Ashtanga Yoga is Much More than Physical Postures or Asanas

Today, yoga has become an alternative word for physical exercise. Of course, yoga includes physical exercises, also called asanas. But these asanas/postures are just one aspect of yoga. Yoga, in fact, is a practice to attain physical, mental and spiritual well being. Yoga leads to the overall development of body, mind and soul.

Of the various forms of yoga, Pathanjali’s Astanga yoga or the Eight limb yoga is the most powerful form of yoga that encourages the overall development of an individual. This article discusses Astanga yoga including eight different stages.

Astanga yoga or Eight limbs yoga

The eight stages of astanga yoga are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahar, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. We can divide these eight stages into two parts. The first part includes the first four stages which when practiced help us correct our behaviors and attitudes, attain internal discipline, and to strengthen your body and mind. Let us discuss them in detail

Stage–1: Yama (Right social behavior)

This is the first stage in yoga which helps us to control our social behavior. There are five yamas or guidelines about how to interact with the outer world.

  1. Satya (Truth and honesty): Always stick with truth while thinking, speaking and working. Being truthful and honest brings you respect than any other material wealth.
  2. Ahimsa (Non–violence): Non-violence means not doing any harm or injury. It could be through our words, thoughts or actions.
  3. Asteya (Non-stealing): Non-stealing just doesn’t mean not stealing things, it also means not stealing one’s time, effort or anything that is not yours
  4. Aparigraha (Non-possessiveness): Earn what is necessary and possess what you have morally earned. Hankering (strong desire) for material wealth will leave you in trouble.
  5. Brahmacharya (Virtuous conduct): Brahmacharya doesn’t completely mean remaining unmarried. It implies non-lust, controlling unnecessary desires that prevent you from going to the next level in your life. In other words, it is doing things with restraint.

Stage–2: Niyama (Personal discipline)

Niyama means rules or laws prescribed for personal discipline and responsibility. Following five niyamas help us become a better individual.

  1. Shoucha (Purity): Staying clean both physical and mentally. Your should also be clean which encourages you to think positive. Once your thoughts are pure, your words will be right and so will be your actions
  2. Santosa (Contentment): Being satisfied with what you have and knowing your limits is important. Otherwise you will become greedy which leads to greif.
  3. Tapas (Right effort): To bear some trouble with good intention. While doing things or achieving goals, there will be physical or mental trouble. One should not discontinue his actions.
  4. Svadhyaya (Study of self): Svadhyaya means self awareness, knowing yourself completely yourself on your own. This helps you know your strengths and weaknesses so that you will have a clear idea about your abilities – what you can and what you can’t
  5. Isvara pranidhana: Having faith in what we believe is divine.

Stage-3: Asanas (Yogic exercises)

This is the well known stage of all the eight stages. Asana means a steady and comfortable posture or seat to climb the mind. The postures help us to stay fit and healthy. They make you more flexible and also help you to get ready to perform the next stages of yoga.

Stage–4: Pranayama (Breath management)

Pranayama includes various breathing techniques that help you control your emotions. Breath is considered as life. Once you are able to take the full advantage of it, you will be able to control your life – both physically and mentally.

Few techniques in pranayama like Nadi sodhana (alternate nostril breathing), Chandra pranayama, etc. are helpful for stress management. People who suffer from anxiety, hyper-tension, anger and any other stress related conditions can practice them to get relieved.

The above four stages make a way to follow the next four steps. If we do not master in the above, we may face obstacles in further steps and they may become difficult to practice. While the first four are related to the behavior and body, the remaining four stages are related to mind and thought process.

Stage–5: Pratyahar (Withdrawal of senses)

Pratyahar means withdrawal of the senses or controlling the senses. This helps us to withdraw our energies from the negative things and focus more on positive things. The outside environment will not always be positive, many things attract you, tempt you and influence you. They may not be always right. So, in order for you to avoid unnecessary distractions, instead of reacting to the environment, you should learn how to respond. Once you gain the ability to control your senses, you will be able to understand the reality, and then you will know how to respond.

Remember pratyahar is not escaping from the situation, instead it is facing the situation and responding to it in a right way.

Stage–6: Dharana (Focus)

Dharana is a state of being completely present and focused on a task at hand. Once you learn avoiding distractions in earlier stage, pratyahar, you now can improve your focus on an activity. Learning to stay focused will help you in almost every walk of your life from your education, in your job, while doing household duties to any other critical thing.

Unless we are completely focused, we cannot finish a critical task successfully. Take for example, the surgeons, while doing a critical surgery if a surgeon starts thinking about the on-going World cup final cricket match, imagine what happens to the patient. So, focusing on the work by avoid other distractions is very important to get the desired output.

Stage–7: Dhyana (Single-pointed focus)

The peak stage of dharana is dhyana. In the beginning of dharana, you will get so many individual thoughts. Once you avoid all the unnecessary things and come to a single pointed focus, it is dhyana. Continuing the same above example, when the surgeon stops thinking about the cricket match, problems at home, etc., and starts focusing on the job at head he is in dhyana. He can now complete his surgery effortlessly.

Stage–8: Samadhi:

This is the final stage and also the ultimate goal of yoga. Many Indian scriptures define this stage in a more spiritual way like finding God, experiencing God and so on. But in fact in has a deeper meaning. This is the state where our ignorance dies and the wisdom takes birth. We will be able to see the reality without any influences, predetermined view points or bias. This helps you solve anything that comes in your life with less effort. But in order to reach this stage, you need to master the above seven stages.

Thus yoga is all about overall development of an individual. It helps a you to win yourself and then the world.

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