Ashtanga yoga comprises of eight steps towards perfection mentioned in the Yoga Sutras. There are many classical texts on yoga. The process of yoga is dealt with even in the Vedic texts – Yoga Tatva Upanishad, Yoga Shika upanishad, Yoga Chudamani Upanishad, etc. to mention a few.
But one has to understand that yoga is what is called a “prayoga sastra” or a practical science. It is more about techniques to evolve the human consciousness, rather than a mere philosophy. In that sense, it was Maharishi Patanjali who expounded the science of yoga in systematic way, in his Patanjali Yoga Sutras. The yoga sutras are arranged in four chapters. The sage Patanjali starts the first chapter with the description of Samadhi or the state of super consciousness. In the subsequent chapters, he describes the various steps and processes to achieve this highest state of Samadhi, including the obstacles encountered in the process. These steps have come down to us as ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ or the eight limbs of yoga. Though the word Ashtanga Yoga is not mentioned by Patanjali, it later came to denote the eights steps or limbs of yoga contained in his text. They are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Yoga as taught in most of today’s yoga classes, do not cover the entire range of yoga experience. They may concentrate more on asana (physical yogic postures) and pranayama (controlled yogic breathing techniques), without understanding that these are only a part of the entire system of Yoga philosophy. Yoga was developed as a science for healthy living at physical, mental and social levels. It gives the science of evolution of the mind and is aimed at the highest goal of life, the spiritual realization of the embodied soul.
Now let us look at the eights steps or levels mentioned in the Patanjali Yoga sutras. Even though we talk of eight levels, these are not strict compartments. One merges with the other. Also, spiritual masters guide their students in their own innovative style. It is not necessary that one has to start at the first practice (of Yama), even though that is desirable and advisable. It is good to have mastery of one stage before one proceeds to the next. But this need not be a strict rule. For eg, one may start with meditation practices first and then later learn the asanas. Most spiritual teachers mix and match these techniques and adapt the teachings to suit their students.
ASHTANGA YOGA – THE EIGHT STEPS OF YOGA
Yoga deals with human evolution. It starts with advice on harmonizing the external and internal life while living in society. The first two steps called Yamaand Niyama are precisely aimed at achieving this harmony. They are often wrongly described as dos and don’ts. But in reality, they are guidelines for a balanced life. It helps to create a harmonious and peaceful society.
There are five yamas – Satya (truthfulless), Ahimsa (non-violence, not hurting other beings physically or mentally), asteya (non-stealing), aparigraha (non –collecting, taking from nature only what one needs and not accumulating beyond ones needs) and brahmacharya (a balanced sexual life, essentially means control over your senses and living without over-indulgence. It can also mean celibacy for renunciants and monks). As you see all these contribute to social mode of conduct.
Similarly, there are five Niyamas which contribute to the personal mode of conduct. They are Saucha (cleanliness or personal hygiene, including mental purity), Santosa (means contentment), Tapas (self discipline), Swadhaya (means self-study, which can mean studying the nature of one’s own mind and doing inquiry into one’s own reality) and Iswara Pranidhana (which means total acceptance of life, facing all life situations with equanimity. It also denotes surrender to the will of God.)
The next step in Ashtanga Yoga is called Asana or postures. The yoga sutras define asana as – ‘Sthiram Sukham Asanam’, which means Asana is a posture that is steady and comfortable. Asana is an essential step towards the higher practices of yoga. Asanas can be meditative poses (like Padmasana, Sukhasana, Siddhasana, etc) or they can be other poses aimed towards attaining strength, balance and steadiness. Apart from the spiritual benefits, each Asana can have particular health benefits too.
Pranayama is the fourth stage in Ashtanga Yoga. Pranayama means the regulation of breath. Breath and mind are closely related. If one can control the breath, one can control the mind and visa versa. Pranayama gives steadiness and calmness to the mind. Prana or bio-energy flows through pranic pathways called nadi. Pranayama helps to clean these nadis and remove all impurities, commonly referred to as ‘Nadi Shuddhi’ . This has a direct effect on the physical body as a well as the mind. Our health improves and one gets clarity of mind. One experiences a sense of well being. Only a calm mind can go inwards. An agitated mind cannot be meditative. Pranayama automatically leads to the next stage called Pratyahara, which is the withdrawal of senses from the external objects.
Pratyahara leads the mind inwards, preparing it for meditation. In pratyahara, the mind is withdrawn from the senses and the sense objects, yet remaining fully aware of the inner processes. Pratyahara is the stage between externalizing and internalizing the mind. It is somewhere in between. It is a stage where the mind can now dive deeper into its inner reality. It is free of external distractions.
Dharana, which is the sixth stage of Ashtanga Yoga has to do with concentration. The word used in Yoga Sutras is ‘Samapatti’ or absorption. If the mind can be absorped at a point or an idea or an object, it is called dharana.
Prolonged period of dharana leads to the next stage of Ashtanga Yoga called Dhyana. This is commonly translated as meditation. It is the absorption of the mind on one object, or point or an idea, without distraction for a prolonged period of time. It is continuous and without break.
The last stage of Ashtanga Yoga is called Samadhi or super conscious awareness. As one proceeds on the path of dhyana or meditation, a point comes when one loses self-consciousness or the sense of ‘I’. This is the beginning of Samadhi state. In this state – the meditator, the process of meditation and the object of meditation becomes one. Samadhi is actually a series of states and experiences. Yoga Sutras describes various types of samadhis. One has to go through the different types of Samadhi experience. Finally the practitioner reaches the highest stage of illumination called ‘Dharma Megha Samadhi’, leading to Kaivalya which liberates the practitioner from all limitations of body and mind.