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The Origins and Practices of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga

Various dates have been proposed for the origin of yoga. The truth is that no one really knows; yoga practices may be ten thousand years old or perhaps date from only around two and a half thousand years ago. The earliest materials that might indicate yoga practices in South Asia are seals that come from the Indus Valley civilization (2300–1600 BCE), depicting what have been called ‘proto-Śiva’ images (Śiva being one of the great gods of Hinduism). These seals, which were made of steatite or soapstone, were attached to packages being traded or transported and were imprinted with various images of animals and trees and a script, which to this day remains undeciphered. The ‘proto-Śiva’ images are of someone seated in what may or may not be a yoga posture; scholars are divided over whether or not they indicate the practice of postural yoga.

Even though in the cultures of South Asia and Greece, as in nearly all other human cultures, there were mythological accounts of the origins of the world and of the deeds of deities, it was not until around 700 BCE that philosophy first properly developed in both India and Greece. By ‘philosophy’, what is meant here is primarily the inquiry into the difference between appearance and reality. This requires the capacity for abstract thinking – about things that one cannot actually see – an aspect of which is being able to conceive of an invisible power: whether that be the ‘God’ of the Judeo-Christian world, or the idea in South Asia of a cosmic power known as brahman underlying reality, which began to crystalize around this time. This notion of brahman first properly appears in the Upaniṣads, which are semi-philosophical, partly poetical texts that form the final section of the Vedas. The Vedas are the oldest of the sacred texts of Hinduism, dating back to around 1600 BCE. The most important sections of the Vedas contain mantras that are recited for religious rituals. The Upaniṣads, which are attached to the Vedas, date from around 700 BCE.  

In the Upaniṣads, embedded typically in conversations between priests and kings, there are discussions in some passages of the nature of brahman. Questions are posed about the relationship between oneself (ātman) and brahman, what happens after death, what happens to the five airs or winds in the body after death, and the nature of the Self. In four of the twelve (or thirteen) of the classical Upaniṣads (the Taittirīya, Kaṭha, Maitrī and Śvevetāśvatara Upaniṣads) there are also passages that for the first time in the tradition discuss yoga as a spiritual practice. They speak of the mind and senses needing to be controlled to attain liberation from engagement with the external world and repeated rounds of rebirth. Of prime importance are meditation and either the control or observation of the breath, practices that are the foundations of yoga.

Between around 600 and 400 BCE there arose in South Asia two new religions that flourished and are still practised widely today, Jainism and Buddhism. Similarly to the practices of yoga referred to in the Upaniṣads, of central importance in Buddhism and Jainism are yogic practices of meditation, providing insights into the true nature of reality and liberation from our habitual engagement with the world.

Aṣṭāṅga – The Yoga of Eight Limbs

Today, the best-known text on yoga is the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, which was composed between around 375 CE and 425 CE. It was written in Sanskrit and has been translated more often than any other Sanskrit text. A considerable Buddhist influence on the text may be discerned; there are concepts and terms borrowed directly from Buddhism, some in Buddhist Sanskrit. The sūtras are traditionally read or recited alongside the earliest of the commentaries on the Yoga Sūtra, the commentary (bhāṣya) by Vyāsa. However,Vyāsa’ means ‘editor’ or ‘compiler’ and we don’t really know who Vyāsa was. The combined sūtras and the commentary by Vyāsa are known as the Patañjalayogaśāstra. Recent work on this text by scholars indicates that both the sūtras and the earliest commentary by Vyāsa were written by Patañjali himself, though not all scholars agree with this idea. 

The system of the Yoga Sūtra is known as aṣṭāṅga yoga, the ‘yoga of eight limbs /subsidiaries’. Patañjali defines yoga, in the second sūtra of his text, as the stopping of the movement (or turning) of the mind. In order to achieve this, he outlines an eight-fold, step-by-step path.

Firstly, the practising yogi must adhere to basic rules of ethics, in the form of restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas). These are the first two limbs, comprising non-violence, truth, not stealing, remaining celibate, and not being greedy (the five yamas); and cleanliness, contentment, performing austerities, recitation of the Vedas on one’s own, and concentrating on the Lord (the five niyamas).

The yogi is then in a sufficiently harmonious state of mind to be able to sit steadily and comfortably. This is āsana, the third limb. Vyāsa lists a dozen different positions that the meditator may comfortably adopt. (It was only around 1000 CE that the term āsana began to be used as a term referring to more strenuous standing postures.)

The yogi then begins breath control (prāṇāyāma), the fourth limb, which leads gradually to a concentration on the breath and the withdrawal of the senses from the external world. This is known as pratyāhāra, the fifth limb.

There then arise progressively deeper states of meditation, the first being dhāraṇa, the sixth limb, in which an object such as a candle is concentrated upon. The next stage is meditation practised without an object, which is dhyāna, the seventh limb. The eighth limb is the deepest state of meditation, samādhi, which is perhaps best described as a state of trance, in which the yogi undergoes a near-death experience. This state has similarities with the state of hibernation, which some animals can enter into.

Samādhi is an ecstatic, blissful experience in which the negative impressions that have been accumulated and colour the mind are eradicated. It is also referred to as a state of ‘aloneness’ (kaivalya), in which the only thing of which the meditator is aware is pure consciousness (puruṣa); the mind, body and senses, and the external world (all of which are prakṛti), fade from awareness.

Heightened States

According to Patañjali, a by-product of the practice of yoga is the acquisition of occult powers, which are known as siddhis or vibhūtis. Patañjali lists around twenty-five powers that may arise as a result of concentration on various parts of the body (such as the navel cakra or the throat); on features of the cosmos (such as the sun or the moon); or on the senses. These powers are specified in the third chapter (the Vibhūti Pāda) of the Yoga Sūtra and include clairvoyance, knowing the time of one’s death, and the powers to become invisible, enter another’s body, levitate, or become very large or very small.

One way of understanding these kinds of powers is to consider them as extensions of our natural capacities, rather than as ‘magical’ or impossible. Non-ordinary states of consciousness are frequently associated with a heightened sense of premonition or telepathy. It does need to be emphasized that in the traditional world of yoga in India, yoga was generally practised not only to attain liberation but also to acquire such ‘powers’.

Tantra and Haṭha Yoga

From around the 6th century CE, systems of ritual and meditation practice known broadly as Tantra or Tantric Yoga, which had both Hindu and Buddhist expressions, developed in South Asia and spread gradually throughout Asia. One of the metaphysical innovations in Tantra was the elaboration of the well-known ‘Tantric body’, comprising variously a scheme of either four, five, six, seven or nine (or more) cakras (wheels) located in the body; nāḍīs (psychic channels conducting energy within the body); and kuṇḍalinī, the coiled serpent of female energy (śakti) which, when aroused, rises up from the base of the spine, piercing the cakras, to unite eventually with the pure (male) consciousness, mostly personified as Śiva, at a point just above the crown of the head. 

From around the 11th or 12th centuries, these Tantric notions fused with the older practices of yoga, namely meditation, celibacy and breath control. In the medieval period this fusion of practices and concepts was broadly conceived of as haṭha yoga, the yoga of ‘force’ or ‘exertion’. Yoga texts of this period elaborate various methods to arouse kuṇḍalinī, including a range of practices to clean and purify the body and various routines of strenuous prāṇāyāma, and they describe many yoga postures (āsanas). It was only with the advent of haṭha yoga that standing yoga postures were developed. 

One of the best-known medieval texts on haṭha yoga is the Haṭhapradīpikā (or Haṭhayogapradīpikā) by Svātmārāma, a text dating from the 15th century, which was compiled from more than a dozen earlier texts. Interestingly, it seems that it was Buddhist adepts who, around the 11th century, were among the pioneers of the practices of haṭha yoga, which were developed with the primary aim of attaining powers and liberation while alive.

Modern Lineages

In the 20th century, a significant turn in the development and spread of yoga practices occurred in Mysore, South India. Between 1933 and 1950, the great yogi Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) taught at the yoga śālā in the Jaganmohan Palace in Mysore. Several of Krishnamacharya’s students, including his son T.K.V. Desikachar (1936–2016), his brother-in-law B.K.S. Iyengar (1918–2014), Indra Devi (1899–2002), and K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009), toured extensively abroad during their lifetimes, taking the practice of postural yoga worldwide. Krishnamacharya’s lineage accounts for about half of the postural yoga practised in the world.

Besides this lineage, other schools that have been most influential in the spread of postural yoga are the Divine Life Society, based near Rishikesh and founded by Swami Sivananda Saravati (1887–1963); and the Bihar school of yoga, founded by Swami Satyananda Sarasvati (1923–2009), who was formerly a student of Sivananda. Another influential lineage, originally from Calcutta, is that of Yogananda Paramahamsa (1893–1952), who taught meditation but very little postural yoga, and Bikram Choudhury (b. 1944), who developed ‘hot yoga’.

All of these teachers taught yoga practices differently, with varying degrees of emphasis on meditation, devotional singing or chanting, bodily cleansing routines, prāṇāyāma, and postural practice. Pattabhi Jois developed a style of yoga practice he called aṣṭāṅga yoga, adopting the name from Patañjali’s system. Jois’ system combines the ethics and meditation practice of Patañjali with a vigorous routine of postural exercises. The style is one of the more aerobic forms of yoga practice, involving the performance of a relatively large number of postures during a session. There are six series of postures (āsanas), arranged in three levels of practice, and they are performed in synchronization with even, rhythmic breathing. Also taught is a set of internal ‘locks’, known as bandhas; and, beginning with the practice of the second series of postures, various routines of prāṇāyāma.

These aṣṭāṅga yoga practices raise heat in the body, increase general strength and train the practitioner in the discipline of concentration on the breath and the internal control of particular muscle-groups within the body. Many of the postures are named after animals (such as the dog, peacock, pigeon, crow and camel) or famous sages. The profound insight of Pattabhi Jois was his arrangement of postures into series that systematically stretch all of the important muscles in the body.

It is well known that there is an intimate connection between the way one breathes and one’s mental and physical state. A person with a disciplined body will generally find it much easier to sit still for a deep meditation practice. Through the effort and discipline of yoga the practitioner gradually gains mastery over the fluctuations of the mind, and through postural practice keeps the body strong and flexible. Therein lies the goal of yoga, a practice that has developed in its different forms over many centuries, to facilitate freedom from the afflictions of the world, at the very least to a certain degree.

Matthew Clark (Hove, UK), September, 2018.

Further Reading

Ackers, Brian Dana (ed. and trans.) (2002). The Hatha Yoga Pradipika [by Svatmarama]. Woodstock, New York:

Alter, Joseph S. (2004). Yoga in Modern India: The Body Between Science and Philosophy. Oxford/Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Angot, Michel (ed., trans., and comm.) (2012). Le Yoga-Sūtra de Patañjali, le Yoga-Bhāṣya de Vyāsa, avec des extraits du Yoga-Vārtikka de Vijñāna-Bhikṣu, 2nd edn. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

Bühnemann, Gudrun (2007). Eighty-Four Āsanas in Yoga: A Survey of Traditions (with Illustrations). New Delhi: D. K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Burley, Mikel (2007). Classical Sākhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. London/New York: Routledge.

Clark, Matthew (2017). The Tawny One: Soma, Haoma and Ayahuasca. London/New York: Muswell Hill Press.

–––––– (2018). The Origins and Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction (revised edition).

Connolly, Peter (2007). A Student’s Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga. London/Oakville: Equinox Press.

Eliade, Mircea (1990) [1969]. Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, 2nd edn. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Feuerstein, Georg (1989). The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali (A New Translation and Commentary). Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International.

Iyengar, B. K. S. (1992) [1966]. Light on Yoga. New Delhi: HarperCollins India.

Mallinson, James (ed. and trans.) (2004). The Gheranda Samhita. Woodstock, New York:

______ (ed. and trans.) (2007). The Shiva Samhita. Woodstock,New York:

Mallinson, James, and Mark Singleton (2017). Roots of Yoga. Penguin Books.

Michelis, Elizabeth De (2004). A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism. London/New York: Continuum.

Sarasvati, Swami Satyananda (2008) [1969]. Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. Munger, Bihar: Yoga Publications Trust.

Singleton, Mark (2010). Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Sjoman, N. E. (1996).The Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Vishnuswaroop, Swami (2017). Minor Yoga Upanishads: Amritananda, Amritavindu, Kshurika, Yogaraja and Hamsa. Kathmandu, Nepal: Divine Yoga Institute.

Whicher, Ian (1998). The Integrity of the Yoga Darśana: A Reconsideration of Classical Yoga. Albany: State University of New York Press.

White, David Gordon (2009). Sinister Yogis. London/Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

––––– (ed.) (2012). Yoga in Practice. Woodstock (UK)/Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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