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More about Astanga Yoga

A Modern practice with ancient roots

Given time and commitment, what first seems like an overtly physical practice can start to have positive effects ‘off the mat’.  To understand why, it helps to know a bit about the meaning of the word ‘Astanga’ and the historical roots of its modern day form.

The literal translation of Astanga is “eight limbs”. It comes from a teaching in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This work, produced about 2000 years ago, is still studied all over the world by those seeking to understand the science of yoga. Patanjali was a philosopher and grammarian. His sutras were produced for an audience already well versed in yoga practice, so they are very concise. Today most people study them alongside extensive commentaries.

At the beginning of the work Patanjali states, “Yogas citta vritti nirodha” (“yoga is the stilling of the churnings of the mind”).

Later on he introduces eight ‘limbs’ or tools to help us work towards this goal.

They are

Yamas (abstinences)

Niyamas (observances)

Asana (posture)

Pranayama (control of the breath)

Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)

Dharana (withdrawal of the senses)

Diyana (meditation)

Samadhi (enlightenment)

The eight limbs are not to be practiced one by one, nor in isolation. They are like the branches of a tree: they feed and support each other.

The first four limbs are often described as external. They are things we can put into action. The others are internal. They arise as a result of our actions.

The first two limbs are about how we live. They could be described as ideals or ethics. The third and fourth limbs are practices directly aimed at helping us with the first two limbs.

To illustrate: aspiring to live well (limbs one and two) and controlling your energy (limbs three and four) can make you calmer, more focused and contemplative (limbs five six and seven), leading ultimately to enlightenment (limb eight).

The first two limbs can be daunting. They seem reminiscent of instructions from a holy text. But Patanjali is not issuing commandments from on high. Rather, he simply recommends a way to live in tune with one’s physical and spiritual environment.

Patanjali recommends five Yamas:

Ahimsa (refraining from violence)

Asteya (refraining from stealing)

Asetya (refraining from dishonesty)

Bramacharya (practicing sexual continence – often mistranslated as celibacy)

Aparigraha (practicing non attachment – parigraha means gripping or grasping)

A helpful, non-judgmental approach to the Yamas is possible if we understand the Sanskrit word. Yama can be translated as “restraint” or “cessation”. The things Patanjali suggests we pull back from are mostly ‘drives’ or thoughtless actions.

By contrast the Niyamas could be described as ‘ideals’, or aspects of ourselves we should cultivate.

Again, there are five of them:

Saucha (cleanliness – both inside and out)

Santosha (contentment)

Tapas (discipline)

Swadhyaha (self study)

Iswara Pranidhana (devotion)

Mysore style Astanga yoga practice encourages beginners to start with the third limb, asana. This is partly because it is very straightforward to learn and teach. It draws the practitioner naturally towards the other limbs by virtue of its tangible results. Patanjali himself only used the word ‘asana’ to describe classic, seated meditation postures. What we recognize as asana practice today  developed latterly, as an aid to seated meditation. To put it very simply: by the late middle ages adherants of what came to be known as Hatha Yoga had begun to use  more physical techniques to tone and detoxify the body (so that the mind would follow suit).

Mysore style Astanga Yoga blurs the line between seated meditation and physical excersise because it requires the student’s full concentration. in practice our attention is drawn to three places. These are the breath, the movement and postures to go with it (vinyasa) and where we ‘look’ (dristi). Each moving vinyasa and held asana has a prescribed dristi. By focusing on these ‘three places of attention’, the distractions of daily life can recede, making us more present. The sanskrit name for this is Tristhana.

The Tristhana is a very effective form of meditation for anyone who finds the mind ‘wandering’ all too easily when they try to sit still. It is a great form of meditation for the modern age when so many of us lead sedentary lifestyles.

Although most people would describe me as a yoga teacher, it is really just the third limb (asana) that I can instruct. in all other aspects of the yoga journey, I am a student. the chance to join others in the eternal  study of yoga, with no goal and no graduation, has been the most rewarding experience of  my life. If this website has made you curious and you would like to give it a go, please get in touch and we can take it from there.