a. Ahimsa: abstention from violence (physical as well as psychical, in words and in deeds) towards others, but just as much towards ourselves. When we are unsatisfied or struggle with Asanas, this is a good reminder to be a little bit more forgiving with ourselves.
b. Satya: truthfulness, not lying.
c. Asteya: not stealing.
d. Brahmacharya: sexual moderation. The life-giving sexual energy (Bindu) is attributed a key-role in developing ascetic powers. According to the Yogic theory, it can be transformed into Ojas, a more subtle energy.
d. Aparigraha: Non-grasping, non-greediness, the renouncement of material things beyond their reasonable use.
Saucha: purity (of the heart and mind).
Tapas: the endurance of austerity, ascetism; literally “to burn something“, aiming at purification in a physical (for instance by fasting) and intellectual sense (by overcoming our conditioned mind; by accepting suffering).
Svadhyaya: the study of spiritual literature.
Ishvara Pranidhana: the veneration of and the devotion to God (non-believers might replace the word by Creation, the Absolute, and the like).
Whereas Yama and Niyama deal with ethics towards us and the others, the following limbs are about the methods to reach the goals of Yoga. The first of which is practicing Asanas.
Patanjali defines Asana as a physical posture which should be kept firmly and comfortably. This is supposed to lead to a quasi-meditative, effortless state which, however, needs regular practice to be attained. The body must go through Asanas over and over again before it is strong and flexible enough to be able to remain in them for longer periods of time.
According to Patanjali, mastering Asanas will help us to get rid of our natural restlessness and to meditate about infinity. – Getting rid of our restlessness? Fine. But meditating about infinity while practicing? Regulars of the dynamic Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga may have difficulties to understand.
The word “Asana“ gives us the clue: literally, it means “seat“ or “throne“ and originally designated various seated meditation postures. The variety of physical postures now referred to as Asanas developed from there. But these postures were held much longer then than we hold them now. (Series as we know them, i.e. fixed sequences of Asanas, didn’t exist.) It is under these premises that Patanjali was able to talk about “meditating about infinity“. Richard Freeman tries to reconnect to this notion when he talks about “meditation in motion“.
Another effect of practicing Asanas, Patanjali goes on, is to make us equanimous towards the opposites which usually reign our behaviour: reward vs. reproach, joy vs. anger, attraction vs. repulsion – it doesn’t matter! Here is a method to overcome dualism, the division of the world – the “disease of the mind“, as the Third Patriarch of Zen called it.
The Asanas of Hatha Yoga were developed to make the body strong, flexible and resistant, to clean and detoxify it, and to keep it healthy. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a 15th century text, describes their effect as follows: “They clean the body and lead to good health, calm and steadiness.“
Besides keeping the backbone, the joints and muscles flexible, many Asanas are said to have direct effects on particular organs, e.g. Paschimottanasana and Mayurasana are supposed to clean the inner organs and to strengthen the digestive fire.
Last but not least, the practice of Asanas cleans and balances the Nadis (literally: brooks, channels). These are the “subtle“ channels through which Prana, our vital energy, flows.
In the Yogic scriptures there is often metaphorically talk of “forging“ the body like ore through Asanas in order to make it strong and flexible. Or else it is compared to a bowl which has to go through the “fire“ of pottery, that is Asanas, to make it ready for the next steps of Yoga, Pranayama and Meditation.
In a time in which Yoga is often reduced to the practice of Asanas, it is useful to remind us that in the old Hatha Yoga scriptures, the practice of Pranayama, the Yogic breathing techniques, is considered to be at least as important as Asanas.
In fact, it is one step further: Once the Asanas are mastered, breathing is being disciplined through Pranayama. Breathing, which is normally done automatically, is being made aware. Since our breathing is linked to our awareness, we can act on the latter through breathing techniques. The focus on breathing automatically leads to focussing our mind.
Just like Asanas are an instrument to control our body, Pranayama is one to control our mind. It enables us to reach subconscious strata which are normally unaccessible to us (except in meditation or in sleep). In B.K.S. Iyengar’s words: “In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika they say that the mind is the king of the senses and the breath is the king of the mind.“
The techniques of Pranayama channel our breath to different effects: Some warm the body up (such as Bhastrika), some cool it off (Shitali), some quieten the mind (Brahmari), and they all balance the Doshas (our bodily humors).
Pranayama cleans our Nadis and increases and balances the Prana in our body (even more so than the practice of Asanas). Our mind functions better, our emotions are deeper, we feel better and permeated with Prana.
The practice of Pranayama, says Patanjali, tears the “veil“ apart which conceals our “inner light“, and the mind becomes able to concentrate. “Veil“ here refers to the permanent activity of our mind.
According to Patanjali, Pranayama helps a lot to concentrate the mind. But there is something else which distracts it: the activity of the senses. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch, and thereby remain attached to the outside world. Therefore Patanjali suggests that we withdraw the senses from the objects and turn them inward: This is Pratyahara.
When Pranayama and Pratyahara are mastered, we move on to Dharana, the state of concentration. “Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea“, says Patanjali. And Shri Swami Satchidananda adds: “When the mind is running, you bring it back. And so on and on. You are taming a monkey. Once it’s tamed, it will just listen to you.“
The purpose of Dharana is to prepare the mind for meditation.
Once Dharana is achieved, we have reached the state of Dhyana (meditation). Dhyana is, as Patanjali puts it, “the continuous flow of cognition toward the object of meditation.“
Dhyana has been likened to pouring oil from one pot into another. It is a continuous string. The mind is fixed. In this state of mind, one can lose the sense of time and space and even of the own body.
This is the last limb of Ashtanga Yoga. “Samadhi is the same meditation, only that there is the shining of the object alone, as if it were devoid of form“, says Patanjali.
It is the point of culmination of Dharana and Dhyana, the state of mind these two adhere to. One might say that Samadhi is like Dhyana, but without a subject.
In this state, subject and object, meditator and object of meditation, viewer and viewed, self and outside world are said to merge into one. In hinduistic terminology, it is then Atman (the self, the individual soul) and Brahma (the world, the soul of the world) that fall into one.
At this stage, it is a bit difficult to come forward with descriptions or definitions, as they always suppose a subject to be there to witness the experience – which is not the case here.
The scriptures talk about enlightenment, contemplation, a superconscious state, absorption, unity or transcendence but mostly say that this state cannot be appropriately descibed but must be experienced.
Whereas the five first limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are still much in contact with the outside world, Dharana, Dyana and Samadhi are subtle (Antaranga) practices of the inner world. Since the different states of mind involved are not easily distinguished, there is a common name for them: Samyama.
According to Mircea Eliade, these mental states can only be accessed once the physiological practices, i.e. Asanas, Pranayama, and Pratyahara, are mastered, or, in his words, “when the practicioner has gained mastery over his body, his subconscious, and his psycho-mental activity“.
Ultimately, the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are a set of tools to overcome Karma, the endless chain of cause and effect, and Maya, the “cosmic illusion“, in order to reach Moksha (salvation, the liberation from conditioning).
Ashtanga Yoga is deeply rooted in the old Indian thought, and therefore some of its ideas and goals may sound unfamiliar and a bit strange to us modern Western people.
If it is still relevant for us today, then mainly for two reasons: firstly, it gives us a coherent Yogic philosophy which is largely understandable to us; and secondly, much of the Yoga which is taught and practiced today refers to the Ashtanga Yoga as it has been set out by Patanjali.
The ethical positions of Yama und Niyama sound reasonable and wise. (Maybe with the exception of Brahmacharya – which however doesn’t have to be abstinence but may also be translated as moderation.)
There is no doubt that Asanas and Pranayama have positive effects on our body, our fitness and well-being, whereas Pratyahara serves as a link to the subtle practices of Ashtanga.
Finally, meditation: It has never been as popular as it is now – although it is often used as a projection surface for various individual goals such as self-knowledge, contemplation, awareness of the here and now, the experience of quietude and peace, mental clarity, mindfulness, etc.
The second factor of relevance of Ashtanga Yoga is that a number of contemporary Yoga styles refer to or even directly derive from it. This is particularly true for Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga which has become increasingly popular in recent decades and is being taught and practiced throughout the world – including here with us at Yogawerkstatt.
This Yoga method which has been developed mainly by Shri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and been made popular worldwide by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) derives from the eight-limbed Ashtanga Yoga in the Patanjali tradition.
Shri K. Pattabhi Jois taught mainly the third limb, Asanas, and that was perfectly in tune with his time, since in the Western world, Yoga has become synonymous with practicing Asanas.
He taught Pranayama only to some of his most advanced students because in his opinion the body had be made strong enough first (through the practice of Asanas) before it was ready for Pranayama.
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is characterized by its dynamics. No other Yoga style is as purely physical, as physically demanding and sweaty as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (with the exception of Bikram Yoga – where sweating, however, is mainly generated by overheating).
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga cannot be reduced to its physical aspects. It is not a sport or gymnastics. But it isn’t purely mental either. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga arises by mastering the body in connection with the mind.
When you attend a Mysore class (the assisted Ashtanga Vinyasa self-practice) for the first time, you will be stunned to see practitioners display a pretty unique combination of physical power and mental concentration.
The more experienced Ashtangis seem to flow effortlessly through the static Asanas and the dynamic Vinyasas. But don’t worry, it isn’t effortless. In fact, it is never easy, neither for beginners nor for seasoned practitioners.
Getting in touch with Ujjayi-breathing, Bandhas, and Drishti
During the practice, Asanas are combined with synchronized Ujjayi-breathing (diaphragmatic breathing), Bandhas (Mula Bandha, lock of the pelvic floor, plus Uddiyana Bandha, abdominal lock), and Drishti (concentration points of the gaze).
The static Asana starts with an inhalation, is then kept for five breaths, and ends with an exhalation. The Asanas are linked together by dynamic Vinyasas (repeated sequences of movements), and both are connected by the breath, just like beads on a prayer chain. In fact, the title of Shri K. Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga book is “Yoga Mala“.
This explains the other meaning of “Vinyasa“: In Sanskrit, the term designates the synchronization of breath and movement. In practical terms, this means that each and every sequence of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is associated with an in- or an exhalation. According to Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, this synchronization creates heat in the body and thereby has a cleaning effect.
In Ujjayi breathing (literally “victorious breathing“ because it prevails against the normal breathing patterns), inhaling and exhaling through the nose are elongated and slowed down, and the glottis is narrowed. The sound produced helps to keep the breath in a steady flow, thereby creating a point of concentration. In addition to that, the stimulation of the larynx produces heat in the body.
Bandhas are energy locks in the body. Just like Ujjayi breathing, they help to produce heat in the body and thus to release energy. The main Bandhas held during the Asana practice are Mula Bandha (lock of the pelvic floor, energy directed downward) and Uddiyana Bandha, abdominal lock, energy directed upward). They also create stability in the pelvic floor.
Mula Bandha approximates coccyx and pubic bone and thus straightens up the spine, which in turn activates the muscles, ligaments and tendons
in this area. In Uddiyana Bandha, the navel is pulled upwards and inwards, which gives support to the lower back and the groin. In Jalandhara Bandha (chin lock), the chin is pressed against the chest. It is used in some Asanas such as Salamba Sarvangasana or in Kumbhaka, an exercice of Pranayama.
Drishti are concentration points of the gaze which are activated during the practice of Asanas. Each Asana is associated with a particular Drishti. There are nine Drishti: upward gaze; third eye (point between the eyebrows); tip of the nose; palm; thumb; right side; left side; navel; feet/toes.
The Drishti help us getting more concentrated and calm and to practice correctly. For instance, in upward dog, the Drishti is not the third eye but the nose in order not to overstretch the cervical spine.
Asana, breathing/Bandhas, and Drishti are the three levels of concentration. If we succeed in keeping them during the practice, we may achieve Tristana (literally, the three pillar of attention). Tristana is the experience of unifying these three levels into one movement, one flow. We may then flow through the series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as if it were merely one Asana in its many variations.
The system of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga consists of six series (levels) which are referred to as First to Sixth series or, alternatively, as First, Intermediate (being the equivalent of the Second), and Advanced A to D. Each of the series has its own set sequence.
The series always start with the opening mantra, followed by Suryanamaskara A und B (Sun prayer A and B, each repeated five times), and they end with Savasana (Corpse pose, final relaxation) and the closing mantra.
Most students will always remain in the First Series, but it should be emphasized that this doesn’t matter at all. Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga isn’t about working one’s way through the series but about focusing the one you’re in right now.
The First Series is relatively easy to start with and to learn but it has its difficulties. It is also referred to as Yoga Chikitsa (meaning Yoga therapy) because it is said to clean and detoxicate the body, to heal and adjust it, and to make it strong. Its emphasis is on forward bending and hip opening postures. A well-established First Series is the foundation of all the others.
Once the First Series is mastered, the postures of the Second Series are added one by one. This brings additional strength. As soon as most of the Second Series is mastered, we can practice them separately.
The Second or Intermediate Series brings the practice from a merely physical to an energetical level. This is why it is also called Nadi Shodana (literally: cleaning the energy channels).
This refers to the Yogic concept of Nadis (subtle energy channels) which should be cleaned so as to enable Prana (our life energy) to flow freely and without hindrance through them.
On a physical level the Second Series is focused on flexibility, opening and stability of the back, thereby acting on the nervous system.
The series following the Second Series require even more strength, stamina and concentration – but they give them back by uncovering our „core strength“.
So much about the levels of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. As mentioned before, they are not about performance. Yoga is not about competition, about reaching a certain level but about practicing in a focused and devoted way, here and now.
Under these premises it is completely irrelevant on which level you are. As said before, most students remain stuck in the First Series forever, and this doesn’t matter at all.
Many sports act on certain parts of the body and neglect others. Yoga on the contrary involves the whole body. The Suryanamaskaras activate the circulatory system; the standing and balancing poses as well as the sitting, rotating, inverted, forward, and back bending postures move the body in all directions, put it selectively under pressure and work it out methodically. The final postures calm the body down again, and Savasana makes it completely relaxed.
If you can make it once a week to practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, that’s good.
Don’t overburden yourself, don’t put yourself under pressure, don’t let yourself be discouraged. Practice as often as you can, as you feel like it, as it fits into your life.
After a while you will notice the first effects of Yoga: You will feel good and happy, you will have strong positive body sensations. You will want more of these feelings and will start a regular practice.
Even the most famous Yogis of our time admit that it took them quite a while until they had enough discipline to practice regularly.
Traditionally, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is practiced six times a week, the exception normally being the Saturday. There is no practice either on full and new moon days, and during menstruation either. These are rules for truly devoted Yogis – all others, don’t let yourselves be discouraged!
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has been deveoloped by Shri T. Krishnamacharya who led the Yoga Shala of the Maharaja of Mysore in the thirties of the 20th century.
From today’s perspective, it seems probable that Shri T. Krishnamacharya combined traditional Asanas from Hatha Yoga with elements of Western gymnastics and athletics which were popular in India at that time, to create Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
This would explain the sequences and division into series of this type of Yoga as well as its dynamics: Each Asana is held merely for five breaths whereas traditionally, Asanas were described as motionless and kept for longer periods of time.
But there is no doubt that major elements of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga such as Asana, Vinyasa, Bandha, Ujjayi und Drishti are derived from the Hatha Yoga scriptures and from Tantric techniques.
What’s the use of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga regularly?
As mentioned before, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga consists of standing and balancing poses, sitting, rotating, inverted, forward, and back bending postures. Therefore it has numerous positive effects on all parts of the body.
On a purely physiological plane, the practice of Asanas makes the body more flexible, it “opens“ it and livens it up. The whole body is worked out and through, which in turn releases Prana.
In the TCM-philosophy, illnesses are caused by stagnating energy, in the Ayurveda they result from imbalances of the Doshas, the three different life energies that rule the body. In these philosophies, health means a free flow of Chi or Prana. Yoga takes care of that.
The practice makes the body stronger, builds up muscles and prevents all kinds of pain, from back pain to arthritis. It keeps the joints and the spinal vertebrae active and strengthens the bones. It activates the blood circulation and improves the oxygen supply of the cells as well as the transport of nutrients and residues into and out of the lymphatic system. It brings the heart into the aerobic zone and thereby strengthens it. It balances the blood pressure and strengthens the immune system. Practitioners tend to straighten up their body and correct bad posture.
Yoga can increase the serotonin levels in the brain, which makes us happier and more satisfied and may relieve depression or make it disappear.
According to studies, brain functions such as coordination, reaction time, and memory are improved. The activities between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are balanced, which has a calming and relaxing effect. This results in mental balance, a good sleep, etc.
Yoga gives us a totally new body feeling and awareness. We are well in our body, we feel it intensely. Sometimes we even have outbursts of pure joy of living.
Since our body and mind are interrelated in many ways, we tend to become more optimistic, cope better with our lives, and become less easily oppressed by negative influences. An inner serenity may arise.
As we grow older, we find it increasingly hard to cope with the demands of life. This is often, at least partly, our own fault: We eat too much and often bad things, we may drink alcohol and smoke, we don’t get enough sleep and physical exercise, we work too hard and have too much stress and distraction … Maybe we go out a lot and talk too much superficial stuff and don’t feel really good with it. Maybe our work doesn’t get us any further and our family is too demanding. Sometimes we have the feeling theat we aren’t acting but merely reacting to the many demands from all sides.
Yoga can help with all that. To begin with, it is a time reserved for us exclusively, a time spent with ourselves in a concentrated manner. Even if we don’t know much about the inner workings and effects of Yoga, we will notice that it’s just good for us: We feel better, we feel well in our body, we are emotionally positive and mentally more balanced.
We become more aware of what’s good for us, but also of what’s not. After a late night dinner with some alcohol involved, we will probably have a bad and sluggish Yoga practice the next morning.
And this goes for many things in our life we are subliminally uncomfortable with but aren’t determined enough to change. Yoga helps us to find that determination in us. Gradually we drop habits we are weary of.
The techniques of Yoga, in particular Asana, Pranayama and meditation, help us to be aware of the present moment, to dwell in the here and now.
They are highly efficient instruments of self-exploration by training our awareness. We learn to control our constantly wandering mind (Citta Vrtti), we become aware of our Samskaras (habits, patterns) and are able to dissolve them, and we find out that Ahamkara (the „I-maker“, our Ego) is merely an endless succession of concepts and projections.
But reassuringly, we also find out that neither our mind nor our body are unchangeable. The Yogic techniques help us to free ourselves from the various patterns we live in, and reach reality.