What is Ashtanga Yoga: The ancient sage Patanjali was the first to systematize the practices of Classical Ashtanga Yoga. The second verse of his famous Yoga Sutras defines Yoga as the cessation of thought-waves in the mind. The word “Yoga” literally means "union". Through stilling the mind, we can achieve union with our divine source.
Yoga purifies the body and the mind for the purpose of developing concentration. Perfect concentration leads to a thoughtless mind and superconsciousness. This higher consciousness brings knowledge of reality and peace.
Patanjali described this process as having eight parts or "limbs"; thus the system is call Ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb) Yoga.
The Eight Limbs
Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi
1. Yamas (Restraints)
Ahimsa (nonviolence): To refrain from causing pain to any living being, including oneself.
Satya (truthfulness): To develop honesty; to avoid deceiving others and oneself. To cultivate truthfulness by avoiding exaggeration, rationalization, pretense, and all other variants of deceit.
Asteya (non-stealing): To avoid any kind of misappropriation of material or non-material things, such as acceptance of undeserved praise. When non-stealing is perfected, one is freed from the illusion of ownership: me/mine, you/yours.
Brahmacharya (continence): To conserve and redirect the sexual energy. Literally translated, brahmacharya means "to walk on God's path."
Aparigraha (non-hoarding): To avoid the accumulation of unnecessary possessions. Its purpose is to become free not from possessions themselves, but from attachment to them so that one is unaffected by their gain or loss.
2. Niyamas (Observances)
Saucha (purity): Cleanliness of the body and purity of the mind.
Santosha (contentment): More than a passive state of mind, actively cultivating contentment frees the mind from the effects of pleasure and pain. When contentment is perfected, one becomes desireless and attains unexcelled happiness.
Tapas (austerity): Literally, "to burn"; in Yoga, tapas implies the burning of all desires by means of discipline, purification, and penance. Fasting, enduring heat or cold, and observing silence are methods of tapas.
Svadhyaya (scriptural study): The study of scriptures, Self-inquiry, satsang, and japa (repetition) of Om, with the aim of attaining liberation. Through svadhyaya one can contact the form of God that one desires to worship.
Ishvarapranidhana (surrender to God): Recognition that the limited, ego-self is an illusion; channeling of energies toward the realization of truth, or God
3. Asana (Posture, Seat)
The word asana is commonly translated as "posture", but its literal meaning is "seat", referring particularly to meditation postures, which promote concentration of the mind. Since a healthy body is important for meditation, ancient yogis devised many different postures* to make the body strong, sound, and flexible.
Asanas help to balance the physical body by toning muscles and nerves, massaging internal organs, improving circulation and digestion, and regulating glandular secretions. Although asanas are not intended to build large muscles, they do make the body strong, flexible, and proportionate; thin bodies are developed, while unnecessary fat is reduced. Asanas increase endurance, will power, and resistance to disease. Through regular practice the mind becomes calm and undesirable thoughts gradually diminish.
Primarily, however, asanas function as a stimulant to the subtle body. They purify the subtle energy channels (nadis) and strengthen all five vital energies (pranas). They direct the flow of prana upward, aiding in the awakening of kundalini, the great reservoir of spiritual energy situated at the base of the spine.
*These are actually part of the system of Hatha Yoga.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control)
Pranayama is a method of breathing that expands life-supporting energy (prana, "vital energy" and ayama, "expansion.")
Mental activity correlates with breath; the more breaths there are, the more thoughts rush through the mind. The practice of pranayama, which involves a series of breathing exercises, drastically reduces the number of breaths taken in a given period. By calming the mind, it thus prepares one for concentration and meditation.
The practices of pranayama are based on the normal breathing pattern, which has four stages: inhalation, retention, exhalation, retention. Pranayama alters the ratio of these four parts; it is designed to slow down the rate of breathing and, especially, to lengthen breath retention (kumbhaka.)
5. Pratyahara (Withdrawing the Mind from Sense Perception)
Pratyahara is the liberation of the senses from the objects that attract them. The word literally means "reversal" or "withdrawal." Normally the mind wanders involuntarily from the mental image of one sense object to another, and a desire is created. This desire pulls the mind outward.
Pratyahara is practiced by repeatedly pulling the mind back from going outward. Various methods are useful to help in pratyahara: mantra (the uttering of sacred sounds), nada (listening to inner sounds), japa (repetition of mantra or a name of God), puja (worship), trataka (gazing) kirtana (chanting), mudra (literally "seal", "lock"), and syasa (projecting the divine principle onto various parts of the body.)
6. Dharana (Concentration)
The word dharana is derived from the root dha, meaning "to hold, carry, support". It refers to the holding of an object in the mind. In dharana the mind dwells only on the chosen object, and is not allowed to wander to other objects.
Important objects of concentration include certain points within the body, a picture of a deity, a chakra, one's breath, a visualization, a candle flame, or a mantra.
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
The word dhyana is derived from the root dhi, meaning "intellect". Meditation involves the channeling of intellect, or mind, to one point. Dhyana is distinguished from Dharana (concentration) only by its uninterrupted nature. In scriptures the difference between concentration and meditation is described as the difference between pouring water and pouring oil: both streams fall toward one place, but water falls in a "broken" stream of drops whereas the stream of oil is smooth, constant, unbroken.
8. Samadhi (Superconsciousness)
Samadhi is the final limb of Ashtanga Yoga. The word is derived from sam (together) + a (completely) + dha (to hold); thus "to hold together completely". Samadhi differs from dhyana in that there is no succession of identical thought waves, but rather complete identity or absorption in one object (thought.)
Just as concentration culminates in meditation, so meditation culminates in samadhi. In meditation there is consciousness of mind and object only. When meditation becomes intense, the mind and object merge, and the mind is no longer conscious of itself. This dissolution of the subject-object relationship is samadhi, or, more correctly, the first stage of samadhi. The term samadhi actually refers to several stages of higher consciousness that become progressively more profound, finally culminating in Kaivalya--perfect self-realization. The stages of samadhi reflect the progressive withdrawal of consciousness into its source, the Self.