Raja Yoga’s Eight Limbs or Astanga Yoga
By Stephanie Adams, all rights reserved
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, written in approximately 400 BC, the yogic sage recommends an 8-limbed system referred to as Ashtanga or Raja Yoga to rid oneself of Kleshas/obstacles (YS 2:29):
1. Yama: restraint/abstinence
2. Niyama: observance
3. Asana: posture, seat
4. Pranayama: breath control/control of the life force
5. Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: concentration
7. Dhyana: meditation
8. Samadhi: contemplation/absorption; bliss; super consciousness (you are not alone or separate)
Marga means path. There are two paths to the attainment of yoga:
1. The path of effort – Maryada Marga – looking for a system to follow, a map, an authority figure.
2. The path of grace – Pushti Marga – simply surrendering
It is only through intense effort and disciplined practice that we can receive such grace. The maryada path leads to the pushti path. The first six steps of Patanjali’s Ashtanga or Eight-Limbed Practice are the maryada path and the last two steps dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss) are the pushti path. (Jivamukti, p. 37)
Numbers 1-5 are the more outer five. Yamas and Niyamas are guidelines for how we live in the world. Yoga practices like asana and pranayama bring things up for us. They bring awareness to how we are feeling, living, our attachments and aversions, our commitment or lack of discipline, and so much more. Patanjali does not give asana as a one-step plan.
1. Yamas & 2. Niyamas
Many believe that Yamas and Niyamas are unifying principles so similar to the guidelines of living taught in other cultural, philosophical and spiritual texts. Let’s focus on this unity, letting go of the need to compare, judge or compete. Patanjali emphasizes ahimsa as the most important – kindness in word, thought and deed. All forms of prejudice are seeing “others” as different. When we see our self in “others” and treat our “self” with kindness and compassion, we are practicing ahimsa. The more we are kind, the more we see kindness in others.
The yamas consist of non-harming, right communication or truthfulness, noncovetousness or non-stealing, moderation, and non-greediness.
Patanjali says that the yamas and niyamas are not limited according to a person’s position in life and they constitute a great universal vow. Patanjali then goes on to say that THE PRACTICE OF YOGA HAS SUCH AMAZING UNIVERSAL BENEFITS THAT IT CAN BE ADAPTED TO FIT A PERSON’S CLASS, PLACE, TIME OR CIRCUMSTANCE. (YS 2:31)
Niyamas consist of cleanliness, contentment, austerity/removal of impurities in our physical and mental environment, self-study, and self-surrender.
The third limb of Patanjali’s suggested practice means the posture that brings comfort and steadiness (YS 2:46). Realizing that requiring the body to sit still in any one posture requires a perfectly healthy body. Moving through postures designed to bring health to the body, prepares that body and mind to find one posture where we can be still. The practice of asana is to learn enough about your body to adapt asana to your body.
Because our nature, our senses, wants to experience pleasure and avoid pain, we load the system with toxins – food, stimulation, noise, pollution, etc. If the body is still, we can help the mind to be still. There are ample tests of nature to try to break our resolve. However, once we learn to lessen the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture can be mastered. (YS 2:47) Once we can make a posture comfortable through practice we are neutral and not disturbed by dualities (hot/cold; praise/ criticism). (YS 2:48)
One we have learned to acquire a comfortable, steady posture (asana), inhalation and exhalation should be controlled. (YS 2:49)
Three types of Pranayama, according to Patanjali:
1. Bahya vritti – exhaling (external retention)
2. Abhyantara vritti – inhaling (interior retention)
3. Stambha vritti – stationary retention
Variations on these Pranayama include place, time, count, and long or short duration:
Desa – place
Kala – time
Samkhya – count
Dirgha – long
Sukshmah – short (YS 2:50)
The fourth type of Pranayama happens effortlessly in deep meditation where we are concentrating on a internal or external object:
4. Kevala Kumbhaka – unintentional retention that occurs naturally in deep meditation. The breath follows the mind.
Pranayama prepare the mind, but the senses are still able to pull the mind away. (YS 2:54-2:55)
Pratyahara directs senses inward. Realization that there is more than we can actually see, touch and hear. Our physical senses are like filters. When we learn to use and refine our senses we become so much more aware of our bodies and minds and we begin to find our authentic selves and we are better able to accept the authentic selves of others without clouding that clarity with judgment and competition and other less conscious and distracting thoughts.
Everything we see, watch, hear and expose our senses to affects us at a deeper level than most of us thought possible. Many of us spend most of our days with some sort of external distraction happening: TV, radio, internet, computer, phone, billboards, magazines, gossip or superficial conversation, etc. If we spend most of our time watching commercials we will become focused on consumerism. Likewise, if we spend a great deal of time watching violence, it may profoundly affect us and may eventually affect our deeper commitment to contentment and non-violence/kindness. If we spend time with pornography or even sing-a-long with sexually explicit songs, it may turn our intention and attention to a sexual focus. It is useless to feel guilty about this or to judge these actions. However, just by bringing this up, we bring an awareness to how we spend our time. If we choose to refine our sensory experiences, we will bring another level of transformation to our lives.
Remember, there is no word in the ancient yogic language of Sanskrit for guilt. In yoga, there is no use for guilt. Why spend time feeling guilty about what happened in the past? Every thing that happens in our lives can be an opportunity for learning and self growth, if we allow it to be. Instead of feeling guilty, choose to learn from mistakes and practice new habits in baby steps: day by day and moment by moment.
By resisting temptation, we feel momentary tension, but as it passes we feel very proud and we gain a sense of mastery. This happiness far outweighs the momentary pleasure we receive when we give into our senses. It is everyone’s right to enjoy this freedom. We are free to “find peace and joy within and share the same with all humanity.” (Swami, p. 168)
Training the Mind to Meditate – concentrating or binding the mind to one place. In dharana, we are training the mind to meditate by completely focusing it on one place. (YS 3:1) Because it is more difficult for the mind to visualize, an actual object to fix your gaze upon can be helpful here. Tradak is the practice of actually gazing at an object, picture, etc. The longer you can look at the object, the more ingrained it will become in your mind, so that eventually when you close your eyes, you can still visualize it. Book 1, Sutra 14 reminds us that this practice “becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” Dharana is training our minds to quit running wild, and to be still.
The yoga practices are psychotherapeutic tools. Meditation enables us to watch the mind, observing our habits, preferences, and neuroses and gaining insights into the psyche, as well as the subconscious mind. The psychotherapeutic aspect of yoga comes from how it begins to integrate and purify the body, the emotions, and the mind by infusing them with spirit. (S. Gannon and D. Life, Jivamukti Yoga, 2002, Ballantine, New York. P. 24)
After much practice with Dharana we achieve stillness and a continuous cognitive flow, or Dhyana. This is true meditation once you no longer have to concentrate on meditation. It is effortless and time and space have no meaning here. Similar to sleep, you may or may not remember or have visions. (YS 3:2)
Samadhi is not practiced, but obtained. When consciousness of subject and object disappears and only the meaning remains, it is called Samadhi.
The final stage of Samadhi is when you become a living liberated being – a Jivan-mukta = jivan means living, mukta means liberated. You appear to be living a life like everyone else, yet you are active, dynamic and liberated from the nature of attachment. Your actions are more simply performed and content than other’s. (YS 3:3)
Practicing dharana, dhyana and samadhi upon one object is called samyama. As you deeply explore something, it reveals itself to you wholly. The revealed results are called siddhis. Mastering samyama allows us to discover the truth (uncover the truth that has always been there). This is accomplished in stages. (YS 3:4 – 3:6)
Yamas & Niyamas – Principles of Inner and Outer Awareness
By Stephanie Adams, all rights reserved
There are 15 principles of inner and outer awareness. These values are taught in many different cultural, philosophical and spiritual texts. An example of these values can be found by examining the Yamas and Niyamas which come from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and are a universal unified way of communicating these ideals. Put simply, Yamas are guidelines for our outer awareness of the world. Niyamas are codes of our own inner awareness. They are inner observances that provide a framework of values that allow us to conduct ourselves in an honorable way.
The Outer Observances: Yamas
1. The first of the Yamas is connection and kindness. Patanjali calls this Ahimsa, meaning non-violence. It is kindness in word, thought and deed toward yourself and others. It is awareness that if you treat others poorly you are in turn treating yourself poorly. In the same light, if we are not kind to our own self, we can not be kind to others. “When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself” When we acknowledge our connection to all and treat others with kindness, we are practicing Ahimsa.
2. The next principle is truth and authenticity, or Satya. According to Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation of Patanjali, Satya is “To be in harmony with mind, word and action, to conduct speech and mind according to truth, to express through speech and to retain in the intellect what has been seen, understood or heard.” Satya requires mindfulness, or to really pay attention. We first find connection and kindness, remembering any thoughts and words should be those of non-violence to ourselves and others. Often, our first instinct is to judge, evaluate, or analyze a situation from our assumed identity, experience, and perspective. To find truth we instead pause, realize that every viewpoint is just that, and see the situation from reality and from our highest and truest nature in that moment.
Think of a situation when you felt disappointment because your expectations were not met. How did you react? Did you choose to judge or to truly pay attention, trust, and observe what had happened? If you chose judgment, how might you have been able to practice Ahimsa and Satya to find a different outcome?
3. Next, we look at abundance and generosity. This yama is called Asteya. It is the practice of non-stealing. It is deeply understanding each one of us is already perfect, whole and complete just as we are, and that we don’t need to take or want from others in order to be whole. We see that competing or comparing can lead to misunderstanding or misperception, or can make us see ourselves or others as better or worse…competing and comparing may lead to judgment. Our actions are in line with who we truly are. We see abundance and generosity in ourselves as well as others as we remember to respect other people’s valuable time and talents as much as we do our own.
Is there any place in your life where you have been wanting some thing or some one to feel whole or complete, or just to feel good?
4. The fourth Yama is Brahmacharya, or moderation. Yoga Sutra 2:38 tells us when moderation is firmly established, vibrant vitality is gained. When we practice Brahmacharya, we emphasize quality, not quantity. We recognize the excess in our lives that might be creating unnecessary attachments or distractions that may be drawing us away from authentic beingness. Lisa Nichols talks about her life before finding her own vitality through moderation. She says, “I had a lot of sex looking for a little love . . . I can’t expect anyone to treat me better than I treat myself.” When we find moderation in our lives, vitality follows. Is there a time in your life when you found choosing to do less, achieve less, ended up showing you more?
Consume less, live more. More is not better, better is better. Quality, not quantity.
An example of excess would be addiction…or lack of clarity about how much is needed or necessary. Food, TV, internet, sleep, sex, exercise, another person, or anything else that has become part of our assumed identity, or feels necessary for daily life, could be examined here. Its not about right or wrong, should or should not, but about dependency or attachment that may be distracting us from reality and presence. Is there anything you are willing to experiment with here? Somewhere deep, you already know what you may have an unhealthy relationship with. Its just admitting it to yourself, so you can be clear, and find a realistic, holistic approach.
5. The last outer observance is Aparigraha, or “non-grasping”. When we practice Aparigraha we find that we are in a state of aligned asking and allowing. In this state we choose to let go of false images, identities, objects and roles. As we discover our true nature, we find out who we are and what we truly want in our lives. So many of us accumulate worldly goods through covetousness or attachment; the things we think we want come from a place of ego. They are actions taken without a deeper awareness of true self. The Yoga Sutras tell us that as we become more aware of who we are, we begin to understand what we want, and whether our daily actions and intentions are aligned with who we really are.
Wanting something freely and joyously with faith and empowered desire, without fear, doubt or expectations, will create it, if the universe supports it. This is asking and allowing in the same moment. Joyous expression of an idea will create it, if it is in line with your true nature and universal principles, and you allow it to come into your life without attachment.
Vairagya=non-attachment. Detachment develops with self-understanding. “Attachment” is actually resistance. Once we are “attached”, we are actually resisting by going into the fear or doubt of not having it. This resistance comes from low vibrational energies of fear and doubt. This fear and doubt come from patterns of wanting something to help us feel better about who we are, or to distract us from reality or pure emotions.
This resistance can also come from wanting something that is not aligned with true self. Then, we bring about what we don’t really want, and when we check in with our intuition, or “truth meter”, it doesn’t feel “good” or “right”.
Prakriti & Purusha
Purusha is the clear, pure awareness that you are. From the time we were born, our environment, culture, family and society have been influencing our experience…these create our impermanent nature or prakriti. Nature is always experiencing change and fluctuations. These strong influences can keep us from realizing our authentic selves. Life brings up things for us, and how we deal or don’t deal with them, perceive or don’t perceive them, affects our true happiness and view of reality.
This nature, or Prakriti, is not all bad, though. Nature also provides experiences that with a practiced and heightened perception/awareness can eventually bring liberation to the Purusha (true self). As we become more aware of who we are, we begin to understand at a deeper level what we really want, and whether the intent is aligned with who we really are and our connection to all. (YS 1:15-16)
When we are free from the fear and doubt of attachment, a deeper security and
understanding of Self is gained. (YS 2:39)
When interviewed by Yoga Journal, Gary Kraftsow replies in the following way:
How can most people effectively align intention and action? People need to understand themselves deeply and come out of denial to see if their intentions are their own or if they are just fashionable. Look at the choices we make every day; they show us something about ourselves. As long as we think we have forever, we avoid figuring out our priorities. Life is impermanent. Turn the mind from daily life to see how fleeting it is.
Now, this moment, this day, and in every moment, you have an opportunity to pay deep attention and to find deeper clarity about all that you are, and all that you may have believed yourself to be, but are not.
Normal or Natural?
Let’s take this discussion of what is in line with our true nature into a more practical and life experiential discussion. When we look at humans and history we can ask ourselves a couple of important questions:
1. The vast and fast changes that have occurred to shape our lives, especially over the last one hundred years, are they creating more ease, more effort, more joy, more pain?
2. Comparing humans to other mammals, looking at humans living in a more “natural” or tribal environment, and looking at anthropological evidence, are we living our lives in a way that is supporting what is most natural for our species?
The Forgotten Five: an additional five yamas, or outer awarenesses, that are mentioned in later yogic texts:
1. Compassion – daya – being Love by deeply realizing the union or connection of all and truly yearning to understand another’s perspective. Being vulnerable ourselves, allows us to truly experience compassion with others. If we cant have compassion with ourselves through vulnerability, compassion is just an intellectual idea.
2. Integrity – arjava – living Love by paying attention/realizing presence and reality, in any given moment
3. Patience – kshama – deep listening and seeing – witness consciousness and trust in the natural unfolding
4. Truth – dhriti – remaining steady and grounded in true nature and a reality perspective – being deeply aware of when our assumed identities (core negative or positive beliefs) cloud our thinking – seeing our patterned perspectives
5. Moderate Diet – mitahara – living asteya and brahmacharya by paying attention and becoming deeply aware of the overall impact our overconsuming has on ourselves, nature, others… all.
The Inner Observances: Niyamas
6. Shaucha means purity and clarity. Purification allows us to gain a deeper awareness of what externally is changing and needing to be maintained. With this greater awareness, we realize what is never-changing deep within. Purification brings clarity of mind, energy, one-pointedness, control of the senses and fitness that leads to a realization of the Self. If we focus on gratitude, eat quality food, purify and balance our energies with just the right amount of exercise, breath and relaxation we will live a life of higher resolution.
Where have we fallen into a habit of clutter or lack or time and attention to purity and clarity in body and mind? Do we take time regularly for clearing the mind and body and the space we live in.
7. Contentment describes the second Niyama, known as Santosha. It is finding gratitude and trust in each moment. Life is always changing, but if we are present in awareness, we can see what is good and wonderful right now. We can trust in our absolute nature beyond the ego, body, and personality (that will all eventually die), to the wholeness that we already are. Even in the daily chaos of life, can we find a center, clarity, still point?
8. The next principle is Tapas, or commitment.
Take a moment to consider these words from Goethe:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.
Paying attention and not running away from opportunities to become more self aware by seeking attachment to external distractions/indentities. Many of us have habituated these actions to the point that it feels “normal” and familiar for us. Just as we begin to see something that may make us feel vulnerable we quickly turn toward a familiar habit or pattern to distract us from the courage it would take to be vulnerable.
To change our lives, we must commit to seeing the patterns that no longer serve us. Commit to a new awareness. Habituating a new way of thinking, feeling and creating.
Where do you feel the most vulnerable? What would someone say to you that would hurt you the most? Can you step back in this moment and see the reality of that vulnerability, that fear, that doubt? This may be a core negative belief you have about yourself that is an assumed identity not grounded in reality.
9. Swadhyaya is the practice of self study. Yoga asks us to inquire about what we do not know about ourselves. We seek to learn about what is fundamentally good and whole in each and every one of us. From study that leads to knowledge of the self comes union with higher understanding of who we really are, and all that entails. Through awareness and life experience we learn to acknowledge patterns of thinking and acting that no longer serve us, and that are stories or assumed identities. Beliefs that are not even real. Characteristics previously seen as “weaknesses” can be learning opportunities that can be transformed through grace.
Perceived problems or misery we experience can be undone through continual shifts in awareness. The more we develop our level of awareness, the greater joy and abundance that will come into our lives. Take time in your life to inquire and learn about yourself.
To develop awareness we practice self-study (svadhyaya), including conscious contact and discussion with great teachers and friends (satsang). We can challenge ourselves to learn in ways that inspire us:
· Study of self, through meditation, writing, reading, yoga, or any other practice that helps you to develop a greater awareness and connection with your assumed identities, perspectives, and core beliefs: all that you have come to believe you are, but in reality are not;
· Create regular opportunities for conscious contact with supportive and encouraging teachers and friends. These discussions and processes bring us into a continual state of positive, grateful, abundant and aware thought processes.
We know that meditation changes the activity levels of the brain to a calm, active, and highly-attuned state. Through self study and conscious contact we can transform our belief system to align with a perspectiveless perspective, or reality.
10. The final Niyama is Ishwar-Pranidhan. It is faith and devotion attained by seeing the reality of our ego over and over again. It is realizing our absolute nature, or Self realization. It really can not be taught, only experienced. Many find vulnerability, humility and presence helpful sparks to light this fire.