What is Ashtanga Yoga ?

In Sanskrit “Ashta + anga” is Ashtanga. “Ashta” means Eight and “Anga” is limbs so it means Eight Limb path. Ashtanga yoga is based on Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali. It is a specific yoga tradition, but at the same time Ashtanga Yoga can be seen as covering all aspects of yoga within any yoga tradition.

Ashtanga Yoga is often called Patanjali Yoga, referring to Maharishi Patanjali, the ancient author of the famous Patanjali yoga sutras that describe Ashtanga Yoga. 

The raja yoga of patanjali is divided into eight limbs and these eight limbs are interdependent and of similar value. 

Eight limbs of Yoga

The entire range of yoga is divided into two:

Bahiranga: Yoga which is practiced with the objects outside in relation to the body, society and other things outside oneself. 4 limbs out of eight comes under this category,

Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara

Antaranga:Yoga which is practiced with mental efforts of concentration that draws the mind from objective to subjective method of contemplation.

Dharna, Dhyana, Samadhi come under this category.

For all practitioners it is necessary to practice yamas and niyamas & to go ahead step by step, because in life lacking restrain & discipline there is the possibility of unconscious explosion, which might create mental derangement. Sometimes such explosions take place in meditation & there is disturbance due to these impurities. It is one of the main reasons for failure in meditation.

The preliminary parts of raja yoga must be practiced in a group with whom the aspirant must live for sometime. When the entire mind is set into a pattern one can go back & live in the society with people. It is advisable the whole structure of aspirant must be conditioned in the presence of the Guru.

Eight Limbs Of Yoga

  • Yama – the five restraints or the “don’ts”, the 5 social ethics
    • Ahimsa – Non-violence
    • Satya – Truthfulness
    • Brahmacharya – Control of the senses and celibacy
    • Asteya – Non-stealing
    • Aparigraha – Non-covetousness and non-acceptance of gifts
  • Niyama – the five observances or the “do’s”, the 5 personal ethics
    • Saucha – Purity, cleanliness
    • Santosha – Contentment
    • Tapas – Austerity
    • Swadhyaya – Self-study, study of scriptures
    • Ishwara Pranidhana – Surrender to God’s will
  • Asana – Steady posture
  • Pranayama – Control of prana or life force
  • Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
  • Dharana – Concentration
  • Dhyana – Meditation
  • Samadhi – Super-conscious state

It is observed that place, time, birth etc. cause hindrances in the practice of the yamas. It is difficult to practice them without exception due to personal limitations, but it is recommended that they should be practiced universally without exceptions. Furthermore they should be applied in deeds and words, as well as thoughts. Perfection in any of them is for the very few but much progress can be made in a given lifetime.


The Yamas

  1. Ahimsa: Ahimsa, or non-injury, implies non-killing. But non-injury is not only non-killing, it is much more than that. More comprehensively, ahimsa means “entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word or deed. When one is established in ahimsa, they develop a kind of magnetism around one that influences anybody who approaches. The Jain cult is famous for Ahimsa in India.
  2. Satya: Satya is truthfulness. It is more than just telling the truth. One’s actions should be in accordance with one’s words and thoughts. God and man’s true Self are truth, and in order to tune in with that consciousness we need to live truthfully at all times. Furthermore lying creates many thoughts in the mind which go against the raja yoga objective of calming the mind. When an aspirant practices truthfulness as a universal law, unconditioned by anything, then he develops a kind of buddhi in himself. Truthful aspirant develops the truth of speech called psychic speech. Which means firstly whatever he speaks comes true and secondly it means that the result of action follows from his will & not from prarabdha.
  3. Asatya: Asteya is non-stealing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. However, it is good to bear in mind that there are many subtle ways to appropriate what does not belong to us. As for the other yamas, much self-analysis will be necessary to catch the subtle lower tendencies of our mind. The virtue of asteya brings about a kind of awareness by which you become aware of hidden wealth. He develops within himself a power of cognition like clairvoyance or intuitive awareness. 
  4. Brahmacharya:In the broad sense it means control of the senses or indriyas. More specifically it refers to celibacy or chastity. Like all traditional spiritual traditions, yoga advocates restraining from indulging in sensual gratification. One of the many reasons is that practicing the higher limbs of ashtanga yoga – dharana, dhyana, samadhi – requires a tremendous amount of energy or prana. This energy is built up through the practices of yoga such as asanas, pranayama and japa but is dissipated during sensual enjoyment. Of all the sensual activities, sex is the one that will be the most depleting to the psychic and nervous system. Most people don’t like to hear this but, like the other yamas, everyone should practice brahmacharya to the best of their ability. It is a fact that the more people gratify their senses, the less energy they have and the less ability they have to meditate on the absolute.
  5. Aparigraha: It is non-possessiveness. Giving up the tendency to accumulate objects of utility and enjoyment. The aspirant should keep only those objects that are essential for living. When this sadhna is firmly established the aspirant comes to know about the previous birth – its kind, its time and its reason.


The Niyamas

  1. Saucha:Saucha is purity. The deepest and most subtle aspect of Saucha is purity of thoughts and feelings. But it also means cleanliness of the body, which for hatha yogis includes the internal cleansing practices known as kriyas. A yogi must also keep his surroundings (home, car, workplace, etc.) very tidy and clean. Purity is the essence of the sattva guna, of paramount importance to meditate successfully. This practice creates a feeling of indifference and non-attachment for others.
  2. Santosh:Santosha is contentment. This is the ability to recognize that although it is important to try to better our environment and life situation through proper effort, the world around you is never going to be perfect and absolutely to our liking. Therefore the raja yogi should be happy with what he has and endeavor to do the best he can with what he has got. The awareness in meditation must be made free of all mental errors, veils, & complexes; therefore, must practice contentment.
  3. Tapas:Tapas is austerity. The luxury and comfort of our modern society, with all its advantages, makes our mind soft and weak. To strengthen ourselves physically and mentally we must practice austerities. The highest tapas is meditation on God or the divine Self. Daily practice of yogic disciplines is considered tapas. A very good practice is fasting. There are 5 types of austerities that are good for any aspirant:
    1. Exposing the body to the sun makes skin hard & tough.
    2. Subjecting the body to heat of fire to make it slim & brown.
    3. Doing pranayama to create heat in the body.
    4. Developing the fire of concentration on one point.
    5. Fire of fasting.
  4. Swadhyay:Swadhyaya literally means study of the Self. Closing the eyes & observing one’s own self as in atar mouna. The main practice is the study of the yogic scriptures but it also includes japa (mantra repetition). Any yoga or spiritual books qualify as proper material for swadhyaya. For a vedantin the best scriptures are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. There are also many other scriptures such as the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, etc.
  5. Ishwar Pranidhan:Ishwarapranidhana is surrender to God’s will and devotion. All ethical and moral precepts of yoga culminate here. It is a kind of trance in which the aspirant loses body awareness & with deeper awareness remains in a state of complete tranquility & union.



In patanjali yoga sutras, the word asana is used for the meditation posture. Asana here does not mean the physical yoga exercise. In yoga sutras its only mean for posture for meditation which can be any 4 of below given postures:

  1. Swastikasana
  2. Siddhasana/Siddhyoniasana
  3. Padmasana
  4. Sthirasana
  5. Sukhasna

Patanjali’s work has no other asana instruction other than the necessity of finding a posture in which to engage in the practices of pranayama and meditation. 

Body and mind are intimately connected and if the body is agitated the mind will be agitated as a result. In order to meditate successfully one must develop a very steady posture. Furthermore the posture must be kept still for a long time and therefore it needs to be extremely comfortable. When the meditator is not able to control his mind, he is advised to practice the asanas of hatha yoga in order to gain the needed mastery.

But according to patanjali, asana doesn’t lead to any physical exercise but a comfortable sitting meditation posture.



Pra – force, prana – vital force, ayama – control or lengthening. Pranayama = pranic capacity or length. When breathing is control so as to retain the breath it is pranayama.

The raja yoga theory tells us that prana is animating the mind. Very much like the wind creates the motion of the leaves, prana creates the motion of the mind which gives rise to the vrittis. Air is the primary physical medium of prana and breathing is our best method to gain control over the prana. To meditate, the practitioner should calm his breath down until it is very shallow and even. 

Serpents, elephants, tortoises, & so on live long lives because they perform the act of respiration fewer times per minute than human beings. The life of human beings can also be prolonged if breath is retained with training & practice of pranayama.

Pranayama is the cessation of inhalation & exhalation. There is neither rechaka nor puraka, there is only kumbhaka.

There are 3 types of pranayama:

Puraka (Inhalation)

Rechaka (Exhalation)

Kumbhaka (Retention)

All these further divided into 2 parts called 

Antaranga (Internal retention) & 

Bahiranga (External retention)

According to Patanjali Sutras, Pranayama practice depends upon Time, place, temperature & local diet.

The fourth Type is: Keval kumbhak, 

Keval kumbhak Is the purpose of pranayama and yoga practice. In Keval kumbhaka you do not have to do antaranga or bahiranga. This is exactly like Bhagavad Gita description of pranayama where it is said that apana join in prana and prana should be joined in apana, Thereby student stops incoming & outgoing sensation by joining the ingoing breath with outgoing breath. 

Secondly ingoing breath should be joined with ingoing breath itself and later in final stage the student perform Kumbhak at the same time. This is how outer experiences of objects and senses left outside and inner sanskara left inside. All prana and mind stops moving.

Through this practice the psychic centers are activated & as a result cover of knowledge is removed and practitioners experience a subtler vehicle of light of wisdom within. Frequency of energy is like , that it arouses perfect stillness of thoughts and activities & no awareness of the external internal world.There is complete absence of fluctuations of brain waves, absence of conscious, subconscious and unconscious states. When prana moves through sushumna, passing through corpus callosum, one hemisphere to another, there is a state of equilibrium achieved.

Guidelines for Pranayama Practice

According to patanjali, pranayama is practiced by Desh, Kala or Samkhya. Which means environment, place, time and number of rounds. So let’s clarify this point in details with below guidelines


  • 4 times a day
    • Morning (Bhramahmuhrat) – ratri ka chautha pehar, subconscious mind activated, best time to activate sushumna
    • Midday (Afternoon) – changes in internal & external energy occur
    • Evening (Sandhya, around sunset) – changes in internal & external energy occur
    • Midnight (@12) – Unconscious mind activated, witching hour, Not necessary until Guru said to do.
  • Season prohibited
    • Early Winter
    • Late Winter
    • Summer
    • Monsoon
  • Season allowed
    • Autumn (Sharad)
    • Spring (Vasant)
  • Place should be clean & the environment should be peaceful, so it is recommended to start the practice somewhere in a peaceful corner of your room or away from the noise of the city and traffic.
  • There is a prescribed ratio of 1:4:2, for below levels of practitioners it is given as,
    • Beginners: 6:8:6
    • Advance: 20:80:40
  • Local Diet: One should also consume simple and vegetarian food which can be easily digestible. Food affects our mind, thoughts and body. So it is recommended that a student should take care of his local diet to continue with the progress in his practice.


Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from their objects. The natural tendency of the senses is to go out towards the objects of the world. In doing so they pull the mind out and away from the inner Self and create powerful waves on the lake-mind. Therefore, the yogi must be able to pull the senses within if he is to keep a balanced and peaceful mind.

The analogy given to us is that of the tortoise which, under perceived danger, pulls in all its limbs and head.

When we turn our mind from the outer world to the inner world, we come to know that there is an infinite facet of existence in us which can only be experienced in meditation. It is not approachable through intellect. One of the great examples of Pratyahara is Yoga Nidra.

In yoga nidra when we attain the stage of disconnection of all senses from the external environment that is the fifth stage of raja yoga known as Pratyahara.

During sleep all our senses get withdrawn except channels of sound or hearing. Due to this disconnection of all senses from the external world yoga nidra serve a part of raja yoga called pratyahara.

In deeper levels of yoga nidra state of Dharana and Samadhi also achieved,

Yoga nidra is the technique which can be used to awaken divine faculties and is one of the ways of entering samadhi. In yoga nidra we use awareness of the physical dimension to build the inner vision and awareness. In yoga nidra we try to become aware about the state of subconscious and unconscious state and ultimately enter the state of superconsciousness.

Dharna & Dhyana

When the mind is concentrated on a point perception becomes intense. When the eyes are closed the object which may be a thought, an idea or a word appears intensely in the consciousness. Dharna is the practice of one-pointedness or ekagrata.

Dharna is a practice of concentration. The object belongs to a thought, an idea or a word. That means Yantra (visual form), tantra (experience), mantra (word) or visionary, subjective & objective. So concentration means confinement of mind to one point of the object.

While there is an influx of blood in the brain, there will be vibration and concentration will be difficult. To reduce the influx of blood we utilize the optic system, where students practice concentration while looking at one point with the eyes open, like trataka.

Usually when we practice concentration at beginner level we fall asleep, because concentration stops the various disturbing factors, even the psychological brain is also stopped, the cerebral activities cease for some time and during that time concentration takes place. This allows the body to go in the relaxing state and the mind falls asleep.

Concentration is not the state of forgetfulness, if we forget everything including objects, that is called shoonya, samadhi or laya. But Dharna includes awareness of at least one single object. 


Difference between Dharna & Dhyana


Building concentration is difficult at beginner level. Too many thoughts, inability of mind to focus breaks concentration and called Dharna in vikshepa state. Thus dharna includes concentration of consciousness with break.

Dhyana is the continuous beam of concentration for a longer period of time without any break.

In dhyana there is a complete awareness about practicing concentration. Sometimes students become completely oblivious about the object also but there is awareness of practicing dhyana, which is called sakshi bhav. Otherwise if the mind slips away a little bit you do not know it, this doesn’t happen in dhyana. So dhyana includes 2 things:

  • An unbroken continuous flow of consciousness of the single object and
  • The awareness that you are practicing dhyana.


In dharna consciousness is broken, in Dhyana it is continuous, in Samadhi it becomes one with the object of concentration. Thus if you are concentrating on Aum, the symbol Aum, called Artha, will be present in samadhi, it will not vanish and will only shine in complete awareness.

In samadhi, one will not be aware about his own existence, not even the awareness that one is practicing concentration, it is a higher state of consciousness which is beyond time and space. After Dharna & Dhyana it is the third state where a student starts with dhyana and immediately goes into dhyana and suddenly enters into the state of void. This is the first stage of samadhi where you remember the object but there is no other awareness, consciousness becomes one with the object.

Fourth State – Samyama 

Samyama is the fourth state of inner practice of concentration where one becomes a master of psychic process and having complete control of mental concentration.

Samyam performs on a single object with three processes of concentration. The samyama starts with subjective and objective awareness; that is a dual awareness. One is aware of the object of meditation within, as well as in the outside world, gradually outer doors are closed & you see only the thing that is inside, that is dhyana. Then the thing seen inside becomes clearer and clearer and simultaneously you lose your personal consciousness that is called samadhi. The three are put together known as samyama.

Final State – Nirbija Samadhi

Nirbeeja samadhi is the innermost and finest state of samadhi. Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayam, Pratyahara are external for Dharna, Dhyana & Samadhi, and now the state of Dharna, Dhyana, Samadhi and Samyama are also external for Nirbija Samadhi, because it is the deepest and inner most layer of consciousness. 

In nirbija samadhi there is no object or pratyay, no seed but pure consciousness. Sabeeja samadhi(samadhi that carries objects in consciousness) is external to nirbija samadhi. Although one can obtain supernatural power through samyama but it is not the highest state, the highest state of nirbija samadhi is completely different. Sabeeja or samyama can be performed on present object or past object like previous birth but any samyam is external to nirbija samadhi.

Through ekagrata parinama (one-pointedness) one tries to continue the pratyay & maintain the state of sabija samadhi. One transcends the seed of sabija samadhi through nirodh parinam (voluntarily dropping of pratyay) and establishes a state of void or shoonyata called Nirbija Samadhi.


Further Reading

What is Yoga?

History of Yoga

Misconceptions about Yoga

Fundamentals Of Yoga

9 Principles Of Yoga

Yoga Basics

Panch Mahabhutas



Astanga Yoga

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