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What are Yamas, Niyamas and Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali

Ashtanga Yoga, Yama, Niyama

Milk may exist in the udders of the cow, but we need a means or process to extract it – Vacaspati Mishra on Ashtanga Yoga

This rather awkward and somewhat amusing statement actually carries a profound meaning behind it. Vacaspati Mishra was a prolific and influential scholar of the 9th century who wrote extensively on Indian Philosophy, including the Yoga Sutras. He made the above statement to explain that the capability of achieving the highest form of Yoga may exist in all of us, but we need a process to extract this potential. So, what is that process?

This process which helps us extract our highest potential is called Ashtanga Yoga and was revealed by Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. The term Ashtanga Yoga can be confusing as it also refers to a form of hatha yoga asana practice which originated in Mysore. The practitioners of this powerful form of yoga believe that the physical practice itself helps them achieve all eight limbs. But essentially Ashtanga Yoga refers to the following eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga sutras:

First Limb: Yama

This is the first limb given by Patanjali and it contains five guidelines on how we should interact with the world. These are:

1. Ahimsa or non-violence

It is the first Yama and is of highest importance for a yogi. It even supersedes all other guidelines as causing harm or destruction is strictly discouraged in the yogic path. Thus, if there is a conflict between non-violence and truth, the former will win.

2. Satya or truthfulness

Being truthful at all times does not mean that we can say whatever comes to our mind. Instead, it implies we should speak truthful words which are beneficial to all and are spoken with great care. What we speak should be of benefit and serve a good purpose. As the popular adage goes “One should not tell the truth unkindly”

3. Asteya or not stealing

To never take what is not ours or what we haven’t rightfully earned is Asteya. Thus, taking credit for other people’s work, plagiarism or accepting rewards when we know that we are not deserving would come under this Yama.

4. Brahmacharya or sensual restraint

It literally means celibacy and is often interpreted as abstinence from all sexual activities. Some also define it as absolute control over the senses and thus our desires in general. This Yama guides to yogi to stay away from sensual indulgence.

5. Aparigraha or non-possessiveness

To live with only as much as we need, to not accept more than that even if it is gifted to us. There is no possessiveness towards material objects or even towards our actions. We do what we do without craving rewards or demanding favorable results.

Second Limb: Niyama

These are personal codes of conduct and how a seeker treats himself. Yamas are concerned with our interactions with the world and Niyamas deal with our personal discipline and practice. There are five Niyamas

1. Saucha or cleanliness

Cleanliness here is both internal and external. Hence not only should we keep the body and the environment clean but also our mind. So, we should think positive and be free of lower emotions like jealousy, hatred, vanity etc. It also includes our diet as even what we put inside our body should be pure.

2. Santosha or contentment

It is satisfaction with what we have, without resenting our situation or feeling proud of what we have gained. A content person is happy with whatever results come from his efforts. He neither complains to God when life goes downhill nor does he rejoice when life is upbeat. To everything his reaction is the same – ‘All is well’.

3. Tapas or austerity

It is the ability to tolerate extremes and our capacity to endure hardships. This would include fasts, giving up comforts, observing strict restraints. However, the sages have warned that tapas should be done only for spiritual purposes and not for small material goals like losing weight or gaining supernatural powers.

4. Svadhyaya or self-study

This involves reading scriptures and contemplation. Some have even included Japa or chanting of mantras like Aum under Svadhyaya. It also includes methods of self-inquiry and study of scriptures for progressing in our spiritual journey (not to merely enter into debates).

5. Ishvara Pranidhana

It is the complete surrender to God where everything we do is for his sake. It pre-supposes a devotion towards universal consciousness and is a very critical aspect of Patanjali’s yoga teachings. He includes this practice as essential in Kriya Yoga and mentions that Ishvara Pranidhana is the best and fastest route to enlightenment. Though he is not dogmatic or forceful about it. In fact, he gives multiple other options for those who are not inclined towards God worship.

Third  Limb: Asana

Asanas refer to physical posture or more specifically the ‘seat’. Essentially it means how we sit in meditation. Now, Patanjali does not elaborate much on the subject. He simply states that posture should be stable and comfortable. And that posture should not be attained through aggression but should be effortless. Once we accomplish this we are ready for the next step.

Fourth Limb: Pranayama

Pranayama is practiced along with Asanas and refers to breath control. Three factors are said to regulate pranayama. These are: the surface area covered by our breath, the duration of breath and the number of times inhalation and exhalation is practiced. These metrics are the basis of various pranayama practices.

Fifth Limb: Pratyahara

This refers to withdrawing our awareness from the outside world and turning inwards. In this stage, our senses start to shut down and indifference is created towards worldly things. For instance, we may be very fond of lemon cakes and we may be able to forcefully suppress our desire for them for some time. Though our mouth would still water at the sight of them. Pratyahara is that state when we become totally indifferent, the body no longer produces any physiological response towards them. Pratyahara is a natural elevation of our consciousness, not a forced one.

This fifth stage of Pratyahara is when we start transitioning from the external to the internal. In the next three steps, proper meditation practices finally begin.

Sixth Limb: Dharana

Dharana is concentration where we fix the mind on a chosen object of meditation. This object could be a spiritual symbol like the cross, a mantra-like Om, preferred deity, one of the chakras in our body, the heart center etc. Simply said Dharana is holding the mind fixed at any point in space. However, at this stage mind has a tendency to get interrupted by other thoughts. To give a rough example – we may be focused and thinking about Aum but other thoughts keep rising in our consciousness breaking our continuity.

Seventh Limb: Dhyana

This is Meditation where the mind now becomes continuously focused on the chosen object. There is no interruption, and no other thought comes to mind. This is a very advanced stage and an excellent way to understand the difference between Dharana and Dhyana is the analogy of water and honey. Dharana is like water falling drop by drop and Dhyana is like honey pouring consistently in a smooth stream without interruptions. There is only one thought in our mind, and the focus is so strong that nothing can disturb it. This is dhyana.

Eighth Limb: Samadhi

This is the final stage of enlightenment. It happens when we become so absorbed in our meditation that we even forget ourselves. The difference between Dhyana and Samadhi is that in Dhyana we ‘know’ that we are meditating, but in Samadhi we are so absorbed that we don’t even know ourselves. This means ego or the sense of ‘I’ disappears. There’s just the object that exists. To take an example, if we were meditating on God, then at this stage we would forget our identity and become one with the thought of God.

These are the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga. The first five limbs are preliminary practices that prepare our mind and body to sit in meditation. The last three are directly related to the practice of meditation and together are called ‘samyama.’ It is said that by practicing these eight limbs of yoga all the impurities are destroyed and the highest knowledge is revealed to us. But clearly, it is not an easy journey by any means.

To know more about the concept of Samyama and Meditation as per the Yoga Sutras, read my blog here.

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