4 paths of yoga and the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga

What is yoga?

When the word Yoga is mentioned outside India it is often associated to a concept reduced uniquely to the practice of asanas or postures. Yoga is much more than merely contorting the body, it is a tool for self-transformation based on ancient knowledge handed down through countless generations.

Though Yoga comes from Indian teachings and has greatly influenced Indian philosophy and beliefs it does not belong uniquely to Hinduism or any other belief system. Yoga belongs to the entire humanity and its essence is the quest for greater self-knowledge.

Yoga can be translated from Sanskrit to mean Union - union between the body and the mind, union between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, union with the divine that dwells within every living being. In the purest sense of the word Yoga is not something you can do - it is only something that can be experienced.

Patanjali, who compiled the teachings into written form in a series of sutras or aphorisms, starts his text by defining yoga as the "stilling of the mind waves" (Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah). It is the incessant movement of the mind that prevents us from being able to look deeper within and connecting with our true selves.

One analogy is that when the surface of the pond of the mind is ruffled by the winds of thought it is impossible to see past the surface of the water. When the thoughts slow down and the mind becomes calm and clear it is easier to peer into the depths.

The four paths of yoga

Traditionally in India there are four main paths of yoga leading to this state of enlightenment. Each path is adapted to different facets of a person's personality and can be practiced simultaneously with the other paths.

Karma yoga - the yoga of action. This is based on the idea of selfless service to humanity, subordinating the ego to do what needs to be done, rather than doing what one wants to do. All actions are performed without expectation of praise or acknowledgement and without any attachment to the fruit of one's actions.

Jnana yoga - the yoga of reason. This is an intellectual and philosophical pursuit for knowledge and involves studying the Vedas, the Puranas and other philosophical dissertations compiled by the sages. A Jnana Yogi always asks why, and never accepts things blindly without explanation. It is the rational, analytical, cerebral approach. Jnana yoga uses the mind to go to the limits of reason then step beyond the intellect into the boundless realm of intuition.

Bhakti yoga - the yoga of devotion. This is said to be the easiest and simplest path to follow. It merely demands surrendering to the divine will and often involves the practice of rites and rituals. Any kind of devotion to a god of any name or form and the smells and bells of many religions are manifestations of Bhakti yoga. The mind is stilled by the intensity and immediacy of the experience and the atmosphere of devotion.

Raja yoga is literally the royal path and is the system of yoga to which the practice of asanas belongs and the one which we will proceed to describe in more detail. Patanjali also called is ashtanga yoga form the Sanskrit ashta meaning eight and tanga meaning a branch or a limb. (This is not to be confused with the teachings of Patthabi Jois of Mysore who took the term ashtanga and applied it as a label to his own particular interpretation of asana practice.)

The first four limbs deal with our physical actions and are more body based. The latter four limbs are much more about the mind. Each limb influences the other, reinforces and strengthens each other. We can't just take one limb of the tree without regarding the others. Sooner or later, if one practices correctly, one realizes their importance and their interrelation to each other.

The eight limbs of Raja Yoga

Yamas and Niyamas make up the moral and ethical basis for the practice of yoga. In simple terms they are the do's and don'ts of yoga. As in anything in life, the foundation has to be solid in order to support the structure.

Yamas - constraints

Ahimsa means non-harmfulness or non-injury, both in deed and thought, as every action is the fruit of a thought. One should not harm, injure, maim or kill any being, including oneself. Vegetarianism is an extension of this respect for life.

Satya means truthfulness. Truthfulness in speech, thought and action. Truthfulness in dealing with others, but also truthfulness to ourselves. When we are really truthful about ourselves we don't always necessarily like what we see. It is at this point we must be very careful. Accept yourself as you are. If there are changes to be made, then make them, but don't develop a negative self-image. When we learn how to accept ourselves with all our imperfections we can be more understanding and compassionate towards others and accept what we perceive to be their imperfections. In being truthful about ourselves we must learn to accept the reality as it is and not as we would like it to be. Every human being contains darkness and light, a potential for good or bad, but if we react with negativity towards ourselves we only reinforce our misery. Being truthful brings about a clear conscience, which in turn gives us more peace of mind. There is no peace to be found in self-delusion.

Asteya means non-stealing, but can also extend to the concept of non-acquisitiveness. One should not envy anything that belongs to another or seek to own something that is not rightfully one's own. Similarly possessing a thing merely for the possession of it is a futile exercise. The unnecessary hoarding of material possessions is of no help to us as they only serve to create attachment. Where there is attachment there will ultimately be suffering. Asteya is a principal of minimalism, living simply without excess.

Aparigraha is the non-acceptance of gifts or bribes. Once again we must not be swayed by the lure of "gold". Corruption and dishonesty can ultimately only lead to misery.

Bramacharya is the exercise of restraint over the libido. This is always a touchy topic, but the practice of celibacy can be found in any spiritual practice or religion. Yoga advises us to maintain restraint and control over our sexual impulses to avoid depleting our store of vital energy. The energy that is at the base of mankind's sex drive is a powerful one. It has the potential to create life. Without this inherent drive to reproduce our species would be long extinct. Through the practice of yoga this base energy can be transformed and purified into a spiritually elevating energy called Ojas. Total celibacy demands tremendous strength and courage and requires that the energy be channelled in a higher form.

Practicing celibacy just for celibacy can create frustration and neurotic behavioural problems. Gautama the Buddha himself said that if there was any other obstacle as great as the total observance of bramacharya he didn't think that he would have achieved enlightenment.

Niyamas - observances

Saucha means purity or cleanliness on both a physical and mental level. Yoga is a system of purification for both the mind and the body. Pure thoughts produce pure actions. Being bodily clean helps keep us healthy and free from disease. Saucha can be purity in the company we keep. It can also be extended to include purity in anything we take in through the sense doors - pure images, sounds, smells, tastes.

Santosha conveys a sense of contentment, serenity, happiness. We owe it to ourselves to be happy. When we are happy people around us are happier. We strive to be content with what life offers us, to be equanimous in face of the trials and tribulations that life sends us, to remain unaffected by the external influences.

Tapas is the practice of austerity. Living an austere existence enables us to be able to face hardship when it comes to us or equally to appreciate good things when they come along. There are many different practices, such as fasting once a week, or sleeping on the floor from time to time, sitting on the floor or voluntarily enduring some kind of hardship that may not be necessary. This helps us to train the mind and bring it under control. However, tapas must not be interpreted as punishment and should not be practiced with any sort of negative thoughts about oneself or one's practice.Being disciplined to practice asana and pranayama is one form of tapas.

Swadhyaya literally means 'self-study' and entails the study of scriptures - traditionally the Vedas and the Puranas which represent an incredible storehouse of knowledge of the human condition and our true potential as human beings. Practically, swadhyaya can mean studying any uplifting books or texts. The advent of the printing press and internet means that we have a greater possibility of finding suitable reading material than ever before in the history of humanity.Through studying these texts we learn that we are not alone on the path and any questions we can ask pertaining to our existence have been asked since the existence of mankind and often answered with great lucidity and inspiration by many writers, both ancient and modern.

Ishwara-pranidhana is surrendering oneself to the divine will, having faith that we are all part of a greater picture and that the interconnectedness of everything shows that there is a higher reality. Some people will put labels on this, calling it God or Gaia or Tao or Universal Conciousness or any number of things, but by trying to express an infinite concept with mere words we automatically limit our experience. Not everything can, nor should, be explained in rational terms. Ishwara-pranidhana is about accepting that we are part of something much greater than we can ever understand and surrendering to that.

Asana - postures

The practice of asanas puts pressure on different glands in the body which stimulate them to provoke glandular secretions which in turn have an influence on the body's nervous system. Our nervous system depends on a healthy spine as its channel. The regular practice of Asana keeps the body healthy and gives us a sense of wellbeing.

Asana practice is about taking time for ourselves and grounding ourselves in the present moment, bringing our focus to our immediate actions and their consequences in the here and now in the framework of the body.

By practicing asanas we might think at first that we are working merely with the physical body, but soon we see that in fact we are training the mind through the body. The mind decides whether our body is capable of doing an asana and the body complies. The body is also our teacher. The mind sometimes resists certain postures. It is through our practice that we learn more about the fickle nature of the mind. We can start to understand the underlying causes of this resistance and to overcome them. Through attentive asana practice we can observe how the body influences the mind. Each asana has a different physical shape which in turn induces a corresponding mental shape.

Once we become familiar with the different postures we can more clearly observe the mental state produced by the asana. Are we comfortable or uncomfortable in the posture? We can observe how the breath is affected by the position and how the mind is in turn affected by that combination of posture and breath. In some postures the physical balance is challenging and we can again look at how the mind deals with those challenges.

By training the mind to remain stable when there is a physical imbalance or discomfort, we train the mind to deal with uncomfortable or difficult situations we may encounter in our everyday lives. Yoga is about controlling the mind, gaining mastery over our thoughts and habits and changing some of our deeply ingrained mental patterns.

Pranayama - control of the breath

Prana is the vital energy that pervades our beings. When the prana leaves the body there is no more life. Yama means having control over something, whereas Ayama means to expand or extend. Some sources disagree as to which word is added to prana to form pranayama, but in either case we see that pranayama means controlling or extending the flow of the vital energies in the body. Initially we do this through controlling the flow of the breath.

We all breathe constantly, but not always consciously. It is something we don't have to think about and it will continue regardless of where our thoughts are. Sometimes the breath is deep, sometimes it is shallow, but it is always there. The breath is the bridge between the physical body and the mind. By controlling the breath we can control the mind, which is, as we have seen, the primary goal of yoga practice. The breath can influence the mind, and the mind can control the breath, which in turn will influence the mind. In the practice of pranayama we use the mind to gain mastery over the mind via the breath.

The practice of pranayama can have a very powerful impact on the mind. It shouldn't be underestimated and should be practiced with precaution. It helps to purify the mind and the body and balances the flow of the vital energies. It can still the mind and allow the kind of clear focused concentration required for meditation.

During our classes we introduce pranayama in a careful and structured manner which make the practice safe for our students. As with the practice of asana it is important to gradually build up one's capacity in order to lay a firm foundation.

Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses

Pratyahara is the conscious withdrawal of the senses. We receive input from our surroundings through what in Sanskrit are called the Jnana Indriyas, or instruments of knowledge. They are the senses of taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. In ideal circumstances we reduce the flow of information coming into the mind.

By merely closing the eyes and mouth we limit the sensory information we receive from our surroundings. By remaining still the sense of touch is less stimulated. Our sense of smell is one of our weakest senses, but also deeply rooted to our memories and emotions. By drawing the mind inwards we can better understand the nature and behaviour of the mind.

Dharana - concentration

Dharana is the state of pure focused concentration. An object of concentration is chosen, for example the breath or bodily sensations, and one's complete attention is fixed unwaveringly on that object. Many other things can be used as points of focus, a mantra or visualization, or a candle flame, but the breath and bodily sensations are always with us. Through using concentration exploring that physical reality we start to understand more about the mind.

The aim is to be able to maintain concentration for as long as possible, without the mind wandering away. Training the mind in concentration brings us more fully into the present moment. During most of our daily existence the mind is drawn away from the present and we are caught up in thoughts that project either into the future or the past. When we are concentrated on what we are doing we achieve much more. By training the mind to remain concentrated for extended periods we lay the groundwork for meditation.

There are asanas that help to develop the faculty of concentration, particularly balancing poses, such as Kakasan or Vrikshasan for example. When the mind wanders you can no longer hold the posture. Through practice we can extend the period of concentration and maintain the position for longer.

Dhyana - meditation

The true state of meditation is elusive and difficult to describe. Just as one knows that one must have been asleep when one wakes up, one becomes aware that one had slipped into meditation in emerging from it. In pure meditation all awareness of the self or the surroundings is lost and one enters into a state of complete absorption. True meditation is not a dynamic process that involves the intellect. In fact it is the opposite. It is the moment when all thought stops.

Most of the time when we sit for meditation it is merely a question of constantly bringing the mind away from the incessant thinking and back to the object of concentration. Over time and through practice the thoughts start to slow down and it becomes possible to observe a space or a pause between the thoughts. It is through this breach that we can truly meditate. Occasionally when one becomes completely absorbed in the object of concentration the mind stops its incessant chatter and there is an experience of great peace and expansiveness. This momentary stoppage of the mind is for only very brief periods at first, perhaps just a few seconds, if even that, but slowly and gradually, with time and practice and infinite patience, that period extends itself and then we start enter the state of meditation.

Samadhi - absorption

Samadhi is the last of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. The word samadhi signifies deep absorbtion, and a merging with the object of concentration. It is a non-dualistic state where there is no longer any separation between the perceiver and the perceived. Samadhi is a state of pure existence, beyond the limitations of name and form. It is a necessary level of consciousness to attain in order to become fully enlightened and liberated from the bondage of body and mind.

"What you are looking for is where you are looking from." - Saint Francis of Assisi