People are being drawn to Yoga like angels to the light. We are attracted to Yoga because we know it is good for us and can help us free up our bodies and become more peaceful. Most people understand Yoga to mean a series of asanas or postures that help us achieve a state of relaxation. While this is true, Yoga is much more than simply doing asanas. It is a way of life.
The great Yogis define Yoga as a union of the soul with the Universal Spirit. “The aim of Yoga,” according to Sri Aurobindo, “is to open the consciousness to the Divine and to live in the inner consciousness more and more while acting from it on the external life, to bring the inmost psychic into the front, and by the power of the psychic to purify and change the being so that it may become ready for transformation and be in union with the Divine Knowledge, Will and Love.”
The nature of Yoga is described in the philosophical writings of India: the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), the great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and numerous texts of commentary. In the Bhagavad Gita, an episode in the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna, a warrior who faces death and may have to kill his beloved family and friends on the battlefield. Lord Krishna tells Arjuna the benefits of attaining liberation from suffering through the Yoga of self-transcending action (Karma Yoga), wisdom (Jnana Yoga), and devotion (Bhakti Yoga).
The most extensive text on Yoga is the Yoga Sutras written by Patanjali, the foremost proponent of Yoga. Little is known about Patanjali, who is believed to have lived some 2000 years ago. The story of Patanjali’s birth is that his mother, Gonika, a Yogini who had taken religious vows, prayed to the Sun God for someone to whom to give her knowledge of Yoga. At that moment she saw something move in her hand. This was Patanjali, who became an adept Yogi and philosopher. Hindu tradition also describes Patanjali’s birth as an incarnation of Ananta, or Shesha; the thousand- headed ruler of the serpent race. Ananta, desiring to teach Yoga on earth, is said to have fallen (pat) from heaven onto the palm (anjali) of the virtuous Gonika.
Patanjali either gathered or originated a body of knowledge that is now the foundation of Yoga practice. In the four chapters of the Yoga Sutras, he recorded 196 sutras (“threads” of sacred teaching). Patanjali’s sutras or aphorisms guide us to understand the root of consciousness, the nature of human suffering, the gifts gained through the practice of Yoga, and the way to balance the consciousness and the soul to achieve the highest wisdom, integration, and absolute liberation. The first sutras state the essence of Yoga: “Now, the complete experience of Yoga;” and “Yoga is the cessation of thought forms.”
In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlined eight means by which the Yogi can attain union with God. The eight aspects of Yoga are not linear steps but simultaneous, interwoven practices that together constitute Yoga. This eightfold path to enlightenment is called Ashtanga Yoga (“ashta” meaning “eight” and “anga” meaning “limbs”) or Raja Yoga (“raja” meaning “royal or kingly”). It is Yoga in its highest, most comprehensive form. Patanjali’s eightfold path includes: (1) the Yamas–moral conduct or restraints; (2) the Niyamas–observances; (3) Asanas–postures; (4) Pranayama–breath control; (5) Pratyahara–withdrawal of the senses from external objects; (6) Dharana–concentration; (7) Dhyana–meditation; and (8) Samadhi–superconscious experience.
The Yamas and Niyamas, are the Ten Commandments or the “Don’ts and Do’s” of Yoga. Yamas: Thou shalt not injure, lie, steal, be sensual, or be greedy. Niyamas: Thou shalt be clean, content, self-controlled, studious and devoted. Patanjali tells us that if we live according to these ten principles of ethical conduct, we will conquer human suffering and thereby achieve self-mastery. The five human afflictions or “kleshas” to be overcome are: ignorance, egotism, attachment, aversion and possessiveness.
The first Yama or restraint is Ahimsa, non-violence. Patanjali counsels us to be gentle to ourselves and all of creation. This includes refraining from not only physical violence, but also from criticism and judgment. When we blame ourselves or others for anything, we are committing acts of violence. Satya, or truthfulness, is the second yama. It is important to be in touch with our truth and be totally honest with ourselves and others. We are advised to speak our truth in a loving way when it is appropriate. Third is Asteya, non-stealing. We are cautioned not to take or covet what belongs to someone else, whether it be credit for another’s idea or a physical possession. Brahmacharya, the fourth yama, traditionally refers to chastity or celibacy. Today we take it to mean avoiding excesses of sensuality and sexuality and practicing moderation in all areas. Last is Aparigraha, non-possessiveness. We are to refrain from being greedy, from hoarding or possessing beyond our needs. Aparigraha involves not being too attached to people or things in our lives.
Of the five Niyamas (observances) the firstis Saucha, or purity. Saucha is the internal practice of keeping our minds and hearts pure. It also involves external cleanliness and good health habits. In the spirit of saucha, we have no hidden agendas and keep a tidy environment. Second is Santosha, contentment. Patanjali urges us to live life from a place of satisfaction and delight with whatever fate may bring, knowing that all is for the highest good. Santosha reminds us to live in gratitude for what we have rather than yearn for something else. Tapas, the third niyama, is austerity and self-discipline. Tapas literally means “heat.” With burning desire, we are to do whatever it takes to endure “the heat” as we pursue our goals. Often tapas is required to push us into doing our daily Yoga asanas. Fourth is Svadhyaya, study. Svadhyaya is a lifelong commitment to educate ourselves by studying sacred literature, attending to the masters, and applying knowledge to our lives. The fifth niyama, Ishvara – pranidhana, means surrender (pranidhana) to God (Ishvara). We avoid suffering by letting go of the ego’s striving for outcomes and by dedicating our actions to the will of God. As understood by the Hindus, the word “God” refers to the perfect Being presiding in all things, the inner impulse of Divinity we all share.
At the very core of our Yoga practice, the yamas and niyamas guide us to live in moderation as caring, self-reflective human beings, keeping ourselves pure, honest, truthful, gentle, and disciplined. They inspire us to be contented despite circumstances and surrender our egos to trusting in the Divine flow. Most important of all, ahimsa (gentleness to ourselves) and santosha (contentment with what is) are guides to self-acceptance. We honor ourselves and accept our human frailty. As we aspire to live the yamas and niyamas, we know that we are perfect holy children of God doing the best we can in each moment. Daily practice of the yamas and niyamas helps us control our passions and emotions and live in harmony with ourselves and each other.
The third limb of Yoga is Asanas, or postures. The Yoga Sutras and other scriptures describe Yoga’s preventive and healing attributes, claiming that regular asana practice induces stability, health, strength and lightness of body. Asanas help us free up the flow of energy in the body. They enable us to release blockages and samskara, the indelible imprints of daily experiences held in the subconscious. Originally 84 asanas were recommended, and today there are so many variations that hundreds of poses are depicted in Hatha Yoga texts. Patanjali tells us that each asana is to be steady, comfortable, and practiced in a state of relaxation. The way we do our asanas on the mat is a metaphor for the way we live the postures of our lives. We are taught to hold asanas past points of tension just as we need to remain steady during stress in the roles we play in life.
Pranayama or breath control, the fourth limb, is the regulation of energy and life force through the rhythmic control of breath. The word “pranayama” is composed of “prana” meaning “breath or life force” and “ayama” meaning “extension.” We use pranayama to control the mind and cleanse and rejuvenate the body. Controlled breathing can soothe us to calmness or rouse kundalini energy. Yogis recommend that we cultivate an ongoing awareness of the breath so that breathing is regular and slowed down, and there is a pause between the inbreath and the outbreath. We can use our breath awareness to help us move with heightened consciousness of the present moment, practicing the mindfulness that is the core of Yoga. We can stop upset reactions by telling ourselves to “Breathe!” — using the breath to gather our energy within instead of dispersing it.
The fifth limb, Pratyahara, is withdrawal of the senses from outer experience. In practicing pratyahara, we are fully aware of all sensory observations and simultaneously detached from the pull of outside distractions. We simply pay no attention to the sounds, sights and sensations. Whatever we do in life, we can consciously mute external impressions so they do not interfere with inner focus. Even if we are doing Yoga at the health spa and hear someone in the gym drop the weights with a thundering noise, we can pay it no mind and remain focused on our own inner experience.
Dharana, or concentration, is the sixth limb. The Yoga practitioner narrows the field and rivets attention on a single focus. Dharana is a gathering of our psychic energy and binding it in one-pointedness. Whether we are concentrating on an object of meditation or on holding a balancing pose steady, dharana teaches us to keep our awareness fixed on our goals in life.
The practice of extended concentration leads to meditation or Dhyana, which is the seventh limb of the eightfold path. Both sense withdrawal (pratyahara) and concentration (dharana) are required to achieve meditation. We can do formal meditation by focusing on a concrete object or sound, or do formless meditation by absorbing attention inward. Dhyana is considered by the ancients to be the highest virtue. Meditation does not necessarily mean the mind is totally free of thought. It simply means stilling the mind. This can be as easy as pretending that the mind is a cottage with the windows open so that as bees (thoughts) buzz in, we can just have them fly right out.
The final limb of the yogic path is Samadhi, a superconscious state of sublime oneness. It is a state in which the self-consciousness of the meditator doing a meditation disappears and gives way to an experience of unutterable peace and joy. Samadhi is a union of the psyche and the Higher Self. There is a complete transmutation of consciousness in which the Yogi realizes: “I am the Absolute. I am that I am.” Often in a deep Yoga practice, we feel this oneness and connectedness to Source and experience our hearts and souls overflowing with love and light. This heart-opening is one of the most beautiful benefits of Yoga.
The practice of asanas is only one part of a process that takes us deeper into the heart space. By following Patanjali’s eight-limbed approach, we can gain mastery over our ego-minds, free up our bodies, and access the Higher Self. We can use the yamas and niyamas as guides to living a life free of suffering, a life of greater harmony with ourselves and each other.
Yoga is not just stretching the body; it’s a way of life! And we have so many options. Today there are as many styles of Yoga as there are flavors of ice cream. All forms of Yoga are equally good for the body and soul. Whatever style of Yoga we may be practicing has come to us, so it must be the right one for now. We can be open to broadening and deepening our experience of Yoga and discovering its wonders. Imagine a world in which more of us are guided by the heart. As my beloved teacher Yogi Amrit Desai says– “Yoga teaches us to seek love by going to the source of our being. It teaches us that we are not only the givers of love and the receivers of love, but that we are love itself.”
Maheshvari (Johanna Mosca, PhD), founder of Sedona Spirit Yoga Retreats, is a certified Kripalu Yoga Instructor, Bodyworker and Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist. She is former President of the Arizona Yoga Association and author of YogaLife: 10 Steps to Freedom — A Practical Guide to Living the Yoga Principles. She may be reached at (928) 282-9900, Sedona Spirit Yoga, P.O. Box 278, Sedona, AZ 86339, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Aranya, Swami Hariharananda. Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali. Albany: SUNY Press, 1981.
Feuerstein, Georg. Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga. London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1990.
Iyengar, B.K.S. The Tree of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1989.
McDermott, Robert. The Essential Aurobindo. Great Barrington: The Lindisfarne Press, 1987.
First published in Four Corners Magazine, December/January 1999