Ashtanga Yoga is an ancient system of yoga, developed by sage Patanjali and articulated in his Yoga Sutras. Apart from physical fitness, there are many other aspects to the benefits of ashtanga yoga. The name “Ashtanga” is derived from the Sanskrit words “ashta,” meaning eight, and “anga,” meaning limbs. In the West, it is more popularly known as the “Eight-Limbed Yoga”.
Ashtanga Yoga is one of the most comprehensive schools of thought in the different yoga philosophies, and has a holistic approach to the development of the individual. Apart from “asanas” or physical postures for strength and flexibility, Ashtanga Yoga also focuses on interpersonal relationships, and mental health through its different limbs. In this article, we are going to get a brief overview of Ashtanga Yoga, and conclude with 10 wonderful benefits of ashtanga yoga for you to get inspired and begin your journey of incorporating Ashtanga Yoga into your life!
Ashtanga Yoga has been practiced by millions of humans for thousands of years. Ashtanga Yoga is known for its discipline, intensity, and transformative effects on both the physical and mental aspects of one’s well-being. It has gained popularity worldwide, and many contemporary styles of Vinyasa or Power Yoga have drawn inspiration from its principles. The traditional way through which people have been learning the different concepts of Ashtanga Yoga has been to join a Yoga school, typically with its origins in the Indian subcontinent.
Followers of Ashtanga Yoga typically begin with incorporating a few aspects or “limbs” into their daily lives with lenient restrictions placed on themselves. As they progress further with their practices, the restrictions begin stricter, and they start incorporating more aspects of the eight limbed Yoga. The “Asanas”, or the postures for improving the physical fitness of the body are given the first and foremost importance, as they are going to be extremely important in the later stages.
The 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, as elucidated by the ancient sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, provide a comprehensive framework for leading a meaningful and purposeful life. These limbs outline a path that extends beyond the physical postures (asanas) commonly associated with yoga, aiming to guide practitioners toward spiritual growth, ethical conduct, and mental well-being. The Eight Limbs are as follows:
- Yama (Restraints): The first limb of the path of Ashtanga Yoga, referred to as “Yama”, emphasizes the significance of different kinds of restrictions in one’s life. It places importance on the concepts of “Ahimsa“, or non-violence, along with “Satya“, or truth. Leading a non-violent and truthful life is essential for progressing spiritually or improving your mental health conditions. Yama also focuses on “Asteya”, which refers to non-stealing, and “Aparigraha”, which literally translates to “non-possessiveness”, or letting go of material attachments and desires for material possessions. Yama also places importance to “Brahmacharya”, which translates to moderation or celibacy. Brahmacharya talks about the responsible and balanced use of one’s energies, including sexual energy.
- Niyama (Discipline): This limb focusses mainly on developing discipline into your life. The various aspects of “Niyama” have been developed and categorized with this limb for individuals to stay consistent, and remain content without focussing on the results too much. “Saucha” or purity, which loosely translates to maintaining good hygeine and being in a clean environment has been given immense importance. This limb also talks about “Svadhyaya” or self study. The self study of scriptures is important for gaining an intellectual understanding of the different concepts of Yoga. “Tapas”, or persevarance is another aspect of the second limb which is of the utmost importance. Tapas refers to “sacrifices”, “acts”, or “efforts” that you must do on an everyday basis, to stay discplined and maintain a routine. It refers to the practice of self-discipline and persevearance to achieving your spiritual goals.
- Asana (Physical Postures): Asanas are specific body positions designed to improve health, flexibility, balance, and overall well-being. The word “asana” is derived from the Sanskrit language, where it generally means “seat” or “pose.” There are numerous yoga asanas, each with its own set of benefits. Some asanas focus on strengthening and toning muscles, while others emphasize flexibility and relaxation. The practice of asanas is not only physical but also involves mental focus and concentration. Regular practice of yoga asanas is believed to promote physical health, mental clarity, and spiritual well-being. Asanas have been given importance as the third limb as they prepare the mind and body for deeper spiritual practices.
- Pranayama (Breathing Techniques): Pranayama are another component of Yoga, which focus primarily on the breath. Pranayama techniques typically involve various breath patterns, such as deep inhalation, exhalation, breath retention, and specific ratios of inhales and exhales. The practice aims to balance, channel, and enhance the flow of prana throughout the body, promoting physical and mental well-being. Different pranayama techniques serve different purposes. Some are energizing and can increase vitality, while others are calming and aid in relaxation and stress reduction. Practicing Pranayama is said to increase energy and prepare the body for deep meditation states.
- Pratyahara (Turning Inward): The next limb of Ashtanga Yoga refers to a complete withdrawal from the sensory inputs. Pratyahara involves redirecting the focus of attention from external stimuli to the inner self. It’s the process of consciously detaching the mind from the senses and their usual engagement with the external world. This withdrawal is not a complete avoidance of sensory experiences but rather a controlled and selective disengagement. By practicing Pratyahara, individuals aim to cultivate greater control over their reactions to external stimuli, reducing the influence of external distractions and disturbances on their mental state. This withdrawal of the senses is considered a preparatory step for the deeper stages of meditation and self-realization.
- Dharana (Concentration): The sixth limb of Ashtanga Yoga, “Dharana” is derived from Sanskrit and translates to “concentration” or “focused attention.” It is the practice of directing and sustaining attention on a single point, object, or concept, with the goal of achieving mental steadiness and one-pointed focus. Being in the state of Dharana is considered to be a great meditative practice, and can help in the spiritual progress of the individual.
- Dhyana (Meditation): The seventh limb of Ashtanga Yoga, and the most often strived for (as it appears to be the low hanging fruit) is Dhyana. It represents the uninterrupted flow of concentration, where the meditator becomes fully absorbed in the object of meditation, leading to a profound state of focused awareness. While Dharana is about one-pointed focus and concentration, Dhyana takes that concentration to a deeper level, where the mind becomes absorbed in the chosen object of meditation.
- Samadhi (Union): Samadhi is the eighth and final limb of Ashtanga Yoga. It represents the ultimate state of absorption, union, or enlightenment in which the practitioner experiences a profound merging with the object of meditation or the divine. Samadhi is considered the pinnacle of yogic attainment and is often described as a state of bliss, oneness, and transcendent awareness. It is the ultimate goal for followers of Ashtanga Yoga, and is often equated with “Moksha” or salvation.
Useful Tips for Practicing Ashtanga Yoga
Starting with the different practices of Ashtanga Yoga can be difficult at the initial stages. Below are some tips for you to progress faster in your meditative practices:-
- Consistency is Key: Ashtanga Yoga is most effective when practiced regularly. The traditional recommendation is to practice daily. Consistency builds strength, flexibility, and a deeper connection to the practice.
- Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to your body and practice with awareness. While the sequence is set, it’s important to adapt it to your individual needs. Modify poses or take breaks as necessary, especially if you’re a beginner or dealing with any injuries.
- Warm-Up Properly: Ashtanga Yoga can be physically demanding, so it’s crucial to warm up adequately before starting the primary series. Include sun salutations, standing poses, and other preparatory movements to ensure your body is ready for the more challenging postures.
- Be Patient and Persistent: Progress in Ashtanga Yoga takes time. Don’t be discouraged if certain poses feel challenging or unattainable initially. Patience and persistence are key virtues on the yogic path.
- Rest and Recover: Incorporate rest days into your routine to allow your body to recover. Overtraining can lead to injuries and hinder progress. Respect your body’s need for rest and listen to any signals of fatigue or strain.
- Stay Optimistic: Remember that Ashtanga Yoga is a lifelong journey, and the process of self-discovery is just as important as achieving physical milestones. By incorporating these tips into your practice, you can enhance your experience and derive greater benefits from the transformative power of Ashtanga Yoga.
Difficulties While Practicing Ashtanga Yoga
As you begin the different practices associated with Ashtanga Yoga, there are high chances of you facing difficulties in your journey. Below are some of the difficulties that you might face. Knowing them beforehand can help you in navigating these hurdles in a more efficient manner:
- Physical Intensity: Ashtanga Yoga is physically demanding, especially for beginners. The rapid flow and challenging postures of the primary series can be overwhelming. Practitioners may struggle with strength, flexibility, and stamina, leading to physical fatigue or muscle soreness.
- Impatience and Frustration: Progress in Ashtanga Yoga takes time, and impatience can be a significant obstacle. Practitioners may become frustrated when they encounter difficulties in mastering certain poses or advancing through the series. It’s crucial to cultivate patience and embrace the journey without fixating on immediate results.
- Mental Challenges: The synchronized breath, drishti, and dynamic flow in Ashtanga Yoga require a high level of concentration. Distractions, mental chatter, or a wandering mind can make it challenging to maintain focus throughout the practice. Developing a strong meditation or mindfulness practice can help address these mental challenges.
- Adaptation to Mysore Style: Ashtanga Yoga is often taught in the Mysore style, where students practice independently with a teacher providing individual adjustments. This self-paced approach can be intimidating for beginners who are accustomed to led classes. It requires self-discipline, memorization of the sequence, and a willingness to practice without constant verbal guidance.
- Balancing Work and Practice: Maintaining a consistent Ashtanga practice, especially with the recommended seven days a week schedule, can be challenging for individuals with busy lifestyles. Finding a balance between work, family, and the dedication required for regular practice is a common difficulty.
- Lack of Accessibility to Teachers: Ashtanga Yoga is best learned under the guidance of a qualified teacher. However, not everyone has access to certified instructors or Mysore-style classes. Practitioners in remote areas or those with limited resources may find it challenging to receive proper guidance.
- Integration of Spiritual Aspects: Ashtanga Yoga encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. Some practitioners may struggle with integrating the spiritual aspects into their practice, finding it challenging to connect with the deeper meaning of the poses and the overall yogic philosophy.
Benefits of Ashtanga Yoga
Ashtanga Yoga, offers a multitude of physical, mental, and spiritual benefits. Here are ten wonderful advantages that practitioners can experience through consistent engagement with Ashtanga Yoga:
- Enhanced Physical Strength: Ashtanga Yoga is a physically demanding practice that engages multiple muscle groups. Regular practice helps build and tone muscles, promoting overall strength and endurance. The dynamic nature of the sequences challenges the body, leading to increased physical fitness.
- Improved Flexibility: The series of postures in Ashtanga Yoga involve a wide range of movements that contribute to increased flexibility. Regular practice helps lengthen muscles and improve joint mobility, reducing the risk of injuries and enhancing overall flexibility.
- Cardiovascular Health: The dynamic and continuous flow of Ashtanga sequences, coupled with the synchronized breath (Ujjayi breath), provides a cardiovascular workout. This helps improve heart health, circulation, and stamina.
- Stress Reduction: The emphasis on breath control and mindfulness in Ashtanga Yoga promotes a state of focused awareness, reducing stress and anxiety. The practice encourages practitioners to be present in the moment, fostering a sense of calm and relaxation.
- Mental Clarity and Concentration: The synchronized movement and breath in Ashtanga Yoga require concentration, helping to quiet the mind. Regular practice enhances mental clarity, sharpens focus, and improves cognitive function, contributing to an overall sense of mental well-being.
- Detoxification: The combination of deep breathing and intense physical postures in Ashtanga Yoga promotes detoxification. Sweating helps eliminate toxins from the body, and the systematic series of poses stimulates the organs, aiding in the detoxification process.
- Balanced Energy Levels: Ashtanga Yoga aims to balance the body’s energy through the practice of specific postures and breath control. This balanced energy flow contributes to increased vitality and a sense of well-being.
- Emotional Resilience: The disciplined and consistent nature of Ashtanga practice cultivates emotional resilience. Practitioners learn to navigate challenges on the mat, translating these skills into improved emotional regulation and adaptability in daily life.
- Cultivation of Mindfulness: Ashtanga Yoga encourages a mindful approach to movement and breath. The focus on being present in each moment of the practice extends to daily life, promoting a more mindful and conscious way of living.
- Spiritual Growth: Ashtanga Yoga is not just a physical exercise; it is a holistic path that encompasses spiritual dimensions. Through the practice of self-discipline, self-awareness, and connection to the breath, practitioners may experience a deeper sense of spirituality and a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
In conclusion, there are a multitude benefits of ashtanga yoga that can be experienced by you if you continue the practices and remain consistent. Ashtanga Yoga offers holistic development, keeping the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects in mind and combining them together. You might have to face a few difficulties when starting on the path of following Ashtanga Yoga, however, the long term benefits are considerable as well.