Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali
Ashtanga yoga is much more than the physical practice most people associate it with. It is a whole philosophical system, wisely combining principles of ethics, behaviors, physical practice and guidance to meditation.
The sage Patanjali is considered to be the father of Ashtanga Yoga as he compiled in his work « The Yoga Sutras » materials from older yoga traditions (notably the Vedas) in the form of 196 Sutras (aphorisms). The Yoga Sutras, written presumably before 400 CE, is one of the most important ancient texts of Yoga, dense and profound, a true treasure of knowledge and a precious guide to every practitioner. Ashtanga Yoga, as organized by Patanjali in the Sutras comprises eight limbs (Ashta=eight in Sanskrit), each one adding to the previous one, gradually leading the practitioner to Self realization.
The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are the following:
Yamas are ethical rules and moral principles that each individual shall observe in his/her relationships and interactions with others.
Ahimsa - Non violence
Asteya - Non stealing
Brahmacarya - Chastity
Aparigraha - Non possessiveness
Niyamas are habits and behaviors that shall rule the individual’s private life.
Sauca - Purity
Santosa - Contentment
Tapas - Perseverance
Svadhyaya - Study of self
Isvarapranidhana - Contemplation of True Self
Asanas are physical postures that are steady and agreeable. For the physical postures to qualify as asanas, the practitioner shall be able to hold them for a long period of time, with the body motionless and the mind focused. The goal of asana is to bring health to the body and remove pain so that the mind can stay still in meditation.
Prana in Sanskrit means both breath and life force. In the yoga philosophy, breath is considered to be a bridge, a union between body and mind. The term Pranayama is used to describe breathing exercices and techniques which are used to revitalize the body, calm the mind and build stamina.
Pratyahara means withdrawing one’s attention from external sensory objects and bringing awareness and attention to within, examining and observing the true Self, instead of being attached to and ruled by external objects and stimuli. From Pratyahara on, attention is slowly brought to the inner state, preparing the practitioner for deep meditation, whereas the first four limbs deal more with the body and external forms.
Dharana means concentration, focus of one’s mind in one particular object, idea or state. The object of focus can be the breath, one particular object (eg stone), a mantra or an idea in the practitioner’s mind, whatever can keep the mind focused and cease the fluctuations within it.
Dhyana means contemplation, reflection, deep meditation, uninterrupted flow of awareness. Dharana and Dhyana are interconnected, the first leading to the second. Whatever the mind is focused on during Dharana, becomes an object of contemplation and non-judgmental contemplation during Dhyana.
Samadhi means putting together, joining, union, whole. Union is also the meaning of Yoga in Sanskrit. During Samadhi, oneness with the object of meditation is achieved. The object of meditation, the person who meditates and the act of meditation become one. The meditator becomes so absorbed in the meditation that the mind loses its sense of identity and transcends any duality. Thus, oneness is achieved.