Reclaiming original Ashtanga Yoga – The Eight Limbed path to Enlightenment
by Steven Ross
In today’s modern yoga world there is frequent use of sanskrit terminology and labels which can be confusing and misleading for even the seasoned practitioner to fully navigate what Yoga is really all about. For the student seeking to gain a conceptual understanding of Yoga’s hugely important end goals it’s critical they understand the purpose of their daily practices. Over the years I have studied the yoga teachings and I slowly discovered that many of the terms we take for granted in the Yoga world are often incorrectly used or their full, usually profound meaning is lost or watered down in some way. This has a major detrimental impact for earnest yoga practitioners who may not even realize what their beloved practice is all about It’s a bit like being a mountaineer but not realizing there is a mountain standing right there before you that you are supposed to climb, nor even knowing how to climb it. Imagine being dedicated to a practice and not knowing its objective and purpose.
One of the most significant cases of this label misrepresentation is the term Ashtanga, you may have heard of Ashtanga Yoga which is used by a popular yoga school. This relatively famous yoga system was largely devised during the 20th century by one particular teacher who created his own specific style of really intense physicalized yoga practice. However true and original Ashtanga Yoga is something far, far more profound, vastly greater in scope and utterly more transcendental than Westerners have come to acquaint the term Ashtanga with.
It may come as a surprise to know that Ashtanga is the delineation of Enlightenment into eight (astha) limbs (angas) or stages of attainment for the striving Yogi seeking to know the true nature of the Self.
In the words of Swami Kriyananda *
“Patanjali delineated the stages through which every spiritual seeker must pass regardless of his religion or path to God.”
These eight stages are Universal as they apply to every human being, however the practices used vary from one culture, religion and one individual to another. The states of being remain unaltered.
Defining the word Yoga
To gain a full appreciation of this new expanded meaning of Ashtanga, we need to take a step back and redefine the word Yoga, which translates to Union. Essentially the yogi strives to Unite their individual consciousness with infinite consciousness seen as the true Self or God. Yoga is often defined as Self realization or God realization by the great Gurus of India whereby our egoic awareness merges into a unified state with pure awareness. That’s a really profound undertaking and the odds of success are astronomical, so the brilliant sage Patanjali devised a step by step approach of how to realize this monumental quest.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are part of the classical treatise called the Yoga Sutras, written by the great sage Patanjali somewhere between 2,000 and 2,200 years ago depending on who you talk to. This sacred text is commonly revered as the cornerstone of all Yogic philosophy where the author effectively codified the much more ancient tradition and delineated the stages all truth seekers must go through to realize the true nature of the Self. So if you are to fulfill the goal of yoga then you need to ensure your Yoga meets the criteria of the Eight limbs of Patanjali or you are basically not really engaging in true yoga. Make sense?
What are the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
For reference the Eight limbs or Ashtanga is summarized as follows:
- Yamas – The attitudes of restraint – Non-Harming, Non-coveting, Non-lying, Non-attachment and control of the senses
- Niyamas – the attitude to observe – purification, contentment, austerity, Self-awareness, devotion to the Supreme Lord.
- Asana – ability to sit in stillness comfortably.
- Pranayama – ability to control inner life force or prana.
- Pratyahara – interiorization the senses
- Dharana – complete concentration
- Dhyana – meditation on object of higher awareness.
- Samadhi – oneness/ecstasy
So how did this narrow misinterpretation come about?
It is my understanding from my teacher that during the early 20th century renaissance in Indian culture there was a wave of new and dynamic yoga methods that came back into vogue. As India reclaimed its Independence from the British there was a societal effort to get the youth excited about Indian traditions and heritage, one of these traditions was Yoga. From an ancient and vast tradition emerged many teachers and Gurus each with their own method, specific techniques and divergent approach to this ultimate goal of Union. Or realizing the true Self. For all the variety of Yoga methods they all had one thing in common, they had to ensure their method was in alignment with the Eight Limbs of Yoga as prescribed by Patanjali, so they often called their school Ashtanga Yoga. As my teacher Srivatsa Ramaswami said to us “back then every Yoga method was called Ashtanga Yoga”.
However, one of them became popularized in the West and unfortunately everyone took the Ashtanga name to mean just this one school’s method which so happened to be only suitable for a relatively small group of people.
Interpreting the Yoga Sutras
Curiously the style of literature that was used to delineate such an important feat was intentionally cryptic and concise. Sutras are essentially aphorisms in sanskrit which are relatively easily memorized and can be chanted, meditated upon and actualized by those of deep intuitive insight. For the lay person reading a translation they are notorious for disputed and diverse interpretations, I have had the opportunity to study with several prolific teachers and every single one of them held up their favorite translation of the Sutras and stated do not read any others as they are not worth the paper they are written on! This leaves a dilemma for the Western rational mind that wants concrete answers to every question.
Consequently, this differing personal bias in translation has had a huge impact on Western Yoga, namely the differing in hatha yoga styles of high profile Yoga teachers of the last century. Namely BKS Iyengar, Pattabi Jois and TKV Desikachar who happened to all have the same Guru but emphasized the teachings in very different ways. They not only vehemently disagreed with each other’s approaches, but at times their senior students have bickered in an almost sectarian way as to whose Yoga is right.
From what I have learned over the years it’s critical that when studying any sacred Yogic text the translation and commentary used should come from someone with high spiritual realization if you are to plumb the depths of the teachings. This is especially true for the Yoga Sutras.
Making sense of the Eight Limbs
True Ashtanga is not an actual system of Yoga, it does NOT prescribe specific yoga techniques but outlines the stages all seekers must pass through to realize the Self or become enlightened. Patanjali simply states those stages then provides a test once you have mastered that stage.
Swami Kriyananda, whose teachings I follow stated that Sanskrit word Anga or limb is used specifically and technically to signify that all limbs of Yoga must work together for harmony. The Yogi must work on all limbs not just practice one in the dim hope that one magical day they will perfect one and move onto the next. It is worth noting that many Western people only work on asana or postures with little or no consideration for the other limbs, therefore the benefits accrued are only a portion of the possibilities available for their growth.
Patanjali used the term limbs for the stages, signifying that one cannot perfect a limb of yogaYoga until all the others limbs are perfected. These stages are comparable to the limbs of a body, all eight of them interdependent.
Patanjali is not recommending specific practices so much as stages of perfection . He is not saying “do this” as much as “be this” Swami Kriyananda *
Let us first examine how one of the foremost Sages of ancient India defined the attainment of Yoga.
Patanjali famously stated Yogas chitta vritti nirodha – Yoga (Union) arises from neutralizing the ego’s bias feelings. (Yoga Sutras 1:2) Every feeling, desire, attachment, resentment and self definition creates a vritti which is a little wave of energy that is trapped inside our subtle body (energy and thought). Through yoga techniques, primarily control of subtle energy and meditation we can rechannel this energy and eventually wash the Vrittis away altogether and reunite that energy with the Self. Clearly the process of Yoga is foremost an internal mental/emotional process, so merely physical transformation cannot fully transform our inner consciousness. it may facilitate some changes, but mostly the physical practices gives the student good health so that they can pursue inner transformation at the deepest level.
Here are three prominent yoga sutras to give you a conceptual understanding of Ashtanga Yoga:
In the presence of someone who has mastered ahimsa (non-harmfulness) all hostilities cease.
(Yoga Sutras 2:35 )
The above sutra is all that is stated about the tremendously high state of consciousness of non-harmfulness whereby someone who is outwardly hostile to you upon being in your benevolent presence no longer feels animosity. There are only a handful of people on the planet with this level of Yogic advancement. Patanjali does not tell us how to realize this state of being where a hostile person or wild animal becomes a mere pussycat in your presence. Yoga Masters are sometimes pictured meditating next to a wild tiger to demonstrate this accomplishment. Ponder the reality of ahimsa for a moment, clearly this is much more than physical non-violence, ahimsa is a highly developed state of consciousness. Clearly we have some work to do!
In the Yoga Sutras very little guidance is given to Asana practice, only 3 out of 147 sutras talk about physical yoga and they do only in a meditative context. The following often quoted sutra is often used to justify all of the physical yoga that goes on today, however the evidence that Patanjali was referred to hatha yoga is disputed among leading teachers.
Asana sthiram sukham – asana means to be seated in a firm, pleasant and relaxed position
(Yoga Sutras 2:46)
The literal translation of the word asana is seat, we must sit completely still comfortably for a period of time so that the Yogic effect of Uniting can take place. The whole point here is to transcend the body as it’s not our permanent reality. In my opinion too many people practicing yoga today are obsessed about what postures they can do and micro analysing how to do them more deeply, unfortunately some practitioners miss the point of this sutra’s standard.
The fifth limb of yoga is pratyahaha – the interiorization of the sensory mind comes when the senses are withdrawn and the heart’s feelings (chitta) are calm.
Until senses and emotions are calmed and withdrawn its not possible to fully concentrate let alone meditate. Reflect on the yoga classes you are taking, are they healing the senses and drawing you inwards or pulling you further into sensory attachments and away from pratyahara. In deep meditation when the senses turn inwards and we forget time and space the feeling is one of deep peace and profound joy.
Apply Ashtanga yoga principles to your Yoga practice
All serious yoga practitioners need to ask themselves three defining questions:
- Are you aware of the end goal of Yoga?
- Ask yourself if your yoga practice is taking you in the direction of that goal?
- Is my yoga practice in alignment with the Eight limbs of Yoga?
Every yoga practitioner correctly applying these tests to their personal Yoga practice is practicing Ashtanga yoga. Personally I consider myself an Ashtanga Yogi, but my home sadhana (practice) is about 10% postures, 20% pranayama (breath control), 20% Devotion (chanting Divine names and reading a passage from my Guru) and about 50% meditation (mantra and absorption methods).
Utilize these marvelous teachings of overcoming our separateness and realizing the underlying unit of all life and of God. This is the true nature of theSelf! Consider the Ashtanga limbs as states of being to be attained through various Yoga paths and practices then apply the tests given by Patanjali to whatever yogic method you are engaging in to ensure your “yoga” is actually correct Yoga. Its that simple. Here are a few examples to get you started
- Yamas – examine your life and assess how far you have advanced in each of the 5 yamas then set goals to refine your Yamas and resist negative thought, word and action.
- Niyamas – strive to purify yourself especially your heart’s feelings, find contentment within the ups and downs of daily life, discipline yourself, know your own true nature and open yourself to higher reality of God or the Divine presence in any form.
- Asana – learn to sit still comfortably. Utilize useful yogic postures that serve your meditation practice and can lessen nervous tension, agitation and enhance circulation.
- Pranayama – start to feel movement of subtle energy in postures, begin to slow and lengthen the breath as a means to controlling your prana. Then crucially begin to move prana into chakras and especially to third eye point.
- Pratyahara – Heal your senses, bring them inwards gradually over the yoga session, the more outward the sense are the more difficult it will be to concentrate.
- Dharana – build drishti during asana, watch the breath in svasana and practice mantra to focus the mind.
- Dhyana – meditate, meditate, meditate on a object of higher awareness. Peace, love, joy, great Saint, God-realized Guru or any chosen form of God.
- Samadhi – absorb your self in the Self which is God, verily. Eventually there will be no distinction between and inner bliss.
The State of Inner tranquility attained by Yoga meditation where the little self (ego) perceives itself as the Self. This state is bliss transcendent above the senses once attained is considered the treasure of all treasures. Bhagavad Gita 6:20-22 **
It is my passion and my dream to reveal the true purpose of of the ancient practice of Yoga to those seeking answers. Given all the strife in today’s world people need solutions and alternatives if we are ever going to find inner peace and harmony. Yoga as a exercise system is a good start and hatha yoga of which I practice a little every day has benefited millions of people around the world. Yet our physical yoga practice is just the beginning and so much more is waiting to be discovered but we need to re-define the key aspects of Yoga, and let people see for themselves the tremendous potential that awaits them.
Given today’s narrow definition of the term Ashtanga I feel it’s vitally important now more than ever to loudly proclaim that it’s time to bring back the beautiful teaching of Ashtanga into our Yoga practices, then everyone can strive to perfect themselves and progress on this great soul quest
On Saturday Nov 11th Steven will offer a 4 hour seminar of Living the Eight limbs of Yoga.
- quote from Demystifying Patajnaji by Swami Kriyananda
- quote from The Bhagavad Gita according to Paramhansa Yogananda