Ashtanga Yoga – 8 Limbs of Yoga by Patanjali

Ashtanga Yoga - 8 Limbs of Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga, also known as 8 Limbs of Yoga, is sage Patanjali’s group of classical yoga. In his Yoga Sutras, sage Patanjali described eight components of yoga or Ashtanga. They are Yamas (self-restraint), Niyama (observance), asana (body position or posture), pranayama (breath control practice), pratyahara (restraining senses), Dharana (focus or concentration), Dhyana (meditation), Samadhi (unification of individuals and absolute consciousness).

The first four components Yamas, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are the external aspects and can be improvised. However, the remaining limbs – Pratyahara, Dharma, Dhyana, and Samadhi are internal and complex. And it requires strict rules to follow as it affects negatively when this yoga is performed incorrectly.

Background History

Though Patanjali was the one to introduce eight limbs of yoga in his acclaimed work, Yoga Sutras, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and his disciple, K. Pattabhi Jois was the one who reintroduced Ashtanga from the city of Mysore in this modern era.

Traditionally, this yoga was performed individually or personalized under the guru’s support and guidance. Once the student is strong enough physically and mentally, then they are given additional challenging asanas to perform.

Pattabhi Jois continued teaching Ashtanga Yoga till his death in 2009. He categorized the level of Ashtanga Yoga into series like primary, intermediate, advanced A, B, and so on.

8 Limbs of Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga - 8 Limbs of Yoga

Maharishi Patanjali has written a book called Yoga Sutras, a group of Sanskrit sutras based on the ideology and methods of yoga. In his work, sage Patanjali defined eight limbs of yoga which are:

1. Yamas

In Hinduism and Yoga, Yamas are the moral rules and proper way of living (self-restraint). Basically, Yamas consist of lists of things or actions that should not be followed in life (don’ts). Five Yamas included in the Yoga sutra are:

  • Ahimsa or Ahinsa means non-violence or a concept of causing no harm to all living beings through one’s words, actions, and thoughts.
  • Satya means absolute truth or honesty. In the yogic tradition, Satya refers to being truthful in words, deeds, and thoughts.
  • Asteya or Achourya means not stealing in Sanskrit. In Hinduism, Asteya is a practice of not thieving other’s property nor even aim to thief through words, thoughts, and deeds.
  • Brahmacharya is a practice of living a complete abstinence life and controlling one’s body and mind through meditation.
  • Aparigraha means non-greediness. In other terms, it refers to not taking things in greed by harming others.

2. Niyamas

They are positive responsibilities or observances. In yogic and Vedic traditions, Niyamas are the righteous habits and manners which allow one to live a healthy life and obtain spiritual enlightenment. Five Niyamas are as follows:

  • Shaucha is literally defined as purity and clearness of mind, speech, and body.
  • Santosha means fulfillment and satisfaction.
  • Tapas is a spiritual practice that leads performers to liberation or moksha. It includes meditation, self-discipline and requires solitude and an austere lifestyle.
  • Svadhyaya refers to the self-examination of one’s emotions and conscious thoughts or self-study.
  • Ishvarapranidhana means to devote, surrender and dedicate oneself to the absolute power or supreme god to experience the supreme lord.

3. Asanas

In the yogic tradition, asanas are the body poses or postures while meditating or doing hatha yoga or modern-day yoga. In the Yoga Sutra, yogi Patanjali explains asanas as bodily positions or stable and comfortable poses. Thus, asanas are the meditative postures that allow one to sit for more extended periods steadily and comfortably. Twelve asanas mentioned by sage Patanjali are:

  • Padmasana
  • Virasana
  • Bhadrasana
  • Svastikaasna
  • Dandasana
  • Sopas Rasayana
  • Paryankasana
  • Krauncha-nishadasana
  • Hastanishadasana
  • Ushtranishadasana
  • Samasansthanasana
  • Sthira Sukhasana

4. Pranayama

The word Pranayama has its roots in the Sanskrit word Prana means breath or life-giving force, and Ayama refers to control or restraining. Thus, Pranayama is the exercise of breath control. Furthermore, Patanjali elaborated on Pranayama as an essential exercise for concentration.

5. Pratyahara

Pratyahara consists of two Sanskrit words. Prati means anti or away, and ahara means food or things mainly consumed externally. Together, elucidated as withdrawal of foods and senses. It is one of the crucial limbs that links external limbs to the internal limbs of yoga. Controlling all the senses provides a perfect atmosphere for self-realization and helps in Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi’s higher practices.

6. Dharana

Dharana means single-minded, concentration, or holding and maintaining steadily. It includes concentrating on a single thing such as breathing, mantra, object, or idea so that the mind does not shift to unnecessary thoughts. The sixth limb Dharana is the initial stage of deep concentration and meditation.

7. Dhyana

The seventh limb of yoga is Dhyana which refers to rumination and meditation. It is the cogitation on what Dharana has single-mindedly focused on. It can be anything like ideology, objects, breath, mantra, or deity. Dhyana is all about the continuous flow of thoughts, undisturbed by other thoughts.

8. Samadhi

The ultimate stage of yoga is Samadhi, where one merges or unites entirely to the topic of meditation. In Samadhi, the yoga practitioner’s mind becomes one with anything it is ruminating on. Samadhi is of two types based on the procedure it follows:

  1. Samprajnata Samadhi – Savikalpa Samadhi is performed mainly with the help of objects. It includes savitarka (deliberative) and savichara (reflective). In savitarka, the mind focuses on the thing and contemplates thoughts related to that specific object until it crosses the normal state of Dhyana. In savichara, the mind focuses on fine elements or components of meditation which includes senses, chakras, and thoughts.
  2. Asamprajnata Samadhi – It is the final stage of yoga and the ultimate goal of every yogi. It is a stage where the mind becomes empty and thoughtless, and the individual unites with the Supreme Reality of the Universe. Asamprajnata Samadi is meditation performed without the support of objects which leads to the way of enlightenment.

Ashtanga Yoga Postures

Pattabhi Jois introduced Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as the modern version of classical yoga, which includes various stages like primary, intermediate, advanced A, B, and more. All of these stages incorporate unique body postures from simple to difficult as the level goes up. The primary series has three groups of postures; standing, sitting, and concluding.

  • Standing Posture are Samasthiti, Surya Namaskar, Padangusthasana, Pada hastasana, Utthita Trikonasana, Parivritta Trikonasana and Utthita Parshvakonasana
  • Sitting Posture are Dandasana, Paschimottanasana, Purvatanasana, and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana
  • Concluding Posture are Salamba Sarvangasana, Halasana, Karnapidasana, Urdhva Padmasana, Pindasana, and Matsyasana

Mysore Ashtanga Yoga

In modern terms, Ashtanga Yoga is also called Mysore style Ashtanga as it was first introduced in this era by Pattabhi himself from the city of Mysore.

  • The yoga starts with basic and easy postures from the primary series.
  • The entire week you practice the same asanas(postures) at your momentum.
  • The yoga teacher will help and support you throughout the process, but you have to memorize all the asanas yourself.
  • Once you can complete the primary series, you will be promoted to intermediate, and so on.