Ashtanga Yoga

History of Ashtanga Yoga

The term “yoga” emerged in written sources over 4,000 years ago in the ancient Sanskrit hymns and poems of the Tantras and later the Vedas, which refer to ritualistic traditions, folklore, esoteric practices and spiritual awakenings.

Further writings, called the Upanisads (literally means “to sit near the teachings”), gave clearer definition to the journey of yoga. The Upanisads are diverse in their varied spiritual teachings, but in essence they reveal that the soul is at the core of us all and that therefore none of us is separate.

This knowledge is realized not through speculation and theory but through duty, inner contemplation and meditation. The Upanisads provide the source of Astanga yoga, but they are more inspirational than instructional, with profound suppositions and revelations, both practical and poetic.

All this point in yoga’s history, the instructional methods of yoga were still imparted personally from the guru directly to his pupil. Different teachers taught different techniques and aspects, making its development somewhat random. It was not until Patanjali (100BC-AD100) systematized and compiled the existing yoga practices that had been handed down to him, along with knowledge contained in the Vedas and Upanisads, that yoga was given a comprehensive format and philosophical shape. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, meaning “yoga threads”, create the essential foundations of yoga today. In the 196 aphorisms of this book, Patanjali provides the aspiring yogi with a profound structure of eight steps, or limbs (asta means “eight”, anga means “limb”), to follow, like a thread, along the yogic pathway in order to reach liberation and enlightenment.

The Eight Limbs of Astanga Yoga are:

  1. Five Yamas (Ethical and moral restraints)
  2. Five Niyama (Practices to create inner integrity)
  3. Asanas (Postures)
  4. Pranayama (Breath expansion)
  5. Pratyahara (Sensory withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (Concentration)
  7. Dhyana (Meditation)
  8. Samadhi (Enlightenment)

The Elements of Astanga Yoga

The distinguishing elements of Astanga yoga and its practice are woven together with this eight limbs of Patanjali’s Toga Sutras to create sadhana – a complete spiritual practise. These elements are:

  • vinyasa – breath-synchronized motion
  • ujjayi pranayama – victorious breathing
  • the bandhas – inner locks
  • the dristis – gaze points

As the breath and body flow together as one, tapas (internal heat) is generated and begins a process of purification. Through practice, layers of bodily existence are cleansed, transforming deep-rooted patterns to liberate the body, mind and heart.

Is Astanga Yoga a Religion?

I did 3 years of Buddhist Studies (in mandarin) in secondary school and I realized that there are similarities between Buddhist practice and Yoga Eight limbs practice.

Five Yamas (Ethical and moral restraints) – which is similar to Buddhist teachings of no harms or killings to all living creatures,  restrains our desires that lead us to stealing, lies, envy, violence, alcohols, etc.

Five Niyama (Practices to create inner integrity) – which is similar to some Buddhist teachings like purifying thoughts and mind, and be contented with what you have in order not to create desires which lead to karmas.

Dharana (Concentration) – which is similar to Buddhist teachings of one-single-minded in daily single activity.  For example, when the monk sweeps the floor in the morning at the temple, he is only thinking of sweeping the floor while doing the activity. However, in our daily activity, we are thinking of something else and many things else while we are eating, reading, sleeping. We just let our mind wonders….

Dhyana (Meditation) – which is similar to Buddhist teachings to sit in lotus pose and attempts to attain permanent freedom by freeing ourselves from the bounding of the impermanent body that will go through the cycle of birth, age, sickness and death, and eliminate our desires to seek or obtain external happiness and satisfaction which is impermanent like money, beauty, youth, etc.

Samadhi (Enlightenment) – which is similar to Buddhist teachings where it is the final product of all the practices, is to attain enlightenment where there will be permanent happiness and no reborn.

Although yoga is not a religion, but I find it is somehow very close to Buddhism in the path to enlightenment except Buddhism do not practice asanas and expand breathings. This is still comforting to me because I am a buddhist and the destination of both practices is to same to me.