By Sherry Roberts
Often called the “father of yoga,” Patanjali was the guy who codified his thoughts and knowledge of yoga in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. In this work, Patanjali compiled 195 sutras or concise aphorisms that are essentially an ethical blueprint for living a moral life and incorporating the science of yoga into your life. Although no one is sure of the exact time when Patanjali lived and wrote down his sutras, it is estimated this humble physician who became one of the world’s greatest sages roamed India somewhere between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D.
In a world where we reduce nearly everything to quick tips and sound bites, Patanjali seems to fit right in with his brief 195 guidelines to enlightenment. But in the case of Patanjali, simplicity is deceptive. In fact, scholars still don’t agree on what Patanjali meant in some of his sutras.
The Yoga Sutra is considered the fundamental text on the system of yoga, and yet you won’t find the description of a single posture or asana in it. This is a guide for living the right life. Essentially, Patanjali says, you can’t practice asanas in yoga class, feel the stretch, and then go home to play with your kids, cook a meal, yell at your employees, and cheat on your taxes. There is more to yoga than that — yoga can help you cultivate body, mind, and spiritual awareness.
The heart of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga. It is also called the eight limbs of Patanjali, because they intertwine like the branches of a tree in the forest. These aren’t commandments (although they sometimes sound like them), laws, or hard and fast rules. These are Patanjali’s suggestions for living a better life through yoga. Here are the eight limbs of Patanjali.
Yama is social behavior, how you treat others and the world around you. These are moral principles. Sometimes they are called the don’ts or the thou shalt nots. There are five yamas:
- Nonviolence (ahimsa). Do no harm to any creature in thought or deed. In his book Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda asks Mahatma Gandhi the definition of ahimsa. Gandhi said, “The avoidance of harm to any living creature in thought or deed.” Yogananda asked if one could kill a cobra to protect a child. Gandhi maintained he would still hold to his vow of ahimsa, but added, “I must confess that I could not serenely carry on this conversation were I faced by a cobra.”
- Truth and honesty (satya). Tell no lies. Cheating on your income taxes falls into this category.
- Nonstealing (asteya). Do not steal material objects (a car) or intangibles such as the center of attention or your child’s chance to learn responsibility or independence by doing something on his own.
- Nonlust (brahmacharya). Don’t worry; this is not a call to celibacy. Many yogis of old were married and had families of their own. The person who practices brahmacharya avoids me-me-me or self-absorption. To practice this yama is to dwell in vastness (“Brahman literally means the vastness,” according to Ravi Ravindra, a scholar and translator of the Yoga Sutra). It is, as the well-known teacher B.K.S. Iyengar puts it, to see “divinity in all.”
- Nonpossessiveness (aparigraha). Free yourself from greed, hoarding, and collecting. Do you really need more shoes, another car, or to hog the conversation every time you see your friends? Make your life as simple as possible. Learn to share—your toys, your time, your space, your silence.
Niyama is inner discipline and responsibility, how we treat ourselves. These are sometimes called observances, the do’s, or the thou shalts. There are five niyamas:
- Purity (shauca). Purity is achieved through the practice of the five yamas, which help clear away the negative physical and mental states of being. Keep yourself, your clothing, and your surroundings clean. Eat fresh and healthy food. The next time you joke about treating your body like a temple, think of this niyama.
- Contentment (santosha). Cultivate contentment and tranquility by finding happiness with what you have and who you are. Seek happiness in the moment, take responsibility for where you are, and choose to grow from there.
- Austerity (tapas). Show discipline in body, speech, and mind. The purpose of developing self-discipline is not to become ascetic, but to control and direct the mind and body for higher spiritual aims or purposes.
- Study of the sacred text (svadhyaya). Study sacred texts, which are whatever books are relevant to you and inspire and teach you. Education changes a person’s outlook on life. As Iyengar says, a person starts “to realize that all creation is meant for bhakti (adoration) rather than for bhoga (enjoyment), that all creation is divine, that there is divinity within himself and that the energy which moves him is the same that moves the entire universe.”
- Living with an awareness of the Divine (ishvara-pranidhana). Be devoted to God, Buddha, or whatever you consider divine.
“The posture of yoga is steady and easy,” Patanjali says. Patanjali compares this to resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of infinity. Although Westerners often consider the practice of asana or postures as an exercise regimen or a way to stay fit, Patanjali and other ancient yogis used asana to prepare the body for meditation. To sit for a lengthy time in contemplation required a supple and cooperative body. If you are free of physical distractions — such as your foot going to sleep — and can control the body, you can free the mind. Patanjali said, “Posture is mastered by freeing the body and mind from tension and restlessness and meditating on the infinite.”
Prana is the life force or energy that exists everywhere and flows through each of us through the breath. Pranayama is the control of breath. The basic movements of pranayama are inhalation, retention of breath, and exhalation. “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of days but by the number of his breaths,” says Iyengar. “Therefore, he follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow, deep breathing.” The practice of pranayama purifies and removes distractions from the mind making it easier to concentrate and meditate.
Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara occurs during meditation, breathing exercises, or the practice of yoga postures — any time when you are directing your attention inward. Concentration, in the yoga room, at your writing desk, or the boardroom, is a battle with distracting senses. When you master pratyahara, you are able to focus because you no longer feel the itch on your big toe or hear the mosquito buzzing by your ear or smell the popcorn popping in the microwave.
Concentration or dharana involves teaching the mind to focus on one point or image. “Concentration is binding thought in one place,” says Patanjali. The goal is to still the mind — gently pushing away superfluous thoughts — by fixing your mind on some object such as a candle flame, a flower, or a mantra. In dharana, concentration is effortless. You know the mind is concentrating when there is no sense of time passing.
Uninterrupted meditation without an object is called dhyana. Concentration (dharana) leads to the state of meditation. The goal of meditation is not unconsciousness or nothingness. It is heightened awareness and oneness with the universe. How do you tell the difference between concentration and meditation? If there is awareness of distraction, you are only concentrating and not meditating. The calm achieved in meditation spills over into all aspects of your life — during a hectic day at work, shopping for groceries, coordinating the Halloween party at your child’s school.
The ultimate goal of the eightfold path to yoga is samadhi or absolute bliss. This is pure contemplation, superconsciousness, in which you and the universe are one. Those who have achieved samadhi are enlightened. Paramahansa Yoganananda called it the state of God-Union.
The eight limbs work together: The first five steps — yama, niyama asana, pranayama, and pratyahara — are the preliminaries of yoga and build the foundation for spiritual life. They are concerned with the body and the brain. The last three, which would not be possible without the previous steps, are concerned with reconditioning the mind. They help the yogi to attain enlightenment or the full realization of oneness with Spirit. Enlightenment lasts forever, while a flat tummy can disappear with a week of binging.
In my Maya Skye mysteries, Maya struggles with ahimsa—a lot. How do you stay committed to harming no living creature when you’re fighting for your life? Check it out and see Maya’s solutions in Down Dog Diary and Warrior’s Revenge.