Ashtanga: the Eight limbs of Yoga.
The philosophy behind Yoga is vast. It’s impossible for a Western person to embrace the beauty and subtlety of it all in just a single lifetime. If you practice yoga regularly, you may have had glimpses of your own inner potential, your natural spirituality. In order to explore that potential further, it’s useful to have a framework, or a map to guide you.
People usually start coming to yoga classes for reasons of fitness, health, flexibility but they find there’s another benefit, one that can’t be described, only experienced. When they come out of a class, everything is the same but something is different. The discomfort and stress in our brains is diminished, mental noise and emotional instability have been replaced by a quiet stability. What is it about yoga, specifically, that does that? And how does that lead to spiritual transformation?
Most of life is an accident that happens to us. We all have commitments, family issues and financial constraints, health problems. Things happen to us, some good, some bad, and we live with the imprint of these accidents for the rest of our lives. For richer or poorer, no one is immune. At times life is extremely uncomfortable, painful and stressful.
BKS Iyengar famously said that, “Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” In this quote, he’s talking not just about the body, but the mind and the emotions too.
He also said that health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. “When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.” How can both those statements be true?
First we must cure what we can and the framework for this is found in the first two of the eight limbs of yoga: the Yamas and Niyamas. The first sets out a series of restraints in order that we might do the minimum amount of damage to others and to ourselves. Then we are encouraged observe and discipline ourselves. The reasoning behind this is very sensible – social justice is better for everybody and natural law encourages us to create a climate around ourselves that is comfortable for us and for others. And as I said in the first blog post self discipline is the key.
Having put our house in order, the third limb suggests we focus on what we can do to counteract the natural physical, mental and emotional stresses of life through Asana practice. Asana means “seat”. When we practice we are developing our inner climate, one which is comfortable and supportive for the spirit. Sometimes the practice is for the body, sometimes for the brain, the emotions, the mind. We practice so that somewhere within any one of the asanas, we can find that moment of equilibrium. The asana needs to be physically comfortable, and with skilful teaching such as you find in RIMYI, if we ‘cannot do’ we find a method or a prop to provide that stability so we can ‘go inside’.
With these first three basic steps, we can cure what need not be endured. The reason we continue to practice is that life goes on, some problems come and go, but some stay and must be endured. We do everything we can to create a harmonious, balanced, protected and receptive climate within and around the gross body from which we can access the spiritual body. It’s not dependent on how many postures you can do or how ‘well’ you can do them, but can you use them to create the freedom from physical and mental distractions and go further? And how do you do that?
The bridge between all this external work and our spiritual world is Pranayama, the fourth limb, simply described as conscious breathing. The link between the body, the mind and the spirit is our Consciousness. Through the asana practice, we learn to read the body and the brain, like a textbook. We stay in the pose and use our intelligence and our breathing to explore further and further. And this is where the Western depiction of yoga loses its way. We improve and evolve, not by ability but by education, by becoming cultured in our practice. Like seasoned wood, which does not change with external conditions, we need to season our consciousness so it is not disturbed by external fluctuations.
And the next step towards this would, of course, be withdrawal of the senses, Pratyahara, when the asana practice has settled the body, the brain, and the mind, then our consciousness is free to explore our inner landscape. Look at the chart above – you’ll notice the figure is lying down for this stage and sitting up for the stages of focus and meditation. We’re entering the realms of prana, energy, nadis and chakras, concepts that are relatively inaccessible (unless you have fully experienced the first five steps) and will need chapter of their own. First we must learn to walk.
“Illuminated emancipation, freedom, unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose to embark on the Inward Journey to discover it … Penetration of our mind is our goal, but in the beginning to set things in motion, there is no substitute for sweat.” BKS Iyengar