Ashtanga Yoga (अष्टाङ्गयोगः)

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The Ashtanga Yoga expounded by Maharshi Patanjali is interpreted as a method to bring about the union of body, mind and consciousness. While the earlier order practices of yoga like Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara facilitate the union of mind and body, the higher order exercises of dharana, dhyana and samadhi help to unite the mind with consciousness. The physical practices help clean the body and prepare the ground for union between mind and body. While higher Yogic exercises help to clean the mind, which is a necessary condition for bringing about the union between consciousness and mind.

Yoga formulates a psychophysiological method involving eight steps to control the fluctuations of the psyche. The first two are yama and niyama, which include certain moral commandments such as truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, cleanliness, and contentment. The next two, āsana and prāṇāyāma, are physical exercises that involve sitting in comfortable postures and practicing breath control. The fifth stage, pratyāhāra, is a specialized form of introspection, a passive attentive state, designed to have access to the workings of the psyche and have access to bare perceptions. The last three, dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation), and samādhi (a standstill state of psyche) are the most important ones in attaining the yogic meditative state.

The first five are preparatory and the last three are the essential stages of yoga. According to Patanjali’s own characterization, the first five are the outer layers (bahiraṅga), whereas the last three are the inner core (antaraṅga) of yoga. The need for the ethical and physiological practices in the yogic training is not difficult to understand. Desires and sensory indulgence encourage further involvement in the sensory processes resulting in constant fluctuations of the psyche which are precisely what yoga seeks to control. The physical exercises are also designed to control internal processes, to reduce the sensory input from outside, and to ensure bodily health, the failure of which would be a source of distractions.

The pratyāhāra or introspective stage is quite important. It seems to focus on certain internal monitoring processes, some sort of biofeedback. It is what appears to be the connecting link between the physiological and the psychological exercises. It is by introspection that the practitioner of yoga is able to regulate the body to suit the requirements of his mental states. Such introspection, it would seem, enables the yogin to isolate those experiences he is seeking, and to produce them at will later.[1]

Yoga and Ayurveda

Yoga as therapy or exercise was traditionally prescribed in an ayurvedic context. Classical yoga therapy was ayurvedic both in theory and in application. The combined study of yoga and Ayurveda is of great importance for each discipline.

Health is a sattvic state of balance and adaptation which prevents any excess from occurring.

Yoga is a therapeutic tool of Ayurveda for both disease treatment and for lifestyle management. Yoga postures and pranayama treat a variety of ailments, particularly structural problems or low energy conditions. Yoga is also excellent for psychological and mental disorders because of its specific action on the mind through meditation. However, yoga is probably more important for lifestyle management than for treatment of disease. Yoga postures, pranayama and meditation are among the best tools for keeping our doshas in balance.

Yama and Niyama: The Dharmic Foundation of Yoga

The yamas or dharmic principles of social behavior are nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), control of sexual energy (brahmacharya), non-stealing (as teya) and non-clinging (anabhinivesha). These establish right interaction with other human beings and our external environment.

Right social behavior is important for health, psychological well-being and spiritual development.

The niyamas or dharmic principles of personal behavior are contentment (santosha), purity (shaucha), self-study (svadhyaya), self-discipline (tapas), and surrender to God (Ishvara pranidhana). These are the lifestyle principles necessary to establish a personal yogic practice in life. They are also the basis of ayurvedic life regimens for constitution balancing. Purity includes vegetarian diet and physical detoxification. Surrender to the divine is the key to sustaining all these practices, which cannot be achieved by mere personal effort. The last three - self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to God are the foundation of Kriya Yoga, the yoga of internal action that renders one fit for samadhi.

Yama and niyama constitute the dharmic or ethical foundation for all right living, including the health practices of Ayurveda. These two sets of principles go together. Unless we have integrity in our social interactions, we cannot have it in our personal behavior and vice versa.


Asana means right posture or posture in harmony with our inner consciousness. Its aim is a sustained and comfortable sitting posture to facilitate meditation. Asanas bring balance and harmony to the phYSical body, particularly the musculoskeletal system that is the support of the body. Asana is part of the ayurvedic treatment system for the physical body. Postures can be used to increase vitality or to balance the doshas. They can be adjusted to target certain organs or weak spots in the body.


Pranayama means not simply breath control but the controlled expansion of the life-force. It is not the suppression of the breath, which is harmful, but contacting higher sources of prana both within and around us. Pranayama consists of deepening and extending the prana until it leads to a condition of peace. When the prana is at peace, the life-force and through it the senses, emotions and mind are put to rest. Pranayama is another important ayurvedic method for increasing vigor and vitality and promoting the power of healing.


Pratyahara is not simply closing off the senses but right management of the senses and the ability to go beyond them. It is not suppression of the senses but their right application, which includes the ability to put them to rest. Ayurveda regards all diseases as based upon the wrong use of the senses. How we use our senses determines the kind of energy we take in from the external world to feed our minds, which either nourishes or deranges us.

Pratyahara techniques involve either shutting off the senses, like closing the eyes or ears, or using our senses with attention rather than distraction. This includes various forms of mantra or visualization. Inner sensory sources may be tapped like the inner sounds (nada) that provide subtle kinds of impressions.[2]

संयमः ॥ Samyama

The culmination of yoga practice is in the triple effort of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. This is collectively referred as samyama. Saṁyama is taken broadly as meditation.

Concentration or dhāraṇā produces in us a state in which the natural wandering of our thoughts, the fluctuations of the psyche, are brought under control. In a state of concentration, the psyche attends to one thing so that there is intensification of activity of the mind in one particular direction. In a state of concentration the focus of attention is narrowed. This focus is expanded when one goes from concentration to contemplation or dhyāna. Contemplation helps to concentrate longer and to fix one’s attention on any object for a length of time with ease and in an effortless manner. When this is achieved, the psyche progresses to a standstill state in which the mind is steady and becomes one with the object of concentration. This is the state of samādhi. The triple effort of dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhi is called saṁyama. Saṁyama is meditation in its totality.

Developing on the neurophysiological as well as psychological studies that appear to support the assumption implied in classical literature that meditation is, in an important sense, an exercise of attention, Rao suggests that meditation is a process of moving from full attention through passive attention to “inattention.” Full attention is focal and driven by volition. Passive attention is diffused and not directed. Inattention involves, in addition to the absence of attention to sensory images and other kinds of cognitive content, movement of attention in a reverse direction, away from content to consciousness as-such. Normal attention guides us to the content of awareness, whereas meditative inattention enables the person to move in the direction of accessing consciousness as-such.

In Patañjali, focused attention (dhāraṇā) is only the first step. The second step, dhyāna, is less focused and more passive and diffused. Finally, samādhi is a cognitively standstill state of inattention.[1]


Dharana is control of the mind, which is right attention. It is the capacity to give all our mental energy at will to whatever we need to examine . Dharana involves developing and extending our power of our attention. Dharana techniques consists of various ways of directing or controlling our attention, like concentration on particular objects or ideas. Common dharana techniques including concentration on the five chakras and their ruling elements. A second method is to concentrate the mind in the heart. A third method is to concentrate the outer space in the inner space that dwells within the heart.


Dhyana is meditation, which is our capacity to sustain our attention without distraction. Meditation enables us to mirror reality and obj ectively perceive the truth of things. Meditation may be on an external object, like the ocean, the sky, or a statue of a deity. It may be on an internal object that we visualize like a deity or a yantra. It may be on an idea or truth principle, like infinity or oneness. It may be without form altogether and totally open. It may be active , pursuing a line of thought or inquiry, or passive , merely observing.

Meditation in the highest sense is not a technique. Meditation techniques more properly belong to pratyahara or dharana. True meditation is the natural state of awareness, not a method. But this requires some preparation to reach, as indicated by the other limbs of yoga.


Samadhi, which we could call absorption, is the capacity to become one with the obj ect of our perception. It is the unity of the perceiver and the perceived in direct perception, through which the nature of ultimate reality can be clearly known. Samadhi is our capacity to merge with things in consciousness that shows our joy and fulfillment in life. It brings us to the underlying Divine nature in all things. It is the natural outcome of true meditation. Samadhi or union is the goal of all that we seek. Yoga does this inwardly so that we can be one with all.[2]

Ashtanga Yoga and Emotional Balance[3]

Limb of Ashtanga Yoga Role in Emotional Balance
Yama (moral instructions) Sets the boundary conditions, alignment with universal principles
Niyama (self-purification) Maintenance and cleansing of inner conditions.
Asana (posture) Psycho-somatic alignment with brain wave coherence, lowering stress hormones, release of happy hormones
Pranayama (rhythmic breathing) Relaxation and regulation through breathing
Pratyahara (sense withdrawal) Stepping back purposely in order to attain the right mode of consciousness
Dharana (concentration) One pointedness, self mastery, Purposefulness (Visualization space)
Dhyana (meditation) Quietening of mind (Intelligence space)
Samadhi (cessation of vrittis) Transcendence of emotion and individualized cognition (Bliss space)


  1. 1.0 1.1 K. Ramakrishna Rao & Anand C. Paranjpe (2016), Psychology in the Indian Tradition, India: Springer.
  2. 2.0 2.1 David Frawley (1999), Yoga & Ayurveda, Wisconsin: Lotus Press.
  3. Ashish Pandey (2022), Lecture Presentation on Yoga and Positive Psychology for Managing Career and Life (Session 19 - Yogic Intervention for Managing Emotions).