Ashtanga yoga gets its name from asha and tanga, eight limbs. It is based on ancient yoga text thousands of years old that stated there were eight limbs, or supports, that serve as the foundation of a yoga practice. Yoga means union, so the eight limbs help unite body, mind and spirit. The eight limbs are:
Yama refers to a person's moral and ethical standards and personal integrity. The five yamas that lead to decent behavior are:
- Not killing or doing harm (ahimsa)
- Not being envious
Niyama refers to self-discipline and spiritual practice in one's daily life. This can be gained through meditation, the practice of mindfulness, and/or attending a house of worship and leading a good life.
There are five niyamas:
- Spiritual control and self-denial
- Study of the sacred scriptures, and of one’s self, trying to tap into your higher power
- Surrendering to God
Asanas are the physical postures practiced in yoga. You have probably heard the phrase, "Your body is a temple." Those who believe in reincarnation, as Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others do, believe that the continually residing mind, or spirit, moves from one body to another as you would move from house to house.
Therefore, whatever new residence we live in, we should keep it in good condition. Physical health can also lead to mental health and increased concentration. Doing yoga enhances self-discipline, also important if you wish to enhance your meditation and mental abilities.
Without breath, there is no life, so pranayama is breath control. The word prana means energy and yama means standards or control, so the pranayama is thought to extend discipline and control and in turn rejuvenate the body or even extend life. You can do pranayama on its own, or as part of your yoga practice, such as Yinyasa, Kundalini and Hatha. Ashtanga does not do as much breath work as these yogas.
The first four limbs focus on one person perfecting them self. The other four limbs relate to how a person is connected with other living beings and the universe as a whole. This is achieved through meditation.
Pratyahara means withdrawal of external awareness so we can focus within to improve ourselves. In this way we can work on our bad habits, past issues, or anything that might interfere with harmonious relationships or our own spiritual growth.
Pratyahara creates the conditions for dharana, concentration. Once we remove distractions, we can harness the power of our mind more fully. The mantra OM helps focus.
Dhyana can be translated as contemplation, when the mind is most focused and able to concentrate. There is no more "chatter" in the mind, but rather stillness and clarity.
Samadhi is a state of bliss or ecstasy achieved through meditation, a state of feeling spiritually connected to the universe, a union of body, mind and spirit. It is gained through regular practice of physical yoga and mental training.
Most modern yogas do not concern themselves with all eight limbs, though all require self-discipline. If you are interested in yoga as a trans formative process complete with meditation and breath work, Hatha, Kundalini and Ashtanga might be right for you.
Ashtanga yoga has seven levels, one basic, two intermediate, and four advanced, and is very vigorous. Even the most skilled practitioners have rarely been able to reach the two highest advanced levels. This yoga would be ideal for people who are young and fit, but not for seniors or those with health issues.