Yoga has been evolving for thousands of years, bringing forth a dazzling array of practices and diverse schools of thought – it can seem like a jungle to those starting out. Fortunately, some great adepts in yoga history have managed to clear a path through this jungle. Patanjali was one of them, and he called his path Ashtanga Yoga, "the eight-fold path", or literally "the eight limbs of yoga" (ashta: eight, anga: limb).
This holistic framework, also referred to as Classical Yoga, is not to be confused with Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga Yoga (often referred to as Mysore Style), a rigorous physical practice established in the twentieth century and popular in the West.
Ashtanga Yoga can be visualised as a ladder that the spiritual practitioner is encouraged to climb, one rung after the other, only to cast it off at the very last moment to experience true freedom.
First of all, ethical discipline (yama) is laid out as a prerequisite for yogic practice. Meant to regulate social behaviour, it includes non-harming (ahimsa) as the root of all moral rules, non-stealing (asteya), truthfulness (satya), sexual restraint (brahmacharya), and non-grasping (aparigraha).
The second guideline concerns spiritual observance (niyama) and the yogi's inner life, referring to purity (saucha), contentment (samtosha), discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and devotion to God (ishvarapranidhana).
Thirdly, the focus shifts from the yogi's social and personal life to the physical body and the importance of posture (asana). At the time of Patanjali, asana referred to the practice of sitting, the word literally meaning "seat", which was supposed to be both stable and comfortable. Asanas as we know them today appeared at a later phase in the history of yoga.
Following the mastery of the body, breath control (pranayama) is the fourth step and comprises breathing exercises and learning to direct the flow of prana, the life force.
At stage six comes an increasing withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), whereby the practitioner shuts out external stimulation.
All preceding practices prepare for the final steps of Ashtanga Yoga. Sixth, the practice of concentration (dharana), the ability to maintain a one-pointed focussed attention. Seventh, meditation (dhyana), a sustained and deepening concentration. Eighth, bliss or ecstasy (samadhi). Difficult as it may be for us to imagine, this last stage – and the true goal of yoga – has been called a sublime state of freedom, enlightenment, liberation, a waking up to our true nature.
Not much is known about Patanjali as a historical figure, but it was probably at the beginning of the Common Era that he compiled much of the sophisticated yoga knowledge that was around at the time and systemised it in his famous text "The Yoga Sutras". Rather than being the originator of Ashtanga Yoga, he was the first to present the age-old techniques in a structured and practical way. The 195 aphorisms, or sutras, highly condensed in form and content, may have been put together as a memory aid to provide students with a thread stringing together all the significant thoughts on the topic.
Modern yoga tends to revolve around the physical benefits of a practice which has so much more to offer. Ashtanga Yoga serves as an important reminder that a universal ethics – as outlined in the timeless qualities of the yamas and niyamas, listed before there is any mention of poses, breath, or meditation – is a crucial foundation for all spiritual endeavours, especially today.
In our increasingly loud and busy world, it is helpful to return to Patanjali's concise definition of yoga as "calming the fluctuations of the mind" (yogas chitta vritti nirodhah). Only when there is stillness can we experience what is beyond the mind and proceed to what he calls the ultimate goal of yoga: recognising our true nature.
We are not asked to simply believe this: Rather than mere theory, Ashtanga is a practical discipline which has been passed down to us as a living tradition and can only be verified by our own practice.