in the Ashtanga system.
The fourth kind of prāṇāyāma – kevala kuṁbhaka – occurs automatically when we concentrate the mind on a single internal or external object [ekāgratā, one-pointedness].
2/51. Bāhyābhyantara viṣayākṣepī caturthḥ – There is a fourth kind of prāṇāyāma that occurs during concentration on an internal or external object.
This prāṇāyāma is the effortless, unintentional retention which occurs in deep meditation: when the mind comes to a standstill, the prāṇa automatically does the same.
(2/52) As its result, the veil over the inner Light is destroyed.
(2/53) And the mind becomes fit for concentration.
Thus practicing prāṇāyāma prepares the practitioner for dhāraṇā (concentration) and dhyāna (meditation) – the sixth & seventh limbs. But to achieve the mind control required for dhāraṇā and dhyāna, the practitioner must also draws the senses inward, relieving them of their external distractions by practicing pratyāhārah, the fifth limb:
2/54. Svaviṣayāsaṁprayoge cittasvarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇām pratyāhārḥ.- When the senses withdraw themselves from the objects and imitate, as it were, the nature of the mind-stuff, this is pratyāhārah.
Patañjali’s fifth limb addresses the tendency of the mind to go toward whatever is stimulating the senses and thoughts. As we sense, so we tend to think, and as we think, we tend to act. By internalising consciousness, pratyāhārah allows us to leave external circumstances in abeyance – what might otherwise be an annoying noise or smell is now just there:
2/55. Tatḥ paramā vaśyatendriyāṇām. – Then follows supreme mastery over the senses.
This opens the practitioner up to accomplishing a state of focused concentration, the sixth limb, dhāraṇā. Dhāraṇā is a by-product of the Yogi’s practice of the first five limbs. Hence Patañjali elaborates on it in the third book – Vibhūti Pāda, the portion on accomplishments:
3/1. Deśabandhaścittasya dhāraṇā – Dhāraṇā is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.
In this state of focused concentration, you are training the mind for meditation, dhyāna, the culmination of concentration – Patañjali’s seventh limb:
3/2. Tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam. – Dhyāna is the continuous flow of cognition toward that object.
Meditation then culminates in the state of samādhi, the final limb. It’s not that you practice samādhi. Our effort is there only up to dhāraṇā, it becomes effortless in dhyāna, but you remain aware that you are in meditation. But in samādhi, there is neither the object or the meditator.
3/3. Tad evārthamātra nirbhāsam svarūpa śūnyam iva samādhiḥ. – Samādhi is the same meditation when there is the shining of the object alone, as if devoid of form.
3/4. Trayam ekatra saṁyamḥ. – The practice of these three [dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi] upon one object is called saṁyamḥ.
And that concludes the eight limbs.
Despite falling into relative obscurity from the 12th-19th centuries, the Sūtras and its Ashtanga system gained prominence in the 20th century after the Indian Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda published an interpretation of the treatise in 1896. His book elevated the status of Patañjali’s yoga and its title ‘Raja [Royal] Yoga’ became a retronym for the Yoga Sūtras and the Ashtanga system.
The Indian yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar K Pattabhi Jois, a student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, then codified and popularised the Raja/Ashtanga path with his ‘Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga’ – a physical set sequence of asana practices firmly grounded in the philosophy of the Yoga Sūtras and Patañjali’s Ashtanga system. Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has since been acknowledged as the authoritative system (darshana) of modern yoga. It was Pattabhi Jois’s belief that it is not possible to practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles, a person must first take up daily asana practice to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs thus stabilised, the mind can be steady and controlled. With mind control, one is able to pursue and grasp these first two limbs. (Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, 2002).
At this point it is worth emphasising that physical asana practice is a much smaller part of Patañjali’s Ashtanga system than Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which are often confused. But in any instance the order of which the practitioner approaches yama, niyama and asana is of less importance than the earnestness and commitment with which they practice.