The eight steps of Yoga: ashtanga
Ashtanga (ashta = eight / anga = limbs).
Yoga is a set of techniques and methods. It is a science and not a religious doctrine; a discipline and a system. The secret is to persevere in your practice. Experiment again and again. Learn to adapt the techniques to our trip and our search.
As a system, then, Yoga comprises eight interconnected limbs, fed by one another. The sage Patanjali introduced them in the Yoga Sutra. They can be seen as the parts of a centennial tree: neither can exist without the other and together they make up the great final work that is the tree itself. They are also the stages of a process. The supreme self-realization of the Being is not possible without the integration of these eight members, a path that begins in the most physical and tangible and ends in the most subtle.
It is called Hatha Raja Yoga: Hatha involves the physical planes of duality and Raja, the non-physical planes, which approach the Self, although they are also dual. So the first two limbs are the root without which the Yoga tree does not nourish itself and does not grow. The next two members correspond to the physical plane and the last four to the non-physical ones. (It can also be said that Ashtanga Yoga is a journey through the Koshas, the envelopes that cover the Being).
The first limb in the Ashtanga is yama: universal ethical principles whose conscious and careful practice avoids causing suffering. They are five:
It is the conscious act of avoiding friction and violence in thought, word and action. At its deepest understanding, it is compassion for all beings in creation. With the recognition of one’s own divine essence in all beings, compassion appears equally: if you see yourself in all, there is no way to harm. The practice of compassion is refined and elevated when we practice it with beings that are alien to us; even the ones we dislike.
It is the coherence between thoughts, words and actions in truth. It is keeping the word. It means telling and standing up for the truth, but not using it to hurt other people. Satya begins by being honest with ourselves and acting consistently. The second step is not to cheat and be honest with others.
Don’t steal, in your broadest understanding. Not only material properties; also ideas. Do not use things for purposes other than what they are made for. It is overcoming the intense desire for possession.
In its most up-to-date interpretation, it is the containment and preservation of physical and emotional energy for the purpose of reaching something higher (Brahma). It is moderation.
Do not accumulate, share what is not needed, even knowledge. Excess takes us out of balance.
The principles that keep us in discipline and help us advance in practice. There are also five.
Purity. Yoga is a work of mental, emotional and physical purification. Saucha is to maintain awareness of it.
It means “state of contentment”. Live in equanimity in the present, no matter what happens. By knowing the cycles of duality, it is easier to establish ourselves in this practice in a more durable way.
It literally means “purifying fire”, and is understood as going through difficulties with determination. Cross obstacles with attention, as a liberating path.
The study of the Self and the fundamental scriptures of the science of Yoga. Self-study. Constant and equanimous self-observation, free of judgment. It is not evaluation but self-contemplation.
The surrender of the ego, the limited self, to what is Supreme: to what Is. The offering of actions to a purpose higher than the merely individual and material. These last three together, according to the Yoga Sutras, make up what is called Kriya Yoga, Yoga in action.
Asana is the third limb of Ashtanga. The translation of the word from Sanskrit is “comfortable, firm, stable posture”, according to the Yoga Sutras (stira sukham asana). Asanas are part of the integral system of Yoga, they are not isolated postures, or simple gymnastic or acrobatics exercises.
Their purpose is to keep the body healthy and vital to continue advancing on the path towards the final goal of Yoga, which is the supreme self-realization. Asana is one of the gateways to Yoga, a vehicle towards it and not an end in itself.
Prana means vital energy, which makes all existence possible, from its physical dimension to its cosmic dimension; prana is a subtle vibration that makes everything move, even thoughts. Yama literally means control, although in a more up-to-date translation and is translated as care: control usually implies the need to use force to produce a result, and that has nothing to do with the essential definition of Yoga and its purpose.
Pranayama is, then, the care of vital energy. A direct way is conscious, deep and complete breathing, which is, moreover, the common thread of the practice of asana. But there are also specific techniques of pranayama. Conscious breathing takes us back to the primordial process of life, which is breathing.
Breathing and mental states are directly related: a heavy breath is the mirror of a troubled mind; a calm breath, that of a calm mind. To the extent that you gain awareness of the breathing process, through constant practice, you gain peace of mind. A calm mind keeps the body healthy. This is also why pranayama is a liberator of pain and tension.
You have more information in our Pranayama article.
As a consequence of the practice of pranayama, pratyahara occurs: the withdrawal of the senses in its strictest translation. But again, we do not seek to deny that in our manifestation we are sensory. Pratyãhãra is to put the senses, which with practice are refined and sharpened, at the service of the search for the ultimate purpose – the supreme self-realization of the Self – instead of being slaves of them. Transcend them during your Ashtanga practice.
So this transcendence favors concentration, which is what dhãranã is: the fixation of the mind on an object without interruption. The constant practice of concentration leads to meditation. This is another pillar of Ashtanga.
Meditation is Dhyãna. It is the total absorption in the object on which we meditate: the mind takes the form of that object, it becomes that object that is contemplated. In meditation, the state of joy close to the union that is Yoga is manifested.
It is the state of enlightenment. It is a, sometimes sudden, total understanding of Everything and its interconnectedness. “At the peak of his meditation, (the yogi) passes into the state of Samãdhi, where his body and his senses rest as if he were sleeping, his mental faculties are alert as if he were awake, and even, he has transcended consciousness”, explains BKS Iyengar. It is a state that cannot be expressed in words.
We hope that this explanation of Asthanga helps you in your Yoga practice.