Ashtanga, Ahimsa & Asana

ASHTANGA

The general yogic term ashtanga literally means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras¹. He named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace

There is a style of yoga called ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ which is a dynamic form of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

AHIMSA

Ahimsa is one of the ethical disciplines of yoga. It is the first principle of the Yamas and as such is the first principle of yoga. It translates as ‘non-harm’. This principle of non-harming is to be applied to the body as well as everything in life. In terms of the body it means that it is important to be aware of the body when practising the yoga postures and to modify the poses and practices based on the individual’s particular needs and any underlying health conditions. Everyone can practice yoga from the youngest to the oldest but because every body is different it is necessary to engage with ahimsa to ensure safe practice. When practising yoga it is worth remembering the ethical guideline of ahimsa:

  1. The whole ethos of yoga is about self-exploration which means that there should never be an emphasis on doing a posture perfectly or competing with yourself or others.
  2. As our bodies are all different shapes and sizes with genetics giving us varying lengths of bones, etc., not all yoga poses will be accessible and therefore modifications will be necessary.
  3. Don’t do anything that hurts or increases pain. STOP what you are doing at once.
  4. Be aware of how your body is responding to a posture.
  5. If you are injured or have had an operation, give yourself time to heal before re-starting your yoga practice.
  6. The secret to ahimsa in yoga practice is tuning in and listening to body, mind and spirit and not acting in any way that can cause harm.

ASANA

Asana, is the third limb of yoga and in Sanskrit it literally means ‘posture’. The quality of the posture is also established in the meaning of the word. A yoga posture is intended to bring steadiness to the body and calmness to the mind.

In the ancient yogic texts Patanjali describes ‘asana’ as follows:

Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.

Chapter 2 Sutra 46 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Not all yoga postures are seated but still the aim of all yoga postures is to get oneself into a state of mind for stillness and meditation. Any yoga posture should allow for the free flow of energy and vitality throughout the body without restriction from tension and other obstacles of the mind and body. Ultimately the body and mind should be so stress-free that the yogi can meditate.

The postures or asanas we all know have many shapes and include standing, sitting and lying poses. There are forward bends, backbends, side bends, inversions, twists and balances.

In the explanation of Patanjali’s sutra 2:46 Prabhavananda & Isherwood¹ state: ‘Asana means two things: the place on which the yogi sits, and the manner in which he sits there.’¹

All of the postures or poses we all know are leading towards the ultimate sitting posture in stillness with an erect spine – steady and calm with our focus on the infinite.

Posture becomes firm and relaxed through control of the natural tendencies of the body, and through meditation on the infinite.

Chapter 2 Sutra 47 The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali¹

Bibliography

1 Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary). pp.159-161

This A-Z series of blogs focuses on unpacking the Sanskrit terms used in yoga.

Ashtanga yoga jumps

Reinvigorating my practice of Ashtanga Yoga I realise how I have lost the ability to fly. During the years of static posture work I have lost my mojo!

I started practising the style of Ashtanga Yoga about twenty years ago. Ashtanga is a dynamic style of yoga founded by K. Pattabhi Jois consisting of set sequences which are grouped into series. Ashtanga means ‘eight limbs’. All yoga styles follow the eight limbs set out by Patanjali¹, author of the Yoga Sutras, but Ashtanga Yoga is the name of this particular school of yoga. The whole style integrates vinyasa – which literally means movement between poses accompanied by regulated breathing (ujjayi breath).

All those years ago I managed to practice the Primary series relatively well but then I signed up for a yoga teacher training course and found that the style I was to teach was actually termed ‘Hatha yoga’ which meant a more static form of yoga than Ashtanga. My own practice then became a mixture of Hatha and the Iyengar style and I dropped the vinyasa style. (In fact all yoga styles that include physical postures come under the ‘hatha’ label which often confuses folk taking up ‘hatha’ yoga).

It is now some 15 years later that I am returning to the discipline of Ashtanga. I am somewhat older. Despite my continuous ‘hatha’ yoga practice I am not so fluid in practising the dynamic sequences of Ashtanga as I was. One thing I have particularly found on return to Ashtanga practice is that I have forgotten how to fly.

In Ashtanga at certain points in the vinyasa the practitioner transitions from one posture to another by jumping. This has come to be known as flying in Ashtanga yoga if you do it well.

David Swenson, in his book: ‘Ashtanga Yoga – The Practice Manual – An illustrated guide to Personal Practice’ has a section on ‘Applying the Physics of Flight’. So for example if a practitioner is transitioning from the yogic posture of down dog to the sitting stick pose the idea is to jump the legs up and then bring them smoothly down between your arms and buttocks on the floor. This seems to require jumping the feet off the floor so you are almost in a half hand stand. But actually it is more complicated than that.

David Swenson’s advice is to follow a set of four rules for applying the physics of flight as summarised below:

To jump from down dog and bring the legs through to dandasana.

  1. Engaging the lower bhandhasMulabhanda and Uddiyana Bhanda
  2. Lift the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘your landing gear’) up towards the ceiling
  3. Lead the jump with the hips not the feet
  4. Imagine the ceiling is high and aim for it with the hips.
  5. Drop the sit-bones, sacrum and pelvis (‘landing gear’) when landing.

So I am now to be seen in my yoga hut hands on the floor, buttocks in the air, hips jumping up and down towards the ceiling pulling in my perineum so my hips can get as high as possible. That is all very well but I am no longer light enough to float my legs through my arms so in an ungainly manner I readjust myself so that I am sitting on my buttocks with both my legs straight out in front of me! Oh how I long to be able to fly up with the legs and float through again as I used to do in my younger body. At the moment I can only imagine that happening. But the great thing about yoga is that if you give the mind a posture to mull over in all its intricacy it does somehow send a message to the body that this may be possible in the future. And of course endless practice helps too!

‘99% Practice ~ 1% Theory’!

K. Pattabhi Jois (quoted in Swenson 1999 p.249)
Flying © Sanandi-jacq

Bibliography

Prabhavananda, Swami and Christopher Isherwood. (1969) How to Know God, The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. New York: New American Library (translation and commentary).

Swenson, David. (1999. Ninth Printing 2004) Ashtanga Yoga. the Practice Manual. An Illustrated Guide to Personal Practice. Ashtanga Yoga Productions. pp.60-65

Footnote

¹ Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras named the eight limbs of yoga as follows: Yama = ethical disciplines; Niyama = self observation; Asana = posture; Pranayama = breath control; Pratyahara = sense withdrawal; Dharana = concentration; Dhyana = meditation; Samadhi = a state of joy and peace