Ashtanga Yoga 101

woman doing yoga headstand

Ashtanga yoga is an energetic form of yoga that coordinates breath with movements.  It was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois in the late 1940s.  Ashtanga yoga is similar to Vinyasa yoga in that the asanas or poses flow from one to another, but in a more demanding and rapid way.

The name Ashtanga yoga comes from the words “asha” and “tanga”, which mean “eight limbs”. It is based on an ancient yoga text from thousands of years ago that stated there were eight limbs, or supports, that serve as the foundation of a yoga practice. Since the word “yoga” means union, these eight limbs help unite body, mind and spirit. Most modern yogas only focus on some of  eight limbs, not all eight.  All types of yoga, however, require self-discipline.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.  The first four limbs focus on a person perfecting themself. The other four limbs relate to how a person connects with other living beings and the universe as a whole. This connection is achieved through meditation.

1. Yama

Yama refers to a person’s moral and ethical standards and personal integrity. The five yamas that lead to decent behavior are:

  • Not killing or doing harm (ahimsa)
  • Truthfulness
  • Honesty
  • Self-control
  • Not being envious

2. Niyama

Niyama refers to self-discipline and spiritual practice in one’s daily life. This can be gained through meditation, the practice of mindfulness, and/or attending a house of worship and leading a good life.  There are five niyamas:

  • Cleanliness
  • Contentment
  • Spiritual control and self-denial
  • Study of the sacred scriptures, and of one’s self, trying to tap into your higher power
  • Surrendering to God

3. Asana

Asanas are the physical postures, or poses, practiced in yoga. You have probably heard the phrase, “Your body is a temple.” Those who believe in reincarnation, such as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others do, believe that the continually residing mind, or spirit, moves from one body to another as you would move from house to house.

This means, then, that whatever new residence we live in, we should keep it in good condition. Physical health can also lead to mental health and increased concentration. Doing yoga enhances self-discipline, which is also important if you wish to enhance your meditation and mental abilities.

4. Pranayama

Without breath, there is no life, so pranayama is breath control. The word prana means energy and yama means standards or control.  So, the pranayama is thought to extend discipline and control, which in turn rejuvenates the body or even extends life. You can do pranayama on its own, or as part of your yoga practice, such as Vinyasa, Kundalini and Hatha. Ashtanga does not do as much breath work as these other forms of yoga.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara means withdrawal of external awareness so we can focus within to improve ourselves. In this way we can work on our bad habits, past issues, or anything that might interfere with harmonious relationships or our own spiritual growth.

6. Dharana

Pratyahara creates the conditions for dharana, concentration. Once we remove distractions, we can harness the power of our mind more fully. The mantra OM helps with focus.

7. Dhyana

Dhyana can be translated as contemplation.  This is when the mind is most focused and able to concentrate.  As a result, there is no more “chatter” in the mind, but rather stillness and clarity.

8. Samadhi

Samadhi is a state of bliss or ecstasy achieved through meditation.  It is a state of feeling spiritually connected to the universe, or a union of body, mind and spirit. It is gained through regular practice of physical yoga and mental training.

Who Can Do Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga yoga has seven levels.  There are one basic, two intermediate, and four advanced levels.  Ashtanga is very vigorous. Even the most skilled practitioners have rarely been able to reach the two highest advanced levels.  Therefore, Ashtanga yoga would be ideal for people who are young and fit.  It would not be ideal for seniors or those who have health issues.