Ashtanga Yoga, also known as Patanjali Yoga, is a comprehensive, multi-step yoga system devised by the sage Patanjali who lived circa 200 BC. Unlike modern yoga, which is mainly stretches and mostly for improved physical health, Patanjali Yoga was a process for attaining enlightenment, also called moksha or liberation. It is considered by many the ‘real yoga’ and was a deep ‘inner technology’ which radiated wisdom.
In this article, we will outline the first 4 steps of Ashtanga Yoga, and explain the logical flow from one step to the next.
8 Steps or 8 Limbs
Ashtanga Yoga has 8 steps. These steps are also called ‘limbs’. Ashtanga Yoga has both 8 steps as well as 8 limbs. They are steps because they follow logically from one to another, but you can’t practice them out of order if you want results. They are also limbs because they are organic developments from one another, and none of them can be skipped.
In any sequence, steps can sometimes be skipped, even if they are not performed out of order. You can jump from step 1 to step 3 in certain cases. But limbs, like those in the body, can’t be removed as each serves a critical function. Thus, Ashtanga Yoga has 8 steps which are also 8 limbs, none of which can be forgone or performed out of order.
Step 1: Yam or Yama
The first step in Patanjali Yoga is ‘yam’. Loosely translated, yam means ‘self-restraint’.
But, this is not the self-restraint that is generally understood in the West to be self-control, repression, or suppression. Instead, it is a constant practice of guiding one’s life force towards a singular goal.
Human consciousness, as present in most of us, is a creature with innumerable heads. It is constantly in motion in a multitude of directions. Sometimes we are entertaining ourselves by watching TV, but we feel perhaps that time should be spent doing something more constructive. When we instead do gardening or cooking, we wish we were watching TV. Thus the mind is constantly pulled in different directions.
Our actions are in contradiction to one another. We make donations to charities, but ignore the suffering of homeless people on the road on our way to work every morning. We expect our significant other to not keep any secrets from us, but we keep secrets from them. All these opposing polarities create a field of confusion and suffering within us. A man that is so disjointed can’t be whole, and can definitely not be whole in his pursuit of something as profound as spiritual enlightenment.
So the first step of Ashtanga Yoga is yam. Yam occurs in the broad context of society. In English, we call these ethics. How we behave towards those around us and within our community is the most general direction in which our energy flows. Hence, the first level of Yoga is to discipline ourselves in relation to society.
One yam is ahimsa or non-violence. We pledge to not harm others. Another yam is asteya, non-stealing. We vow not to steal from others. The other 3 yams are satya (speaking the truth), brahmacharya (celibacy; which is not abstinence from sex but abstinence from overindulgence in it), and aparigraha (renunciation of greed.) Yam is the first step that deals with the broadest aspect of our existence, our behavior within society. This leads to the next step, niyam.
Step 2: Niyam
This can be translated to ‘fixed observance’. It is a matter of our individual consciousness or our behavior in relation to ourselves. Hence, it is the logical next step from yam. First, we pledge to behave in a certain way towards society, and now towards ourselves.
How we behave with ourselves, and how we handle our thoughts, dictates how we grow as human beings. This is morality. It is different from ethics, which concerns others.
One such niyam is shauch, or cleanliness. We vow to keep ourselves physically and mentally clean, disengaging from violent and self-deprecating thoughts that would otherwise poison our minds. Another niyam is swadhyaya, which is the study of ‘good’ literature and scriptures. This one is about feeding your mind with positive influences and keeping it nourished with thoughts of God, the soul, and other topics found in spiritual literature.
The other 3 niyams are santosh (contentedness; one chooses to be content with what one has), tapa (austerity; facing life’s challenges with righteousness and tenacity), and ishwar pranidhan (surrender to and service of God).
A steady practice of niyam, over time, opens up possibilities for the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, asan.
Step 3: Asan or Asana
Unlike modern yoga, where asan simply means a specific yogic posture like downward dog pose or mountain pose, asan in Patanjali Yoga means a relaxed body.
Once the broadest strokes of our consciousness in relation to society, yam, and in relation to ourselves, niyam, are in control, we can move our minds closer home towards our bodies.
The body is full of different energies, which are normally out of control and aligned with negativity. Most people are so used to ‘doing’ something all the time, their energy system is unable to be at rest. The food that is consumed is so polluting, that their body frequency is very low, more like a wild animal than an evolved species.
So, the third step in Ashtanga Yoga is asan, which means to bring the body under control until it can relax freely.
Try to just sit down quietly for 10 minutes without your phone, a beverage, or someone to talk to. Most people find this a very trying challenge. Your body will start complaining. It will claim that you are itching here or there, or are in pain. It is false! How can such things begin to occur within just 10 minutes of sitting quietly!
The third step in Yoga is posture. It is harder than the first two. You need to dedicate time to sitting quietly, spine erect and without support, every day. In the beginning, you will feel all kinds of aches and pains, feel itchy and irritable, or experience fear; which is the body’s flight or fight response taking over. But, slowly, you will attain dominance over your body, and it will become subservient to you, as it should. For you are the master of your body, not it yours, and such should it be.
Once you have control over your body in this way, your energy starts to relax. Your mind starts to still. You feel more tranquil.
The next step is pranayam.
Step 4: Pranayam or Pranayama
Once your life energy is focused unidirectionally with yam and niyam, and your body is able to relax under your control, the next step is to attain a healthy breathing rhythm. There are many practices under the umbrella.
Breathing influences your mentality very profoundly. Observe yourself when you are angry, upset, or sad. You will find that your breathing is irregular and shallow at these times. Conversely, if you perform practices that make your breathing deep and regular, you can instantly transform anger into a clear and tranquil mind. Regular pranayam also makes your mind still and silent throughout the day, and is a prerequisite for attaining samadhi or perfect stillness of the mind, which is the ultimate goal of Ashtanga Yoga.
Once your breath is constantly tranquil and is supplying your body and mind with clean, healthy energy at all times, you can move on to the next 4 steps of this kind of yoga.
The Gross and Subtle Minds and Conclusion
The first 4 steps of Ashtanga Yoga deal with the more gross aspects of the human mind. That is behavior, self-restraint, and good practices for a healthy body and mind. The last 4 steps deal with something different, the subtle mind. They deal with consciousness in its most intricate and intimate aspects. Since these steps are different in flavor, we will discuss them in our next blog, The Last 4 Steps of Ashtanga Yoga: From Gross to Subtle.