Ashtanga Yoga as spoken of by Sage Patanjali
This yoga tradition finds its roots back to Sage Patanjali and his teachings transmitted in the name of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Historically it is said that it dates back to the era between 500BCE and 400BCE. However, this is not the case for a sadhaka (Practitioner). For a sadhaka the yoga sutras become alive, something that goes beyond time and speaks to us today, in our situation and daily life.
It is in the Yoga Sutras that Patanjali talks about the Ashta(eight)-Anga(limbs) of yoga – which guruji liked to call the eight petals of yoga, since it takes all the petals together to make a flower complete.
The word sutra literally means “threading together” and etymologically comes from the sanskrit word sivyati which means to sew or bind. The yoga sutras are a collection of 196 verses that are categorised into 4 chapters –
Samadhi Pada (the chapter on Samadhi),
Sadhana Pada (the chapter on Sadhana),
Vibhuti Pada (the chapter on the effects of the practice on the sadhaka) and
Kaivalya Pada (the chapter describing a mind that is totally free).
In the sadhana pada (the second chapter), Patanjali gives a sutra, a key to the practitioner, that will guide herlhim in his inner journey. He incites us to put them into practice and test them out for ourselves to discover what happens to our brain, our mind, our body and our energies. He introduces the Ashta Anga –
Yama – Niyama – Asana – Pranayama – Pratyahara – Dharana – Dhyana – Samadhi
All eight put together, make the flower of yoga.
Yama – Responsibilities towards others
- ahimsa (non-demanding in one’s thought, speech and action towards others),
- satya (honesty and the ability to see what is and not what we want to see),
- asteya (not stealing from others, not needing something due to the feeling of lack) (as said beautifully by Christian Pisano in his book The Hero’s Contemplation – “We try to steal from situations that which can never be given: our own fullness.” )
- brahmacharya (the practice of moderation in enjoyment) and
- aparigraha (not accumulating in the name of psychological security, an attitude of non-appropriation, not being possessed by “things”)
Niyama – Responsibilities towards one’s own self, one’s body, mind and energy
- Sauca (sauca means cleanliness and refers to keeping the various systems within the body (the digestive, the circulatory, the respiratory, the nervous and the excretory), the organs of perception (the eyes, nose, ears, tongue and skin) and the organs of action (mouth, feet, hands, anus, genitals), clean, which really means to say, to keep them Sensitive, Alive, Not-overburdened so that Prana, or the vital force that lives within the body can flourish.)
- Santosha (means contentment. But when understood in a deeper sense, it means to be free from the thirst of experience. Knowing that tranquility lies within and not in the objects of experience.)
- Tapas (the word tapa is related to heat and fire. All life on earth is sustained by heat. The entire universe is cold, except for stars burning here and there. Near our own earth burns a star, and life flourishes all around us. Prana is related to heat. The word tapas refers to the inner fire, or heat that keeps us alive and makes us want to live a life that is “more than survival”. To remain alive, truly alive, which means to awaken to the immensity of the universe and the triviality of the poor little “me”, we need the inner lamp to be lit, everyday),
- Svadhyaya (literally meaning self-study, to know oneself is the beginning of wisdom. And there is no end to knowing oneself.)
- Iswara pranidhana (the end of looking at the world with the notion that “I am the center of the universe”. There is the known, the unknown and there will always be the unknowable. To realise this deeply is to be free from the obsessive need to control what we will experience in life. Which also means to let go of controlling the little things in our daily life – such as the reaction of others, others moods, the outcome of an important effort and the faith of other people.)
Asa means ‘to be seated’, ana means ‘the breath’ – To be seated with attention to the breath. Which does not mean manipulating the breath. One learns to observe the breath without will power. Which means one is in a state of receiving without knowing what may come.
The word Prana comes from Pr meaning ‘that which comes before’ and ana meaning ‘the breath’. That which makes you pull in the next breath is Prana. Ayama means regulating. In other words, we are regulating the source of life, the subtle breath that energises all our cells and our nervous system. We are literally playing with life. Hence in this tradition of Yoga, one takes time to learn Pranayama. This is to protect the student from harm that can be caused due to wrong practices. Initially there is a lack of sensitivity in a practitioner. Once a practitioner is an asanastha (established in asana), it is safer to attempt deeper and difficult practices.
Pratyahara is derived from two Sanskrit words: prati and ahara, with ahara meaning food and prati a preposition meaning away. Food has a strong connection with the mind (this is known to all of us), which is why these particular words have been chosen as a metaphor here. All our life is about feeding ourselves, and only if we are fed, we can survive. But here, one is talking about cravings. The mind’s nature is to constantly try to fill up empty space, constantly distract us from emptiness, silence and aloneness through experiences. If these experiences are pleasurable it memorizes them (holding on to the past) and later tries to replicate them (controlling the future). These experiences are consumed by the mind through the sensory organs. Through this process the mind procrastinates the state of quietness, peacefulness and contentment because of its fear of losing control. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the mind from the senses and the senses from its cravings.
A scattered mind then comes together in total attention to the breath and the movement of thought. The mind is not identified with thought anymore, but watches them if they rise up. There is no attempt to control thought (though this is a common notion among “meditators”), since any attempt to control agitates the mind further. The only thing there is to do is to relax further, and release the fear of going inward, the fear of not existing, the fear of not being an individual “me”. This is true meditation.
One is totally absorbed by the quietness, by the stillness, but one is aware of oneself and one’s ego.
The observer and observed have united. The inner and outer are one and the same. The watcher is the watched. The universe is looking at itself, free from the veil of individual personality.
The eight petals of the flower of yoga come together in a single moment, that is, when it happens – it happens. However, it is also a lifetime of self-study, understanding, discipline and questioning that brings about a different kind of mind and a coherence between the mind and the body. This is Ashtanga Yoga as suggested by Sage Patanjali and referred to, studied, explored and shared by Guruji BKS Iyengar all throughout his life.