The practice of Yoga Asana is good for our health. But this is only one aspect of the eight limbs of Yoga.
Spiritual Origins of Yoga
Where does the term Yoga originate? Patanjali is the historical authority on Yoga; he was born in Kodar about 5,000 years ago. However, the mental and physical elements we know as Yoga existed long before Patanjali created his system.
Patanjali synthesized the significant aspects of Yoga into what describes as a tree of knowledge using several Sutras or formulas from early Vedic tradition. This tree has eight limbs. He goes on to describe the outcomes and expectations of using these Sutras. Unfortunately, His written work, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is absent the techniques or methods for using these formulas. Because of this gap, there are several different interpretations of his sutras.
One thing is clear, the purpose of these Sutras is not on the experiential or superhuman aspects of the Yoga Siddhis, but on the integration and harmonization of our Being.
Yoga is the Union of What 3 things?
If we learn anything from the spiritual origins of Yoga, it is that one can only achieve a truly fulfilling life through the harmony of body, mind, and soul. When everything is in balance, the Ego does not overpower the Observer. The mind and Ego become the tools of consciousness rather than the rulers of perception. We can live life fully present.
The physical postures of Yoga Asana make Yoga a popular household term, but it is only one aspect of Yoga. 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. So, the physical Asana can be gentle preparatory meditation exercises or vigorous and challenging poses that mold the body and soul together.
“The word Yoga means union; Yoga is the union of body, mind, and spirit. 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 much more than exercise; it’s a practice to integrate and harmonize all aspects of our Being.
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.
When taken out of context, 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. It differs from using Yoga out of context as a type of exercise.” — Guru Tua
Achieving Harmony of Body, Mind, and Soul
Here are the key terms from the spiritual origins of Yoga. These definitions to help you understand this system:
The following order is consistent with their presentation in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. However, we recommend you start with Samadhi. It will help you put things in a proper perspective. Yoga is the union of what is needed to balance the three main elements of our Being.
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.
The Eight Limbs of the Tree of Yoga
These eight limbs are part of a whole, each one a part of a holistic approach. Remember, Yoga is the union of what the soul needs most. Allow your practice to change and grow as you grow. Don’t forget it’s essential to take time to normalize. Time off can be just what you need to reach the next level.
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. But, it’s important not to get bogged down in mythology and superstition. Use the stories of other enlightened beings as inspiration. We highly recommend that you create a path rather than following someone else’s. Read the stories of all the great sages, from Buddha to Jesus; they did it by walking in the wilderness, not becoming a follower.
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 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.
Logic and common sense can be a doorway to the harmony of body, mind, and soul, so don’t overlook this aspect. The study of critical thinking skills will help you make more sound choices.
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.
Yoga is the Union of What Your Soul Needs Most
The spiritual origins of Yoga tell us integration is the key. We achieve harmony of body, mind, and soul when we bring them together.
If you think of Yoga only as a form of exercise, you miss the point. 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.
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.
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(1) Transcendental Meditation, www.tm.org & Wikipedia
(2) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia