by Angela Clark
We often say that the “on ramp” to the yoga practice is through Asana. We start with the physical level, the outer layer, and work our way inward to the more esoteric and subtle levels, through self-contemplation, meditation and pranayama. These are the elements that make yoga a practice more than just a physical practice.
Most of the time when we hear the word Ashtanga we think of a very specific style of yoga. We think of Pattabhi Jois and the Primary Series, a set sequence of poses practiced daily (except on the new and full moon).
So when we say here, Ashtanga Yoga, we are actually talking about the Eight Fold Path. These Eight Limbs outline the classical system of Hatha yoga (ashta = 8, anga = limb). At the physical level of practice, Hatha yoga incorporates asana, pranayama, and the use of bandhas and mudras, which segue into more internal practices, like meditation. Hatha is what many of us think of today, when we hear the more general word “yoga”.
Patanjali describes the Eight Limbs in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The limbs are interdependent and mutually supportive. Cultivation of the first five sets us up to practice the last three.
The Eight Fold Path
1. Yama: Often referred to as the ‘moral principles’, restraints, or abstentions. They govern our behavior as social beings, how we treat ourselves and others.
2. Niyama: Considered to be our inner discipline and observances. The relationship we have to our internal world.
3. Asana: Postures; the physical practice. Learning to control and still the body.
4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises of yoga. Prana = life force energy. Ayama = to stretch; to extend. Using specific breathing techniques we learn to work with the more subtle energy of the body, refining our control over the breath and opening the energy channels of the body. Practice of pranayama continues the purification process, working on cleansing and strengthening the nervous system
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses. Turning the attention of the mind inward.
6. Dharana: Concentration, involves teaching the mind to focus either on one point with dristi or on an image.
7. Dhyana: Meditation, uninterrupted and without an object of focus. How to tell the difference between Dharana and Dhyana? If there is awareness of distraction, you are only concentrating.
8. Samadhi: Absolute bliss. Transcendent state.
We are most familiar with asana, the poses and the physical practice we do daily. But the other limbs are important too. As our bodies age, our physical limitations may become greater. Or perhaps our busy scheduled lives keep us from making it to an asana-yoga class. These other limbs teach us how to live with the frustrations and pain that aging, injuries, and the circumstances of life can bring up.