Ever wondered how ashtanga yoga works? How bending, stretching and sweating on a yoga mat helps us to feel more calm and relaxed, yet clear and focused on what truly matters? Me too! I find it fascinating! In my experience, just by practicing the physical postures of the ashtanga yoga system, not only am I stronger, move better and am aware of my breath, I am also more calm, less stressed and able to deal with way more of life’s challenges. I’m a better Mum, wife, teacher and friend. I am able to reflect honestly on my life and make better, more intentional decisions. I experience balance when I am on my mat and so am better equipped to see when I am off balance and know how to navigate myself back to that balance once again. I am more me and totally ok with that!
There is so much more to yoga than just the physical and like a two way street the physical practice helps to explore the more subtle aspects of the mind and in turn these subtle practices help with physical awareness.
Ashtanga yoga literally means 8 limbed yoga as detailed by Patanjali in the ancient text of the Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali, the path to yoga (the calming of the mind to be able to experience the true self) is possible by following these 8 spiritual practices:
- Yama – ethical codes
- Niyama – purification practices
- Asana – physical postures
- Pranayama – breath control
- Pratyahara – sense control
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – experiencing the connection of the true self with the universal
Most of us start down this path of yoga with the physical postures (asana), which is a wonderful way to develop awareness and love of our physical body. It’s ok to spend our lifetime just working on the physical as it’s a great start and a continual practice but know that if we want to we can further our search into even deeper adventures of the spirit.
The first four limbs are considered external purification practices that provide a stability and steadiness to be able to safely move into the internal practices of the last four limbs.
Yoga is defined as the calming of the processes or fluctuations of the mind but it is necessary to first have a physical body that is strong, healthy and free from toxins to be able to provide a solid foundation (and less distractions) for the mind to be controlled and calm.
Using asana and synchronizing the breath with the movement (vinyasa) the blood is heated and cleansed, allowing it to move freely around the body, removing toxins from the internal organs. We heat the body from the inside out, using our own breath and own physical exertion (there is no need to externally force heat into the body) and in this way we can control the amount of heat that is needed depending on our constitution (according to Ayurveda we are made up of three qualities called Pitta, Kapha and Vata each with their own dominant features and it’s aim is to balance the three for optimal health – but that’s another post!). The sweat that is generated from this internal heat carries the impurities from the internal organs out of the body through the skin helping to prevent disease and creating a strong, supple and vibrant body.
The yamas and niyamas provide us guidance and context for how we should practice asana and pranayama and of course how to practice yoga when we get off our yoga mat and living in the real world. Try not to think of the yamas and niyamas as a step by step guide but more of as reflective tools to deepen our connection to ourselves and the practice of yoga. We can practice them when we are in physical asana to then be able to use them off the mat and in everyday life.
5 yamas – ethical restraints
- Ahimsa – non harming. Being kind in our thoughts, words and actions towards ourselves, others and the world around us. For example, not pushing our body into positions that it is not ready for and not using the practice as a way to cause harm, ‘fix’ or punish our body. Instead using the postures for the therapeutic nature in which they were intended, to assist in peeling back the layers to reveal how amazing it already is. When we realise this, we start to move, eat and nourish our physical body from a place of love, respect and reverence and not from a place of ‘I’m not good enough’.
- Satya – truthfulness. To be honest in our conversations with ourselves and others and when reflecting on our impact we have on our world. For example, being honest with where we are at in our practice. Not trying anything advanced until we are ready, and being open, honest and respectful of our teachers when they guide us in our practice. Having integrity and simply doing what we say we are going to do.
- Asteya – non stealing. Taking responsibility for the energy we bring into any situation and checking our sense of entitlement. For example taking responsibility for our own practice and stop relying on or blaming anyone else or our circumstance for where we are at. Stop stealing someone else’s time and energy by being late. Noticing if we feel entitled to more that we really are.
- Aprigraha – non grasping. Letting go of ideas and stories that don’t serve us or thoughts that are not helpful. For example not holding onto the ideal of what our practice should look like by now, and let go of what it looked and felt like last year. Letting go of a story we keep telling ourself that isn’t helpful anymore.
- Brahmacharya – don’t waste energy. Don’t spread ourself too thin and overcommit. Setting boundaries and expressing those boundaries clearly. For example, not practicing in a way that exhausts us. Our physical practice needs to support our daily life and needs to change as our circumstance and energy change throughout our lifetime.
5 niyamas – lifestyle guidelines
- Santosha – contentment. The key to happiness is being content with what is. For example being content with where we are at in our practice or in a particular posture today. Reflect on how far we have come already and cutting ourself some slack.
- Saucha – cleanliness. Keeping our diet, conversations and environment, pure, clean and healthy. For example, showering before practice, keeping yoga equipment clean and ensuring our clothes are clean to practice in. Not gossiping or getting involved in other peoples business.
- Tapas – discipline. Freedom comes from discipline and routine. For example by dedicating ourself to the practice on a regular basis we have the freedom from making the decision once and for all. Just be the person who practices yoga on x, y, z days (or whatever suits you – it’s your decision). We can’t learn the piano if we don’t sit down and play and we can’t improve our backbend if we don’t practice either. The practice is the anchor that takes us closer to a place of stillness however it takes a disciplined approach to get there.
- Swadyaya – self study. Get to know and understand our self and connecting with what sets us off and what lights us up. For example notice the patterns that appear for us when we come up against a posture that seems impossible or at least very difficult. Do we push harder, do we give up, do we blame someone else or do we just do it half heartedly and hope no-one notices. (ps I notice and deep down so do you!)
- Ishwara pranidhana – devotion to something bigger. Knowing that we are just a small part of an eternal universe (and eventually knowing that we are that universe!) Getting out of your own way and letting the universe take care of things. For example practice because it brings us peace and that peace can be shared with our loved ones and everyone else we come in contact with.
So now it’s time to deepen our practice. Which one of these resonates with you most? If you find the whole thing overwhelming then that’s ok. My advice would be to just focus on the very first one…Ahimsa. Being kind. Go gentle on yourself. And you never know what others are going through so be kind to them too. Kindness really trumps everything else so focus on that one and watch your universe transform.