There are many reasons why people come to Yoga, with most beginning their journey by practicing the physical postures called asanas. Unfortunately that is where a number also end their journey, never tasting the delights of the deeper teachings that are part of this discipline. It is said that asana is but one of 8 fundamental limbs of the practice called Yoga. Without the other seven limbs, this asana practice would be mere gymnastics (Jois, 2002).
So what is Yoga? Are we ‘doing’ Yoga or just doing gymnastics? And if this is the case, can the deeper teachings of Yoga be introduced into asana practitioners’ lives, and in doing so, bridge the gap between practicing asana as a purely physical exercise, into asana as a spiritual practice that promotes positive behavioural change?
Documented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (cerca the second or third century CE), the eightfold path called Ashtanga Yoga, literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb) in Sanskrit.
Ashtanga means using 8 steps as a pathway to liberation from dukha or a feeling of discomfort or pain; from delusion to self realization and a deeper understanding of how things really are (Desikachar, 1995). Yoga is not however a recipe for less suffering in itself, but a method for examining our habitual attitudes, responses and behaviours and the consequences of these behavioural patterns. The idea being that if we become conscious of our patterns, we can reprogram them and therefore be more in control of our responses to life’s turmoil. We can identify behaviours within ourselves that lead to suffering and consciously reformulate our responses, therefore alleviating the potential discomfort in any uncomfortable situation.
Asana practice is just one of these eight limbs; the others being: Yamas (Universal restraints), Niyamas (Personal restraints), Pranayama (Breath control), Pratyahara (Withdrawal of the senses inwards), Dharana (One pointed concentration), Dhyana (Meditation), and Samadhi (Union with divine) (Jois, 2002).
Even though many claim to practice Ashtanga Yoga, more often than not, they practice only a few of the limbs (if practicing in a remotely correct fashion). For example, in correct asana practice, one would engage in a simple form of Pranayama (e.g. Ujjayi breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) and Dharana (one pointed concentration). Unfortunately the first two limbs of Yoga; the Yamas and Niyamas, are often entirely overlooked. These two limbs are the fundamental guidelines to living a meaningful and purposeful life, or as Desikachar (1995) clearly explains, they show the way by which we are able to examine our habits, attitudes and behaviours and the consequences therein (both on and off the Yoga mat).
Yoga as a spiritual practice
Today the word Yoga has many meanings. It is said that,
“Yoga is, arresting the fluctuations of the mind as said in the Yoga Sutras (of Patanjali): citta vritti nirodha. When the mind is without any movement, maybe for a quarter of an hour, or even a quarter of a minute, you will realize that yoga is of the nature of infinite awareness, infinite knowing. There is no other object there.”Krishnamacharya (2014)
According to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Yogi who brought Ashtānga Vinyāsa Yoga to the West and arguably the modern world:
“The word has many meanings; relation; means; union; knowledge; matter; logic and so on….for now let us say that the meaning of Yoga is upaja, which means path, or way which we can follow or by means of which we can obtain something…The mind should seek to obtain what is best….seek(ing) the universal self….or the means to the realization of one’s true nature”.(Jois, 2002)
If this is so, Yoga can therefore be described as a practice or path that enables the student to become one with their true nature, leading to a clearer understanding of the way things are and therefore greater freedom from feelings of discomfort and pain. The process by which this takes place, is through the examination one’s behaviours, attitudes and habits (Desikachar, 1995; Jois, 2002; Maehle, 2009).
Ashtanga Yoga: History, lineage and today
The actual history of Yoga varies slightly, depending on who’s telling the story and the particular dates and details are not for this discussion. What we know, is that Yoga is a practice founded by spiritual seekers a long time ago. These seekers became known as Sramanas, who, disheartened with ancient Vedic rituals and practices, renounced the complex hierarchies of current day priests and casts to explore spiritual liberation. Through self reliance, self examination and self-development; experimentation with breath, diet, exercise, ethical behaviour and other practices, these seekers found a path to living a spiritual existence in the here and now (Cope 2012). A practice that would be accessible to all people, regardless of wealth, status or cast.
Over a period of hundreds of years of both successful and at times alarming experimentation, a loose set of reliable practices and principles emerged. This practice soon became known as Yoga, meaning to ‘Yoke’ or ‘bring into union’, and its practitioners were to be called Yogis. A means had been found to bodily and spiritual health, whilst being in accordance with, or at least not violating the scriptures (Cope 2012).
Sometime later, due to the need for a reliable or more cohesive practice that would help students realise their full potential, a great Sramana/Yogi called Patañjali (around the second or third century CE) wrote down the central principles of this evolving tradition. He named this work the “Yoga Sutra”, defining in a series of four chapters (196 Sanskrit sutras or aphorisms) the theory and practice of Yoga.
From that treatise came the fundamentals of Ashtanga Yoga, which passed down through subsequent seekers throughout the ages until it finally reached the West. This is the teaching given by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, passed on to him by Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, his beloved Guru and to him by Yogeshwara Ramamohana Brahmachari. This knowledge is now being passed on by a number of Jois’s direct students and their students today.
If you are interested in finding our more about this practice, send me a message. I’d love to chat more.
Bachman, N. (2004). The Language of Yoga.
Caroll, Y. M. (2014). Tapas. The Fire in your Practice. Online: http://pranakriya.com/doc/Tapas.pdf
Cope, S. (2012). The Wisdom of Yoga.
Desikachar, T.V.K. (1995). The Heart of Yoga: Developing a personal practice.
Greenpath Yoga. (2014). Online: http://ashtangayoga108.com/articles/isvara-pranidhana/
Hartranft, C. (2003). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A new translation with commentary.
Jois, Sri K. P. (2002). Yoga Mala
Krishnamacharya.net. (2014). http://krishnamacharya.net/
Maehle, G. (2009). Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series
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Yoga Glossary. (2014). http://www.yogaglossary.com/p/indexy.php