If you’re new to yoga, you may not have directly encountered its philosophical tradition yet, though you may have done so indirectly. Many people come to yoga for physical reasons but what keeps them coming back is the feeling that something more happened than just a workout. Even though an instructor may not be explicitly teaching the philosophy, the reminders to be aware of breathing, not to stretch to the point of pain, and to pay attention fully to the moment are aspects of the yoga philosophy. So is the meditative silence at the end of class.
Yoga is considered to be over 2,000 years old, but we don’t know its real date of origin. The philosophical foundations of yoga were an oral tradition for many years before they were first written down in a book. This book, the Yoga Sutra, compiled by a man named Patanjali, is concise but deep. The word sutra, meaning stitch, implies that each verse, while short and strong like a stitch in a garment, holds together the whole fabric of the philosophy. There are many translations in print, with commentaries by various recent philosophers. The translation alone would amount to a pamphlet of fifteen to twenty pages. The in-depth commentaries fill out the books.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path of yoga is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb).* These eight steps act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful life, with ethical conduct and self-discipline, attention to one’s health, and awareness of the spiritual aspects of our nature. The second sutra has been translated as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind,” or “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.” All of these stages lead to that stillness and freedom.
- Yama: “Abstentions” or “Restraints”
The first limb, yama, deals with ethics and integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” These are practiced at the level of thought, word and action. The five yamas are:
Ahimsa: nonviolence, or non-harming. This applies to self, others and to all life forms, not only to humans. Thinking unkind and hostile thoughts, saying destructive things, or doing harmful actions are all contrary to the principle of ahimsa.
Satya: truthfulness. This is practiced in the context of ahimsa. Truth with compassion and without harmful intent.
Asteya: nonstealing. This means more than simply not stealing objects or money. Thefts such as plagiarism or stealing another person’s moment of glory are also inconsistent with the practice of asteya.
Brahmacharya: continence. Though some yogis choose to practice celibacy, for most this yama means fidelity or respectful sexuality. It also refers to all sensual self-discipline. Enjoyment of sensual pleasure is not contrary to brahmacharya—it means literally the chariot of God. One rides in God’s chariot not by self-deprivation and mortification, but joyfully without exploitation or over-indulgence.
Aparigraha: noncovetousness or non-greed. One can covet attention and talk too much, or be greedy for material things and spend too much. Any form of excessive attachment to getting and having goes against aparighara.
2.Niyama: “Without Restraint” or “Observances”
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with spiritual observances.
The five niyamas are:
Saucha: cleanliness. Physically this refers not only to bathing but to eating clean, pure food. At the energetic level the practice of pranayama clears the path and flow of prana. In relation to the world, it can mean caring for the environment—clean air, clean water. In one’s home it can mean honoring the living space with beauty and cleanliness.
Santosha: contentment. One doesn’t fight reality but takes an attitude of receptive awareness. Objecting to reality with complaints and harsh judgment doesn’t change it. Change can occur, however, from this basis in contentment. Approaching one’s own body and one’s own character with santosha can manifest in a sense of humor that is kind and open.
Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities. This is the heat that occurs as one sustains a challenging asana without overdoing it or doing too little, holds awareness and compassion at a moment of anger without acting in rage, or sustains “witness mind” awareness during any difficulty rather than falling into old patterns and taking the easy route. Tapas is the positive energy released from these moments.
Svadhyaya: study of philosophy and wisdom. This is often translated as self-study. The yoga practitioner reads or listens to the words of great teachers, considers them and works to understand them, and then makes an effort to “walk the talk.”
Isvara pranidhana: spiritual awareness and dedication to one’s ideals; unity consciousness. This can be in a traditional religious context or outside of one. Yoga is not part of a religion, and people of any religion or no religion can practice all of yoga, including this niyama.
Asana, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar used asana to access all of the limbs of yoga. Through the practice of asana, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. We can apply the yamas and niyamas during asana practice, in relation to ourselves and those around us.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. It literally means life force (prana) restraint or control. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique (i.e., sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises), or integrate it into hatha yoga. Prana is both breath and vital energy.
These first four stages of yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, preparing us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. During this stage, we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. Aware of our senses, yet cultivating a detachment from them, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that might be detrimental to our health and/or interfere with our inner growth.
As each stage prepares us for the next, 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. Not easy! In the practice of concentration, which precedes meditation, we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: a specific energetic center in the body, an image, or the silent repetition of a sound. We have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. In asana and pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the nuances of a particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point. This is effortful quieting of the mind. Extended periods of concentration then naturally lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be the same, a fine distinction exists between them. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. It is effortless quieting of the mind. At this stage, the mind in stillness produces few or no thoughts. When thoughts arise, we observe them without attachment. While this may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process—a practice, not a destination. Even though we may not attain the “picture perfect” pose, or the “ideal” state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress.
Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether, realizing a profound connection to the divine and interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. On the surface, this may seem to be a lofty, “holier than thou” kind of goal. However, if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom find their way onto our lists? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. This ultimate stage of yoga—enlightenment—can’t be possessed. It can only be experienced, sometimes very briefly, through continual dedication.
*There is also a particular style of hatha yoga called Ashtanga Yoga.