Ashtanga is a term which means ‘eight limbs’ and Ashtanga Yoga is a school of yoga which seeks to embody the traditional eight limbs of yoga. The sage Patanjali taught the eight limbs of classical raja yoga, outlining them in a treatise he called the Yoga Sutras. To this day, his text remains the single most revered work on yoga and the definitive source on raja yoga. Today, Ashtanga Yoga is also a modern form of hatha yoga which was developed by Patthabi Jois, a student of Sri T. Krishnamacharya, who is said to have derived this flowing style of yoga from a lost book of Patanjali.
With Ashtanga Yoga, the path to internal purification is achieved through eight, or asht, spiritual steps. Each step must first be mastered before attempting the next step. The first four steps of Ashtanga Yoga are considered to be external cleansing practices and include the following:
- Yama. Yama refers to moral discipline and includes the practice of nonviolence, truth, honesty, sexual continence, forbearance, fortitude, kindness, straightforwardness, moderation in diet, and bodily purity.
- Niyama. Niyama refers to self-restraint and includes the practice of austerity, contentment, belief in God, charity, worship of God, study of teachings and scriptures, modesty, having a discerning mind, repetition of prayers or japa, observance of vows, and performing sacrifices.
- Asana. Asana refers to postures as a motionless body makes the mind quiet. There are forty-eight postures which have been described and at least one must be mastered in order to reach a deep meditative state.
- Pranayama. Pranayama refers to breath control and includes inhalation, holding the breath and exhalation through three types of muscular control, or bandhas.
The next three steps are considered internal cleansing practices and include the following:
- Pratyahara. Pratyahara refers to sensory inhibition and includes breath suspension and holding the mind which, step by step, absorb the senses in Kundalini energy.
- Dharana. Dharana refers to concentration and includes a deep concentration on the six subtle centers of the chakras.
- Dhyana. Dhyana refers to meditation and the act in which the ego, mind and intellect dissolve in Kundalini and Kundalini thus dissolves into the supreme consciousness.
The final step of Ashtanga Yoga is as follows:
- Samadhi. Samadhi refers to ecstasy and includes the state in which individual consciousness becomes pure consciousness. Because the conscious connection with the divine becomes everlasting after a prolonged state of samadhi, completion of this step means that there is no longer a need to practice Ashtanga yoga.