The Foundation of Ashtanga Yoga

By Rudra Shivananda

In what is considered one of the definitive texts of Yoga, an eightfold or ashtanga process is defined, from self-restraint (yama) to unity consciousness (samadhi).

Kriya Yoga ArticlesIt is instructive for us to understand why the yogic sage Patanjali has placed ahimsa (non-violence) as the first of the yama. Non-violence is the most important practice to perform – it leads to the perfection of love. It is the most practical to practice because it is very easy to observe whether one has broken the self-restraint in action, speech or thought. The perfection of love removes the veil of duality and ignorance, merging into satya or truth – the highest aspect of which
is the realization of the essential oneness of all Being. With the perfection of satya, all covetousness is removed and non-stealing or asteya happens in due course. The ultimate in stealing is the thought of keeping something away from the Divine, the giver and owner of all there is. With the perfection of asteya, all that we have is offered to the Divine, which is what brahmacharya is all about – the turning of all our energies toward the Divine. When we have given our all back to the Source of All, what is there to be attached to anymore? The perfection of brahmacharya leads effortlessly to the practice of aparigraha or non-attachment.

Although the five restraints in the yamas is given as a progression, one leading to the next in perfection, this does not mean that the spiritual seeker needs to wait for the perfection of one before practicing the next. They should all be practiced in unison as a completely integrated way of life. However, each cannot be perfected until the previous one has been perfected first, and therefore ahimsa is the most important one to work towards.

When the yamas are perfected, there is an emergence of saucha or purity, the first of the niyamas (higher virtues). The purpose of the self-restraints is to provide the ground for purity and by perfecting purity, all thoughts, words and deeds become sanctified and will
no longer incur new karmic consequences. With the perfection of purity, contentment or santosha arises in consequence.

You might now start to wonder how contentment could possibly lead to austerity. It is well to recall that tapas (austerity) is actually the development of inner fire, and this inner fire requires the quenching of all desires, which can only occur when contentment is perfected.

When the inner fire has developed by burning all the desires, it is then possible to realize one’s true Self, and svadhyaya (self-discovery) becomes a reality. With the perfection of svadhyaya, one can truly surrender to the will of the Divine and practice the perfection of ishvar pranidhana.

Again, the niyamas are a natural progression from the yamas, and each niyama smoothly merges into the next.

The third anga of Ashtanga Yoga, after niyama, is asana (steady posture) because when one has perfected the niymas, one has control over one’s physical body and can achieve a steady posture for deep meditation.

The fourth anga is pranayama, the control and expansion of the life-force energy. This pranayama is a practice of combining the tapas or building of inner fire, done with self-awareness of svadhyaya and with devotion to the Divine, in a state of ishvar pranidhana.
By the continuous and prolonged practice of pranayama, the state of pratyahara or the internalization of the senses comes about. It is important to remember that pratyahara is the consequence of the consistent practice of life-force control. The deepening of pratyahara leads to dharana or one-pointed concentration, which leads to dhyana or meditative awareness, which leads to samadhi, states of blissful absorption into the Self and eventually the Divine.

Each limb of Ashtanga Yoga flowers into the next, as opening blossoms encouraging the growth of the next higher lotus bloom.

From the perspective of understanding the perfection of these eight aspects of Yoga, they are like the steps on a ladder leading from our current state to the yogic state of Self-Realization. You have to go from one step to the next. However, from a practical or constructive model, these eight parts are like the spoke of a wheel and we need to practice them according to the yogic system that we are engaged in.

Yoga is not possible without the fragrance of the yama and niyama, that is their purifying and transformative power – they are the foundation of Yoga. Let us firmly make our progress on the spiritual path by building the strong foundation of self-restraint and self-discipline for higher virtues.

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