In Sanskrit “Ashta + anga” is Ashtanga. “Ashta” means Eight and “Anga” is limbs so it means Eight Limb path, ashtanga yoga is based on Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali. The asanas, Pranayamas or the dharana which we have studied earlier or the yam and niyam are based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Hence, we will acquaint ourselves with the fundamentals as stated by Patanjali first.
There are many interpretations of and opinions about the yamas and niyamas. While the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavata Purana assigns 12 yogic restraints the Parashar Smriti, another text, puts forward ten. But the yamas as described in Patanjali`s Yoga Sutra are only five, which are also known as the great universal vows or the sarvabhauma maha vratas, because they are not limited by either class, creed, time or circumstances. They are the guidelines for how we interact with the outer world, the social disciplines to guide us in our relationships with others. These five are:
The niyamas are the second constituents of Ashtanga Yoga. How we interact with ourselves, our internal world. The niyamas are about self-regulation—helping us maintain a positive environment in which to grow. Their practice harnesses the energy generated from the cultivation of the earlier yamas. According to sage Yajnavalkya, there are ten niyamas and the Bhagavad Gita lists 11 constituents. But Patanjali names only five:
Shaucha or purity
Santosha or contentment
Tapa or austerity
Swadhyaya or self-education
Ishwar-Pranidhan or meditation on the Divine
The yamas and niyamas help in managing our energy in an integrative manner, complementing our outer life to our inner development. They help us view ourselves with compassion and awareness. They help in respecting the values of this life, in balancing our inner growth with outer restraint. In short they help us to lead a conscious life. Yamas and niyamas are not about right and wrong. They are about being honest with the true Self. Living according to these principles are about living our lives in a better way, about moving towards an understanding, about making it possible to `connect` with the Divine.
A yogasana is a posture in harmony with one`s inner consciousness. It aims at the attainment of a sustained and comfortable sitting posture to facilitate meditation. Asanas also help in balancing and harmonizing the basic structure of the human body, which is why they have a range of therapeutic uses too.
Benefits of Yogasanas
The regular practice of yogasanas has an immense amount of therapeutic value. Besides various physiological benefits, they positively affect our minds, our life force energies as well as our creative intelligence. Regular practice helps to keep our body fit, controls cholesterol level, reduces weight, normalizes blood pressure and improves heart performance. Physical fitness thus achieved leads to reduction of physical stress and greater vitality. Asanas harmonize our pranic ability and mental energy flow by clearing any blockages in the subtle body leading to mental equilibrium and calmness. They make the mind strong thus enabling our human body to suffer pain and unhappiness stoically and with fortitude.
`Pranayama` is a compound term (`prana` and `yama`) meaning the maintenance of prana in a healthy throughout one`s life. More than a breath-control exercise, pranayama is all about controlling the life force or prana. Ancient yogis, who understood the essence of prana, studied it and devised methods and practices to master it. These practices are better known as pranayama. Since breath or prana is basic to life, the practice of pranayama helps in harnessing the prana in and around us, and by deepening and extending it, pranayama leads to a state of inner peace.
Benefits of Pranayama
The practices of pranayama—the correct breathing technique helps to manipulate our energies. Most of us breathe incorrectly, using only half of our lung capacity. Pranayama is a technique, which re-educates our breathing process, helps us to release tensions and develop a relaxed state of mind. It also balances our nervous system and encourages creative thinking. In addition, by increasing the amount of oxygen to our brain it improves mental clarity, alertness and physical well being.
When practiced along with yogasanas the benefits of pranayama are more pronounced. According to Patanjali`s Yoga Sutra, pranayama enables the mind to acquire the capacity to concentrate on any given object of attention. It also says that scientific breathing helps in unveiling true knowledge from the darkness of ignorance. But it is eminently advisable to be aware of all the do`s and don`ts of pranayama before practicing them.
Pratyahara involves rightly managing the senses and going beyond them instead of simply closing and suppressing them. It involves reining in the senses for increased attention rather than distraction. Pratyahara may be practiced with mantra meditation and visualization techniques.
It is essential to practice pratyahara for achieving the three meditative stages of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Perfecting this technique of yoga is also essential in order to break out from the eternal cycle of rebirths.
The last three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are the three essential stages of meditation. Dharana involves developing and extending our powers of concentration. This consists of various ways of directing and controlling our attention and mind-fixing skills, such as concentrating on the chakras or turning inwards.
Dhyana is the state of meditation, when the mind attains the ability to sustain its attention without getting distracted. Strictly speaking, unlike the other six limbs of yoga, this is not a technique but rather a state of mind, a delicate state of awareness. This state rightfully precedes the final state of samadhi.
Samadhi, or total absorption, is the ability to become one with the True Self and merge into the object of concentration. In this state of mind, the perceiver and the object of perception unite through the very act of perception—a true unity of all thought and action. This is the acme of all yogic endeavors—the ultimate `yoga` or connection between the individual and the universal Soul!