Classical Ashtanga Yoga–An Overview

OM in MAC GardenAshtanga yoga encompasses the physical postures “asanas” and so very much more. It is a complete time-tested path of human physical/mental/spiritual health and peace.  Ashtanga yoga includes eight major aspects or limbs.

The word “Ashtanga” is from two Sanskrit words: ashta = eight and anga = limb. Yoga asanas (postures or exercises) are just one of the eight limbs.

Ashtanga yoga is considered Raja yoga…the “royal”, supreme or highest path. Hatha Yoga Ha = sun, tha = moon. Hatha yoga has six limbs, many correspond to the eight-limbs of Classical Ashtanga Yoga.

There are many branches of yoga. Basically, the principles of classical hatha yoga asanas apply to all forms of asana practice.

The ancient sage, Patanjali, is considered the first to systematize the practices of Ashtanga Yoga that date back more than 5,000 years ago. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras compile one of the major yogic philosophies of the ages.

“Ashtanga” is also linked with a more recent evolution of flowing, physically demanding asana practice sometimes called “power yoga”. The Ashtanga (Power) Yoga system of asana practice was developed by Sri K. Patthabhi Jois  under his master yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya in 1927. It comes from classical Ashtanga roots and includes all eight limbs. Sri Jois was critical of calling the practices “power yoga”, feeling that the term was misleading. Ashtanga power yoga teaches the importance of first learning the stationery asanas (poses), learning to breathe and engage the bandas (muscular locks) correctly while practicing them and then, with the master’s guidance, learning to link the poses into ever more challenging flows or vinyasas.

“Yogam chitta vritti nirodhah.”

This is the Sanskrit transliteration of Patanjali’s famous second sutra (thread). It means: “Yoga is the cessation of thought waves in the mind.”

Yoga literally means “union” or “communion”. When we still our mind, union with our divine source is achieved, according to Master Yogi Baba Hari Dass who resides at Mt. Madonna Center, Watsonville, CA. “Practices of yoga, called “sadhana”, purify the body and mind for the purpose of developing concentration…leading to thoughtless mind and super consciousness (Samadhi). Higher consciousness brings knowledge of reality and peace.”

The eight limbs are:

YAMAS —restraints

There are five yamas which guide social conduct. One may note their similarity to six of the Ten Commandments in Christianity.

ahimsa —to refrain from causing pain to any living being including oneself either by action, word or thought.

satya —to develop honesty; to avoid deceiving self or other including exaggeration, rationalization, pretense or other variations of deceit

asteya —non-stealing or mis-appropriating material or non-material things (undeserved praise, for example)

brahmacharya —continence, to conserve and redirect sexual energy. Literally: to walk on God’s path—purity of thought, word and deed

aparigraha —non-hoarding or posessiveness. To avoid accumulation of unnecessary possessions.

Ahimsa is always primary. If truthfulness creates more harm than benefit, then the primary factor in determining behavior or right action is “What is ahimsa?”

NIYAMAS -observances

Saucha —purity of mind and cleanliness of body

Santosha —contentment: A virtue to actively cultivate to be free of effects of pleasure and pain. One becomes desire-less and attains unexcelled happiness.

Tapas —austerity. The literal meaning is “to burn”. Tapas implies burning desires through discipline, purification and penance.

Swadhyaya–scriptural study, Self-inquiry, satsang and japa—repetition of Om or any sacred mantra used for liberation.

Ishvarapranidhana —surrender to God: recognition that the limited ego-self is an illusion; channeling of energies toward the realization of truth/God. One who sees the divine in all beings and who has surrendered the ego of being the “doer”. One only has success in samadhi with this surrender…
ASANA—posture, seat

Most people in the West, think Yoga is a physical practice of asanas designed to help people lose weight and gain physical strength and flexibility. Others just think it’s torture!

Asanas strengthen and relax the body but, mostly, stimulate the subtle body, purify and strengthen energetic channels and raise the flow of prana.

PRANAYAMA —control of prana

prana —breath, vital energy ayama—expansion

Prana flows with each inhalation and exhalation.

Done correctly, pranayama practice drastically and safely reduces the number of breaths preparing one for natural meditative states. Here’s how:

Mental activity is correlated to breath. Slow the breath and you’ll slow the thoughts.

Yoga is the cessation of thought waves in the mind.” —Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras 1:2

There are pranayama practices which, when practiced regularly and properly, can: Strengthen digestion and the lungs, alleviate indigestion, calm the mind, heat or cool the body, remove phlegm from the throat, purify energy channels, clear sinus congestion, awaken kundalini, sharpen the mind and memory and more.

Pranayama is considered the highest austerity or “tapas”, as it requires great restraint of the normal, life-giving breath.

Pranayama works directly with vital life force energy. The guidance of a yoga teacher trained to teach pranayama practice is recommended.

—withdrawing the mind from sense perception

The four previous limbs, yamas, niyamas, asana and pranayama are external practices. Limbs six through eight are internal. Pratyhara is the bridge between them.

Pratyhara is practiced by consciously and repeatedly pulling the mind inward from external senses. Helpful methods include:

mantra —releasing sacred sounds

nada —listening to inner sounds

japa —repetition of mantra or name of God

puja —worship

trataka —gazing (sometimes a candle)

kirtana —chanting

mudra —making “seals” or “locks”

arati —worship by light

DHARANA—concentrating the focus of attention

After the mind is turned inward, it is directed toward one object of focus. The object may be the breath, a point in the body, a mantra, chakra or visualization.


International spiritual leader and Hugging Saint “Amma”, Mata Amritanandamayi, says that 80% of disease is cause by tension. In 1998, a study by the American Medical Association reported 90%.

What happens to a car after the lights are left on overnight? There is no energy to go anywhere or do anything. When one lives with constant stress and tension, life energy is constantly draining just like that car battery. It’s survival mode. One awakens tired instead of refreshed. Stimulants can mask the problem for a while. But, at some point, bodily functions, like the immune system, start to break down and disease emerges.

Practicing meditation expands one’s capacity to relax and to respond from compassion, wisdom and creativity, instead of survival fight or flight reactions. Negative thought patterns that trigger unhealthy addictions or disease are revealed and dissolved.

One responds more appropriately in crisis situations. Original creative inspiration emerges.

Meditation cannot be willed. It’s a subtle act of letting go. Most people refer to the daily sitting to focus on breath, repetitive mantra or other practices “meditation”.


Beyond my ability to express. :))

And, for a simplified concept…when one moves from unbroken awareness of the object of focus to…merging with that object. No separation. No thoughtwaves…

* The “brand” of Ashtanga Yoga known popularly as power yoga was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. One of his students who brought the teaching from India wrote a book about it called “Power Yoga”. Jois was actually angry that the term “power” was used. However, the American yogi who created the term meant power in the sense of empowerment.

Main source of information: Ashtanga Yoga Primer by Baba Hari Dass.