Last Updated: January 7, 2017

Definition - What does Ashtanga mean?

Ashtanga is a Sanskrit term that means "having eight limbs or components." The term comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and refers to his eight-fold path of yoga. In his writings, the yogic sage outlined eight limbs of yoga -- eight steps on the path of internal purification that lead to discovery of the Universal of Supreme Self.

These eight stages are:

  1. Yama (universal morality)
  2. Niyama (self-study and discipline)
  3. Asana (posture)
  4. Pranayama (breath control)
  5. Pratyahara (control of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (union with the Divine)

The term is also used to describe Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga yoga was not specifically mentioned by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, but it later came to describe the eight limbs, or components, of yoga contained within his text.

Ashtanga yoga itself was developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and T. Krishnamacharya in the 20th century. It originated from a system of Hatha yoga as described in an ancient text called the "Yoga Korunta."

Yogapedia explains Ashtanga

The eight limbs of yoga are interconnected and it is not necessary to start with the first one. Each limb encourages the growth of the other.

There are five yamas in ashtanga:

  1. Satya (truthfulness)
  2. Ahimsa (non-violence)
  3. Asteya (non-stealing)
  4. Aparigraha (non-collecting)
  5. Brahmacharya (fidelity or celibacy)

Similarly, there are five niyamas, which contribute to an individual's personal mode of conduct:

  1. Saucha (cleanliness)
  2. Santosa (contentment)
  3. Tapas (self-discipline)
  4. Svadhaya (self-study)
  5. Iswara Pranidhana (surrender to God)

The Ashtanga yoga system of T. Krishnamacharya and Sri. Pattabhi Jois is modeled on the eight limbs and these yamas/niyamas. However, the emphasis of Ashtanga yoga is usually on correct performance of the third limb (asana) as a means of realizing all the other limbs, including samadhi.

The first four limbs -- yama, niyama, asana and pranayama -- are considered externally oriented, while the last four are internally oriented. Sri Pattabhi Jois taught that a person must first commit to daily asana practice in order to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steadied and controlled.

Asana practice must be established for proper practice of pranayama, and is key to the development of the yamas and niyamas. Once the first four limbs of Ashtanga yoga are established, the last four limbs can spontaneously evolve.

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