Before I even knew what Ashtanga yoga was, I was practicing Ashtanga yoga.
You are already practicing Ashtanga yoga or at least a variation of the tradition… even when you simply take a moment to notice your breath.
Ashtanga is more than yoga postures, poses, and asana. Ashtanga is a way of life that has been around for thousands and thousands of years (some say, at least 200 BCE, or longer). We know Ashtanga today because of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), and B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014). I am only beginning my own journey with an Ashtanga yoga practice, but here’s what I know, so far:
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga consists of eight aspects or limbs of a whole yoga practice. Ashta is the number eight in Sanskrit. It is also a Lebanese cream (the more you know!). Anga means, “limb.”
Ashtanga yoga is the octopus of the yoga world.
The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:
Yamas: Life off the Yoga Mat (Morals).
Ahimsa: Non-violence – no harm to yourself, or to others (words, actions, thoughts).
Satya: Truthfulness – being truthful and speaking your truth.
Asteya: Non-stealing – do not take from others or from ourselves (experience, joy, knowledge).
Brahmacharya: Controlled use of energy – don’t sweat the small stuff, focus on one thing at a time.
Aparigraha: Non-greed – take only what we need and practice non-attachment.
Niyamas: Observances and Inner Work (Tools for Finding our Self).
Saucha: Cleanliness in our lives, homes, thoughts, and actions.
Santosha: Being content with our lives and circumstances, appreciating what we have in order to move forward.
Tapas: Discipline and focused direction on our path, studies, practice.
Svadyaya: Studying the self and materials relevant to our practice.
Ishvarapranidana: Surrender to a higher power, the Universe, God, or a belief system.
Things get a little more concrete from there, kind of.
Asana: Physical postures, poses, yoga classes, and/or yoga practices.
Ashtanga yoga technically follows standard series of postures (primary series, intermediate series, advanced series) in every class or practice, allowing for a deeper understanding of the practice and asanas. This is the part of Ashtanga most of us are familiar with, and what sucks us into a deeper yoga practice (no matter the tradition, really). We start with a major crush on Warrior II, only to realize that crush has grown into a full-blown obsession with gaining more sensation, information, and self-realization as we fiercely (yet, warmly) gaze over our outstretched fingertips.
Pranayama: Control of breath and prana.
Prana is living energy that is also called many names: ki, chi/qi, Yōki, or The Force (for the Jedis). By controlling the breath through pranayama exercises, we are able to guide our prana. We can calm our minds and bodies, or wake up our senses, just through various pranayama (breathing) exercises.
Then Ashtanga’s Eight Limbs gets a lot less concrete…
Pratyahara: Feeling, not seeing.
When you are in a yoga class and there are mirrors, you are going to watch your practice to see if you are “doing the postures right.” Pratyhara teaches us that there is no “right” way to look as we practice yoga, only a judgment of how we feel as we practice. Close your eyes in downward dog – that is pratyahara. Yoga isn’t about how you look, it is how you feel. Otherwise, nobody would do hot yoga 😉
Dharana: Concentration and focus.
Yoga brings us an awareness of our mind and body, through our breath and senses. When we practice that awareness, that mindfulness, the focus, and concentration allows the random thoughts and ideas to fade away. They’ll either be there after practice is over, or they will no longer be a priority in our mind. Either way, the concentration and focus we learn through yoga allows us to better process our regular, daily lives.
That moment when you think of nothing. That point between focusing on your breath and the physical jerk back to awareness. The microsecond between an inhale and an exhale. The nothingness, the emptiness, the missing moments in a full meditation session – THAT is dhyana.
Until, finally, we arrive at the reason for practicing Ashtanga yoga:
Samadhi: It is what it is.
The “truth” of Ashtanga yoga is that what you see is what you get, in life, in a yoga practice, in relationships, and in the Universal Consciousness. Your enlightenment, nirvana, or truth may be different or the same, it may be anti-climactic, or a validation of whatever you’ve thought all this time. Because what it is, it is. That’s all.