In understanding the Eight Limbs of Yoga known as Ashtanga; the meaning of ashta means eight and anga means limb, which explains that these are steps as much as limbs. They are limbs in the sense that they all belong to the same body of teachings and each is essential, but they are steps in the sense that there is logical order to them and to how they must be approached.
These are also known as the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; sutra 2.29, consists of the eight limbs, of which asana is one. The meditative poses in the Yogic culture is divided into eight parts.
Translation: “These seven aspects are self restraint, universal laws, sacred posture, regulation of breath, control and restraint of the senses, concentration and meditation. With their practice comes the eighth aspect of Yoga. This is a state of being absolutely absorbed in the source of life.”
1. Yamas – ethics – the five restraints
Ahimsa – Non-violence
Brahmacharya – Control of the senses and celibacy
Asteya – Non-stealing
Aparigraha – Non-covetousness and non-acceptance of gifts
2. Niyamas – religious observances and reflection
Saucha – Purity, cleanliness
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Austerity
Swadhyaya – Self-study, study of scriptures
Ishwara Pranidhana – Surrender to God’s will
3. Asana – steady posture – physical exercises to gain mastery over life energies and the body.
There are 840,000 poses according to the Yoga Shastras of which 84 are important.
Shaktiananda Yoga teaches all of the main poses with their variations.
4. Pranayama – Control of prana or life force – breathing exercises to gain control of the vital breath.
5. Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses from objects; stilling the modification and fluctuations of the mind.
These first five steps constitute the external or indirect means to Yoga (the final state of Liberation), while the following three steps are called the internal or direct means to Yoga.
6. Dharana – progression in concentration, mental control.
7. Dhyana – meditation; working with various nerve centers, steadying the mind.
8. Samadhi – achieving the superconscious state
Yamas and Niyamas Explained
Just as building a foundation is an absolutely necessary phase to building any structure, the most important aspect of the construction of the spiritual path of raja yoga is constituted by the moral and ethical practices called yamas and niyamas.
For the majority of aspirants, the main focus of their sadhana should be the development of yama and niyama. More advanced practices such as meditation should also be pursued, but one must understand that no substantial progress will take place until the 10 practices of yama and niyama are tangibly established.
The application of the Yamas and Niyamas are multidimensional. Our behavior affects our internal environment: the mind, and the body, while our behavior affects our external environment: people, society, and the physical world. Here are the principles and a few examples of the broad spectrum of their application :
1. Yama – ethics – the five restraints
1.) Yama – non-violence or non-injury, implies non-killing. But non-injury is not only non-killing, it is much more than that. Ahimsa means to entirely abstain from causing any pain or harm to any living creature, either by thought, word or deed. Non-injury reflects a harmless mind, mouth and hand. Ahimsa is not just non-injuring. It is pure cosmic love.
Applies to self – not taking drugs
Not wishing ill or getting angry
Applies to environment – not creating garbage.
2.) Satya – truthfulness in thought and action. It is more than just telling the truth. One’s actions should be in accordance with one’s words and thoughts. God and man’s true Self are truth, and in order to tune in with that consciousness we need to live truthfully at all times. To not tell the truth (lying) creates many thoughts in the mind which go against the raja yoga objective of calming the mind.
Avoiding hurtful speech- abuse, obscenity, falsehood, ridiculing the sacred
Applies to others – not causing disturbance.
3.) Asteya- non-covetousness and non-stealing. There are many subtle ways that the mind colors what does not belong to us. As for the other yamas, much self-analysis will be necessary to catch the subtle lower tendencies of our mind.
Avoiding misuse, greed, misappropriation in thought and deed
Avoiding breaches of trust, mismanagement
Austerity in needs, freedom from craving
4.) Brahmacharya – self restraint, celibacy, non-attachment to social association, saving and directing personal energy. Brahmacharya has two main meanings. Mainly, it means control of the senses (indriyas). More specifically it refers to celibacy or chastity. Like all traditional spiritual traditions, yoga advocates restraining from indulging in sensual gratification. One of the many reasons is that practicing the higher limbs of ashtanga yoga – dharana, dhyana, samadhi – requires a tremendous amount of energy or prana. This energy is built up through the practices of yoga such as asanas, pranayama and japa but is dissipated during sensual enjoyment. Of all the sensual activities, sex is the one that will be the most depleting to the psychic and nervous system. As in the other yamas, the yogi/yogini practices brahmacharya according to their personal path and for personal conservation of energy. Sex is considered to be a sacred union because of the energies exchanged, and the respect for each other.
5.) Aparagriha – non-hoarding, collecting of unnecessary things, not accepting things without working for them. Applies to self- keeping mind free from unnecessary thoughts.
2. Niyama – religious observances and reflection:
1.) Saucha – purity of the self, the intellect, the emotions, the body, the diet, the environment, towards a state of self-study (svadhyaya), benevolence (saumanasya), lucidity (ekagrata) and mastery of the senses (indriya- jaya).
2.) Santosha – cultivation of contentment. Equilibrium towards concentration. Santosha is contentment. This is the ability to recognize that although it is important to try to better our environment and life situation through proper effort, the world around you is never going to be perfect and absolutely to our liking. Therefore the raja yogi should be happy with what he has and endeavor to do the best he can with what he has got.
3.) Tapas- goal oriented self-discipline and austerity: Applies to body and mind. Illumination of life by higher aims. The luxury and comfort of our modern society, with all its advantages, makes our mind soft and weak. To strengthen ourselves physically and mentally we must practice austerities. The highest tapas is meditation on God or the divine Self. Daily practice of yogic disciplines is considered tapas. A very good practice is fasting.
4.) Swadhyaya – self-education; study of the Self. Responsibility of self- betterment through study, particularly one’s heritage and religion. The main practice is the study of the yogic scriptures but it also includes japa (mantra repetition). Not any yoga or spiritual book qualifies as proper material for swadhyaya. For a vedantin the best scriptures are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. There are also many other scriptures such as the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, etc. Next come the books written by great mystics or masters such as Swami Sivananda, Swami Vishnu-devananda, Paramahansa Yogananda or other saints from all traditions. Also suitable are books written about these masters – biographies.
5.) Ishwara Pranidhana – Mind to the divine. God centered goal orientation towards illumination (tejas) of purpose. Ishwarapranidhana is surrender to God’s will and devotion. All ethical and moral precepts of yoga culminate here.
Keeping in mind that the objective of raja yoga is to calm the mind down, this is only possible if one has control of the physical body. Body and mind are intimately connected and if the body is agitated the mind will be agitated as a result. In order to meditate successfully one must develop a very steady posture. Furthermore the posture must be kept still for a long time and therefore it needs to be extremely comfortable. When the meditator is not able to control his mind, he is advised to practice the asanas of hatha yoga in order to gain the needed mastery.
The raja yoga theory tells us that prana is animating the mind. Very much like the wind creates the motion of the leaves, prana creates the motion of the mind which gives rise to the vrittis. Air is the primary physical medium of prana and breathing is our best method to gain control over the prana. To meditate, the practitioner should calm his breath down until it is very shallow and even. If this is not possible he should practice the different pranayamas of hatha yoga.
Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from their objects. The natural tendency of the senses is to go out towards the objects of the world. In doing so they pull the mind out and away from the inner Self and create powerful waves on the lake-mind. Therefore, the yogi must be able to pull the senses within if he is to keep a balanced and peaceful mind. The analogy given to us is that of the tortoise which, under perceived danger, pulls in all its limbs and head.
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