The Ashtanga Yoga of Sage Patanjali
by Sohaila Akbar
Today, if anyone says “I practise Yoga,” more often than not they mean they practise asanas and some pranayama, mainly as a part of their fitness routine. Globally, Yoga has become very popular as a form of exercise. However, when we go back to the roots of Yoga, it is so much more than just physical exercise. And one way to understand it by understanding the basic philosophy behind Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga.
Yoga, in its various forms, has been present since time immemorial. So then, who is Patanjali and what is Ashtanga Yoga?
Patanjali was a sage who is considered to be the father of modern Yoga. He didn’t discover or invent Yoga; he integrated it into a system in a way that listed the various aspects of Yoga in a concise, meaningful way: the Yoga Sutras. These Yoga Sutras contain the eight-limbed path formulated by Patanjali to reach the state of Yoga, the merging of the self with the universal consciousness. This path is what we call the Ashtanga Yoga of sage Patanjali. The word ‘Ashtanga’ in Sanskrit breaks down into two parts: ashta (meaning: eight) and anga (meaning: limb.)
Chapter 2, verse 29 of the Yoga Sutras says:
(Yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the eight limbs of yoga.)
Let’s look at each of these in the context of the Yoga Sutras.
ahiṃsāsatyāsteyabrahmacaryāparigrahā yamāḥ [2.30]
(Non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, divine conduct, and non-covetousness are the yamas.)
The Yamas are five social and moral ethics which consist of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha.
Ahimsa is non-violence, not only in action, but also in thoughts and speech. Wishing ill on others, saying unkind words to or badmouthing others and inviting physical injuries by pushing yourself too hard in asanas are all examples of violence in this context. Remember, Ahimsa is as much non-violence towards self as it is towards others. Harbouring ill thoughts does more harm to oneself than it does to others.
Satya is truthfulness in our relationship with others as well as ourselves. An example of being truthful to oneself is accepting where one is in their Yoga journey, without being egotistic. Being honest and truthful to others is essential, but so is being compassionate. If we feel being truthful in a given situation is likely to cause harm to others, it might be better to say nothing at all. The aspect of Ahimsa should not be ignored in order to practise Satya.
Asteya means non-stealing. Of course, it includes the larger perspective of not stealing material objects, but it also includes not stealing others’ ideas or using their intellectual property without their consent for personal gain.
Brahmacharya, often translated as ‘celibacy,’ was traditionally meant to encourage yogis to conserve their sexual energy, and use that energy to progress in their spiritual journey. In today’s context, it can also be seen as ‘the right use of energy.’ It includes detaching from unproductive situations in order to turn the mind to higher thoughts.
Aparigraha is concerned with non-possessiveness, non-attachment and non-hoarding of material objects. It also teaches us to not be greedy, take only as much as needed, keep only that which serves us positively, and let go of things and thoughts when it is no longer serves any purpose.
śaucasaṃtoṣatapaḥsvādhyāyeśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ [2.32]
(Purity, contentment, austerity, self-study and devotion to Ishvara are the niyamas.)
The Niyamas are five personal ethics, which are Shaucha, Santosha, Tapas, Swadhyaya and Inshwara Pranidhana.
Saucha refers to the cleanliness of the body, mind and speech. Keeping one’s body as well as surrounding free from impurities is also an essential precursor to asana practice. Keeping the mind free from useless thoughts helps one to be productively inclined.
Santosha is contentment. It means to accept and be grateful for what we have. However, it does not suggest sitting idle and unproductive. It means to control the urge to wanting more that comes out of a sense of inadequacy.
Tapas refers to austerity, self-control, self-discipline and perseverance in one’s practice as well as life in general. It represents the metaphorical fire that burns our physical, mental and emotional impurities and helps us move forward in the Yogic path.
Swadhyaya implies the study of the Yogic scriptures as well as studying the Self. Here, the ‘Self’ refers to the true self or the divine consciousness within us.
Ishwarapranidhana means surrendering to the Divine and trusting the process. In our daily lives, we often tend to control every situation, every action and the outcomes, and find ‘letting go’ difficult.
Together, the Yamas and Niyamas prepare our body and mind to practise the physical postures in the next limb, Asana.
sthirasukham āsanam [2.46]
(Asana should be steady and comfortable.)
Asana is a physical posture that is steady, comfortable and pleasurable. Asanas prepare us to be physically strong, and to remain steady and still for longer durations, which is a prerequisite for Pranayama. Also, once we are able to practise Asanas effortlessly but mindfully, our awareness shifts inwards to the breath. Then, we move on to Pranayama.
tasminsati śvāsapraśvāsayorgativicchedaḥ prāṇāyāmaḥ [2.49]
(When this is achieved, pranayama follows which consists of the regulation of inhalation and exhalation.)
Pranayama is the expansion of the life force or prana within us by the regulation of breath. Learning to regulate one’s breath eventually leads to the slowing down of thoughts in the mind. Then, one is ready for the practice of Pratyahara.
svaviṣayāsaṃprayoge cittasvarūpānukāra ivendriyāṇāṃ pratyāhāraḥ [2.54]
(Pratyahara is the imitation as it were of the mind abiding in its essential nature on the part of the sense organs disuniting themselves from their objects.)
Pratyahara means a withdrawal from the external senses and focussing inwards. When we withdraw our awareness from the over-stimulating surroundings, the power of the mind strengthens. When one is able to master Pratyahara, tune out the external senses and have complete inward focus, one is ready for Dharana.
deśabandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇā [3.1]
(Dharana is the binding of the mind to a single object.)
Dharana is the concentration achieved by focusing one’s attention on a chosen point or object. This object can be external as well as internal, within one’s body. Being able to sustain the stage of Dharana with unwavering focus makes a practitioner ready for the spiritual quest of Dhyana.
tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam [3.2]
(Dhyana is the one-pointed direction of the thoughts towards the object of concentration.)
Dhyana is the state of meditation achieved by the continuous attention or focus on the point chosen for Pratyahara. In this state, the attention is maintained without any interruption. In Dhyana, the mind is in a state of profound contemplation while being steady. An intensive practise of Dhyana is essential to move on to the final meditative stage of Samadhi.
adevārthamātranirbhāsaṃ svarūpaśūnyamiva samādhiḥ [3.3]
(Samadhi is when the mind is empty of all sense of self and only the object of concentration shines forth.)
When the flow of attention achieved in Dhyana merges with the consciousness of the meditator and the object of meditation, the state reached by the Yogi is devoid of all ego and the sense of space and time. The Yogi becomes one with the object of contemplation. This state is called Samadhi.
One might wonder why the eight limbs are arranged in a hierarchical order. In the strictest sense, it’s because each limb leads to the next, and each needs to be mastered before progressing further. It’s like passing out from kindergarten to move to primary school, and clearing that to move to secondary education.
Having said that, becoming adept at one limb does not mean that it will be left behind in order to practise the next. Rather, as the practitioner reaches the higher stages, it can be understood as a multidimensional approach where more than one limb can be practised simultaneously. For instance, one does not leave the Yamas and Niyamas behind once they start the practice of Asana or Pranayama. The social and personal ethics are supposed to be an indelible part of a practitioner’s life. Or if a Yogi is skilled in dharana or Dhyana, he/she still sits in a yogic asana while meditating. After all, even getting a Ph.D. requires basic reading and writing skills learnt in junior school!
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About the Author
Sohaila is a Yoga teacher, keen on bringing about positive changes in the lives of others through the knowledge that she has received from her teachers. Prior to this she was a school teacher working towards imparting academic, social and ecological knowledge to young learners. Sohaila is an avid reader of books and have an undying love for fiction. She prefers paperbacks and hardcovers over e-books anyday. She loves travelling, and a good cup of coffee is always welcome!