The practice of Yoga Asana is good for our health. But this is only one aspect of Yoga. Yoga postures are only one aspect of yoga.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The physical postures of Yoga Asana make Yoga a popular household term. Where does it originate?
The Patanjali is the historical authority on Yoga; he was born in Kodar. Kodar was a village in the Vajirganj area at Gonda district Uttar Pradesh about 5,000 years ago. Patanjali is also called Gonardiya or Gonikaputra. He was the author, or a co-author, one of two great Hindu classics: his famous Yoga Sutras, where we get the eight limbs of yoga. The second is the Mahabhashya (Great Commentary). This work elaborates on the Sutras outlined by Pāṇini in the Ashtadhyayi and by Kātyāyana in the Varttika.
He synthesized many practices into one comprehensive system of only 196 verses. The Sutras he used come from much earlier oral traditions.
This aspect of Yoga ranges from gentle and restorative to athletic and gymnastics. It has become a type of exercise devoid of its spiritual context. But some believe its use helps to pave the way for inner work. What do you think?
Yoga Means Union
Yoga refers to developing the union between mind, body, and spirit. In Western culture, the focus is on the physical aspect. So the popularity of Yoga Asana is also responsible for misconstruing Yoga as nothing more than physical exercise. To be sure, there are health benefits for this aspect of Yoga. The physical movements of Yoga Asana are just one of the eight branches of Yoga.
“There is nothing wrong with exercise. We need to exercise to maintain a healthy body. But taking one aspect of spiritual practice and turning it into a form of gymnastics misses the point. Rather than achieving a union, you are creating more division. You reinforce the illusion between the observer and the instrument of observation. The goal of the eight limbs of Yoga is to unify the mind, body, and spirit. This differs from using Yoga out of context as a type of exercise.
Yoga means union, not exercise. Today people use the term Yoga interchangeably with other forms of physical exercise. Yoga has become something you add to your exercise routine, along with resistance or cardio training. It is something much more diverse and different from exercise.” — Guru Tua
Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are what we know as yoga, a diverse human development system. Here are the key terms with definitions to help you understand this system:
Samādhi is the unifying field of consciousness, is It personifies why Yoga means union. Samadhi is at the heart of the eight limbs of Yoga. One can reach this unique partition of awareness using a meditative process; this state has several names, including pure consciousness, bliss consciousness, or the 4th state.
The generic name for this method is Japa Meditation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi calls this technique Transcendental Meditation (TM) (1). He coined the term bliss consciousness to describe the state one reaches using this technique.
These eight limbs are part of a whole, each one a part of a holistic approach.
These eight elements are just one way of looking at consciousness. Learn more about the complete Rainbow of Consciousness that is available. There are other altered states and higher states of awareness.
Yama refers to external behavior. These are things you should not do.
- Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings.
- Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood.
- Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing.
- Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): marital fidelity or preoccupation with instinctual passions
- Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-avarice, non-possessiveness.
Niyama refers to internal or personal ethical guidelines. These are the things one should do which involve five internal disciplines;
- Self-Purification (Shaucha)
- Contentment (Santosha)
- Self-Discipline (Tapas)
- The Study of Self (Svadhyaya)
- Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)
Purification equates to eating healthy, exercising, and taking care of your wellbeing. It is learning to be content and thankful for what you have. Self-Discipline equates to living with the intention, being conscious of “living in the now.” It also involves practical planning and organization.
Self-study is exploring one’s divinity. You use several tools to do this, including self-observation, emotional reflection, and eliminating boundaries. Last is Self-Surrender, pursuing the idea of increasing awareness and consciousness. These processes are the essence of spiritual exploration.
Yama and Niyama are the philosophical and intellectual components of the Yoga Sutras. It also contains many preparatory steps that enable one to apply the Sutras.
It is the term most people associate with physical yoga postures. Today many mistranslate two key terms used by Patanjali, one of these is the word Asana. Patanjali uses Asana to describe “presence.” The second term often mistranslated is the word “seat.” Here, the word seat refers not to physically sitting but to “being established.” So, a seated asana means an established presence.
The creation of modern yoga postures didn’t occur until much later. So, the practice of yoga Asana is is the practice of being present. Being present is an essential element in all forms of seated and moving meditation. It’s also more akin to the practice of Kundalini Yoga. Here one activates a type of energy, Chi or Ki, to feel “presence” flowing up through us.
This practice refers to a variety of breathing exercises. It includes techniques to align, attune, and sometimes engage in semi-hypnotic altered states of consciousness. Altering, expanding, and reaching higher states is one of the primary purposes of practicing Yoga Sutras. Most people are familiar with changing waking consciousness via chemical stimuli like alcohol. Here one learns to alter awareness using the breath.
The literal translation of this is “withdrawal of the senses.” But in practice, it’s much more than that. It involves the progressive use of Mantra and Sutra. Withdrawing from the senses is the first part.
Withdrawing from the senses refers to using a Mantra to reach the transcendent state. Then, while in this silent state, one introduces the proper Sutra. The use of the appropriate sutura will return an immediate experiential result. This practice is known as Siddhis.
Patanjali refers to the Siddhis as extraordinary powers. There are many schools of thought, as there are interpretations of these formulas. Perhaps it’s the controversy that kindles so much interest. There is no doubt about this aspect of Patanjali’s work’s historical and spiritual significance.
Engaging the mind’s analytical powers is learning to reason with the least undue influence from external or internal boundaries and, in short, using analytical tools to counter the effects of cultural programming. Thinking without limits is the ideal of the freethinker. It involves conscious mental techniques for expanding awareness. It reinforces internal and external observational skills. And it shapes thinking through common sense and reason. So, those who prefer the analytical approach find this one appealing.
Dhyana is a combination of Dharana, Pratyahara, and Samādhi. It’s the fusion of the analytical mind and our transcendent awareness. It melds the 4th state with the waking state, resulting in a separate partition of consciousness known as Witnessing.
One achieves this state through regular Japa or TM meditation. The state of bliss naturally attracts the mind’s awareness. It is a natural progression to bring this quality into the waking state. The resulting experience is “witnessing.”
In this state of consciousness, there is an expansion of the mind’s ability to perceive two realities simultaneously. You have a conscious awareness of the body while observing from a different point outside the body.
Samadhi is the first building block of consciousness exploration. It’s the 4th state of consciousness beyond the default settings of waking, sleeping, and dreaming. Some call it pure consciousness or bliss consciousness.
However, with some exceptions, it remains hidden to the untrained mind. Hence, we learn to reach this state through specific meditation techniques. Japa meditation is the generic form of Hindu practice. It is also commercially known as Transcendental Meditation.
Although it is the last of the eight limbs of Yoga, it is the foundation for all the other Sutras. Samadhi is the primary tool for integrating our minds, bodies, and souls. It is the platform for developing other higher states of consciousness.
If you think of Yoga only as a form of exercise, you miss the point. Remember, Yoga means union. Expand your practice to include all the Yoga elements, and it will transform your routine into spiritual practice. Find a Yoga practice that’s right for you. You’ll be glad you did.
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(1) Transcendental Meditation, www.tm.org & Wikipedia
(2) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia