The Eightfold Path

As early as 500 CE, Patanjali wrote the first systematic presentation of yoga in The Yoga Sutras. Within the Sutras he outlined the Eightfold Path, which is the backbone for Raja Yoga, and highly influential on the yoga we see in practice today. The Eightfold Path, also called ashtanga yoga (ashta=eight, anga=limb), is a guideline for how to approach enlightenment. The Sutras prescribes the following actionable steps as a means to reduce internal strife and connect with your true spiritual nature:

  1. Yama: These refer to your moral conduct in relations with others. Yama can also be qualified as abstinences, ethical disciplines, or restraints. There are five yama in total:
    • Ahimsa is nonviolence and compassion for all living things. Many people practice vegetarianism to live in harmony with ahimsa.
    • Satya is truthfulness, or honesty in accordance with nonviolence.
    • Asteya is non-stealing, or not taking anything that has not been freely given.
    • Brahmacharya is continence, or sense control. It instructs us to form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truth.
    • Aparigraha is non-covetousness or neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth. We should understand that change is the only constant, and therefore let go of attachments.
  2. Niyama: These are your relations with yourself. They are personal observances, which like yama, are five in total:
    • Saucha is cleanliness. It entails inner and outer purification, pertaining to emotional as well as physical detoxification.
    • Samtosa is contentment, or being happy with what you have.
    • Tapas literally means heat. This refers to spiritual austerities, prescribing a disciplined use of energy (body posture, eating habits, breathing patterns).
    • Svadhyaya is the study of sacred scriptures and of one’s self. It instructs you to welcome and accept your limitations
    • Isvara pranidhana is celebration of the spiritual. It is equivalent to having trust and faith in a Divine force.
  3. Asana: This literally means “seat,” and refers to the physical postures that are most identified with the practice of yoga. Along with improving strength, flexibility, and balance, this physical component cultivates one’s ability to sustain focus. Some say the main purpose of asana is to prepare the body for long hours in seated meditation. Others argue that asana is a means of introspection within itself: our mental reaction to internal engagement reflects deeply held attitudes and beliefs about the world and our own personal existence. Additionally, conditioning the body creates space for the optimal flow of energy, and thus serves as a solid foundation for the spirit to flourish.
  4. Pranayama: “Prana” means “breath,” and “yama,” as touched upon earlier, roughly translates to “control.” The word “prana” takes on much larger implications in yogic contexts- it relates to the power within breath, and the vital force in every being. Everything in the Universe is energetically charged with prana, and there is said to be latent prana within our bodies. Pranayama involves techniques to free energy so that we may enjoy vitality within our bodies, and experience connectedness with everything around ourselves. This breath control is also a means to calm nervous system and quiet the mind.
  5. Pratyahara: This is withdrawal of the senses. Humans have a tendency to soothe ourselves by indulging in external stimulants like food, drink, drugs, or other sensory catalysts. These impetus only serve as distractions from internal peace. When we stop feeding the senses they become extraordinarily sharp, and we develop independence from cravings and emotional mood swings. The practice of pratyahara considers all external objects as addictive substances in that the more you have the more you depend on them. By indulging, one is unable to experience the reality of their own existence because they either suppress unwanted sensations or heighten other sensations. The idea is to consume out of need rather than want. When we are able to overcome fleeting desires, we gain understanding of our true nature beyond mortal necessities.
  6. Dharana: This is single-pointed focus or concentration. Once body is calmed, the mind is quiet, and senses withdrawn, we are able to direct awareness to a single point of focus. Over time, the connection becomes stronger and stronger, and eventually the mind achieves complete absorption, absent all distractions. This is one way to find presence: instead of shifting attention from memories of the past or plans for the future, the practitioner maintains alert focus on the here and now. The mind’s habitual pattern to seek comfort from future fantasies or dwell on past experience, entraps us in the delusion of time. Happiness is not contingent on time or circumstance; the only way to actualize it in your life is through complete presence.
  7. Dhyana: One might also call this meditation on the Divine unity in all things. This pursuit takes dharana one step further in that the practitioner meditates on the understanding that he or she is one with the object of concentration. A fundamental concept in yoga is that everything is One: there is energy in all things, and the quintessence of this energy is indistinguishable no matter what form it takes. Dhyana is a process of unification with the natural force within yourself and all things. Religions have different God-names for this force; all point to the same concept, what atheists might simply call “energy.” Humans see ourselves as separate and unique, but by disassociating with this idea of separateness, we can tap into the cosmic power which moves the Universe.
  8. Samadhi: This is the state that occurs at the peak of meditation; it is the end-goal of yoga. Samadhi is self-realization, a state of pure content that occurs from resolute knowledge that everything is OK. Some say that Samadhi is very difficult to experience, and the only way is through practice and dedication to the other limbs of yoga. Others relate Samadhi to an experience that arises through moments of complete absorption, when one is so immersed in presence that all problems simply fall into nonexistence; zen masters have another word for temporary insight, satori. People may have different triggers, perhaps simply petting an animal shifts their consciousness. Others might turn to an adrenaline rush like skydiving. In any case, satori like Samadhi is incomprehensible to the rational mind. It does not arise through thought or conscious effort, rather, it emerges in the absence of distraction. Yoga prescribes the first Seven Limbs to eliminate distractions, and Samadhi ultimately unfolds as the Eighth and final step.

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