‘Ashtanga Yoga’ means ‘eight limbed yoga.’ It is an ancient system that can lead to a deep connection with our spirit or ātman. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (aṣṭāṅgayoga) can be described as eight disciplines. They are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi. Of these, the third limb, āsana (yoga postures), is the most important for us to practice, and through it we can understand the other limbs. Though in appearance an external and physical discipline, through consistent effort we find many layers, more and more subtle, which need to be experienced directly and can lead to the experience of the last four limbs. Yama (restraints) and niyama (observances) should be observed at all times, otherwise yoga āsana practice is reduced to a purely physical pursuit. Specific prāṇāyāma (breath control) should only be taught after mastering āsanas, when the nervous system is strengthened and prepared for more rigorous practice. It should be understood however, that the deep even diaphragmatic breathing taught as part of the āsana practice is in essence prāṇāyāma and has a profound effect on our system at many levels. The last four limbs are pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses), dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation), and samādhi (union). These final four are considered ‘internal limbs,’ meaning that they arise spontaneously as a result of practice of the first four and lead to experiential spiritual knowledge.
Through āsana we can access higher levels of yoga and, over time, bring both the body and mind to a state of stability, a state of peace. With consistent practice of āsanas, changes become apparent on many levels, physical, mental and spiritual. A deep sense of contentment and inner peace arises, and it is then that we can begin to more clearly understand the other seven limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.