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Ashtanga Yoga: Following the Eight-Fold Path

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Ram

Ashtanga Yoga: Following the Eight-Fold Path

Eucalyptus by Melina Meza

Misconception 1: Yoga means The Mat & Asanas.

Reality: This is a common misconception. In reality, yoga is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy that describes: 1) our true nature, 2) our goal/purpose in life, and 3) the means to achieve the goal. Thanks to Swami Vivekananda, yoga came to the West in 1893 and found a very receptive audience. Yoga philosophy has its origin in the Vedic texts that address health and health practices. If ayurveda is the healing aspect, yoga is the spiritual/practical side of the Vedic teachings.  Together they emphasize a complete approach to the well being of the body, the mind, and the spirit. In fact their close relationship has even led to some scholars arguing that Patanjali, considered by many to be the father of yoga, and Charaka, often considered as the father of ayurveda, may have in fact been one and the same person known in Vedic India by different names during his travels to spread the teachings of these ancient sciences.

The underlying principle of the yoga philosophy is the fostering the wellbeing of an individual at the level of body and mind, and helping an individual re-connect to his/her true nature through direct and personal experience (pratyeksha in sanskrit). Thus, yoga prepares the body and mind of the individual for the eventual liberation and enlightenment.  

Misconception 2: Yoga Philosophy deals with different asanas or postures to achieve union of the mind and body. 

Reality: In today’s world, yoga is often thought of as “asanas only,” something like a stretching tool to keep the body limber and agile. People are drawn to yoga as a way to keep fit even though the idea behind the physical practice of yoga is to help the mind to become clear or pure and develop deeper mind-body awareness. A clear mind is not affected by stress and produces a healthy body, thus creating a greater connection with one's own pure, essential nature. Yoga philosophy describes achieving mind-body awareness through the four-fold path namely: 

  1. Karma Yoga: The yoga of selfless-action. Any individual can achieve mind-body awareness and ultimately attain enlightenment by practicing self-less service (seva), without expectations for service provided. As a result, the practitioner’s heart and mind become pure, the ego is subdued and the light of divinity shines through them.
  2. Bhakti Yoga:  The yoga of devotion. Any individual can achieve mind-body awareness and ultimately attain enlightenment by chanting devotional hymns and engaging in devotional ceremonies.
  3. Jnana Yoga: The yoga of knowledge. Through study, inquiry, reflection, and awareness, a practitioner’s consciousness is able to pierce through the illusory world, achieve mind-body awareness and ultimately attain enlightenment. 
  4. Raja Yoga: The Royal Path of Yoga or the Yoga of Practice, a philosophy of mind-body awareness that was outlined by Patanjali. One reaches enlightenment by practicing the eight-fold path of self-realization.

Misconception 3: Ashtanga Yoga is a style of yoga founded by Pattabhi Jois.

Reality: While the above is true, the actual term “Ashtanga Yoga” (ashta=eight, anga= limbs) refers to the eight-fold path/eight rungs/limbs/steps of yoga as described in the Raja Yoga section of the yoga philosophy.  Its practice helps us to discriminate between ignorance and awareness and truth from illusion, which is the means for liberation or enlightenment. In the Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali we are introduced to the concept of Ashtanga Yoga. Verse 2.28-2-29 declares:

yoga anga anusthanad ashuddhi kshaye jnana diptih a viveka khyateh
yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhi ashtau angani
Through the practice of the different limbs, or steps to Yoga, whereby impurities are eliminated, there arises an illumination that culminates in discriminative wisdom, or enlightenment. The eight rungs, limbs, or steps of Yoga are the codes of self-regulation or restraint (yamas), observances or practices of self-training (niyamas), postures (asana), expansion of breath and prana (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and perfected concentration (samadhi).

In future posts, I'll discuss each of these eight limbs individually. Until then, you can use the search function on our blog to find posts from our archives on some of these topics, including the yamas, pranayama, meditation and so on.

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