Today, yoga is commonly practiced for its therapeutic effects on a number of medical conditions.
But thousands of years ago, there was much more to it.
Yoga wasn’t practiced only for health and well-being. It was holistic and incorporated another seven disciplines, an eight-fold path known as ‘Ashtanga Yoga.’ (Ashta means ‘eight’ and Anga means ‘limb’). It is also referred to as ‘Raja Yoga.’
The holistic practice of Ashtanga Yoga was originally compiled in the ancient literature of ‘Yoga Sutras’ by the preeminent Indian Yogi, Patanjali. He lived more than two thousand years ago.
The Sutras or ‘Threads’ are concise descriptions of various yoga techniques and their accompanying benefits. The entire text comprises only two hundred Sutras. (The number of Sutras varies a little between scholars depending on the formatting of the verses.) Other details of various other yoga practices can be found in other ancient literature such as the Upanishads.
The word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’ and comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ – ‘to unite or yoke.’
But to unite what? The original founding yogis intended you unite everything – your actions, words, and thoughts with your soul and a higher sovereign power – call it Nature, Cosmos, or God. Everything should be integrated in elegant harmony. This includes your conscience.
Your conscience is connected to your soul. Every soul has a conscience, what the ancient yogis called a pragna or sakshi. If there is a deficiency or mismatch in one’s deeds and words, one’s soul cannot experience peace and union. Your soul will be in a state of unrest due to pragna-aparaadha or ‘assault of the conscience.’ It will be agitated, and till it becomes still again, it will not be able to receive knowledge or experience true happiness. In fact, it can lead to stress, anxiety, and illness.
If the mind is not well, the body cannot be well.
This is why the very first of the eight steps of Ashtanga Yoga is:
1. Morality (self restraint, Yama). This is followed by:
2. Voluntary observances (resolutions, austerities, etc., Niyama)
3. Correct posture, stretching, and relaxing exercises (Asana)
4. Breathing techniques (Pranayama)
5. Focusing the five bodily senses – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin – inward (Pratyahara)
6. Concentrating on an uplifting mantra, symbol, or form (Dharana), 7. Effortless concentration or meditation (Dhyana), and finally:
8. Loving absorption into God (Samadhi).
Patanjali and other yogis claimed that when the mind is stilled through Ashtanga Yoga, authentic knowledge of the Self and Cosmos emerge.
You will be able to experience the whole universe right where you are sitting. But just as a reflection cannot be viewed in a rippling pond, similarly, knowledge cannot be received by an agitated mind.
Through Ashtanga Yoga, the mind should first be steadied by concentrating it on an elevating principle, a ‘mantra,’ or an object of inspiration. The elevating principle could be a word such as ‘one,’ love, sky, compassion, or forgiveness. The mantra may be something like “all for one, and one for all.” You may also tailor your word or mantra to your individual needs, such as “I am getting slimmer day by day,” or “I am growing calmer each day,” or “I feel closer to my loved ones moment by moment.”
For a symbol, you could use a photograph, a jewel, a steady candle flame, or a religious representation such as a cross, rosary, or aum. As your concentration becomes fixed through the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, the mind becomes “as steady as a candle flame where there is no draft.”
At this point in your practice of Ashtanga Yoga, you release the word, mantra or symbol you began with and reside in its essence. This is known as Meditation (or Dhyana). There is no more thought activity and you experience profound peace and stillness.
In Ashtanga Yoga, all thought activity is considered Klesha or ‘affliction, obstacle, disturbance, or noise.’
This is because any thought that occurs constitutes a dynamic process of your mind. It constitutes a ripple. A very aggressive thought could be equivalent to a tsunami.
Part of the art of calming the mind through Ashtanga Yoga is by learning to observe your thoughts and emotions as a passive spectator, without judging them. The result is your thoughts cease to receive sustenance through your constant judgements and they gradually subside. Eventually, your mind becomes calm, steady, and focussed. Instead of being a dry ball of grass blown in every direction by the wind, your mind becomes a weather vane that reveals the direction of the wind. Your thinking will become clearer and your actions wiser.
Another major component of the physical aspect of Ashtanga Yoga is perfecting the way you breathe.
Normally, your breathing patterns are erratic and you rarely fill your lungs completely with air. In fact, major portions of your lungs remain flat and deflated most of the time. Your thoughts may also be negative and worrisome. Emotions can become the rule of day and restless sleep the rule of night. All this becomes compounded and leads to an imbalance in your body-mind-soul connection. The repercussions are often a range of medical conditions.
In Ashtanga Yoga and other yoga disciplines, the air we breathe is called Prana or ‘Life Energy.’ Enhancing its flow throughout your body using breathing techniques and calming your mind through Ashtanga Yoga revitalizes and restores your body to its natural, restful, and balanced condition. This state is euphoric.
Numerous clinical studies have confirmed these blissful effects of yogic breathing.
The emergence of alpha waves in the brain during yogic breathing exercises clinically
testify to it.
The presence of these waves indicates deep mental tranquility and they cannot be elicited even by entering the deep-sleep state. Alpha waves are unique to yogic breath meditation. These breathing techniques range from the simple to the arduous. However, the effects of these exercises are profound and must not be underestimated.
When practiced correctly they can result in immense relief from the above mentioned medical conditions and, sometimes, there can be a complete cessation of all symptoms.
Conversely, if practiced with even minute deficiencies, they can lead to digestive disorders and dizziness. Therefore Ashtanga Yoga and all other yoga practices should be attempted only after consulting your medical doctor and under the guidance of a genuine master.
Ashtanga Yoga is instrumental in enjoying a restful mind and robust health.
Sage Patanjali invites all to benefit from the wonderful difference Ashtanga Yoga can make to your life, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
In addition, controlling your mind through Ashtanga Yoga can help open it to the infinite resources of the universe with which it has a seamless connection. The cosmos will become your playground.
Following are a few excerpts from Sage Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Sage Vashista’s Yoga Vashishta – along with the original Sanksrit text.
[The mind’s] dominion extends from the atomic (paramanu) to the infinitely-great (paramamahat).
Knowledge (jnana) of subtle,
obstructed and far-away [things] [arises]
from fixing the light of the activity
[of the mind] [on them].
Knowledge (jnana) of the Man [arises]
from concentration (sanyama) on the subjective.
Then intuitive hearing, feeling, seeing,
tasting and smelling come into being.
For one who has merely a perception of the distinctness
of the essence (sattva) and the Man,
omnipotence and omniscience [come about].
When the mind (chitta) is in distress,
the body becomes quite agitated.
To wit, an angered creature
cannot even see [what is in] front.
(Yoga Vashista 6/1.30)
Because of agitation, the vital airs (pranavayu)
move unevenly in the body,
as the waters at a riverbank
when an elephant enters [the water].
(Yoga Vashista 6/1.32)
Whether it is bad digestion, indigestion or excessive digestion, food certainly becomes harmful when the circulation
of the breaths (prana) is irregular.
(Yoga Vashista 6/1.35)
O descendant of Raghu: when the mind (chitta) is pure,
bliss swells in the body, just as purity [swells]
on this earth when the full Moon rises.
(Yoga Vashista 6/1.41)