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yoga for life,  the yoga  sutras of patanjali
Photography by swodesh shakya

yoga for life, the yoga sutras of patanjali

by Robert Birnberg robert birnberg
Be Spiritual | Philosophy - Wisdom


swinging on the branches, eight limbs to freedomh

A Little Ksema

In our exploration of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’ve learned that the human mind is merely a tool, an instrument, of something much deeper. This deeper something is called purusa or cit. It is the limitless seer, unchanging and formless. This inner observer is the source of our greatest intelligence, deepest joy and core values, our spirit. The cit represents our potential to perceive clearly, understand deeply, and act with confidence and integrity. Sutra II:20 explains a simple truth about purusa: that the changeless cit, for all its light, can only interact with the world through the mind.

What About the Mind?

The mind, according to the Sutras, belongs to the material world, and is therefore subject to constant instability and change. All matter, according to samkhya, yoga’s parent philosophy, has three qualities or rates of change (gunas). First is rajas, the turbulent, fiery, active guna. Mentally, this is distraction, anger, agitation and stress. Second is tamas, the slow, heavy, resistant quality that we experience as dullness, doubt, lethargy, and depression. Finally there is satva, matter’s balanced,appropriate, luminous quality, which we know as being ‘in the zone’, energized yet relaxed, ready for anything. Because satva guna is the most stable and sustaining, it most resembles cit. This quality of mind is, therefore, the closest matter comes to spirit. Thus, the primary goal of yoga and its foundation text, the Yoga Sutras, is to cultivate a more focused, satvic mind.

Certainly, the Sutras promise a plethora of extaordinary gifts, powers and freedoms to be experienced on yoga’s endless journey; but just as playing a scorching saxophone solo requires a functioning, well-tuned instrument, yoga’s many benefits are impossible to attain without a stable mind. To help us along in our quest to achieve and sustain this fundamental satvic mind, the Sutras present a model called the astanga (pronounced ashtanga), or eight limbs of yoga.

Not Just a Good Idea

First, a clarification. Sutra 1:1, ‘Atha yoga anu asasanam,’ states emphatically that yoga is thoroughly experiential. This means that all yogic teachings are based on data collected from self-experimentation, then handed down from teacher to student for thousands of years. Therefore, the principles presented in the the eight limbs are based not on ideological, religious, moralistic, or ethical codes, but on time-tested, experientially proven methods for achieving citta vritti nirodha, a stable, focused mind. Like modern science, yoga doesn’t judge as good or bad. It simply states that all actions have consequences, and certain attitudes and behaviors are more likely than others to yield the desired results.

Two in One

Due to the condensed nature of a sutra and richness of the Sanskrit language, the eight limbs are expressed as both the specific areas in which we need to change, and the tools needed for the task. The areas of the eight limbs are, in Sanskrit: yamas, niyamas, asana pranayama, pratyahara, dharana dhyana and samadhi. In contemporary terms, they are: relationship, lifestyle, body, breath, senses, and mind (the last three are about the mind).

Can’t I Just Be Alone?

The first limb is the yamas, or relationships, and the first of the five relationship guidelines is ahimsa or kindness, not harming. Violence and cruelty are, quite simply, not conducive to mental stability. Although there may be times when violence is appropriate, (we’ll discuss the exceptions later) the Sutra’s first suggestion for a healthy mind is to be kind to life in all its forms.

The second yama, satya, often defined as honesty or ‘not lying,’ is not about merely telling the truth, but rather, communicating appropriately. As distinct from rtam, ‘the truth as it is’, satyam is ‘the truth that can be told’. Thus, as the vedas suggest, “tell the truth that is pleasant, don’t tell the truth that is unpleasant, and don’t lie just because it is pleasant.’

Together, these two yamas, kindness and honesty, are the basis of satvic relationship. While some find it easier to lie to spare another’s feelings, and others use pointed honesty as a weapon, yoga’s most challenging balancing position is often the one between honesty and kindness.

The third yama is ‘not stealing’, asteya. Another variation of honesty and kindness in thought, word and deed. Subtle examples of asteya are not being late (stealing another’s time) and not burdening family, friends and strangers with a list of hardships and complaints (stealing another’s attention). Though we all need a shoulder to cry on, we could practice asteya by first asking permission to vent for an alloted time (maybe offering to take turns), or just paying your yoga teacher or therapist to listen.

The next yama, bramacharya, addresses appropriate sexual behavior. This guideline has many interpretations, the most orthodox being celibacy. A more sophisticated, benign understanding is that sexual behavior should be in integrity with our svadharma, our position in life. Therefore, if you’re married, have sex with your partner. If you’re a teacher, don’t let sex corrupt the student/teacher relationship, and if you don’t yet know your svadharma (the roles and relationships which provide our deepest satisfactions), engaging in sport sex can become a pale, distracting, addictive substitute. Again, no moral judgements. No shame. Bramacharya, correctly interpreted and applied to the individual, is simply the proven guideline for sex to support a stable, satvic mind.

The last yama, aparigraha, translates as ‘not exploiting.’ For example, a teacher should only accept the appropriate fee for services rendered. No gifts. No perks. The perfect counterpose for greed and entitlement, aparigraha ultimately leads to the greatest gift and the perfect perk...gratitude for what we’ve been given.

But I Like My Couch

The Sutras’ second limb is lifestyle, niyamas, our behavior toward ourselves. The first guideline is souca or cleanliness, which includes everything from a neat house to a clean body to a pure mind. The more sensitive we become to the outer and inner environment, the more sauca is both a requirement for and a reflection of a stable mind. This niyama, however, is balanced by the next one.

Samtosa is contentment, or the concept of ‘enoughness,’ a recurring theme in yoga. Knowing that our actions are ‘good enough’ is the antidote to perfectionism. Feeling that we ‘have enough’ keeps us from the pointless accumulation of the inessential. According to Sutra 2:42, one who cultivates samtosa experiences the greatest joy in this lifetime, a happiness which the upanishads say is “16 times better than being in heaven.”

The next niyama, tapas refers to the refinement of personal habits, especially diet and exercise. Tapas is taking contrary action, making the effort to choose more satvic foods and subtle practices instead of the familiar, the comfortable, the ‘known devil’. Because life is change, choosing what worked in the past over something new often causes more agitation than benefits in the present moment.

So, how do we know what are the correct contrary actions to take? The fourth niyama, svadhaya, answers this question. Svadhaya is reflection. Looking inward with the help of another person. Traditionally, this was the role of the yoga teacher, although a good therapist or family member might also work. The orthodox translation of this niyama also included a sacred text, such as the vedas, as a reflective tool. Difficult questions such as ‘Am I being kind at the expense of honesty? Am I striving for cleanliness at the expense of contentment? Should I give up sex, cheese, backbends, or just give up?’ are more easily answered with the additional perspective (pratipaksa bhavana) provided by a teacher or guide.

The last niyama, isvarapranidhana, is about knowing our limits. In any endeavor, despite our best efforts, there are greater forces that will ultimately determine the outcome. Though the orthodox meaning of isvarapranidhana is surrender to God, a more acceptable one may be to focus on the quality of our actions rather than the results. In the end, we should choose the translation that most leads to a calm, stable mind

May I Be Excused?

Finally, expressing yoga’s relentless relativity, Sutra 2:31, ‘the loophole Sutra’ teaches that ‘although the yamas and niyamas will be highly transformational if strictly adhered to, there can be exceptions based on social norms, cultural conditions, and individual needs.’ For instance, spies must lie, and some cultures must kill to survive. Considering the mind’s tendency toward self-delusion, a teacher or guide is essential to help determine if you are a true exception or just looking for an easy way out.

Because humans are social creatures inhabiting a physical world, the yamas and niyamas are presented before asana and pranayama. If our relationships and lifestyles are messy and unstable, yoga’s more subtle practices will be difficult at best. (Just try to meditate following a heated argument with a loved one.) Practically, however, regular practice of connecting the body and breath often spontaneously leads to some of the attitudes and behaviors outlined in the yamas and niyamas.

I Hate It When We Disagree

Another reason that the yamas are presented first is that a great deal of human suffering actually occurs in relationships. As rewarding as a perfect triangle pose may be, refining our relationship skills may actually be the way to experience yoga’s greatest benefits. Or, as my teacher’s teacher, T.K.V. Desikachar, often says, “The only way to be sure your yoga is working is if your relationships get better.”

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