Updated: Aug 22, 2020
I love the Ashtanga philosophy. Why? It gives me some guidance during my Yoga practice and it is a system that helps me remembering why I am doing all this (sometimes hard) physical practice.
Ashtanga is a Sanskrit word and can be translated as the eight ('ashta') limbs ('anga') of yoga. By the way, Yoga means Union. Its about uniting the lower self with the higher Self. Patanjali (the author of the Yoga Sutras) describes the eight aspects of yoga as limbs of a tree. We have to grow towards sprituality/enlightment like a tree grows towards light. This step of enlighment is the final stage, the last (eighth) limb of yoga, also called Samadhi. So how do we get there? That is described with the remaining 7 limbs of yoga :).
It all starts with yourself, how you interact with the world around you. This is the first limb of Yoga, also called Yama. The Yamas are ethical and moral rules and are the following 5: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (moving into bigness), Aparigraha (non-possessivness). Take a moment to think about how in your daily life you are already practicing those moral rules.
The second limb of Yoga is called Niyama. It is about yourself, and what you need to do in order to make spiritual progress. The 5 Niyamas are: Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (endurance), Svadhyaya (self-study), Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to the divine). As an example, I take Santosha. Most of our actions are driven by desire. Santosha is a state where you are naturally ok with what arises in front of you. You don't need the situation to be better or different. You have just accepted.
The third limb of Yoga is called Asana. You probably remember that word from your (physical) yoga practice. And its exactly that. In order to grow in spirituality you need to perform physical exercise to keep your body fit and prepare yourself for the next phase (a steady and fit body in order for you to sit in meditation posture for a long period of time). Also, Asana is a practice to find comfort and stability in any kind of posture. Life is full of possibilities where anything can happen. The smaller your comfort zone, the more with which you are uncomfortable with. Asana practice can help you here.
The fourth limb of Yoga is called Pranayama. After your Yoga practice your are most prepared for a Pranayama (breathing) exercise. Prana is the life force, the vital energy needed by our physical and subtle layers, for us to survive. It is said that life force energy flows through thousands of subtle energy channels called the ‘Nadis’ (energy channels) and energy centers (junctions of those Nadis) called ‘Chakras’. ‘Ayama’ means to regulate or lengthen. Pranayam is a yogic way of breathing to increase our prana. As a result making one more energetic, enthusiastic, positive and have a good state of mind.
The fifth limb of Yoga is called Pratyahara. It means sense-withdrawal and is the conscious process of turning our attention and thoughts inwards by withdrawing our energy from the senses. It is a next important step to prepare for a deep mediation and eventually reaching enlightment.
The sixth limb of Yoga is called Dharana. Once you removed your senses from the external world you are ready for a one-pointed mind. Usually, our mind is bombarded with various thoughts, emotions, and ideas. It swings like a pendulum in the past and the future.
Dharana is when our mind is focused on the present moment. This step is necessary for the next limb, ‘Meditation'.
Finally, you are prepared for the seventh limb of Yoga, Dyana. It is the practice of meditation. The state of meditation is amazing where we are both in deep rest and awareness at the same time. The rest in meditation is said to be deeper than the deepest sleep. A calm mind, good concentration, clarity of perception, improvement in communication, inner strength, and relaxation are natural results of meditating regularly.
And finally we arrived at the eighth limb of Yoga :) Samadhi, the absolute bliss state. It is the blissful state of existence that is beyond mind. The feeling of ‘I’ (the ego) is absent. In a meditation, memory is still awake but in the state of samadhi, we become free from the clutches of memory. There is no distinction, between the actor of meditation, the act of meditation and the subject of meditation.
So now you hopefully understand why you do all this yoga (asana) practice :)