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What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Ashtanga literally means 8 limbs. Ashtanga Yoga is the eight-limb path

prescribed by Patanjali over 2500 years ago. The 8 limbs are the moral
restraints (yamas), observances (niyamas), asana (the postures), pranayama
(breath control), pratyhara (sense control), dharana, (concentration,) dhyana,
(meditation,) and Samadhi, (liberation).
What most of us are familiar with is the 3rd limb, asana practice. There is no
particular order in which the limbs need to be practiced. Through the practice
of any of the limbs, the others are developed.
In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines yoga as Yogas citta vrtti nirodahah (YS
1:2) yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness or the stilling of
the mind. The following sutra (YS 1:3) describes what happens next tadah
drastuh svarupe avastanam then the inner being stands revealed in its true
The practice of ashtanga yoga emphasizes developing breath awareness as the
primary means of stabilizing our mind. Ujjayi breathing provides a simple but
powerful technique for cultivating mindfulness of breath and the capacity for
listening. Vinyasa expresses a natural relationship between breath and
movement breath naturally initiates movement, and movement naturally
facilitates breath. The application of the bandhas, the energetic lifting,
suggests there is an energetic root of the breath that when attended to has
both a stabilizing and enlightening effect.
All of these techniques nurture the experience of breath as a vehicle of
awareness. The basic quality associated with inhalation is receptivity an
openness to new energy and experience. Exhalation expresses our willingness
to let go of that, which no longer serves us. Symbolically, breathing is the
ability to let go of the past so that we may more fully embrace the present.
Breath also provides fuel for tapas, the process of purification crucial to our
practice. The 2nd chapter of the Yoga Sutras begins tapah svadhyaya ishvara
pranidhanna kriya yogah purification, self-observation, and surrender to
something greater than, are the actions that constitute any spiritual practice,
or yoga. How does the ashtanga practice incorporate these three qualities?
Practice always begins with a prayer of thanks to the guru, the dispeller of
darkness. The guru is the living embodiment of Ishvara, the timeless, Universal
teacher. What is required of us to experience the grace of the guru is a
willingness to express our gratitude for the gift of yoga and an openness to a
deeper level of experience. This is ishvara pranidhana

The practice of asana provides a context for a concentrated and tangible

experience of self-observation. The wide variety of different asana can be seen
as metaphors for the various circumstances we encounter in life. They allow us
the opportunity to practice the application of awareness to the task at hand. In
the process we learn about strengths and weakness, our areas of rigidity and
flexibility, and our ability to breath and pay attention when faced with a
challenging situation. With practice we begin to cultivate a kind of
dispassionate awareness, which helps us to see ourselves more clearly in all
circumstances. This is svadhyaya.
The combination of breath, movement, and focused awareness begins to
generate heat (tapas) within us. Like an alchemical process, the fire of tapas
purifies and softens us, creating an opportunity to penetrate more deeply into
ourselves than we perhaps can under normal circumstances. According to
Patanjali, this heat purifies the senses of perception, (indriyas), and
consequently, we begin to be more discriminating in how we feed our organs of
The self-discipline entailed in the practice of ashtanga yoga begins to have a
profound effect on the quality of ones inner life. A newfound sense of self
esteem emerges that makes us feel both more connected to ourselves and the
world around us. As we release toxicity (hala hala) we are more able to
embrace unity. The practice of ashtanga yoga is designed to make us receptive
to the spiritual experience of realizing our own divine nature.
Yoga is above all experiential. It is your own experience that will always be
your truest and best teacher
As Pattabhi Jois is fond of saying 99% practice, 1% theory. Do your practice. All
is coming!