Skip to content

Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga

Patanjalis Ashtanga Yoga

Spiritual Practice of Eightfold Path in Classical Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras outline the eight limbs of classical , Raja (royal) Yoga, or Ashtanga (ash = eight, tanga = branches) Yoga.

Teachers and translators of the Yoga Sutras are careful to never present the limbs of yoga as “steps” or “stages”. Even though there is a clear and apparent progression from the outer world into the contemplation of the inner, it is understood that practitioners must transverse the various limbs in a natural way. Often, visual depictions of the Eightfold Path are those of the intertwining branches of a tree.

As children we have learned that when we are climbing trees, we occasionally have to descend to a lower branch in order to rise up another way. This is also understood in Yoga practice.

The first two branches of the eight fold pat are commonly referred to as the Yamas and the Niyamas, and serve as a sort of “Ten Commandments” of yoga.

  1. The “Yamas” or “restraints” outline the five things that the yogi must abstain from in his path to enlightenment.
  2. The “Niyamas” or “observances” are the five things that the yogi must strive to maintain in his life:
  3. Asana, the third branch of the Eightfold Path is the one with which most Westerners are familiar as “yoga” In most yoga classes, the Sanskrit word “asana” is used to interchangeably in English with pose or posture.
  4. The fourth limb is called Pranayama and is about the lengthening and extension of the breath.
  5. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses, or turning one’s mental focus inward. This is simple to describe or explain, but difficult to learn to do.
  6. The sixth limb is Dharana or concentration, described by Patanjali in Yoga Sutra 3:1 as “fixing of the mind within a point or area.” Whether by focusing on a specific chakra or energy center in the body, or by chanting a mantra such as “Om”, the meditation is centered on a specific space, sound or image. If the student is aware of distractions at all, then they are still making an effort to focus, or practicing Pratyahara.
  7. One does not technically begin to meditate until reaching the seventh limb, or Dhyana. It is described as “uninterrupted flow”. Dhyana is effortless and seamless. The senses have been completely withdrawn.
  8. The ultimate goal of the yoga student is Samadhi. This is the same Sanskrit word used in Buddhism for “enlightenment”.

In The Storytelling Monk‘s glossary of metaphorical meanings in Sanskrit, Samadhi is described as “a state of inner calmness, which is born out of sincere practice.” Linguistically, the word Sama is derived from Samahita, meaning “balanced”, “complete”, “pure”, or even “dissolved”. Dhi refers to intellect, memory and inner reasoning.” Giri defines this as a super-conscious state where “… Absoluteness is experienced with all-knowledge and joy… thinker and thought become one….”

Since the word Yoga signifies union with the divine, this transcendence of the illusion of the physical is the true achievement.