Ashtanga Yoga is a transformational practice. While there is certainly a physical component to most yoga practiced today, there’s a reason we distinguish it from other similar callisthenic activities. While on the surface Pilates or Bar Method seem interchangeable with yoga, there’s definitely a notable difference. Whatever physical benefits they may boast, these exercise system can’t match yoga’s amazing post-workout life altering powers.
What’s the difference? How does this particular set of movements trickle down into every aspect life? The answer lies (amongst a multitude of other sources) in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Sadhana Pada, or “Practice Chapter.” It is here that this instrumental text describes the facets of eight-limbed, or ashtau-anga, yoga. If those Sanskrit words sound familiar, it’s because you’ve heard them before – they’re also the moniker ascribed to the dynamic form of yoga practice known as Ashtanga. This practice, which seems to place such a heavy emphasis on physical aspect, values the other seven facets of yogic development enough to take “Eight-Limbed” as it’s name – proving the intrinsic importance of yoga off the mat as well as on it.
In fact, Patanjali begins his eight-limbs not with a physical practice, but with guidelines for how we live in the world. While we come to yoga for self-transformation, we are not allowed to forget the external world in our quest for internal change. The first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga, before even asana, are the yamas, or abstentions, and niyamas, or observations – rules for how to live better in our day-to-day life.
The Great Vow
First and foremost amongst the limbs Patanjali places the yamas, rules for how we conduct our relationships. For Patanjali, these five guidelines for life are so important that they form a mighty, universal vow, applicable across place, time and social class. As intimidating as living up to such a vow may sound, the yamas are actually simple rules of common decency. They ask us first to live non-violently, with ahimsa, avoiding causing harm to others at all costs. We are asked to practice satya, truth, living our lives as honestly as possible. The third yama, asteya, entreats us to abstain from stealing or covetousness. Brahmacharya, frequently translated as chastity, is perhaps the most difficult of the group for the modern practitioner. The prevalence of householder-yogis throughout the ages, however, reveals that the yoga practitioner is not expected to live a necessarily monastic life. We are simply asked to be mindful regarding our sexual energy, and to live a life not ruled purely by sensory pleasure. Finally, the great vow asks us to strive for aparigraha, freedom from greed for possessions, learning to be content with enough rather than always wanting more. These five simple guidelines for our interactions with the world form the foundation of the Ashtanga practice, encouraging practitioners to develop positive habits conducive to growth and evolution.
After establishing a mindset for dealing productively with the world, Patanjali asks us to adopt a mindset for dealing productively with ourselves. The second limb of Ashtanga yoga, the niyamas, or observances, is all about treating life and practice with discipline and devotion. The practitioner is instructed to develop a habit of sauca, cleanliness, and santosha, contentment, seeking purity in body and mind. Through self-discipline (tapas) and self-study (svadhyaya), the practitioner fosters a mindset focused on growth. Lastly, the practice of īshvarapranidhana, surrender to God, or a universal power, establishes a deep discipline and devotion key to productive practice and eventually freeing the practitioner of attachment, leading them towards samādhi. These five observances together lay the foundation for our further work, creating a mindset conducive to growth and evolution. After creating fertile ground and sowing the seeds of the yogic journey through these first two limbs, we can begin to tend and water them with the next two limbs, the physical practices of asana and pranayama…