I have briefly expounded upon different aspects of yoga in my earlier article 13) YOGA – The way of LIFE. As mentioned in the aforesaid article, Raja yoga is known as king of all the yogas. This is not because of the biases that exist in our perception, but it is because of its inclusion of the elements of “Yoga” in a holistic manner. This yoga is brought to light in a systematic manner by two great personalities – Sage Patanjali and the lord Sri Krishna. Those who understand the YOGA in its true sense, can see the harmony and the complementary nature of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Sri Krishna’s Gita. In this article, we will explore the Patanjali’s way.
Just to recap a bit, Yoga is not “something to do“, but it is something related to “being“. YOGA is a state of being. This state is achieved when one systematically disciplines their lifestyle in the prescribed format. When a student disciplines the life into studying, there will be a time when the study becomes a part of the existential life. If this discipline is not inculcated, then the “study” will be something that is to be “done” by the student (reluctantly). Similarly, YOGA is to be understood as a state of being rather than a set of practices. You practice to achieve a state – so the practice is not YOGA, but the State is.
Patanjali’s yoga or Raja Yoga is also named as “Aṣṭāṃga Yōga” – The yoga of eight limbs. This YOGA had been in the culture of ancient land since times immemorial. The very concept of Yugās and cycles of times is the basic axiom for this assertion. This is the reason why no sage takes credit for the wisdom they expound. Even Sri Krishna, when explaining his Gita to Arjuna, keeps hinting that “the wisdom” is not HIS, but of the “Elders”. Though HE is the LORD, he had to be careful in his teachings and that is why, he uses the words like “elders” or “ancients”, etc., to suggest the continuous flow of the wisdom through cycles of time.
What Patanjali did is that, he squeezed the essence of the practicality of the ancient wisdom into a set of instructions. The difference between Patanjali Yoga sutras and scriptures like Upanishads or Gita is that, his sutras are “direct instructions”. He starts the manual with “Ataḥ Yōgānuśasanaṃ” – meaning, “Now starts the INSTRUCTIONS to (achieve the state of) YOGA“. Anuśāsanaṃ means instruction, which is wrongly translated by many as “Lessons or teachings“. You won’t get any explanations as to why he is instructing so, in his works. So, Patanjali’s sutras are only for those who wish to put into practice the instructions and test for themselves. Unless one follows the instructions – to the point – and experience the state of YOGA, no one has a right to decline the validity of these instructions. Because Patanjali did not care much, like any other sage, about the critics, he just made an instruction manual without much explanation or commentary, for the sake of those aspirants who are in path to self-realization. Infact, all that an extra explanation does is rise more questions.
That is why we see many scholars discussing about Yoga, quarreling about the differences in concepts of non violence and trying to subdue others in the name of freedom. Such paradoxes occur only when “mind” is involved and the “Buddhi (the intellect which discriminates between right and wrong)” is asleep. When the buddhi is in play, all it requires is “Experience” which is achieved from “practicing” rather than just “thinking or discussing”.
All his instructions can be divided into eight sects – Aṣṭa Aṃga. These can be, understood as eight steps that you need to climb (or cross the eight natures) to reach the ninth state of PARA or Omniscience (they say there are eight prakritis and the ninth is the Para Shakti). So, what are these eight steps? Let us dive into them.
1. Yama: This is the art of “limiting”. There is a difference between limit and control. Most of the translations say YAMA means control. Can you really control something? Let us say we want to control a noisy student in a class. When the teacher is holding a stick or puts upon an angry face, the student is silent. But the moment teacher is gone or turns around, the student returns to his noisy state. SO, is teacher successful in controlling? May be for limited time, but that is not the goal of his efforts of straining the frowning muscles of the forehead!
So, YAMA’s aim is not “control” but to “limit”. Limit means, to create a situation where the goal will only be the inevitable scenario to be followed by the course of events. The student, when is brought to first bench from the last, what are his chances to be noisy? Of course very less. This is the goal of YAMA. But, what should this YAMA limit in our case of Yoga? The mind is the interface that we have between the physical (body) and non physical (self). It is like a steering wheel in the hands of “SELF” having five senses as five horses pulling the chariot of this body. So, limiting and constraining the mind will constrain the ride! It will bring the mind from aback bench (noisy state) to the first bench (a calm and observant or attentive state). So, YAMA limits the mind from jumping hither and tither by setting a lifestyle. This lifestyle includes the ideas of non-violence, non-stealing and other moral values. When you are idle, mind goes crazy and delves in many a thought. But when you give the mind a direction, by way of DISCIPLINE, it will slowly tune itself in that orientation.
This is the primary aim of YAMA – to purify the mind of the ignorant layers of all that belong to selfish aspects.
* Extra Note: Lord YAMA also has same etymology – he is the lord who limits. He limits the infinite life of a being into a duration of our lifetime by the cause of birth and death. He limits the infinite time by causing different duration (minutes, seconds, hours, etc. — though all are distinct, yet the TIME is as such ONE)
2. Niyama: This is something practical of the above yama. Niyama means an implementation of yama. While yama theoretically trains the mind into certain train of thoughts, Niyama helps the mind to fixate on that train of thoughts, by way of action. An action (karma) and a thought (jñānaṃ) are always complementary and cyclic. A “good” action results in an experience leaving impressions in mind. These impressions turn into seeds for future thoughts and behavior. The thoughts in future will again induce the body into acting in a particular manner. And the cycle repeats. The same can be said when we start with a “good thought”. Thus, YAMA and NIYAMA form an inseparable pair – yet distinct in their manifestation. Examples of Niyama would be the disciplining our life events, maintaining cleanliness of mind and body, self-surrenderance, etc.
Thus, Niyama is the practical implementation of the discipline and complement the Yama.
3. Āsana: The aspect of YOGA where, you achieve stability of a posture. What is a posture? A posture is the shape taken by body in a given condition. After a run, we bend for breath, or in order to sleep, we lay down, etc. But, these are few postures that we pose naturally. The ancient sages discovered many a posture that systematizes the bodily currents – currents of blood flow or air currents or of life currents (prāṇa), etc.
Posing a posture is not the aim, but regulating the irregular currents is the aim. When these currents regularize, the body goes into a state of resonance with nature – which we call HEALTH. A perfect health is very necessary for proceeding with any spiritual practice. Having a mind of jealousy or a body suffering from stomach pain, no one can even look at the grand picture of self realization, let alone achieve! The first two steps train the mind, while the third step trains the mind through training the body. If one can not sit for long or one who can not act in a position for long (say a teacher can not teach due to inability to speak for long duration), can not justify the path of yoga – for it is a “long stay in the state of union with the SELF”, which needs perfect calmness of body and mind.
Most people suggest that an āsana is required to do “tapas” or “meditation” for long and according to them meditation means sitting and closing eyes without any thoughts (more later). Actually that is absurd. YOGA is a state of being, of not “non-doing” but of poise. A state of sitting and closing one’s eyes is a state of non-doing. If this were the goal, Krishna would have asked Arjuna to close his eyes in the midst of the war. A “non-doing” is strongly discouraged by all the “realized”seers. An ĀSANA helps one to “stably” follow the “KARMA” – with mind and body.
The poise of mind and body in an act that adheres to the tenets of DHARMA or eternal LAW, is called “ĀSANA SIDDHI” – an achieved state of poise of a posture. This is the goal of practicing this step of ĀSANA.
4. Prāṇāyāma: “Prāṇa” means LIFE-currents and yama means, as we said earlier – to limit. LIFE is like a non-directed voltage/current. It has potential to flow anywhere! But by limiting its path, one can harness the power that it generates. The same applies to “Prāṇa”.
There are five such broad classification of LIFE-currents (Pancha Prāṇās): Prāṇa, Apāna, Vyāna, Udāna and Samāna. Each is life-current which carries certain functions in our body. If one helps in exhalation, other helps in inhalations. If one helps in excretion, one helps in circulating the digested energies of the food all over the body. One helps to maintain the poise between these binaries. In this way, all these life-currents govern all the dynamism in our body.The direct physical entity that helps in limiting these currents is the AIR we breath. By limiting the breath, we limit all other flows, this is because, the breath is that which sustains the LIFE. Taittirīya Upanishad says that “Namaste Vayō, twamēva Pratyakṣṃ Brahmāsi” – meaning “Oh lord of the AIR – you are verily the perceivable Brahman and we bow to you in veneration”. So, the training in the art of breath is nothing but the worship of “perceivable consciousness” and this results in the limitation of paths for the life-currents in us, harmonizing and creating a symphony of ecstasy.
Thus, the art of breathing the air and controlling the life currents in our body is the goal of “Prāṇāyāma”.
*PS: So, it should be clear now that the popular terminology of “breathing exercises” are NOT the prāṇāyāma here, but the state of harmony that we reach through these exercises, is actual Prāṇāyāma.
5. Pratyāhāra: This is a state that can be achieved only after achieving the above four states of poise and harmony. Pratyāhāra means, “withdrawal“. Withdrawal of what? If you closely observe all the four states above, we can see that teh aim was to bring poise to mind through body. That means, mind is every where in the body with the help of prāṇa. That is why when we try to limit the breath, mind’s thoughts too tend to cease to exist.
When the mind does not “attach” with the pains and pleasures of the body, we can say that MIND is “withdrawn” from the body. This does not mean that one goes paralyzed! This means that mind does not influence the course of though-action cycle (as mentioned earlier) because of the bodily desires, but decides upon the bodily “needs”. Say, we want to drink a cold carbonated drink after a walk in a hot sunny day, this is a want. But a person who is following this path of yoga, will be guided by the mind to NOT drink such a drink and he would not even get such a thought, as the BUDDHI / intellect “knows” (through past experience or observation) that such a drastic heat exchange results in dis-harmony of the bodily currents (disturbs the homeostasis).
Thus, the art of withrawing the mind from the likes and dislikes of physical pains and pleasures is the aim of this “Pratyāhāra”.
Till now, one would have trained the mind in a very systematic way to be in poise and would have achieved the bodily health as well. What is the use of achieving all this? Unless a human helps another human (or another life form or our own self – but selflessly) in some way or the other, the existence becomes “selfish” which contradicts the motto that these instructions started in first place. So, the goal of all the five steps above was to some how be “FIT” to “serve” the LORD in the form of the beings of his creation.
*PS: Just note that this is of two types: 1) Serving the lord inside us (meditation through closing eyes) and 2) serving the lord outside us (meditation through open eyes!). These two are important. Just following the 1) will make a person blind to the omnipresence of lord while just following 2) will blind a person to the Lord inside them!
Let us take a case to recap – In serving a fellow human, first we need to have a limitation on the mind’s wavy nature (Yama) and we need to be able to put these moral values into practice (Niyama). We need to achieve a strength of continuity in what we do to that person through bodily poise and the harmony of thoughts (Āsana). We also need to achieve a way to regularize the inner subtle forces that help us maintain the aforementioned states (Prāṇayāma). Once achieved, we need to be able to “serve” without any attachment to the person or the process of serving, otherwise we will be pulled into the karmic debt (as explained in 8) Astrology and Karma Theory). To achieve that we need to withdraw our mind from being attached to the acts (Pratyāhāra). Now we are fit to serve the person!
So far so good. What next? Shall we start serving? Yes, please proceed! the rest of the three limbs of this YOGA are nothing but different degrees of realizing ourselves in this service.
The last trio:
Let us take an example and understand the remaining three steps. When you are reading a book, you hold a book in your hands and start looking at the letters on the pages. You are different from the book and the process of reading exist as a separate entity. This state of reading is called –6. DHĀRAṆA. When slowly you dive into the topic of the book, you are involved in the story. You will loose the sense that you are reading the book, but just the story keeps running in the mind. You will turn pages without even your knowldge. This state of is called –7. DHYĀNA. If the book is too good and to your liking, you will loose yourself into the story. After a while you will come out (because we are not yet trained in YOGA properly) and you will not even remember what happened – i.e., you do not know how you skipped to page 100 from 50 (for example)!! This state often occurs when you are in a good musical as well (you will loose yourself into the music). This state of dissolving one’s SELF is called –8. SAMĀDHI.
Thus, the last three steps are a state of our “being” that we gradually achieve once the five pillars are put into action. The sixth slips into seventh and the seventh into the eighth, by continuous and harmonious effort.
All the first 7 steps depend on the object and the doer, but the 8th step is independent of the object or doer. You may be serving a person or participating in a race or reading a book or helping a kid,what ever – If you dissolve yourself into the ACT and break the triangle of “Doer, Doing and the DONE”, “YOU” will not exist anymore, but “THE ONE IN ALL” exists (you will be verily the ONE). Of course, one must remain in this state for longer times and increase it to eternity – That is the goal and that is why you have the eight steps to climb slowly and steadily!
Thus, the eight steps of YOGA of Patanjali is indeed a ROYAL PATH for an aspirant, which is cautiously weaved with very fine instructions.