The Joy of Yoga Philosophy (June 2, 2012)
Introduction to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga
“The seven blunders that human society commits and cause all the violence: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principles. A satyagrahi must ceaselessly strive to realize and live truth. And he must never contemplate hurting anyone by thought, word or deed.”
Brahman, OM, Vishnu and Patanjali
Brahman literally means growth, evolution and expansion. Brahman is the universal impersonal spirit. The ground of all being. It is the primal source from which all things emanate and return.
Brahman and the universe is like a spider and a cobweb. The cobweb is different from the spider but it comes from the spider.
Brahman manifests in three faces of divinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu preserves the universe and Shiva destroys the universe. Vishnu sends avatars to earth to prevent evil, despair and suffering. Avatars provide wisdom and inspiration to help guide mankind through dark ages of violence and despair. Krishna, Buddha and Rama are all avatars of Vishnu.
Patanjali is an incarnation of Vishnu and wrote the Yoga Sutras to provide wisdom to mankind, to save it from a descent into darkness and to remove suffering. The purpose of yoga is to remove suffering. The Yoga Sutras were written between 200-300 AD by Sage Patanjali. It and the Bhagavad Gita are the two most popular and greatest books on yoga.
The fundamental problem of the human condition is suffering. We suffer spiritually, emotionally and physically. The root cause of all suffering is ignorance of our true Self.
This condition is known as avidya. Avidya in its simplest form is regarding the non-self as the true Self.
We forget our true nature which is divine and ever peaceful and joyful. We identify with our minds and our bodies and our stuff. We think that is who we are and we become attached.
This creates suffering because, unlike our true Self, the body and the mind and our stuff are impermanent. They are constantly changing, and we suffer because we want to hold on to those things that make us happy.
Yoga is the path of removing suffering. By practicing yoga we destroy spiritual ignorance, attain yogic wisdom
and realize the happiness inherent in our true Self. How do we get yogic wisdom?
Yoga Sutra 2.28
“By the dedicated practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities are removed, the light of wisdom dawns, and discriminative discernment is realized.”
We obtain yogic wisdom practicing astanga yoga.
Astanga yoga means the eight limbs of Yoga.
The eight limbs of yoga
The eight limbs of yoga are:
Yama: The great vows
Niyama: The observances
Pranayama: Control of the exhalation and inhalation of the breath
Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
Dharana: Concentration of the mind
Samadhi: Deep absorption on an object
The first four limbs-yama, niyama, asana and pranayama are known as the external practices.
The second four limbs-pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are known as the internal practices.
The yamas and the niyamas
Our spiritual life in Yoga is built upon the moral code embodied in the yamas and niyamas. They establish the foundation of our practice as we follow the eight limbed path.
The yamas are known as the great moral vows. The yamas are concerned with how we relate to other people and the world. The yamas provide guidance in situations that involve moral or ethical issues or dilemmas.
In Sutra 2.31 Patanjali teaches us that these vows are universal and are not limited by class, place, time or circumstances. They are our guiding principles regardless of our situation, our culture or our status in life.
Patanjali makes it clear that there are no exceptions to the yamas and they may not be broken under any circumstances. He sets an extraordinarily high standard of conduct for us to meet, and we should be prepared to follow the right path even though we anticipate it may be difficult.
“Even as education in the primary school level is important, since it paves the way for one’s further mental build, the Yamas and Niyamas are the rock-bottom of Yoga. The student enters the practical field of meditation after being built up by the tonic of Yamas and Niyamas, which provide the power and courage needed to face all obstacles. Meditation is not difficult to achieve if the necessary preparations are made earlier.”
Sri Swami Krishnananda
The niyamas are the personal observances. In contrast to the yamas which regulate social life, the niyamas are concerned with self-discipline. The yamas are directed at establishing a strong moral and ethical foundation for yogic life, whereas the niyamas are concerned with preparing the way for the discipline that is necessary to follow our yoga practice and the eight limbed path. The niyamas are practices that should be followed on a daily basis.
The yamas are:
Asteya: Not stealing
Aparigrahah: Not coveting or grasping
The niyamas are:
Svadhyaya: Study of wisdom and the true Self
Isvara Pranidhanani: Devotion to the Supreme Being
Interpretation of scriptures
In the traditional method of interpreting scriptures, the first statement carries more weight than the other statements. The yamas are the first limb of astanga yoga and ahimsa is the first yama.
Therefore, ahimsa is the most important vow!
Ahimsa means non-violence in thought, word and deed. It is considered the root of the other yamas. The goal of the other yamas is to achieve ahimsa. One should strive not to harm even an insect. This is the Jain example of complete dedication to ahimsa. Yogis cannot harm animals because all living beings contain an atman and are considered spiritually equal. You must be a vegetarian to follow ahimsa.
What about situations where you follow one yama but it conflicts with ahimsa?
A traditional example is the story of a man who is asked by robbers if the merchants they were chasing had passed that way. Must he tell the truth or can he tell a lie? Since to tell the truth would result in violence to the merchants, the man properly told a lie and misled the robbers.
If there is a conflict between following different yamas, ahimsa always prevails.
Recommended Books on the Yoga Sutras
Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga- A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras (Three Rivers Press 2007)
Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Integral Yoga Publications 1978)
Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Integral Yoga Publications 2006)
Steven Cope, The Wisdom of Yoga-A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living (Bantam Books 2006)
And of course, my humble offering:
Gary Kissiah, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali-Illuminations Through Image Commentary and Design (Lilalabs Publishing 2011)