Yoga is everywhere theses days, and it’s Big Business. Yoga studios, online classes, apparel, yoga accessories, books, magazines, podcasts, trainings, retreats, workshops …etc are ubiquitous. It is wonderful that millions of people are discovering this ancient healing art, and I have no doubt that it has helped improve the health and lives of countless practitioners. But here’s the downside…as yoga has moved out of the caves and into the mainstream, it has, sadly, become watered down to make it more palpable for the masses. In today’s western culture it seems that Yoga=Asana. The physical yogic postures are an important aspect of the yoga journey. They can lead to increased health and vitality, awaken subtle body energies, and help us become aware of our thought and tension patterns. But they are only one small piece of a bigger holistic puzzle. So here is a quick refresher on Raja (Royal) Yoga, also known as Pantanjali Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga– The Eight Limbed Path.
Yama (Moral Codes) – The first limb is all about right relationships. How do we interact with the world? It includes five simple codes of conduct. Ahimsa (Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Moderation of Energy), and Aparighraha (Non-hoarding). When we live by these principles, we reduce the potential for drama in our lives. By eliminating unnecessary conflict and creating an environment of harmony, right action and intention smooth the way for a deeper exploration of our true nature and connection with spirit.
Niyama (Personal Practices) – If we want to advance on the path, we must diligently apply ourselves. The five-part prescription for success demands that we practice Saucha (Purity of Mind and Body), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Passion & Discipline), Svadyaya (Self-Study) Ishvara Pranidhanani (Surrender). These principles help us proceed along the path without getting off track or distracted.
Asana (Physical Postures) – The physical practice of yoga is designed to optimize our health, and open and align our bodies so we can sit comfortably in meditation. By reducing the tension that limits our breath, Asana also helps us access Prana (Life-force) for greater vitality. Pain, illness, and exhaustion are incredibly distracting. The ultimate goal of yoga is to quiet the mind enough to connect with our deepest knowing. A healthy body becomes an asset instead of a hindrance to stillness.
Pranayama (Breath Restraint) – The act of marrying movement with breath in asana leads us to the next limb. Much more than “breathing exercises”, Pranayama refers to the manipulation of Prana. We learn to access universal energy to help quiet our minds and regulate our moods. There are practices to calm and invigorate, awaken the subtle body, and harmonize our inner landscape. According to Patanjali, Pranayama prepares the mind for the meditative limbs (PYS 2.53),and lifts the veils between the seen and unseen (PYS 2.52), bringing us ever closer to universal wisdom and guidance.
Pratyahara (Purification of the Senses) – The previous four limbs comprise the list of things we DO. Pratyahara is the bridge between the external and internal limbs. When we dive deeply into Pranayama, our senses become less distracting, allowing us to turn inward. We may no longer hear the dog barking next door, or feel the niggling discomforts in our bodies. As the outward disturbances begin to dissolve we move into the meditative aspects of the practice. Our efforts of acting right, adhering to the personal practices, physical postures, and breath work crest the hill, and we begin to glide on their momentum.
Dharana (Meditation) – The meditative process begins with Ekagraha (One Pointed Focus). We home in one specific thing – our breath, a mantra, a candle flame – and practice returning our attention to our chosen anchor again and again. Like training a puppy, we catch our minds wandering off, and gently but firmly, direct them back to our focal point. Through consistent vigilance and effort, we slowly train the mind to remain where we’ve placed it.
Dhyana (Immersion) – When we focus on one thing consistently, without interruption, eventually the boundaries between “us” and it begin to blur. If we come into stillness and attach our attention to our breath long enough, and without interruption, we will start to embody it. All awareness of the body ceases and we are no longer separate from the act of breathing. We are simply breath, a living host to the cosmic dance of inhale and exhale.
Samadhi (Communion) – Once we experience communing with one thing, we are moments away from communing with everything. This eighth and final limb is yoga’s ultimate gift. We lose all self-consciousness, and fall, like drops of rain, back into the ocean from which we came. We remember, if only for a moment, that we are not alone, or separate from Life, Love, God. Instead, we are all invaluable threads in the intricate tapestry of life…held and guided by benevolent universal love.
For most of us, Asana is the doorway…our first taste of yoga’s potential. My hope is that this door opens wide to reveal the full picture of what is possible when dive into the “other 7 limbs” of Yoga. The deeper we look, the more we will discover. If we are willing to travel a bit further down the path, it might just lead us home.