Category: Powers of Yoga
I must admit, I was driven to study Hinduism because of yoga. However, I’m not a Hindu if that’s what you are thinking. Actually, my belief system is quite complicated: let's just say that it’s 5% Catholic, since I was born and inevitably raised within its walls; 20% Hindu and 20% Buddhist, because these philosophies have offered reasonable answers to my questions regarding life’s absurdities; 5% agnostic, but I’m not really sure; and 50% nonsense, don’t ask me why because I don’t know either. See!? Life is like a box of chocolates. Anyway, allow me to discuss Raja yoga, a branch of yoga that has been really helpful in my pursuit of wisdom.
What Is Raja Yoga?
Raja yoga means “royal union” and is one of the four main paths of Yoga. Raja means "royal", and yoga comes from the root yuj meaning "to join," "to unite," or "to attach." Meditation is the focal point of this branch of yoga, and its approach involves strict adherence to the eight "limbs" of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras.
The yoga sutras is a collection of aphorisms describing principles and realistic/practical techniques in spiritual discipline that were compiled by Patanjali, a groovy Indian sage who lived in the 2nd century BCE. Although yoga shares many elements with Hinduism, please keep in mind that it is not merely a religious belief system. All of the different branches of yoga contain intricate methods that have been applied by many people for thousands of years (even before the arrival of famous Eastern religious figures).
Those who are new to yoga may find its philosophical foundation a little bit confusing, but its main objective is really very simple: To help us reach the level of understanding needed to acquire knowledge of the true nature of our being and of reality.
According to Patanjali, the practice of yoga is citta-vritti-nirodha or “restraint of the modifications of the mind.”
Citta is the “mind.” It is the medium through which an individual being creates reality (the world or manifested Universe). This citta functions in two ways: 1) it allows the individual being to receive impressions from the external world through the senses, and 2) it allows the external world to be affected in turn by the individual being.
Vritti means “modification.” It refers to the various predispositions, tendencies, desires, and repulsions present within us, which are the result of past actions and experiences that have left their marks or imprints on the citta (mind). It is these modifications that cause differences in our behavior since they are the ones that give rise to all our actions, thoughts, emotions and feelings (whether these are good or bad).
Nirodha means “restraint or control.” Since we continuously receive impressions from the external world and we have all these vrittis (tendencies and desires) from our past experiences at the same time, we could say that the citta (mind) is in a profoundly chaotic state. Even if we are sleeping and not receiving impressions or “signals” from our environment, the mind still functions; hence, we experience dreams (mental representations of our vrittis).
Therefore, in essence, the practice of yoga is all about controlling and giving direction to all these contents of the mind (citta-vritti-nirodha) through willful and intentional effort so that, similar to seeing your reflection on a still pond, you can become reunited with your true being by seeing through the stillness of the citta or mind. All the exercises below are aimed at attaining just that. So without further ado, here are the Eight Limbs of Yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Eight Limbs Of Yoga
Click on each item to learn more.
1. YAMA: The Five Abstentions
In Hinduism, Yama is the god of death. In the context of yoga, yama is a set of ethical disciplines that helps the student bring death to the EGO, which separates him/her from the true Self. The practice of yama consists of non-violence, absence of falsehood, non-stealing, sexual continence, and absence of avarice.
This is similar to the Buddhist system of sila or "virtue." Christians are more familiar with these corresponding commandments: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, and thou shalt not get fat. The real point of the yama (abstentions) is that breaking any of these would tend to excite your mind; you don’t want to have an excited mind while practicing meditation.
2. NIYAMA: The Five Observances
Niyama is a set of rules or laws for personal observance. These rules are purity, contentment, austerity, study of spiritual scriptures, and self-surrender. Like the five yamas, the niyamas are not exercises or actions to be simply studied. They represent far more than a set of attitudes. The main objective in practicing yama and niyama is to live so that no emotion or passion can disturb your mind. They are also preparations for the advanced practices that you will see below.
3. ASANA: Yoga Positions or Yogic Postures
A major challenge for every student of yoga comes from the body. It keeps on asserting its presence by making you want to stretch, scratch, sneeze, cough, fidget, twitch, or create a funky smelling emission from your, uhm, ok. These forms of distractions are so persistent that the Hindus (in their own scientific way) devised unique practices for quieting the body. These practices are called asanas.
4. PRANAYAMA: Breath Control
Pranayama is particularly useful in quieting our emotions and appetites. It purifies both the body and the lower functions of the mind which is excellent from the standpoint of health. All the great sages and saints who graced the planet taught — usually secretly to a few followers — that there is to be found in air a substance or principle called prana from which all activity, vitality and life is derived. The many spiritual powers attributed to advanced students of yoga are due largely to their understanding of this fact and their intelligent use of this energy.
The yogis of various meditative traditions know that by certain forms of breathing, they establish certain relations with the supply of prana and they may draw on it the energy they require for their vehicles – the physical and subtle bodies. Not only does pranayama strengthen all parts of the body, but the brain itself may receive increased energy from prana, allowing us to develop latent faculties and psychic abilities.
5. PRATYAHARA: Withdrawal of Senses
The previous practices, yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama are all disciplines for the body. Pratyahara and the remaining practices are purely mental.
If you examine the contents of your mind at any time, you will find that the images you see may be divided into three categories:
(1) images from the outer world accepted by your sense-organs,
(2) images from your memories, and
(3) images of your expectations of future events.
The first category is the direct result of our contact with the outer world. The second and third are purely psychological, i.e. they don’t depend on any object outside your mind. The purpose of pratyahara is to eliminate the first category (the images from the outer world accepted by the sense-organs), leaving you with only the second and third categories, which you will work with in dharana and dhyana.
6. DHARANA or Concentration
Dharana may be translated as "holding", "holding steady", "concentration", or "single focus." This is the first phase of Samyama Meditation and the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana.
Once you have relieved yourself of outside distractions, you can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. The practice involves fixing your attention on some object, either within your body or outside, and keeping it steady for a period of time without allowing any other thoughts to enter your mind. Like any kind of practice, you have to do this progressively and measure the rate of your success in holding your concentration.
7. DHYANA or Meditation
Dhyana is translated as meditation. It is perfect contemplation which involves concentrating on a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. This is where all the fun begins. After you have eliminated all the images from the outer world (as discussed in pratyahara) and your mind is focused on a single object, you then begin to meditate. Figuratively speaking, it’s like placing something under a microscope (you only look at what you are actually inspecting).
This is done because your awareness in dhyana is different from your everyday awareness just as a laser beam is different from a flashlight. A flashlight can illuminate a large area, but a laser, even a low powered one, can cut through solid objects. Hence, having awareness as sharp as a laser beam, you can penetrate into the deeper nature of any object both mental and physical.
8. SAMADHI or Liberation
Samadhi is broadly characterized as "liberation", "meditative absorption" or "full meditation." It signifies the deepening of dhyana until your chosen object of meditation stands alone and you are no longer aware of yourself as contemplating an object.
In other words, consciousness becomes one with the object. This is true because when you achieve perfect concentration, you will be able to transcend the limitations of the conscious state allowing you the vision of Truth or Illumination. And this vision, dear brothers and sisters, is not something that can be described by mere words. You have to experience it yourself.