The 8 Limbs: A Page from the Ashtanga Playbook

Whether you wish to argue the validity of a text that for hundreds of years fell out of practice in India or to full-heartedly embrace its philosophy, it is hard to argue that the eight-limbed path of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras does not bring both high-value and practical purpose to one’s sadhana. Most people jump on the eight wrunged ladder of Patanjali’s Astanga yoga with asana. Wrung number three of this ladder is, after all, where the body makes its way onto the mat, assuming unfamiliar shapes and forms. These contortions and configurations begin to bring about internal changes that enable people to feel better, which serves as a fantastic motivation to continue delving deeper into the practice. But there is more to the practice than the physical focus currently en vogue. 

Book two of the Yoga Sutras is likened to a Yoga for Dummies manual. After befuddling the novice with the unattainable first chapter, Samadhi Pada, Patanjali segues into step-by-step tips and tricks. Commentators like Osho have said it is a path that must be taken sequentially; however, what would that look like, and how can one devise a thoughtful plan to climb up the ladder progressing from Hatha (lower four limbs comprised of yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama) to the Raja, or Royal, path of pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi?

The Sutras provide us with a treasure map to inner awareness. Each step is a small boon, accumulating benefits along the way. Don’t be fooled by the new age “feel good” speak; it takes extreme discipline, eschewance of many societal norms, and a life modest with regards to many first-world comforts. As sensory-driven sacks of blubber, bones and blood, austerities are essential to our success on the yogic path.

Introducing these concepts into your practice should be progressive and realistic; habits don’t change overnight. The key to the practice is earnestness, accountability and compassion. In this way, the practitioner’s easily distracted mind comes into greater focus; kleshas (forms of suffering) burn away as penultimate distractions, and, eventually, everything comes into balance.

Let’s take the first step.

Yamas & Niyamas

The yamas and niyamas are ethical principles, and, as one first reviews them, there is doubtless resistance or resonance in our egoic selves. Perhaps you feel a churning in the pit of your stomach or your inner monologue gets defensive. This is exactly the place to start, by sincerely examining and reflecting on what these restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas) mean to how life is to be lived that is most conducive to the goals of yogic practice.

Osho recommends thinking sequentially about each of the limbs of the eight-fold path, so I am going to apply this same linear approach to the Yamas and Niyamas. To that end, I have paired a yama with a corresponding niyama, because, in my view, you cannot restrain without observing. It is almost impossible without self-study (svadyaya) to really know how each of these can be integrated into the cadence of daily life. One could also draw parallels with the Mayakoshas, vrittis and kleshas. They are all woven into the fabric of this majestic riddle of transformation.

Yamas (Restraints): Think of yamas as becoming aware of how one’s actions, driven by kleshas, can be detrimental to others and the Self. The yamas therefore enumerate what should be avoided for the benefit of all and for the benefit of practice. In considering contemporary challenges, the yamas should also be extended beyond humanity to the husbandry of animals and the protection and preservation of our planet.  

Ahimsa means non-harming. No harm to yourself, or others, in deed, thought or word. You can think about ahimsa in relation to vegetarianism. More than just cutting out the burgers, this extends to overconsumption, the welfare of animals, pollution and our overall impact on our environment. By considering the suffering of others, more sustainable plant-based foods could be grown and distributed.

I see the niyama of saucha (or cleanliness) aligning with ahimsa, as cleanliness embodies honoring the sacred vessel of our bodies, being pure in thought and action toward ourselves, our neighbors and our planet. Strive to eat clean, healthy and ethically grown foods, keeping your body clean from the inside out. Reflect on your motivations for consuming animal-based products, but do not condemn yourself if you do. There may naturally come a point where intuitively there is a departure from those foods when the klesha of ragas (or desire) leaves you. Practice acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness, where needed, keeping the mind and heart pure. Reinforce messages of metta (loving kindness) in the music you listen to and the films you watch. Be gracious in how you critique yourself and evaluate others.

Satya is truth in spoken word and thought. In yoga, there are fluctuations of the mind that are based on the understanding or misunderstanding of knowledge, pranama and viparyaya. Truth is diffused by avidya, the klesha of ignorance.  What we learn from our teachers and the knowledge we gain through the interpretations of others carry varying levels of truth. However, words should be thoughtfully vetted; it is not just about speaking the truth. Truth requires the niyama svadhyaya, or self-study, to observe where truth prevails over ignorance, and where maya (illusion) places a false veneer over perception.

Asteya means restraining from taking things that do not belong to you, or claiming ideas or concepts as your own. We see this wholesale in the contemporary commercial exploitation of ancient teachings being cleverly repackaged by assumed “masters” without any acknowledgement of lineage, tradition or their teachers. Although physical action seems a more overt form of asteya, the yogi knows that even contemplation of coveting or taking things that unlawfully do not belong to them (property, people in relationships) in psychic realms is also an example of not observing this principle.

Observing santosha (contentment) aligns our minds and emotions with accepting what we have and where we are, without seeking something more or something different. Stealing partnered with contentment also reminds me of the klesha abhinivesa, in that when we are content and not wanting anything that is not rightfully ours, we are no longer clinging to life, nor do we fear death.

Brahmacharya challenges the practitioner not to waste all the beneficial accumulated energy known as Virya, which accelerates what Swami Hariharananda calls “unhindered powers”. Interpretation of this word ranges from living a God-centered life to traditional celibacy. Tapas is about the refining fire, the austerity and discipline to work through old tendencies. The concept of “denying oneself” is not a popular notion in contemporary culture, and working through hardships or denying comforts to becoming enlightened is not a path taken easily. Again, the klesha of ragas rears its ugly head when the vritti of vikalpa (fantasy) keeps the consciousness allured. When we desire or fantasize, it consumes us, while tapas enables us to regain footing on the yogic path.

Aparigraha simplifies our lives by minimizing our need for possessions. The consciousness can be just as cluttered as an offsite storage locker. You do not own your things; they own you. Aparigraha also allows you the opportunity to divert your lust for accumulation by being charitable to others. Consider collections, clutter and things that no longer serve purpose in your daily life and start to donate. Isvara Pranidhana is the niyama of surrendering all to God. Be willing to freely give without attachment as a devotional act and eventually there will be less tendencies to acquire and keep.

Asana

Asana means "seat" or "to sit" and refers to the physical postures that we typically associate in our modern times with yogic practice. In an interview with Sri Dharma Mittra, he shared that taking the forms of animals, objects and sages in yoga enables us to fully embody the many lifetimes we experience. But this takes practice and repetition to find mastery. Shapes unattainable in the beginning progressively get easier. We begin to see the fruit of the practice in the most tangible way, vis a vis annamayakosha, the physical sheath. These forms show us how to maintain our breath and stability of mind regardless of circumstances. We assume these forms to create new experiences - some pleasurable, some awkward, and others uncomfortable. How we handle them can literally serve as a checklist of the yamas and niyamas. That is why it is important to understand them before starting the physical practice. Yamas and niyamas bring the proper insights into the asana.

Pranayama

Once there is steadiness in the body, then yoga can continue progressing inward bringing focus on the Prana, the vital life force that manifests partly through the inflow and outflow of breath. In asana, we create tension in the body to graduate into a place of stillness. The breath is similar. Where asana reveals where the body is weak, tight and unwilling, pranayama shows us where in our mind we lack focus and intention. The dance of the breath and its willing restraint is the poetry of the asana, facilitating greater meaning and preparing us for stillness in meditation. 

Focus on the rise and fall of a slow and steady, evenly-metered breath. Pause when the breathing in asana gets rough; never force the retentions. Gradually, retentions are suspended by incorporation of bandhas (muladhara, uddiyana and jalandhara) for further prana control. It is in the retentions where we find the latent seeds of samadhi and the experience of kundalini energy. Prana taps into the psychoenergetic field, or pranamayakosha.

These are the foundational considerations for a Hatha yoga practice.

Pratyahara

Once the stillness of breath is attained, the practitioner moves into the more contemplative aspects of the practice, or Raja yoga. Willful suspension of the breath by external means is not yet capable of stabilizing the mind. Pratyahara is a selective control of the sensory organs. Where the cognitive organs drive us, so the mind will follow. Controlling the input of these organs aligns with the raw data feed of manas, indiscriminate sensory input, which feeds into consciousness like an unhealthy diet. Stabilizing the senses requires deep inner focus and a more refined use of the breath via particular techniques, such as practicing with closed eyes, restricting sounds, and pursuing a Sattvic lifestyle. Eventually, Pratyahara means that at any time, one can co-exist with sensory stimuli and be unaffected by it. Traditional yoga altars are designed to bring you into a state of concentration, or dharana, enabling the practitioner to lock into this state of focus. Incense or fresh flowers draw in smell. Yantras, or pictures of deities and gurus pull the eyes into a drishti.  Bells, tingsha or mantra holds our attention through sound. We use malas to focus the attention through touch.

Dharana & Dhayana

Most altars have symmetric placements designed to hone one’s concentration to a single point. This is the beginning of one’s seated practice, known as dharana or concentration. This is when the rays of attention begin to organize and gain clarity and focus.

When seated practice begins, the mind will wander. Getting to a state of meditation requires building up and flexing one’s skills in the aforementioned limbs. Sitting still, controlling the breath and senses at will, the mind burrows further inward into bona fide eka grata, or singular pointed concentration. The mind fields no longer ebb and flow; the consciousness is fixated. Typically, this may be contemplated on an energy point in the body, i.e. the heart center or at the navel. Purusa and prakriti (consciousness/awareness and matter/nature) are here still divided between seer and seen. We are still in our pursuit, but we remain enmeshed in the workings and illusory nature of prakriti.  As we persist in our seated practice, the layers of subtlety steady and expand with time. We must be disciplined about our commitment to the work and to returning, again and again, to our meditative seat. 

Samadhi

Samadhi is the complete cessation of fluctuations of the mind, the apex of yoga practices. There are several different stages of Samadhi, although few reach these states. It requires a level of conditioning and rigor few in our society are capable of realizing. In the proper, unadulterated state of consciousness, the bonds of suffering (kleshas) and the imprint of actions (karma) are no longer present. Samadhi is most often defined as absorption. Samadhi is when the seer resides, absorbs him or herself autonomously in his/her essential nature as purusa, or pure awareness. Attainment comes with purification and right conduct, a process slowly built on the rungs of the ladder.

The ladder cannot stand without its two supports of abhyasa and vairagya: unrelenting resolve balanced by non-attachment to outcome. No one can skip a step or buy their way to the top rung of the ladder. Samadhi is only reserved for those with clear consciousness and the ability to detach, those pursuing the true goals of yoga. Samadhi practices are encouraged to be cultivated with a true guru, a trustworthy teacher with experience.

This age-old path of right living outlines ways to release suffering, find contentment and free your consciousness, one intended effort at a time.


Ali Valdez

Ali Valdez

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