This post is a very general overview of the Eight Fold Path as represented by the Yoga Sutras which were written by Pantanjali about two thousand years ago. I plan to write more in depth posts on the deeper aspects of the Sutras in the future.
Raja Yoga, the Eightfold Path, the Sutras Pt. I
These are the eight limbs:
1) the Yamas
2) the Niyamas
The first two limbs (the Yamas and the Niyamas) are broken down into subcategories.
The yamas mean “restraints”
The niyamas mean “observances”
I have heard the five yamas and five niyamas referred two as the ten commandments of yoga.
The five yamas are:
Ahisma (non-violence) Making a concerted effort not to harm one-self or others in speech or in deed.
Satya (truthfulness) do not deceive yourself or others.
Brahmacarya (sexual restraint) in today’s world, people have referred to this not only in a sexual manner. You should not use too much energy. Over exertion or doing things to an extreme is unhealthy. For example, eating more than you need without conservation will lead to obesity and waste. Not respecting your sexuality can lead to trouble and we should conserve some of that energy for spiritual matters.
Apiragraha (non-greed) we should not try to get more than we need. This can lead to obsession and unhappiness.
This first step deals with restraint and discipline. Many people never pass this first stage. The reason is, if you only restrain yourself but don’t give yourself anything, you will feel empty. So we must continue on this path in order to fill ourselves with meaningful purpose. For example, if you make a choice to stop doing violence to yourself and end your addiction to drugs, you must then find something positive to focus on in order to replace that old habit and that is why we need to practice the Niyamas.
The five Niyamas are:
Sauca (cleanliness) this category has its own subcategories of detoxification such as diets. There are also exercises that can be done to cleans out the organs. This is also referring to purity of the mind and looking to cultivate our thoughts internally so as not to be effected by the external.
Santosa (contentment) not complacency but acceptance. This step reminds me of the classic prayer “Lord, give me the strength to change the things I can change, the patience to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Tapas (commitment and passion for your practice)
Svadhaya (self study) Alexander Pope once said, “Know then yourself. Presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is man.” Before you can start knowing the secrets of the universe, you must first learn to study yourself.
Isvara Prandihara (surrender to god or a higher power) to me, this step has to do with faith. If you believe there is a higher power, even if that power is yourself, that faith will carry you along. You need to believe in what you are doing.
When I read this section of the sutras, I remember there being a lot said about really seeing things as they are. If you can truly discipline yourself and make an effort to understand yourself objectively, the rose colored glasses start to clear up. Our own prejudices or ego stops getting in the way of seeing things as they are. In many doctrines or self help books, we learn that the first step of learning is freeing ourselves of the ego. Just the other day, I was reading a book about how to self-publish your own book. The author said that when someone is editing your book, don’t question what they say and put your ego aside. This is the only way to learn and to make positive leaps forward.
Raja Yoga, the Eightfold Path, the Sutras Pt. II
The third step of the path is Asana. This is what people are practicing in gyms around the world. Asana is the art of holding your body in certain poses. It deals with hatha or physical yoga. Masters of this step can contort their body in all kinds of positions. They can balance on their fingers and heads. They are extremely strong and flexible. The great masters of asana have been the longest surviving yogis. BKS Iyengar is 92 years old. He started studying hatha yoga due to being very ill. Now he’s in top physical condition and still traveling the world teaching. His teacher, Krishnamacharya lived to be 100. I attribute this heartiness to their level of fitness. I’m a fitness professional and I find asana to be a more intense discipline than many others. It takes a lot of core strength and stamina.
Of course yoga doesn’t have to be a superhuman physical task. In can consist of gentle stretches. The direct translation of “asana” is posture. Simply focusing on sitting, standing or doing other movements with correct posture is Hatha Yoga. There have been some recent studies proving that simply changing your posture can change your hormonal states, your emotions and other aspects of the self. Self help gurus such as Anthony Robbins teach us to stand up straight in order to change our mental and emotional states.
Step four is Pranayama.
I learned to truly appreciate this step when I attended the acting conservatory in New York. The voice and speech classes were very intense. I learned right away that I was breathing incorrectly. I was tensing my abdominals and freezing up my diaphragm, not allowing the air to enter. I was breathing shallow but I didn’t know it. When I learned to breathe deep, I learned to relax. I learned to heal myself. Gaining control of something so basic helped me gain control over little aspects of my body that I took for granted before. I learned to release tension where I didn’t even know I had it. I learned to slow down my heart rate. Learning breath control helps you focus your mind and calm your body. Most importantly, it bridges the mind and body gap. It helps your mind become more aware of the very subtle an internal workings of your body. We cannot survive a few minutes without air. It is the most essential energy we need and breath control helps us tap into that very powerful energy.
Raja Yoga, the Eightfold Path, the Sutras etc. Pt. III
So you have done the Yamas and the Niyamas and your body and mind are clean and you have adjusted your attitude so you can more easily open your mind to learning.
You have started and have gotten used to the yoga asanas or poses so now your body is stronger, more flexible and more efficient. You are physically more balanced and have better control over your hormones rather than your hormones controlling you.
You have started mastering breath control and have learned to use your breath to still your mind and body by practicing pranayama.
Now that you have come to this level of health and stillness, you are ready to look within yourself. This step is called Pratyahara.
Just from practicing the first three limbs, you have already heightened your awareness. By using your breath and poses, you are more in sync with where there is pain and tension in your body and how the energy flows within it. Looking within is the opposite of detachment because you take the time to really feel your senses and understand yourself. At the same time, detachment is important because it helps us understand why we react the way we do. For example, someone who is not aware of themselves might react emotionally to life events that remind them of stressful things that happened in their past. For example, if a person just came out of an abusive relationship, a co-worker who acts like their ex, might make them feel hostility. They may not be aware of these feelings. But someone who practices pratyahara might realize this right away. They might also realize something so simple as how eating too much sugar affects their demeanor or energy level.
The next step, dharana means focus or concentration. Now that the mind and body is sound, it is able to focus. It also means study. The practitioner is ready to study life. The sutras name off a bunch of things the practitioner can study such as time, nature and the list goes on and on. Studying brings knowledge and knowledge brings greater awareness. Awareness brings more choices and alternatives. We find answers we never knew were there.
The second to last step is called dhyana. This means meditation. A person who is focused can still be interrupted but a person who is meditating is completely immersed in the subject of study. As it was put to me; Concentration is like watching water pour out of a pitcher. It trickles because there are still spaces where there is no water. Mediation is like watching oil pour out. It is smooth and together. There are no spaces. When we meditate, we still our mind and focus on that one thing. Distractions no longer bother us. This type of concentration can purify our ability to learn. When I was studying yoga, a teacher told us all to meditate five times that week. It was interesting how everyone found parts of their lives that needed attention. What amazed me is how mediation helped everyone either find answers or realize that their problems were really not so bad. It is a truly powerful tool.
The final limb is called Samadhi. This is what many refer to as enlightenment. It has been described many ways by those who have felt it. It is a higher level of mediation where all boundaries are bridged. Everything that once seemed separate becomes one. Some of us have reached this state in our practice or in art or in just little moments here and there but reaching it permanently is difficult and requires a sound mind, body and soul. The sutras do warn that regression is common so enjoy your moments of Samdhi when they come.
Well, that’s raja yoga in a nutshell.
By Rhea Morales