Ashtanga is a vigorous and demanding physical practice. Maintaining a daily routine of the 'primary series,' as the sequence of asanas is called, requires discipline and dedication as well as an entire overhaul of one's lifestyle. One must keep mind and body clean, otherwise it is not possible to muster the dharana (concentrated focus) required to do the asanas. For example, you cannot stay up late at night and still manage your practice because your physical and mental strength will not be enough. You cannot have a drink or two, or hold on to resentments, or smoke, or be caught in a negative thought spiral, because these will all affect your ability to concentrate and perform in the morning. You are forced to treat your body as a finely tuned instrument.
Practicing daily made me sensitive to what I eat, how much I sleep, and what I obsess over during the day. I can feel sluggishness on my mat during practice if I pigged out on junk food the night before. Thus, the practice gently moves you towards a healthier lifestyle. To bring mind, body, and spirit into alignment for one and a half hours a day requires discipline, but it's worth it, because this slow polishing process, leads you towards a state of enlightenment, or 'samadhi.'
Ashtanga means with eight limbs, and refers to yama, niyama, pranayama, asana, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana,and samadhi aspects ofthis tradition.
Yama — social ethics. The five yamas are: ahimsa (non-violence, meaning no negative thoughts, words or actions towards yourself or others), satya (honesty, with yourself and others), asteya (no stealing — of possessions or time), brahmacharya (wise use of sexual energy), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
Niyama — personal ethics. The five niyamas are: saucha (cleanliness of mind, body, spirit), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study, reflection, looking within), and isvarapranidhana (surrendering to a higher power, keeping God in our hearts.)
Pranayama— breathing exercise for expansion of vital energy (prana).
Asana — physical exercise for stability of body. This is the one most people associate with yoga, though it is only one part of eight.
Pratyahara — withdrawal of senses (so you can look within and listen to your heart).
Dharana — single-pointed focus, concentration on a single point.
Dhyana — meditation for stability of mind. This is perhaps the most important part of yoga. Meditating on emptiness, releasing ego, witnessing thoughts but not getting caught up in them.
Samadhi — a state of bliss.
To achieve a state of bliss, we must practice all eight limbs. Once you perform the ritual of the primary series a few times, it is not hard to love this tradition of yoga, because the benefits are instantaneous. You feel stronger, calmer and more capable of surfing the turbulence of life.
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Photo courtesy: Shazia Omar