Ashtanga Yoga Poses – What’s the point, really?

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“Ashtanga yoga poses” is a frequently search phrase on Google. There are two very different ideas about that term ashtanga yoga today though, so the website you land on might not be quite what you’re looking for.

The Sanskrit word Ashtanga means “eight limbs” (ashta means eight, and anga means limb), referring to the traditional system of yoga comprised of 8 essential, interconnected parts.

But the term ashtanga yoga has also gotten attached to a modern exercise system that focuses heavily on part, the yoga pose. Yoga poses, though, are only the tip of the iceberg in yoga. If you don’t go very far beyond them, you simply AREN’T DOING YOGA.

Are you a one-limbed yogi?

Most yoga enthusiasts know that there’s more to yoga than just stretching. What that “more” is, though, probably isn’t too clear for a lot of folks.

You’ve probably heard about the morals and ethis part … the yamas and niyamas. But we’ve all had enough of the “how to be good lessons” growing up, haven’t we? We’re adults now, so who needs more of it now?

It’s the stretching we want. Ashtanga yoga poses keep Madonna looking pretty fit in her 50s, and Jennifer Aniston looking younger every day. I’m willing to give it a shot then.

Oh, and you know about the breathing too, right? Pranayama is it? It sure doesn’t get any more BORING than that, right? Anyhow, we all know how to breath, so why bother?

There’s more to yoga though (much more than those first four limbs that you probably just skimmed over anyhow). What, however, is the question. The higher stages of yoga never get much press, and that’s the big shame …

… Because that’s actually where REAL YOGA begins. Yeah, I’m sorry to break it to you, but if all you’ve been doing is twisting and bending your body and doing a little alternate nostril breathing here and there, then you haven’t even really started yoga yet.

If that’s true, what’s the point of the first 4 limbs then?

Preparation. The first four limbs can be referred to as Hatha Yoga … the last 4 as Raja Yoga. And as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a classic yoga text) tells us, Hatha and Raja are two ends of the same pole … “Hatha is a ladder for ascending to Raja, and Raja is the goal of Hatha.”

So yama and niyama, asana, and pranayama all prepare us for the higher stages, where REAL YOGA starts to happen. Hatha yoga is a necessary part of the yoga journey, but if we get stuck there, we’re going to miss the best part of the trip!

Why didn’t your teacher mention that?

Well, to be honest, very few students have enough dedication and discipline to get to those higher yoga levels. Which is probably a good thing, because there are also very few yoga teachers who have really made it there themselves (unfortunately, becoming a certified yoga teacher today doesn’t require mastery of yoga.)

To be fair, these higher levels of yoga are no walk in the park … but that doesn’t change the facts. If we really want to experience the amazing transformative power of yoga, we need to climb higher. Most people, I know, prefer to remain in the land of endless preparation. My only question for them is … what exactly are you preparing for?

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