In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a two-thousand-year-old collection of the oral teachings on yogic philosophy, there are one hundred and ninety-five statements which are a kind of philosophical guidebook for dealing with the challenges of being human. The Yoga Sutras provides an eight-fold path called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs”. These eight steps are basic guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They are a prescription for moral and ethical conduct. They direct attention toward one’s health, and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The first four steps or stages concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over our body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepare us for the second half of the journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
The first step deals with one’s moral or ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in our interpersonal life. These are, literally, the controls or don’ts of life. They include areas where we must learn to control tendencies which, if allowed expression, would end up causing us disharmony and pain. They are the same moral virtues that you find in all the world’s great religious traditions. The five yamas are:
Non-violence (Refrain from harming or demeaning any living thing, including yourself, by action, word or thought.)
Non-lying (Control any tendency to say anything that is not truthful, including not being truthful to yourself)
Non-stealing (Curb the tendency to take anything that does not belong to you which includes not only material objects but also things such as praise or position.)
Non-sensuality (Learn the art of self-control; to control the tremendous energy expended in seeking and thinking about sensual pleasure and to abstain from inappropriate sexual behavior.)
Non-greed (Learn not to be attached to or desirous of “things”; to learn to discriminate between “needs” and “wants”.)
Niyama, the second step, are individual practices having to do with self-descipline, self-development and spiritual observances. These are the non-controls or the dos of the path. The five niyamas are:
Purity (Strive for purity or cleanliness of body, mind and environment.)
Contentment (Seek contentment and acceptance with what you have and with things as they are right now. But, also, seek ways to improve things in the future.)
Self-control (Learn to have control over your actions and to have the strength of determination to do what you decide to do; to replace negative habits with positive ones.)
Self-study (This requires introspection; studying our actions, words and thoughts to determine if we are behaving in a harmonious and positive manner in order to achieve the happiness and satisfaction we strive for.)
Devotion (Devotion is the turning of the natural love of the heart toward the Divine rather than toward the objects of the world.)
Asana, the postures practiced in yoga, are the third step. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of the spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Through the practice of asana, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. If the body is in proper working order and comfortable in one position for a long time, it can ultimately become a vehicle for spiritual powers, instead of preventing progress by bothering its owner with physical distress.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth step consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind and the emotions. The literal translation of pranayama is “life force”. Yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises) or integrate it into your daily hatha yoga routine.
Pratyahara, the fifth step, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. We direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This can happen during breathing exercises, during meditation, during the practice of yoga postures, or during any activity requiring concentration. Detachment is a great technique for pain control and an excellent way to deal with uncomfortable symptoms or chronic conditions.
The practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana or concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object. The goal is to become aware of nothing but the object on which you are concentrating, whether it’s a candle flame, a flower, a mantra you repeat to yourself, a specific energetic center in the body, or an image of a deity. The purpose is to train the mind to eliminate all the extra, unnecessary junk floating around, to learn to gently push away superfluous thought. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh step of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. Meditation occurs when you’ve actually become linked to the object of your concentration so that nothing else exists. It is a keen heightened awareness, not nothingness. Your mind is completely focused and quiet but awake and aware of truth. Many methods exist to bring you to this state, but oneness with the object of your meditation, and subsequently, oneness with the entire universe, is the objective. It is quite a difficult task to reach this state of stillness but it is not impossible. This state is a goal to keep striving for and, even if it is never attained, there is benefit from each stage of progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final step of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. All the paths of yoga lead to this stage. This stage is one which most of us are unlikely to attain in this lifetime. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the self altogether. When in this state, you understand not only that you and the object of your meditation are one, but that you and the universe are one. There’s no difference between you and everything else. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: joy, fulfillment, freedom and peace
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