What is Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali? The Eight Steps

Author: Randeep Singh / go to all articles on Yoga Concepts

Meditation” is the most glamorous

word today, circling across cultures,

countries, and occupations as

something which is supposed

to be good for both; CV

health and the status.

Meditation is the second last step of Ashtanga Yoga.

Businesses from across the world do not shy from pinning a lithe,

fragile framed, skimpily dressed lass postured into meditating on every advertisement which sells anything that purports to improve one’s health.

I recently saw a banner selling family accommodations in a housing society highlighting the fact that meditation and yoga has a dedicated space to themselves in the mentioned compound.

But how many of us do understand Meditation and Yoga? Aren’t these business houses shrewd enough to attempt to capitalise on the modern man’s ignorance as well as the fascination for these two seemingly devine words.

Put simply, yoga is the path one has to tread to reach the state of meditation, and meditation is the state when the traveller of this path realises his/her true self. So, two things come very clear out of this statement; there is a proper course, path to be followed for attaining the realisation, and their is something which needs to be realized, the knowledge of the real self.

Our minds, brain and mind are different in yoga, on account of being pseudo selves in themselves are pregnant with the curiosity of knowing the real self since the moment they come into existence.
The proclivity to know one’s real self is inherent in all human beings irrespective of their education, cultural, or financial statuses. Thus, to start with let us try to understand what is yoga and what steps one need to tread on the path of knowing one’s real self.

All the different forms of yoga like Hatha yoga, Bhakti yoga, karma yoga, Kundilini yoga, or Mantra yoga can all help the aspirant realize one’s real self. I have taken Patanjali’s classical yoga, or the Ashtanga yoga as it is popularly known to explain this process.

Why Ashtanga Yoga? because it is the first attempt which was ever made at systematizing the process of learning and practicing Yoga as an answer to the questions on one’s existence and the real self. Moreover, all the other major branches of yoga which had sprouted much later have their roots into the Ashtanga yoga of Patanjali.

Ashtanga yoga of Patanjali

Patanjali, in his yoga sutras has clearly mentioned that he is not exploring any new dimension of knowledge by putting the Knowledge of yoga, Ashtanga yoga, into sutras, but he is only going to elaborate upon, and study that which has already been established as the truth before him.

Here I am going to just explain the all eight steps of the Ashtanga yoga as put forth by Patanjali, the rationale behind the sequencing and why? of these eight steps has been discussed in another article in this blog, owing to the need of a separate elaborate discussion related to the same.

The eight steps are the eight ( Asht) angas ( main limbs, or parts) in which the entire Ashtanga yoga is divided. Each step builds up on its predecessor and is meant to purify a certain area of one’s physical, mental existence in order to finally make the individual eligible for knowing the ultimate truth.

The first five steps are collectively known as bahiranga, or the external means to know the self and the last three are known as antaranga as the internal means to realize the self or reach the state of Moksha, the final liberation of the soul.

1. Yamas or Restraining the Impurities – Ashtanga Yoga

The first limb of ashtanga yoga is Yoga or restraint. As per Patanjali, their are five restraints: Ahimsa ( non violence), Satya ( truthfulness), Non-stealing ( asteya), Discipline in sex ( brahmacharya), and Non-covetousness ( aparigraha). These five virtues are essential to purifying the mind, only a pure mind can remain steady and arrested.

The five yamas are the social virtues which require self-control, possession of which is imperative upon stopping the mind, mental faculties, from remaining entangled, lost in these outgoing tendencies, or the modifications of the mind. Yamas are the first step of Ashtanga yoga because one must begin with what should be kept away or what should not be indulged in in order to maintain the cleanliness of the mind.

Nothing can be amended while its running or working, it needs to be restrained or stopped for making the needed correction in it. In order to become different, grow positively, we need to let go off of ourselves what is not required or is weighing us down and so impeding our growth as a individual.

In order to overcome our compulsive habits we need fortitude and determination to do so. Yamas are first in the sequence of Ashtanga yoga because first we need to weed out what is bad and then then the new seeds must be sown.

Ahimsa – Non injury

Whenever we cause pain to others, we for sure receive back hurt as a reaction to it. Causing injury to others is similar to interfering in others life directly, we make them experience the pain of hurt with our action which otherwise they wouldn’t have felt.

While on the conscious level we hurt others but subconsciously we are aware of the negative aspect of doing so and know that we wouldn’t want anyone to take us through that.

Hurting others is intense emotional experience for our own selves which gets imprinted on the memory as a samskara, this impression keeps up welling in our mind as memory whenever the mind is feels weak. In a way we are creating problems for us with our thoughts about others.

One must always be aware of the feelings of others and base one’s interaction with them by coming down, or rising to their level. All our behaviour towards others must be based on our consideration for others.

By doing so we can train our basic instincts to be disciplined enough, taking others feelings and points of view into consideration. Following ahimsa helps one get rid of the impurities which may be present by birth, practicing non injury creates a atmosphere of friendliness and peace which brings about certain steadiness of the mind.

Satya – Truth

Satya is one of the most significant of the yamas the student of Ashtanga yoga needs to practice in letter. The truth, or satya as it is called in Sanskrit, is the presence of the congruency between the fact, speech and the mind.

It is about creating similar knowledge in the mind of the listener as is in the mind of the speaker which corresponds to the words used to convey it and the actual facts being conveyed. The speech which is not congruent to the fact and the thought in the mind is a lie, selfishness and ignorance are the probable causes of a lie.

Truth must always be spoken for the good of others; truth which can cause pain to others may be held back, not speaking the truth ( remain silent or Mauna) is not a lie. All truth can be validated on the scale of the previous yama, or non-injury and only then the decision of whether it should be conveyed or not be taken.

Asteya – Non stealing

Stealing is claiming something as our own which actually belongs to others. One who can stay away from the desire to steal has purified oneself from the impurity of acquisitiveness. Yoga believes that stealing is a unhealthy aspect of one’s personality which can impede one’s spiritual growth.

The more one gets the more one desires, is the way the undisciplined mind works in, the mind which remains embroiled in this negative virtue can never attain steadiness to be able to experience the state of meditation.

Acquisitiveness is also a crime against the society. It is believed that all treasure comes to the one who has overcome the desire to own what legally doesn’t belong to one.

Brahmacharya – Sublimation of sexual instinct

The desire and ability to reproduce is inherent in every living individual cell or cells comprising the bodies of more evolved multicellular organism. Thus sexual sense and organs on which this process depends has the ability to touch the base of the biological, moral , and psychic aspect of man.

Sexual instincts in man can be a very powerful distraction to one’s spiritual growth, thus through ages aspirants of spiritual knowledge have been advised on keeping this powerful pull from the targeted path at bay.

Morally as well certain institutions of the society need restraint on sexual matters like the family system, and the institution of marriage. The mind needs to work the sexual instincts as per the position of the seeker in the society in relation to these sacred societal norms for the overall peace, health and development of the entire mankind.

Sexual instinct, sense is also intricately enmeshed with the mental state of the bearer. Its common knowledge that sexual problems get translated into mental problems over time. A healthy sexual sense is imperative to a healthy mind. Sexual energy if left unarrested at the physical level can lead to psycho-sexual perversions.

This sexual energy if sublimated can be directed to more useful and productive purposes. Sublimating the sexual energy thus is crucial to leading an elevated moral and a spiritual life. Practicing brahmacharya, or leading a life with regulated, controlled sexual instincts keeps the mind on track for achieving higher spiritual states.

Aparigraha – Non covetousness

Humans with weak minds, or averagely weak minds as most of us have, feel secure by clinging to something, material in general. The fear of running out of our basic amenities , which we think as basic amenities, constantly keeps us on our toes for constantly gathering the material possessions around us.

We find happiness in owning things, the more one owns the higher is the being in the hierarchy of status and power. Possessions makes one feel powerful, or do they not?

Patanjali in his yoga sutra on Aparigraha clearly mentions that our possessions are a drag on our forward movement on the spiritual path. This is so because the more we possess, more the mind remains busy with the protection, upkeep and the maintenance of these possessions.

All these renders the mind more stressed out than at peace which is a basic prerequisite for progressing on the path of knowing the spirit. In order to keep one’s life simple and mind free of any material burden one must only possess things which are necessary for one’s healthy existence.

It is very important that the seeker makes his/ her happiness independent of material things. The desire to accumulate, or possess more and more needs to be done away with for good.

2. Niyamas – Observances, Habits for Purifying

While yamas are something one must stay away from and are more concerned about one’s interaction with the society, Niyamas, or observances are to be adhered to and are more concerned about one’s own self.

Sauca – Purity, cleanliness

Patanjali, through this niyama in his Ashtanga yoga stresses upon maintaining the cleanliness of the mind as well as of the body. One must regularly keep the physical body clear off any physical impurities like dust, grime or any other dirt which can adhere to the body.

This is basically achieved by bathing the body every day with water, earth and any other disinfectants. One must strive to keep the mind free of mental impurities by ridding the mind of negative emotions like anger, jealousy, vanity, and pride.

Any good ashtanga yoga teacher can explain the importance of inculcating the four human virtues – maitri, karuna, mudita, upeksha – which are very effective in scouring clean even the most hidden corners of the mind of any lingering impurities.

Jealousy and attachment are the biggest forces that can keep the mind in distress, clearing the mind of these stressors will uncover the cheerfulness from beneath the corridors of the mind. A cheerful mind can attain steadiness even with the least of efforts made.

At the physical level the more one cleans one’s body the more one realises the ephemeral nature of it, so with the practice of sauca one begins to develop a certain detachment to one’s body as one understands the impermanence of its existence. The mind which has become detached to the body can comfortably delve into its real essence which is more permanent and stable than the body is.

Santosh – Contentment

Santosh or contentment is the natural result of completely establishing oneself in Aparigraha, or no desire for material possessions more than what is necessary for surviving. A person who is contend has actually accepted life as it is. It is believed to bestow one with the highest of the happiness one can ever strive for.

The essence of human life is imperfection, instability, insecurity, and impermanence. This is how the life flows, but the mind doesn’t accept this quality of life and remain agitated in trying to create perfection by continuously resisting and fighting with what life has to offer by way of its nature. Santosh is when one accepts whatever is offered and doesn’t create unnecessary friction with the flow of life.

I can sense a lot of discontentment in the yoga sessions I take, students instead of accepting the physical limitations would force themselves into attaining perfect yoga asana positions. Failure of not being able to do so creates disharmony in their minds and they feel demotivated, the states of mind which are not conducive to spiritual practice in reality.

Santosh as per the great teacher of Yoga, Patanjali, is that one should remain relaxed about whatever one has achieved or wherever one has been able to reach in anything.

Svadhyaya -Self study

Each one of us must keep the inquisitiveness about knowing ourselves, our existence alive. Who am I? what are my weaknesses and what are my strengths? A general SWOT test is imperative for any one who seeks to develop oneself for knowing the ultimate truth. Svadhayay literally means study of the self.

Ones one begins to study oneself one goes deeper into the qualities one possesses and how to use these attributes for becoming one with the divine, the ultimate goal of Ashtanga yoga. The content of the study of the self must include what are my habits? how is my karma playing? how do I look at life? is my life in order? what are the areas of improvement in my life?

One must develop the skill to observe oneself keeping the instinct to judge completely suppressed. Svadhayay is a objective study of oneself. Not many people have the skill to stand outside one’s body and look at one’s own self as a third person. It may not happen overnight but one must begin with baby steps, invite evaluations of other’s on oneself and give due consideration to their observances on oneself.

Study of sacred texts of authority or chanting the sacred mantra ” AUM” also helps one in knowing the self better. What one reads in Bhagwat Gita, or Quran is nothing but about the idle personality of the being which is necessary for reaching the goal of uniting the self with the universal self.

As one reads these texts a constant evaluation of the self with reference to what is being elaborated their goes on and one finally knows how far he or she is standing from where they should be. The sacred texts apprise you of what should be and where one is at present. The improvement that one brings in oneself with the aid of this new knowledge is nothing but removal of further impurities in one’s personality.

Tapa – Fortitude, effort

Tapa is the inner strength or effort one possesses which makes the practitioner of it immune to emotional and physical extremes; hot and cold, sad and happy. By practicing tapa one doesn’t get affected with the swings in the external environment, but keeps the focus on what has been demarcated to be achieved. Tapa is also known as self-discipline which has been known to cleanse one off all impurities and uncover the light of divinity.

Tapa, or self-discipline is needed for breaking the chain of bad habits one normally stays entangled in and trains the body to follow the will of the mind whenever it is imposed on it.

People are not able to change themselves for the better even if they understand the significance of it as the mind is generally habituated to certain patterns which are very difficult to break, change. This is only possible with self-discipline or tapa. Tapa is the ability to endure and sustain against all odds.
Practicing yoga every day at the same time and at the same place is tapa. Tapa is the determination required to change one’s diet for better. If one has taken a vow of not speaking any lies one has to stay on the path so decided with tapa.

Practicing tapa enables the quality of restraining one’s body and mind to one’s will, thus one can stay away from all impurities of the body and the soul at will. To be able to restrain oneself at will also enables the witness like attitude within the practitioner which is considered a virtue in Ashtanga yoga.
Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to the will of God

Ego, put in another way is the feeling of the self being the doer of everything,” I “do it. Patanjali, in the Yoga sutras comprising Ashtanga yoga clearly states that giving all the credit to oneself, even to things which are not in our control, creates agitation and tension in the mind of the bearer of the “I” sense.

Attributing everything one does and what happens around one to the higher power or God’s will relieves one of the burden of carrying the responsibility on one’s own shoulders.The mind so relieved can be easily stabilised and steadied for experiencing the ultimate bliss or happiness. This is Ishvara Pranidhana.

One must do action without the expectation of any results to oneself, because the action which is taking place is offered to the will of God, thus the doer of the action doesn’t deserve its results too.
The practitioner of Ishvara Pranidhana accepts the will of God for everything including the conditions of one’s life. Anyone who is too obsessed with the outcome of all of one’s actions can never be at peace of mind; the mind will remain engrossed in the evaluation and judgement of the actions and the results pouring in thereof. This can be a big impediment in the path of yoga, as the agitated mind is a impure mind.

The act of surrendering every action, and its reaction to the will of God is known as sublimation, practicing which endows one with the meditative trance, essential for delving deeper into one’s own self.

3. Yoga Asana – The Physical Posture – Ashtanga Yoga

Asanas, the most popular step of the of the Ashtanga yoga is sequenced as the third step in the yoga sutras of Patanjali. The reason it’s the most popular step is that it conveniently caters to the whims and fancies of the glamorous culture of the modern fitness industry which blatantly worships only, and only the physical form.

Asana practice is more popular as the physical training system known as Hatha yoga along with the benefits it offers. On the contrary Ashtanga yoga advocates the practice of yoga asanas to calm down the involuntary bodily movements, agitations due to impurities present in the nerve channels, as they can be a serious deterrent to the efforts for steadying the physical body while one attempts to concentrate for meditation as its highest goal.

Asana is any posture of the body wherein the body can remain steady for longer so that the mind can remain concentrated undisturbed, from the occasional tremors due to the impurities present in the physical body, for longer and deeper contemplation on the self. Patanjali has defined asana as any posture which is comfortable and steady.

When the posture one chooses to mediate in is steady and comfortable enough to relieve the mind off the burden of the body the mind can easily slide into abstraction, or a meditative state. The basic requirement of any asana is that the lower extremities must be arranged in a fixed base, as per the rules of alignment, and the body above the waist must be kept erect, only then can the mind be free of the awareness of the physical body.

Initially a lot of effort and will power is needed for holding the body in a steady posture which it is not used to in general. That is the reason that posture forms the third step in the scheme of Ashtanga yoga, the previous two steps, yamas and niyamas, help by forming the strong base of a unwavering will power, determination as an aid to the third step, the asana. One needs to understand the concept and follow certain strictures for asanas for them to meet their intended purpose.

4. Pranayama – Purifying the psychic channels

Respiratory movements can be another source of distraction for a mind that is attempting to calm down. Moreover the respiratory movements and the mind are directly related to each other; the slower, subtler the respiration the calmer is the mind. Thus after the aspirant has achieved physical steadiness by practicing asana he must practice pranayama for taming down the respiratory movements.

The personality concept or the Citta remains in a active state because of the presence of desire (vasana) in it and Prana which fuels the activities of the desire. Practice of pranayama helps control one, the prana, which automatically inactivates the Citta, mind. Citta gets into action when prana is available, and prana gets into action due to an active mind ( a component of citta itself).

Senses stay active when both the prana and the citta are active, thus the student of Ashtanga yoga can slow the activities of the mind, weaken it, by controlling and regulating the supply of its fuel, prana, through pranayama. All the benefits which the practice of pranayama provide cleanses the Citta further .
Once the mind is steadied with the practice of pranayama the further formation of karma stops on its own, as lesser or no thoughts lead to lesser or no action, because thoughts are just imaginations of the mind which evoke feelings leading to action.

This cuts off the vicious cycle of action and reaction. Practicing pranayama the right way, can intensify its many benefits, the cumulative effect of which is uncovering of the right knowledge from under the veil of ignorance, the mind. The discriminative knowledge so attained pays the path ahead leading to self realization.

5. Pratyahara – control of the senses – Ashtanga Yoga

Pratyahara , means drawing the senses away from their objects. The senses are the windows to the external world, all the senses keep feeding the mind with the sensations they receive from their objects.

More the sensory impulses received by the mind more it will remain engrossed, puzzled in interpreting and responding to them. Pratyahara, the fifth step of Ashtanga yoga is about subjugating the sense organs to the will of the mind. The mind gets to command over the senses and not otherwise which is a crucial prerequisite to a successful meditation.

In pratyahara the senses are drawn back from their objects so that they no more receive information to be fed to the mind. The mind as a charioteer can pull the strings of the horses, senses, when ever he needs the chariot , citta, to slow down.

Pratyahara is the mastery of the mind over the senses, the mind learns how to control the senses. In case the charioteer doesn’t know the right way to control the horses, they can inflict damage on the charioteer, as well as the passersby.

Prati is a Sanskrit word which is equal to back in English, ahar means to take in, or withdraw in when translated similarly. Once the body and the prana is taken under control by following the previous four steps of Ashtanga yoga, the practitioner now withdraws the mind from its senses.

When one doesn’t want to be disturbed one can withdraw the mind from its senses for concentrating it on the object of meditation. The mind withdraw from the objects of the senses and fix the senses on the mind itself, as the senses can’t be functioning in blank they need some object to remain enervated.

Thus pratyahara is the practice of steadying the mind on one object after withdrawing it from other objects. The practice of Shanmukhi mudra is a very effective practice in training the mind for abstraction or pratyahara.

6. Dharana – Concentration

Dharana as the sixth step of ashtanga yoga is taking the mind after it was withdrawn from the senses in the previous step, pratyahara, and tying it down to a single object. Mind is like a drunk monkey, tie it to a place and within no time it will be gone free again jumping from object to object.

The senses are the transporting agents of the mind which constantly keep it in motion, or agitation. Thus the mind after being freed from the grip of the senses needs to be fixed on one specific object where on it can stay for some time.

Fixing of the mind on one object is known as dharana or concentration. In case this fixing of the mind is not done immediately after it is withdrawn from the senses, pratyahara, there is a possibility of it again wandering aimlessly like before or it will become passive. With concentration the power of the mind is multiplied, a concentrated mind can achieve anything or everything.

The conditions of the life can only be controlled and mastered with a concentrated mind. A number of simple exercises are available for improving the concentration power of the seeker. Ashtanga yoga also mentions a list of objects that can be concentrated upon for deriving the related benefits. These practices prepares the mind for concentration or dharana.

7. Dhyana – Meditation, concentration on related thoughts

After the mind has been adequately trained to stay concentrated on an object the stage of dhyana or meditation flows in on its own. Meditation is the unbroken flow of the thoughts, realization of a single object, meditation has its many advantages.

Thus concentration is about the mind selecting a single object out of the many, and dhyana is staying on that for a considerable duration of time. The individual consciousness becomes powerful in dhyana and the object appears more vivid and detailed in its light. The mind can penetrate the object and know it completely, and not just as it was appearing to the senses earlier.

In dhyana the object of concentration reveals its reality and the empowered consciousness can know it in more detail. In meditation the mind penetrates the object deeper as the time passes, first the mind becomes aware of the external form and color of the object, then slowly it seeps into the object till the cellular level, the form dissolves and becomes all pervading around the meditator.

The main color vanishes and a new color depended upon the tendency of the individual mind emerges; green or blue for a peaceful mind.

Dhyana or meditation can also be done on a thought. Keeping the mind thought positive one can pick up any one thought and create a visual of it in the mind. One must try to experience the chosen thought in its natural state. Move around all the sensations related to that thought, then slowly follow the vibrations being so generated deeper into the state of that thought.

8. Samadhi – object and the mind become one

Samadhi is the continuation of the state of concentration when the mind and the object of concentration become one. The consciousness of the physical body disappears and the mind becomes like the object. The object loses its form and just appears like a bright light, the light of the object takes the possession of the entire mind, the mind poses the consciousness of its own existence, then it is called in a the state of samadhi. Watch this film to understand the concpet from a different angle.

Patanjali has also described the 7 stages of Samadhi, or the gradual graded process in which the mind reaches the ultimate state of Samadhi. These 7 stages corresponds to the last three steps of Ashtanga Yoga.

Samadhi is the last stage of Ashtanga yoga towards which all the previous seven steps have worked in various capacities for removing the respective impurities. The state of trance, as samadhi is also called is shear bliss of joy one experiences when everything else’s ceases to exist. Patanjali recommends techniques of abhyasa and vairagya (persistent practice disinterestedness) for keeping one moving on the path of Ashtanga yoga for attaining the ultimate state of samadhi, the final goal of yoga.

Thus impurity of the individual soul binds it to the matter ( body), the steps of Ashtanga yoga once again purifies it to the level of purity of the universal consciousness is so that both can merge and become one in samadhi.

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