Patanjali scribed the ashtanga (eight limbs) as the route to practice yoga, whereby attainment of - and vitally maintenance of - each stage is required to continue freeing the self. The first four stages lay the firm foundations for the latter that deal with the deeper senses, the mind and higher states of consciousness and connection. Patanjali also makes it very clear that each of these stages are experiential and are to be lived, not merely the subject of intellectual discourse. The ashtanga follow the Koshas (levels of the body), working form the grosser manifestations of the physical world to the deepest aspects of our spiritual selves.
Yama speaks first and foremost to integrity. Your focus, your behaviour, your ethical standards and how you conduct yourself in life and in relation to the world around you. Yamas are universal practices and as such can be internalised by all, BKS Iyengar explains that “[the yamas are] unconditioned by time, class and place.”* They are; Ahimsa, nonviolence. Satya, truthfulness. Asteya, non stealing. Brahmacharya, right use of energy, and right intention, and Aparigraha, non covetousness, non jealousy or non attachment.
Niyama follows and refers to self-discipline and spiritual or personal codes of conduct (the prefix ‘ni’ means inward), and are a route to building character. They are; Saucha, cleanliness or purity. Samtosa, contentment as an active practice. Tapas, heat, fire & cleansing; spiritual austerities & discipline. Svadhyaya, study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self and ones reactions to the external world. And finally, Isvara pranidhana, strictly a surrender to spirit, or perhaps a recognition that the spiritual suffuses everything, that we are part of something greater then ourselves. For everyone to do their part, we must do ours; and for our part to be complete so must everyone else's.
Perhaps the most recognisable within westernised teaching of yoga and third on our journey is Asana, the practice of postures. Though much debate surrounds the origins of this stage, and many criticise its modern interpretation*, its importance should not be overlooked and is for many the access point into something much larger than they realised!
Pranayama then relates to the various breathing exercises that seek to expand and move ‘prana’ or life force through our systems. Depending on how we break down the etymology of the word we can derive radically different, yet converging ideas of its meaning: prana - yama, translates as breath restraint or control, whereas, prana - ayama translates as breath liberation or freedom.
In this manual we focus mostly on the elaboration of these first four stages in order to create the grounding for the following stages to emerge following sufficient practice.
The fifth stage, Pratyahara means the withdrawal of, or transcendence of the senses, and speaks of a journey into the internal worlds. This stage particularly allows us to observe and release the habits that do not serve us and our forward journey and is not about simply tuning out the world, but reaching an understanding about how the world shakes us, and becoming able to move fluidly with it instead.
Dharana translates literally as ‘concentration’ and builds on the stage of pratyhara, as we move our focus to relieving ourselves of the distractions of our own mind. Concentration is the acquisition of true single pointed awareness that is necessary for meditation. Though this may sound intimidating at first simple exercises such as focusing on the breath, or the practice of Tratak (candle gazing) are all practices of dharana.
Dhyana then follows as the uninterrupted flow of concentration, or 'meditation'. The distinction between Dhyana and Dharana, is that in this seventh limb, we are cultivating a state of keen awareness but without a focal object. At this stage the mind is deeply quiet but simultaneously totally free.
The eighth and final stage signifies the point where the yogi is able to transcend the bindings of the ‘self’ altogether. In this state the yogi is directly connected to the divine, and interconnected with all beings. Patanjali described Samadhi as a state of bliss, of total joy, fulfilment and freedom. Yet it extends more, at this moment the yogi understands intimately their relationship and unity with themselves, and through themselves the whole of the universe (sama - the same, and dhi - to see)*.
Enlightenment then becomes not about escaping anything, but truly merging with it, a theme we will return to throughout this discourse. Samadhi is the point at which all that is not us, all that keeps us separate has fallen away and we can truly see. Vitally, Samadhi is not an achievement, but a process, a journey, a discovering and a rediscovering. Whereby we must constantly work to keep our bodies and minds free of attachments, aversions and desires.
“Even after acquiring all these states, you can come back as an ordinary person because the impressions are still there. All your desires are still in the seed form, not completely fried, because you have not completely purified the mind.
That is why you should make the mind pure before you practice deep meditation. It is all well and good to learn the different methods of meditation and the experiences that could come to you. But if you are really serious about this business and really want to go deep into meditation, take care to have a clean mind. Otherwise, you are not going to get it.
Once the mind is pure and we truly do experience a state of Samadhi we can keep hold of, we attain moksha, also known as mukti, meaning a permanent state of being liberated, released and free.”