The Yoga Tutor

Ashtanga Yoga Poses

Are They More Than Just a Good Stretch?

The phrase “ashtanga yoga poses” is a popular search on Google.  Writing about Ashtanga yoga, though, is a delicate matter because there are two very different ideas about this term “Ashtanga Yoga” today … and one of them is missing the yoga boat.

In case you didn’t know it, the Sanskrit word Ashtanga means “eight limbs” (ashta means eight, and anga means limb). It’s the traditional system of yoga comprised of 8 essential or interconnected parts.

But the term ashtanga yoga (sometimes written “astanga yoga” and also sometimes called “Mysore ashtanga yoga,” or “Mysore yoga”) has now become attached to a system of dynamically performed yoga-based exercises, which have become very popular in Western yoga circles today. In fact, if you found this article by searching for “ashtanga yoga postures,” then there’s a good chance that “that Ashtanga” is what you were looking for.

The ashtanga yoga poses are only the tip of the yoga iceberg...

… and if you don’t go very far beyond them, you simply are not doing yoga.  If you don’t know what I mean by that statement, then you might not know as much about yoga as you think?  (not yet, anyhow) …

How many yoga limbs have you got?

You’ve heard about the first 2 limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas … those morals and ethics that the yogis seemed so obsessed with … Common sense stuff, really … I mean we all know how to be a good person, don’t we?

Then there’s the third limb, asana, the one that all of us body-obsessed Westerners can’t seem to get enough of … Heck, if it makes Jennifer Aniston look younger every day, I’m willing to give it a shot!

.. And limb number 4 you probably know too … the BORING breathing part called pranayama.  But come on, we already ready know how to breathe … what’s the big deal?
From then onwards is where things get a bit hazy.  The next four limbs of yoga don’t get nearly as much press.  Even for most yoga teachers today, those limbs often seem to just be flailing around in the wind somewhere.

Which is why modern yoga ain’t yoga …

It’s in the next four stages that yoga actually begins. All the classic texts on yoga emphasise that, and any Guru who’s not just interested in amassing a following of Hollywood celebrities will tell you it too.

So what good are those first 4 limbs then?

They prepare us to be able to successfully engage in the higher stages … the next 4 limbs where yoga really gets going.  Yes, this preparation is vital, but let’s be honest … 99% of all modern yoga classes don’t get anywhere near this “real yoga.”  In truth, they are really just starting to crack open that yoga door.

Why hasn’t your yoga teacher mentioned this?

It may have slipped their mind, but somehow I doubt it.  It’s more likely that they haven’t quite gotten there yet themselves.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be teaching yoga though. After all, do I need to have a Phd in nuclear physics to teach a junior high science class?

These four higher stages of Ashtanga Yoga are certainly no walk in the park, and to become a “certified yoga teacher” today doesn’t require mastery of them. It only requires a basic level of yoga training. Unfortunately, though, that training often focuses too much on physical techniques without going much beyond a general theoretical overview of the rest of yoga.

Really doing yoga means going beyond the ashtanga yoga poses.

The four higher stages of yoga are where the real fruits of yoga actually lie. Until you set your sites upon them you’ll be stuck in the land of continual preparation. The only question I have left for you then is, “what exactly are you preparing for?”   

About The Author
Yogacharya is Director of International Yogalayam and Editor of The Yoga News

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