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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t do anything that hurts or increases pain. STOP what you are doing at once.
- Be aware of how your body is responding to a posture.
- If you are injured or have had an operation, give yourself time to heal before re-starting your yoga practice.
- 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, 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
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.