Asthanga yoga, or Raja yoga (raj = king), as documented in the Yoga Sutras by the sage Patanjali about 200 CE is an outline of the yogic path to enlightenment. It incorporates Eight Limbs, which are divided into four Lower Limbs (1 to 4) and four Higher Limbs (5 to 8).
I am an Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga teacher. What does this mean? Asthanga Vinyasa Yoga is a means of practicing Patanjali’s first four–or as sometimes suggested all eight–limbs. Quite commonly Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, as taught in yoga classes in the west, is confused with Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga or taken for one and the same.
According to Patanjali the Lower Limbs can be practiced parallel or in random order, whilst the Higher Limbs build on each other and require the practitioner first to have mastered the Lower Limbs. B K S Iyengar explains in Light on Pranayama (1981, p7):
- 13. Man is endowed with mind (manas), intellect (boddhi) and ego (aharnkara), collectively known as consciousness (chitta), which is a source of thinking, understanding and acting. As the wheel of life turns, consciousness experiences the five miseries of ignorance (avidya), selfishness (asmita), attachment (raga), aversion (dvesa) and love of life (abhinivesa). These in turn leave the chitta in five different states which may be dull (mudha), wavering (ksipta), partially stable (viksipta), one-pointed attention (ekagra) and controlled (niruddha). Chitta is like fire, fuelled by desires (vasanas), without which the fire dies out. Chitta in that pure state becomes a source of enlightenment.
- 14. Patanjali evolved eight stages on the path of realisation . . . Chitta in a state of dullness is purified through yama, niyama and asana through which the mind is spurred to activity. Asana and Pranayama bring the wavering mind to a state of some stability. The disciplines of pranayama and Pratyahara make the chitta attentive and focus its energy. It is then restrained in this state by dhyana and samadhi. As it progresses the higher states of yYoga become predominanat, but teh preceding stages which lay the foundation sould be neither ignored nor neglected.
The Lower Limbs
2. Niyama (Personal Disciplines)
Shoucha – Purity, cleanliness
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Endurance, heat, spiritual austerities
Svadhyaya – Study of self and sacred scriptures
Ishwara Pranithana – Dedication, surrender to god
3. Asana – (Yoga Postures / positions)
A stable and comfortable posture which helps attain mental equilibrium.
4. Pranayama – (Yoga Breathing) – “life force extention”
Extension and control of breath. Techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognising the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions.
The Upper Limbs (building on each other)
5. Pratyahara – (Withdrawal of Senses)
Pratyahara describes a conscious effort to draw attention away from the external world and outside stimuli. It is being keenly aware of yet detached from the senses. The focus is inwards, which allows for habits and cravings to be observed. It could be seen as a mental preparation to increase the power of mind.
6. Dharana – (Concentration on Object)
Dharana teaches how to deal with the distractions of the mind. The thinking process is slowed down through concentration on one object e.g. breath, energetic center in the body, image, mantra.
7. Dhyana – (Meditation on Object)
Dhyana describes the uninterrupted flow of concentration. It is being keenly aware without focus. There is stillness, and few or no thoughts. The mind is withdrawn from all external objects, meditation is focused on one point.
8. Samadhi – (Perfect Meditation, Subject and Object merge into one)
Samadhi is a deep state of formless meditation. It is described as profound realisation of the Devine and interconnectedness with all living things. All attachments are uprooted and insight arises. It is the recognition of the Self. In yogic terms it is the realization of pure consciousness.
Adapted from Yogajournal.com