Practicing yoga for more than 7 years, I suddenly decided to try a new direction, which I previously stubbornly avoided due to its rigid nature. Yes, I’m talking about Ashtanga yoga. According to the philosophy of this school, yoga should not be adapted to the weakness and imperfection of the practitioner, but on the contrary, the practitioner should develop himself to meet the ideals of yoga.
Not that I enjoy penance or work at the limit of my possibilities. But it just seemed very attractive to me to achieve the results promised by this practice: the ideal body shape, flexibility and strength, peace of mind, and most importantly, the ability to control your attention, which I really miss sometimes.
So, hearing about the severity of the method, I decided to get the most detailed information. As an expert, I chose my yoga teacher and Scripture scholar. Perhaps what I was able to learn during our conversation will be useful to someone else for the successful start of the Ashtanga yoga practice.
What is Ashtanga yoga?
Ashtanga yoga is a special practice formed in the course of Hatha yoga. If classical yoga gives priority to breathing exercises, development of flexibility and relaxation, then Ashtanga yoga forms the strength of spirit and body. To achieve the main goal, – Samadhi (full equilibrium, spiritual perfection), – one will need to pass eight difficult stages.
If you think that the practice of Ashtanga yoga does not require any serious effort, then you are wrong! Not everyone is able to go all the way. It requires not only physical endurance but also the willingness to abide by decent rules of life, to radically change your world.
Many people find it difficult to overcome the first stages of the Ashtanga yoga Path. But you can certainly be sure that having achieved success in Ashtanga yoga, physical and spiritual self-improvement, you will not be able to abandon this practice. After all, this is more than just a hobby. This is a very special lifestyle.
Ashtanga yoga is an eight-step path to the ultimate Goal – Samadhi (the highest spiritual perfection). Although the ultimate goal is to achieve spiritual harmony, Ashtanga yoga is very attentive to physical perfection, since the bodily shell and the mental spirit are inextricably connected.
This practice is great for those who have a strong body and mind, eager for achievements. People who want to take refuge in their own spiritual world from external problems often resort to the practice of Ashtanga yoga.
Eight stages (steps) of Ashtanga yoga
In Sanskrit, the word “Ashtanga” means “eight steps”.
Each of the eight steps of Ashtanga yoga are not easy in their own way. The first two of them, perhaps, are the most important, because they teach human psycho-hygienic rules of life. If there is not enough desire and willpower to make them your way of life, moving on to the next stages is simply meaningless. In other words, if you realize that you are not ready to change yourself spiritually, you should understand that Ashtanga yoga is not for you.
It is very important to have a general understanding of the eight steps before you start practicing Ashtanga yoga. These steps are a guide to how to act in order to live a full, long, and happy life and approach spiritual perfection.
The first stage: YAMA
Yama is a set of ethical norms that teach us to communicate with others in the right way. To be brief, it means one thing: treat people the way you want them to treat you.
There are five Yamas:
- Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings.
- Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood.
- Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing.
- Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): chastity, marital fidelity, or sexual restraint.
- Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-avarice, non-possessiveness.
Second stage: NIYAMA
The step of forming the self-discipline and uplifting spirituality. This step involves regular visits to temples, meditative practices, a study of nature, thinking, and walks.
Five Niyamas are:
- Śaucha (शौच): purity, clearness of mind, speech, and body.
- Santosha (सन्तोष): contentment, acceptance of others, and of one’s circumstances as they are, optimism for self.
- Tapas (तपस): austerity, self-discipline, persistent meditation, perseverance.
- Svādhyāya (स्वाध्याय): a study of self, self-reflection, introspection of self’s thoughts, speeches, and actions.
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna (ईश्वरप्रणिधान): contemplation of the Ishvara (God/Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality), attunement to the supreme consciousness.
Third stage: ASANA
Asana means ‘posture’ or ‘pose’. So by saying ‘asanas’ we mean body poses. Yoga practitioners know that our physical bodies are temples for our souls. Body care is one of the most important stages on the path to spiritual growth and enlightenment. By performing certain asanas, a person learns concentration and self-discipline.
Fourth stage: PRANAYAMA
Pranayama is the ability to control your breath. It is a set and a system of special techniques that make it possible to establish a relationship between breath, mind, and emotions. Literally, pranayama translates as ‘extension of the prana’ or ‘breath control”. Pranayama practice allows you to rejuvenate the entire body and prolong your lifespan. We can practice pranayama as a separate type of yoga technique, or use it as a component of the complex of yoga practice.
Fifth stage: PRATYAHARA
‘Pratyahara’ means ‘gaining mastery over external influences’.
The purpose of this stage is to achieve a state of the distraction of the senses from the surrounding reality and the circulation of the gaze and consciousness inside of you. In other words, pratyahara is the ability to concentrate and not be distracted by various external stimuli. This step gives you the vision of the internal systems, understanding what can stop your personal and inner growth.
Sixth stage: DHARANA
Dharana means ‘concentration’ or ‘single focus’. By concentrating and abstracting, we get distracted from external ‘noise’. This is how we can calm down our minds, which distracts us from knowing more than we are able to understand. It helps us to see the limitless of our possibilities. At this stage, there is a skill to slow down the thought process by focusing on sound, image, energy, or body.
Seventh stage: DHYANA
Dhyana means ‘contemplation, reflection’ and ‘profound, abstract meditation’. This is the stage of the full development of the properties of meditation and concentration. Conscious inhibition of thought processes allows to calm the mind, to feel serenity, not to give rise to new thoughts. To reach this stage, you need endurance and strength. For achieving this, you have to put in a lot of effort and time.
Eighth stage: SAMADHI
Samadhi is a state of intense concentration that can be achieved through meditation. This is a state of bliss and understanding. At this stage, you extend the boundaries of your Self. You start feeling the connection between the divine origin and all living things, unity with nature and the world.
Samadhi is the highest stage of meditation, in which a person experiences oneness with the universe. In samadhi, the mind becomes still. You become totally aware of the present moment.
The Bottom Line
According to the general opinion of the gurus of this type of yoga: no yoga should adapt to the limited opportunities and weaknesses of students, but on the contrary – a person must improve himself to achieve the ideals of yoga. Those who practice Ashtanga yoga, pass the path of spiritual and physical perfection, allowing to make a person healthy and happy.
I hope you’re as inspired to start the Ashtanga yoga class as I am! I’m wishing you a wonderful practice! Namaste!