Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most popular schools of yoga practice today. Ashtanga means “eight limbs”. The eight steps (limbs) are basically guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. Their purpose is to serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline, to direct attention to one’s health, and to help acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
Ashtanga Yoga – Yoga 101 with Coach Maxwell Alexander – Presented by “Introduction to Yoga and Meditation” Book on Amazon Kindle
First, yama focuses on one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, emphasizing how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that reflect what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The second limb, Niyama, deals with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Attending church or temple services regularly, saying grace before meals, and developing your own meditation practice are all examples of practicing the niyamas.
Yoga’s postures, called asanas, are the third limb. Yogis believe that the body is a temple of the spirit, and that its care is a vital part of our spiritual development. As we practice asanas, we develop discipline and concentration, both of which are necessary for meditation.
The fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while realizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions.
Yoga practitioners believe that pranayama not only rejuvenates the body but can also extend life itself, as implied by its literal translation. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or you can integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
The first four stages of ashtanga yoga focus on improving our personalities, mastering our bodies, and gaining awareness of our energy bodies, which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which is about the senses, the mind, and achieving a higher state of consciousness.
In Sanskrit, Pratyahara means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During this stage, we make a conscious effort to turn our attention away from the external world and outside stimuli. Keeping our senses in mind, yet cultivating a sense of detachment, we direct our attention inward.
Practicing pratyahara offers us the chance to take a step back and examine ourselves. By withholding our addiction, we can observe our cravings objectively: that is, habits that may undermine our health and hinder our inner growth.
The practice of pratyahara prepares us for dharana, or concentration, as each stage prepares us for the next. Now that we have removed external distractions, we can deal with distractions within the mind. This is no easy task!
Meditation precedes concentration, in which we slow down the thinking process by focusing on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. By now, we have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the three previous stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.
Though we pay attention to our actions in asana and pranayama, our attention travels. As we fine-tune any particular posture or breathing technique, our focus constantly shifts. In pratyahara, we become aware of ourselves; now, in dharana, we concentrate on a single point. Focusing for an extended period will naturally result in meditation.
Ashtanga’s seventh stage, meditation or contemplation, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Despite the fact that concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) appear to be one and the same, there is a fine line between the two. Unlike dharana, dhyana is a state of being acutely aware without focusing.
As the mind has quieted at this stage, there are few thoughts or none at all. It takes quite a bit of strength and stamina to achieve this state of stillness. Don’t give up. This may seem like an impossible task, but remember that yoga is a process. We benefit at every stage of our progress, even if it isn’t the “picture perfect” pose or the perfect state of consciousness.
The eighth and final stage of Ashtanga is described by Patanjali as an ecstatic state. A meditator at this stage transcends the Self entirely and merges with their point of focus. Meditators come to realize that all living things are interconnected to the Divine. “Peace that passes all understanding” results from this realization; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe.
This may appear to be a rather lofty, “holier than thou” kind of objective. If we examine what we really want out of life, wouldn’t joy, fulfillment, and freedom seem to make their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires?
The goal that Patanjali describes as the completion of the yogic path is what all human beings aspire to: peace. Furthermore, we might also consider the fact that the ultimate stage of yoga-enlightenment-can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, and the price is continual devotion on the part of the aspirant.
OK, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s prep the environment for your yoga workout!