When we talk about Ashtanga Yoga, are we referring to the ancient yogic philosophy or to a contemporary style of yoga?
Both of them!
The word Ashtanga, in fact, can indicate two things:
1. The eight limbs described by Patañjali in the ancient text Yoga Sūtra
2. A style of Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga , popularized by the master Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009)
Patañjali is considered the father of yoga , the one who gave birth to the spread of yoga through Yoga Sūtra, the yoga bible , allowing this precious discipline to be passed down from generation to generation.
Although he is presented on Google as a philosopher and great teacher of Yoga of the 2nd century BC, the most important details about Patañjali's biography are still disputed today.
There are many legends associated with this figure. One in particular says that Patañjali it was an evolved soul who decided to reincarnate in the body of a human being to experience the joys and sorrows of life in order to help humanity.
And during this reincarnation of his he found a method to overcome the sufferings of men, which he put in writing: Yoga Sutra.
My philosophy teacher in India, during our first lesson asked us:
"Do you know who Patañjali is or what he is?" What is it? 🧐
He told us, also in accordance with the opening mantra of Ashtanga Yoga classes, that Patañjali is the embodiment of an avatar, with 1000 snakes on his head (1000 ways to reach enlightenment) and in one hand a shell (symbol alert) and in the other a disk (symbol of ignorance that hinders the achievement of enlightenment). In its representation there are other symbols and meanings and you I save the drawing I made during that lesson 🙃
ASHTANGA YOGA OPENING MANTRA
I bow and honor the Lotus feet of the Supreme Guru, who teaches knowledge and is capable of leading us to Self-realization and supreme happiness, acting as a jungle doctor capable of overcoming the delusions created by the poisons of Samsara (existence conditioning). I bow to Patañjali, an incarnation of Adisesa (the divine serpent), white in color, represented in the form of a man from the belt up, with a thousand radiant heads (in his form of the divine s erpent Ananta) and with, in his hands , a sword (discrimination) and a wheel of fire (infinite time), and a shell (primordial divine sound); to him I bow.
Yoga Sūtra (dal sanscrito “Aforismi sullo yoga”) è considerato la Bibbia dello yoga, uno dei più importanti testi dello yoga classico, finalizzato all’evoluzione spirituale e mentale dell’uomo.
Dicevamo che Patañjali trovò un metodo per aiutare l'umanità, una via sistematica (sūtra) per unire le conoscenze. Yoga Sūtra infatti è una raccolta di 196 brevi aforismi, ognuno dei quali contiene un enorme significato e guida passo dopo passo il praticante verso una completa conoscenza di se stesso per raggiungere la libertà suprema, l’Unità (yoga). Per comprendere un aforisma, bisogna capire l'ultimo e viceversa.
Non si conosce l’esatta datazione di questa raccolta di aforismi, ma si presume sia stato scritto tra l’anno 0 e il 400 d.C. Tra i testi dell’India antica, è stata l’opera più tradotta durante l’era medievale e, malgrado la grande diffusione che ebbe all’epoca, ne sono state perse le tracce per circa 700 anni (tra il XII e il XIX secolo). E’ stato solo grazie al prezioso lavoro di Swami Vivekananda che è tornato ad essere conosciuto e studiato nel XX secolo.
Nei suoi aforismi Patañjali elenca gli Ashtanga (dal sanscrito asht, “otto” e angas, “arti”, “rami”, "braccia", spesso tradotto con “gli otto stadi/limbi”) dello Yoga. Una possibile interpretazione di questi stadi è quella di considerarli come i gradini di una scala che il praticante deve salire per raggiungere, la suprema libertà: Kaivalya.
Yoga Sūtra (from the Sanskrit "Aphorisms on yoga") is considered the Bible of yoga , one of the most important texts of classical yoga, aimed at the spiritual and mental evolution of man.
We said that Patañjali found a method to help humanity, a systematic way (sūtra) to unite knowledge. Yoga Sūtra is in fact a collection of 196 short aphorisms, each of which contains an enormous meaning and guides the practitioner step by step towards a complete knowledge of himself to reach the supreme freedom, Unity (yoga).
To understand an aphorism, one must understand the last one and vice versa.
The exact dating of this collection of aphorisms is not known, but it is presumed to have been written between the year 0 and 400 AD Among the texts of ancient India, it was the most translated work during the medieval era and, despite the great diffusion it had at the time, traces of it have been lost for about 700 years (between the 12th and 19th centuries). It was only thanks to the precious work of Swami Vivekananda that he returned to be known and studied in the 20th century.
In his aphorisms Patañjali lists the Ashtangas (from the Sanskrit asht , "eight" and angas , "limbs", "branches", "arms", often translated as "the eight stages / limbi") of Yoga. A possible interpretation of these stages is to consider them as the steps of a ladder that the practitioner must climb to reach, the supreme freedom: Kaivalya.
Finally, the work is divided into 4 parts:
Samadhi pada (on contemplation): Patañjali opens his text by defining yoga and the movements of consciousness. It is especially aimed at those who are already "spiritually evolved"
Sadhana pada (on practice): in the second section Patañjali addresses those who are not spiritually evolved, showing them and explaining the way to follow to become one. Eight disciplines of yoga are mentioned and how these serve the practitioner to minimize suffering.
Vibhuti pada (on properties and powers): The third section talks about the gifts that practitioners can experience and how one should stay away from temptation by continuing on one's path.
Kaivalya pada (on emancipation and freedom): in the last section of the text the philosophical problems that practitioners have to face during the study and practice of Yoga are exposed.
Yoga, explains Patañjali, is the understanding of the substantial non-duality of reality.
The illumination that is so much talked about occurs when the subject, the object and the act of seeking are understood as essentially unitary.
Yoga (unity, union) occurs when neither "I" nor "you" exist anymore, but there is only a consciousness that is aware of the Whole.
According to Patañjali, the rational mind cannot understand this fundamental Unity. That's why yoga is needed. In fact he also defines yoga as "citta vritti nirodha" (YS 1.2), ie the "cessation of the fluctuations of the mind". The absence of thought allows "he who sees to accept his natural state" (YS 1.3).
the 8 LIMBIs of yoga
Whether you want to call them steps, limbi, steps, arms, steps or stages, here they are!
You can also imagine that there are eight large and bright lights that, step by step, illuminate one's path in Yoga - Sadhana (personal practice) - leading to Supreme Enlightenment . Simply, let's see them as guidelines for a life lived with purpose and dedication. They are the backbone of Yoga practice. A path in which each element is important to reach the connection of oneself with the divine and with the Whole. To understand the path, one must understand the steps to follow.
Yama | Ethical and moral principles towards the outside world
Niyama | P ethical and moral rinciples against themselves
Asana | Physical postures
Pranayama | Control of respiration and pranayama (power)
Pratyahara | Withdrawal of the senses
Dharana | Concentration
Dhyana | Meditation
Samadhi | State of deep concentration leading to higher consciousness
Let's deepen a little more! 👇🏼
YAMA: Ethical and moral principles towards the outside world
What's the point of working on ours body and our mind, if then we don't know how to be with other people and in contact with the outside world ?
Ethical and moral principles towards the outside world:
Ahimsa : Non-violence. Avoid hurting others with thoughts, words or actions
Satya : Be sincere and honest. Benevolent use of the word
Asteya : Don't steal. Do not desire what is of others. Do not take possession of what does not belong to us, both in a physical and mental sense
Brahmacharya : Sexual Continence. Preserve / do not waste vital fluid
Aparigraha : Don't hoard (appreciate what you have). Not greed for possessing
NIYAMA: P ethical and moral rinciples against themselves
The second step we have said is an internal journey, through our relationship with ourselves.
Saucha : Cleansing (internal and external purification). If the body is the temple of the soul, it is on it that we must first act to purify ourselves. Through hygiene, the practice of asana, pranayama and meditation, following a healthy and balanced diet and surrounding ourselves with people, places, furniture and transport free of impurities.
Santosha : Be content and be happy. Real happiness comes when you stop wanting what you don't have, especially material things. A material reward (a nicer house, a more powerful car, more fashionable clothes) give a fleeting, ephemeral joy. We need to become aware that it is the Universe that gives us what we need. How to grow Samtosha? Through the ability to live in the present moment, because only in the present moment is our mind free from desires, fears and regrets. Even when we practice yoga we do not rush to perform the perfect pose, but we are satisfied with what we have achieved.
Tapas : (self) discipline. This principle has to do with improving our willpower. Like? Doing what you don't want to do or vice versa. To exercise it we can do, for example, what is the foil in the Catholic tradition: giving up something you like for a period of time. Discipline fuels an internal fire that burns away physical and mental impurities while consolidating willpower. Maintaining a yoga posture (performed consciously and not mechanically) is also an expression of tapa, as it means refraining from moving and looking around.
Svadhyaya : Study of oneself and of sacred and spiritual texts. Analyzing oneself, one's life, one's mistakes and weaknesses is an explanation of what Svadhyaya is. "Who am I?" Is the essential question of this niyama which leads us to contemplate our true divine nature. Svadhyaya also includes the study of sacred and spiritual texts that can guide us in our inner search.
Ishvara Pranidhana : Surrender to the divine. Devotion to something greater. Do not believe in an anthropomorphic representation of God to accept that there is a divine plan. According to Patañjali, the purpose of yoga is to give up the Self and our self-centered nature to rely on a higher force. Our yoga practice must be inspired by this so that it is sacred and full of grace, peace and love.
ASANA: Physical postures
When they tell you that yoga is just "a physical activity," tell them about these eight limbs. The "physical part" of yoga as you can see is only one of the steps of this intense and long journey. And he thinks that very few human beings are able to complete it. In India we talk about people, souls who, once this journey has been completed, go to live their life alone in the mountains and spend their time meditating and being at peace with themselves without needing anything.
Although listed as the third "branch", the practice of postures (āsana) represents for the sādhaka (spiritual aspirant - student) the gateway, the beginning of sādhana (spiritual discipline) in the eightfold path of Yoga. Through the experience gained during the practice, one is automatically led to feel, understand and also develop the first two branches of Ashtanga that concern the principles of conduct: yama (behavior towards others and towards the outside world) and niyama (behavior towards themselves).
Therefore, asana: once the external and internal precepts are understood, we move on to movement, to be understood in its purest meaning, that is, as a cleansing of the body through asanas, yoga positions that have the purpose of cleaning the nadis (i energy channels of the body) and allow energy to flow generously into the body. "The body is my temple, the asanas are my prayers". ( Iyengar)
PRANAYAMA: Control of respiration and prana (power)
Defining Pranayama as "breathing exercises" is extremely incomplete. The term Pranayama collects all the breathing techniques that aim to bring together the energies to release the prana , our lifeblood, to flow. P er prana in a generic sense we can understand the union of all the vital energies of the Universe.
According to the Indian tradition, but not only, there are five elements in nature (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether) that we experience in everyday life always united and mixed together. According to yoga, what characterizes life is its ability to attract, accumulate and transform the prana in order to then allow us to act. During the Prānāyāma techniques we come into contact with "pure air", understood as an element, in its purest and most original form. This is possible thanks to the activation of Vishudda Chackra (the 5th chakra - throat) which in this case purifies the outside air in such a way as to let it enter our system in its original form called Prāna.
Defining Pranayama as "breathing exercises" is extremely limiting.
Pranayama means introducing the subtle life force through: rechaka (exhalation), puraka (inspiration) e kumbhaka (retention). These three Kriyas practiced together with the three Bandhas ( Mūla , Uḍḍīyāna and Jàlandhara ) define Pranayama.
With the practice of Pranayama the mind is fixed on a single point and follows the movement of the breath. By controlling the breath in its three moments (rechaka, puraka and kumbhaka) it is possible to orient the mind in one direction only. The mind thus becomes suitable for concentration. Pranayama is not only a tool for stabilizing the mind but also the way to concentration. T Pranayama thus facilitates mental concentration, increases your energy level, strengthens the sensory organs, calms the mind without making it unstable but allowing it to reach the necessary concentration to the perception of one's self.
PRATYHARA: Withdrawal of the senses
The withdrawal of the senses is the stage in which we begin to detach ourselves from the internal and / or external inputs that come to our mind. The thoughts are there, as well as the noises, smells, colors, etc. and they cannot be canceled or turned off. But by returning the attention within, we can become observers of our senses and how they interfere in our life.
Prathyara opens the doors to Dharana: concentration. Without external distractions, you can focus on internal ones by slowing their flow. In this stage, the concentration on an object, an image, a sound or the repetition of a mantra helps to develop the concentration for a calm and relaxed mind.
Meditation means: presence without effort and without concentration. With the term meditation, aka mindfulness, yes reference to an uninterrupted flow of concentration leading to a higher level, where concentration itself becomes a natural state.
SAMADHI: State of deep concentration leading to higher consciousness
Enlightenment, being one with the divine. Described as the phase of ecstasy and enlightenment, Samadhi is the connection with the divine and everything manifest and unmanifest. It is the connection to the Whole, to feel one with the Universe. The meditator transcends himself and becomes the drop of the sea which is not separated from the rest, but is one in continuous flow.
Samadhi is the transcendental moment of pure presence, without concentration, without effort, the natural state of being.
Let us remember that yoga means union. The union of body, mind and spirit. Yoga is therefore the practitioner's support to regain the connection with himself and with the Universe.
Ashtanga (Vinyasa) YOGA
We have said that according to ancient Hindu philosophy, the word Ashtanga contains within it a profound meaning: a path on the path of yoga made up of eight fundamental steps that act as guidelines for living a full, healthy life and leading towards the self-realization, helping to recognize the spiritual aspects of one's nature. We have also said that the term Ashtanga also refers to an important style of yoga now known, appreciated and practiced all over the world (I love it) which has very deep roots in India.
Let's get to know him better.
Ashtanga yoga was born from the very ancient Hatha Yoga and is also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga , to highlight its dynamic character.
The term vinyasa , in fact, refers to a dynamic method, characterized by a combination of controlled breathing and movement, a movement generated by the repetition in series of specific postures (asanas).
L 'Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has become more and more popular and known in the world thanks to the master Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009), trained at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, southern India, where he was a pupil of the great master Krishnamacharya , from whom he learns and formulates his dynamic and vigorous style.
The Ashtanga method is now taught by his nephew Sharath Jois .
Krishnamacharya & Pattabhi Jois
Krishnamacharya & Pattabhi Jois
THE ASHTANGA VINYASA YOGA METHOD
The Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system includes a First, Second and Third Series. The latter in turn it is divided into four sub-sequences denominated: advanced A, B, C and D. Think that the sixth series is practiced today by a limited number of yogis.
So, recapitulating: the series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga in total there are six. They they have some common characteristics, in the sense that a part of the practice remains constant, while the part that characterizes each of them changes.
Only when the practitioner is able to perform all 6 sets, each will be practiced in sequence for each day of the week, keeping one day of rest.
The First Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
The First Series is called Yoga Chikitsa (chikitsa means "therapy") and its function is to detoxify and purify the body, make it strong and resistant and give elasticity to the joints and body tissue. It forms the basis for further levels of practice and requires a certain commitment and a certain constancy and dedication.
The Second Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
The Second Series or Intermediate Series is called Nadi Shodhana ("nerve cleansing") and purifies the nervous system by opening and clearing the energy channels. It involves the "energy dimension" precisely because it implements the cleaning of energy channels and takes those who practice it to a higher level.
The Third Series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
Sthira Bhaga Samapta
The Third Series or Advanced Series, called Sthira Bhaga ("sublime serenity" or also "divine stability"), includes four sub-sequences referred to as A, B, C, D which increase the strength and grace of the practice and require a high level of flexibility and humility. Sthira Bhaga continues to refine and cleanse the energy body, taking it to an even higher stage. It requires a high degree of strength and elasticity. To be able to perform it in any version requires a lot, a lot of practice, endurance and, above all, higher levels of humility, concentration and commitment.
Each level must be completely stabilized and felt precisely in order to move on to the next one and the order of the sequence must always be meticulously respected. Each posture is a preparation for the next one and allows you to develop the strength, balance and concentration necessary to continue.
In the transmission of the method, according to tradition, it is the teacher who guides the student in the progression to the knowledge of the Asanas.
ASHTANGA VINYASA YOGA: Practice
We said that the Ashtanga classes are characterized by a specific system of a series of asanas , repeated in a rigorous and precise order.
We said also the six series, despite the difference in intensity, have some common characteristics, with a part of the practice that remains constant.
In all series, Ashtanga Yoga practice begins with an opening mantra , taken from Adi Shankara's Yoga Taravali (circa 8th century AD), and ends with a closing mantra , the Mangala mantra, which is part of the Shanti mantra. taken from the Rg Veda.
The sequence begins with two types of Surya Namaskara (Greetings to the Sun): A (9 asanas, excluding samasthiti) and B (17 asanas, excluding samasthiti). Each Sun Salutation must be performed from a minimum of 3 to a maximum of 5 repetitions. With Greetings to the Sun the body warms up, the calm rhythm of the breath is created, bandhas are used ("energy blocks" that promote the flow of energy) And drishti ("Focused gaze" to develop concentration and sense of self-awareness), which are followed, in order:
a sequence of standing asana , called fundamental asanas, which they bring the physical and energetic bodies into balance
a sequence of sitting asanas
a sequence of closing asanas that guides those who practice towards an "energetic peak", going to attenuate the breath (ujjayi), the bandha and the drishti turning inward.
The sequence always ends with the Savasana , the position of the corpse, during the relaxation phase.