Ashtanga Explained

Yoga is not just exercise; it is the deep well of pure, unlimited joy

Tree pose or Vrikshana | yoga

We continue our discussion from the previous article – A Prelude to Ashtanga of the eight-fold path of yoga and the various tendencies that intervene and turn us from our path. We also, in so doing, elaborate on the asthanga yoga, or the eight-fold path, that encompasses yoga to control and channel our thoughts and emotions towards complete wellbeing.

Isn’t it amazing that yoga, which has been explained in a manner that is simple and doable, thousands of years ago, remains a universal remedy for the difficult, stressful times we now live in?

This also means that yoga has more to do with mere fitness of the body. It relates itself to the harmonious functioning of our mind, body, and soul.

Yama [Moral principle]

Yama refers to the moral codes, or principles, that stipulate the limits within which man must stay in order to lead an organised life, and in interaction with those around him/ her. Yama has much to do with the way in which we interrelate and behave with others in our immediate surroundings.

The basic tenets of yama, or moral code, can be summarised through five qualities:

  • Non-violence or ahimsa
  • Truth, or satya
  • Non-stealing, or asteya
  • Non-lust, or brahmacharya
  • Non-possessiveness, or aparigraha

This basically encapsulates the moral code of conduct in society. Truth and non-violence adhere to maintaining harmony in society as well as in the individual conscience. The idea behind non-violence is not just to eliminate pain and hurt, but also to completely eradicate the concept of enmity and antagonistic relationships over time. While yama does not necessarily advocate celibacy through brahmacharya, it does indicate leading a life with more meaningful relationships. It must also be remembered that non-stealing does not merely refer to materialistic robbery, but also of robbing another of his/her time, value or needs. Yama also advocates against hankering after too much wealth, or possessions, or coveting another’s property.

Yama throws new light on the entire concept of yoga. It goes against the popular norm of yoga being an individualistic exercise in controlling one’s thoughts. Yoga, it says, takes into account that the spiritual seeker is also a member of society and must, therefore, adhere to certain tenets in order to maintain harmony.

Niyama [Discipline]

Niyama evokes in the individual the need to pursue observances such as curbing negative vibrations, setting time aside for contemplation, inherent contentment, and firm belief and complete surrender to God, or the Supreme Power. It broadly includes:

  • Contentment, or santosha
  • Austerity, or tapas
  • Purity, or soucha
  • Awareness of a higher power, or ishwar pranidhan
  • Self-study of sacred test, or svadhyaya

Asana [Posture]

In stark contrast to the viewpoint promulgated in the West, yogic positions and exercises, in the East, have been considered not as an alternative work-out to maintain fitness, but rather as a preparation for the important step of meditation. The primary aim of practicing these asanas, or postures, or yogic positions, is to attain the most comfortable position that aids the individual to attain a sense of mental equilibrium.

Yogasanas in the preparation for yogic meditation include positions in the sitting as well as standing position, as also those in the supine [face upwards, in lying down position] and prone [face down] positions as is commonly taught to enhance the object of exercise and expand the mind.

This is the step most people begin yoga with and attempt to attain the goal of pranayama. But, they often give up and wonder why it is that they fail to see benefits accrue from their recent endeavours. It is this narrow thinking and restricted knowledge that often brings this predicament upon the individual.

Pranayama [Breathing]

Breathing is an indispensable activity of life that begins at birth and continues until one’s death. Therefore, breathing represents the vital life force of the body. As the student of yoga follows the principles laid down by yama and the niyama and practices yogasanas, s/he makes a natural progression towards pranayama.

Pranayama basically refers to the control of breath. In the course of attaining salvation or samadhi, pranayama is considered a vital step. The idea behind consciously controlling the breath is attuned to the purpose of attaining mental equilibrium and greater awareness by mastering the process of inhalation and exhalation

Like many yogasanas, pranayama is witness to the dwindling of “pushy” followers, because it represents the vital force of life – if practiced incorrectly it can have an equally adverse effect on the body. Pranayama involves aspects such as quiet breathing [smooth breathing without effort], deep breathing [deliberate, protracted slow breathing], fast breathing [deliberately enhanced speed of breath], alternative nostril breathing, right nostril breathing, and so on.

Pratyahara [Sense withdrawal]

Pratyahara encourages the individual to look inwards. It also calls for introspection to weed out any undesirable tendencies. It is basically a shift of paradigm from the outer world to inner sanctity.

Dharana [Concentration on object]

Dharana, dhyana and samadhi blend into one as one proceeds towards the highest states of concentration. Dharana basically refers to the engagement of mind, focused on one subject. This would involve concentrating on something such as the syllable Om, while meditating. Further, once the stage of dharana is attained with a certain degree of achievement, the stage of dhyana follows almost automatically, with little or no effort, depending on the progress achieved at this stage.

Dhyana [Meditation]

This is the stage where meditation and concentration merge into one and the result is a tranquil mind that knows no distractions, or deviations. The endurance involved in attaining this stage is tremendous, but the pursuit is well worth the effort.

Samadhi [Salvation]

This is the state of bliss attained when the mind simply calms to a condition of complete harmony and is aware of the Universe. There is also an inherent awareness of oneness with all beings, a transcending of the self and the integration with the higher power. When looked at as a whole, and made up of a series of logical steps, the layman’s concept of yoga now undergoes a radical change. Suddenly, the rather narrow, erroneous notion of yoga as merely a base form of exercise appears considerably deficient. Instead, there are wells deep inside, the spirit to yearn for and seek out of the wholesome, unadulterated pure joy, or the essence of peace that result through the truly integrating wealth of the Cosmos.

This is yoga in action and effect. It is also wisdom in our ever-changing world.

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