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What is Ashtanga Yoga?

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

This is rather a lengthy blog post so feel free to skip to the parts that you want to read, here is an outline of what will be covered:

  • Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga

  • What Does Yoga Mean?

  • History of Ashtanga

  • Physical Ashtanga Yoga

  • Ujjayi Breathing

  • 8 Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi)

Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga

Many people might have heard of Ashtanga Yoga, perhaps thinking of it as the most regimented and challenging type of yoga, as it follows a set sequence. While this is partially correct, there is so much more to it!

Ashtanga Yoga literally translates to 8 (ash = 8) limb (anga = limb) yoga and it provides an 8-step path on how to achieve a meaningful and purposeful life, eventually leading to spiritual enlightenment (if you so desire). Of course, for a lot of us who do not have a religious or spiritual practice, this might be hard to relate to and can sound daunting.

I myself find anything that mentions enlightenment to be a bit intimidating but I have come to interpret spirituality as simply believing that we are all connected and should help each other.

With this simple definition in mind, we can disregard enlightenment for now if you like and focus on what the 8 limbs are and how they can be useful in helping your average person create a positive mind-set for everyday life.

What does yoga mean?

Let us begin with the word Yoga. Yoga means “union” or “absorption” and refers to the union of the mind, body and soul with the Universal Consciousness or “Brahman”. For the everyday human however, yoga can be described as the alleviation of suffering as we become to know our true self.

History of Ashtanga

The Yoga Sutras are an ancient text written by a man/sage/deity referred to as Pantanjali. The Sutras were written approximately 1700 years ago and are regarded as one of the first texts to underline the physical practice, outlining how to live a purposeful life.

The Yoga Sutras (Sutra translates from Sanskrit as thread) are comprised of 196 “threads” that outline how to achieve spiritual liberation. It is important to note that spiritual liberation can be translated to mean freedom of the mind. Yoga’s ultimate aim to is quieten the mind, stilling the pattering of consciousness. In this stillness, we are able to recognise our true selves and ultimately heal and free ourselves from suffering.

When yoga says our “true selves” it is referring to the mind/body/soul/human (whatever you want to call it) that lies beneath the shallow layer of consciousness. The shallow layer is the part of us that is driven by suffering AKA desire, greed, hunger, consumption and cravings. Stephen Cope (the author of The Wisdom of Yoga) describes this rather eloquently (drawing on the Eliade) stating “true identity lies not in the changing contents of consciousness, but is a deeper layer of the self, mind or soul. To reach this deeper layer, one must disentangle oneself from automatic identification with the contents of consciousness”.

K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 – 2009) developed Ashtanga Yoga, pulling heavily from the Sutras, which

first outlined this eightfold path to liberation. A second important text in Ashtanga is known as

the Korunta; an ancient text composed between 500 and 1500 BC. The Korunta is believed to be the first text to outline any physical yoga postures. (There is a debate as to whether the Korunta actually existed, but the story of its emergence is quite interesting if you wish to know). Pattabhi Jois studied yoga under a lineage that had access to these ancient texts, thus using these manuscripts to develop Ashtanga.

Physical Ashtanga Yoga

Before we dive in to the 8 limbs, let’s look at what Ashtanga yoga (the physical practice) looks like.

Ashtanga yoga involves following a set sequence of postures that links movement with breath. The sequence does not change and you traditionally follow this sequence without music, limiting external distractions. With the repetitive nature and lack of external distractions, you are able to fully draw the attention inwards, creating an almost meditative state as you move from posture to posture. It is a challenging but mindfulness movement that helps to connect you to the present moment.

There are 6 series in Ashtanga but most yoga classes will focus on the primary series, with only very advanced practitioners progressing to the second series and beyond.

Ujjayi breathing

The breath is synchronised with movement (inhale on a certain posture, exhale on certain posture) and when you hold a posture, the inhale and exhales are guided/counted. The breath used during Ashtanga is called “Ujjayi breathing” which simply refers to breathing in and out of the nose and keeping the mouth closed. When you exhale, an ocean like sound is created as you exhale into the mouth. If the mouth was open, imagine you were trying to fog up a mirror. Ujjayi breath is practiced as it helps to build internal heat, increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and helps to encourage mindfulness.

So how does this physical practice fit into these 8 limbs? I’m sure you might be surprised that the physical aspect is just one part of this eightfold path!

Eight Limbs of Ashtanga

1. Yamas

There are 5 different Yamas that help us to lead a moral life. Think of them as external moral disciplines that relate to how you interact with the external world.

  • Ahimsa (non-violence)

  • Satya (truthfulness)

  • Asteya (non-stealing),

  • Bramacharya (sexual restraint)

  • Aparigraha (non-greed/hoarding).

2. Niyamas

Again there are 5 Niyamas. Think of these as internal moral disciplines that help us cultivate a positive internal state.

The 5 Niyamas are:

  • Shaucha (self-purification/cleanliness)

  • Santosha (contentment)

  • Tapas (self-disclipine)

  • Svadhyaya (self-study)

  • Isvara Pranidhana (self-surrender).

3. Asana (Posture)

Finally, the physical practice! We may think of yoga poses as just being these cool balances and tricks, however the reality is far from that. Asana translates to mean “seat” i.e. seat for meditation. The aim of the physical practice is to simply strengthen the body so that when we take a seat for meditation, we are not uncomfortable or restless. In the physical practice, we are simply preparing our body to be a vessel that can meditate for an unlimited time with no physical distress or distractions.

4. Pranayama (breath control)

The direct translation of Pranayama is “life force extension” or “life energy”. By controlling and regulating the breath we are able to rid the body of physical and emotional barriers and allow our prana (life energy) to flow seamlessly. There are numerous breath work techniques (of which Ujjayi breathing is one) that all serve different purposes, ranging from calming to fiery effects.

5. Pratyahara (Control of the senses/withdrawal)

“Pratya” translates to withdrawal and refers to bringing the senses under control and away from external distractions. The attention draws inwards so we can focus on our internal selves and how we really feel. By cultivating a detachment from our external senses and the material world, we will no longer feel the pull of these distractions. Once free from cravings and desires, this gives us an opportunity to reflect on our behaviours and habits, identifying what is actually detrimental to our internal happiness.

6. Dharana (Focussed Concentration)

Here we can see the path begin to unfold and how each step prepares us for the next. Through asanas, pranayama and pratyahara, the body, breath and senses are bought under control so that we can begin dharana. As we are free from external distractions, we can begin to bring the distractions of the mind under control. This is usually done by focussing on one singular mental object such as a sound, an image or an energetic feeling in the body. Imagine this step as being the training and precursor to meditation itself. Here we are practicing our ability to keep the mind still and focussed on one singular point, whilst also keeping the body and breath controlled.

For the majority of us, this in itself will be a challenge, but remember it is all a journey!

7. Dhyana (Meditative absorption)

Dhyana refers to when the flow of consciousness is completely uninterrupted and we are in that

meditative state. Here the mind is quiet, still and aware but without any particular focus.

Meditation itself can be hard to identify, but we might all have had that fleeting moment when trying to meditate where there are no thoughts flowing, and it’s not until the second after when a thought enters your head that you recognise that “oh my mind was quiet”! That moment of uninterrupted, quiet consciousness is meditation – a mind that is free from wants and desires.

8. Samadhi (enlightenment)

Typical assumptions of enlightenment are that we ascend to a magical cloud and proclaim, “I am free, I am forever blissful and happy!” however this is not quite the case.

The culmination of the eightfold path simply states that chasing and grappling for imagined ideals creates unnecessary suffering and pain. As Patanjali states very simply, “the causes of suffering are not seeing things the way they are”. Samadhi is about accepting and loving reality. By accepting the world (and our mind) as it is, without our feelings, thoughts, pleasure or pain skewing our view/interpretation, we recognise life for exactly what it is.

The joy is realising that happiness isn’t tied to an abstract ethereal bliss, but it is right here in front of you. Once we realise this, we are free.


The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope

Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar


All other pictures sourced from Pixabay

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