Ashtanga Yoga is not an Indian form of calisthenics or gymnastics. It is an eight-limbed path. The word Ashtanga comes from a text dating somewhere between the 4th and 1st centuries, B.C.E., called The Yoga Sutras. The Sutras--as they are affectionately known by yogis-- are arguably the most important 'how-to' compilation of terse statements about yoga for yogis. The word Ashtanga means eight limbs (ashto- eight; anga- limb). Ashtanga yogis don't just practice the second two limbs of this eight limbed path, asana and pranayama. They practice all of them...at the same time. They practice the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, which are basically 'do's and don'ts.' They're the yogis version of the Ten Commandments. The fifth limb, pratyahara, is translated as 'the withdrawal of the senses.' The last three limbs, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, are gradations of the various levels of absorption or concentration that can occur when we practice. The tradition my co-teacher, Devorah Sacks, and I come from has a unique spin on this eight-limbed path. As students of the renowned yoga master from Mysore, India, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, we’ve been taught that all we need to do is to work on asana and pranayama, and the rest of the limbs naturally and spontaneously will follow. But that's not to say we are to ignore the other six-limbs. Rather, the other limbs are to be considered benchmarks that give us direct feedback on the quality of intention we bring to our practice.
Getting Fit and Chilling Out
As a long-term teacher of Ashtanga Yoga, I’ve come to recognize that most people don’t come to practice in order to have a deeper connection with the yamas and niyamas. They come either to get fit or to ‘chill out.’ This is usually the first aspiration that shows up on the mat. If the new student is persistent and continues to practice through the initial phase of soreness, stiffness, and the difficulty of waking up in the early morning to get on her mat, she will more often than not begin to wonder about the philosophical aspects of the practice.
I cannot say for certain what it is about practicing breath and posture that elicits this curiosity, but I do know for certain that at least 80% of the students I have taught make it past the initial stage of just wanting to get strong and flexible. That initial aspiration doesn't go away altogether. It just becomes obvious that the goal of yoga is much wider and broader than originally perceived.
How the Eight Limbs Work Together
Within the yoga that Jois taught, the eight limbs do not follow a linear sequence. In other words, we’re not taught to master the first limb before moving on to the next limbs. [ref] I don’t doubt, however, that historically, there were schools of yoga in which that was how the practice was taught. Neophytes probably needed to prove themselves before the deeper, more introspective practices were taught.[/ref] In this tradition, the first two limbs, yamas and niyamas spontaneously arise out of the steady and continuous practice of asana and pranayama. Jois used to say that when the body and mind were cleansed of impurities, that following these rules was easy, natural, and obvious. And when the mind and body were gummed up with negativity and illness, to follow yamas and niyamas put the yogi at odds with herself and only created more tension.
And according to Jois, the last four limbs—which are, essentially, deeper levels of introspection, attention, and meditation—cannot be practiced. They arise spontaneously from the steady practice of the first four limbs. In other words, meditation cannot be practiced, according to this tradition. It just naturally grows from the continuous practice of breath work, posture, and the observance of certain morals and mores.
Focus on Asana and Pranayama And All Is Coming
Here’s the bottom line: essentially, Jois is saying is that all we need to do is to just practice asana and pranayama and the rest of the limbs follow spontaneously and naturally. By the way, his teacher, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is really the grandfather of modern yoga, said the same thing. So this isn’t idiosyncratic to Jois’ tradition. This is what all Krishnamacharya’s well-known students, including B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, Indra Devi, A.G. Mohan, and Srivatsa Ramaswami, basically teach and taught.
If you look at this closely, it’s a pretty far-out idea. The tradition is saying that you cannot do meditation. Meditation cannot be done. Meditation just comes. It’s like that William Blake quote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is – infinite.” So, as yogis, it is our job to cleanse the doors of perception through the continuous, steady practice of asana and pranayama. In fact, that is all we really have the power to do anything about. And so at the heart of the practice of yoga, we’re just cleansing and clearing away what’s in the way. Once cleared, the goal of yoga naturally and spontaneously occurs.
What's the Point of the Other Six Limbs?
So why even mention the eight limbs if all we can really do are asana and pranayama? The limbs are signposts along the journey. They’re there to let you know about the quality of your aspiration and intention in your asana and pranayama practices. In other words, if you take away the other six limbs, and all you had were the asana and pranayama, it wouldn’t be altogether clear where the journey of yoga were taking us. But given the fact that introspection, attention, and meditation “should” naturally arise along the path of yoga, if they’re not, it’s a good indicator that there is something askew with the way we’re approaching our practices. Likewise, if the yamas and niyamas become more obscure to us and more difficult to practice along the path, then that, too, is an indicator that our practice is not, in fact, supporting our transformation.