Human beings are multidimensional and complex, and yoga reminds us that we live life simultaneously on many levels. In fact, the essential purpose of yoga is the integration of all the layers of life – environmental, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. At its core yoga means union, the union of body, mind and soul, the union of the ego and the spirit, the union of the mundane and the divine.
Throughout the centuries great yoga teachers have awakened their contemporaries to the fascinating paradox that although to the mind and senses the world is an ever-changing experience, from the perspective of spirit, the infinite diversity of forms and phenomena are simply disguises of an underlying non-changing reality.
The generally recognized founder of yoga philosophy is the legendary sage, Maharishi Patanjali, whose life is shrouded in the mists of myth and history. According to one story, his mother, Gonnika, was praying for a child to Lord Vishnu, the god who maintains the universe. Vishnu was so moved by her purity and devotion that he asked his beloved cosmic serpent, Ananta, to prepare for human incarnation. A tiny speck of Ananta’s celestial body fell into Gonnika’s upturned palms. She nurtured this cosmic seed with her love until it developed into a baby boy. She named her child Patanjali from the words, pat meaning “descended from heaven,” and anjali, the word for her praying posture. This being, whose life historians date back two centuries before the birth of Christ, elaborated the principles of yoga for the benefit of humanity.
In his classical work, the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali sets the goal of yoga as nothing short of total freedom from suffering. To fulfill this worthy intention, Patanjali elaborated the eight branches of yoga. Each of these components of yoga helps us shift our internal reference point from constricted to expanded consciousness. As we move from local to non-local awareness, our internal reference point spontaneously transforms from ego to spirit, which enables us to see the bigger picture when facing any challenge.
According to Patanjali, whenever we are solely identified with our ego, we bind ourselves to things that do not have permanent reality. This may be attachment to a relationship, a job, or a material possession. It may be attachment to abelief or an idea of the way things should be. Whatever the object of attachment is, the binding of our identity to something that resides in the world of forms and phenomena is the seed cause of distress, unhappiness, and illness.
Remembering that our true self is not trapped into the volume of a body for the span of a lifetime is the key to genuine freedom and joy. Yoga is designed to give us a glimpse of our essential self, by taking us from deep silence into dynamic action and back again to profound stillness.
Our body is a field of molecules. Our mind is a field of thoughts. Underlying and giving rise to our body and our mind is afield of consciousness – the domain of spirit. To know ourselves as an unbounded spirit disguised as a body/mind frees us to live with confidence and compassion, with love and enthusiasm.
To remove the veils that hide the deepest layers of our being, in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali elaborated the eight branches of yoga, sometimes referred to as the eight limbs (ashtanga). The ashtanga aren’t necessarily sequential stages. Rather, they serve as different entry points into an expanded sense of self, through interpretations, choices, and experiences that remind you of your essential nature. These are the components of Raja Yoga, the royal path to union.
- Yama: Spontaneous evolutionary behavior of conscious beings
- Niyama: The internal dialogue of conscious beings
- Asana: The intimate relationship between our personal and extended bodies
- Pranayama: Awareness and integration of the rhythms, seasons, and cycles of our life
- Pratyahara: Tuning into our subtle sensory experiences
- Dharana: Evolutionary expression of attention and intention
- Dhyana: Resonating at the junction point between the personal and the universal
- Samadhi: The progressive expansion of the self
In classical yoga, there are five yamas, a Sanskrit term that is commonly translated as the appropriate codes of behavior. We can describe the yamas as the spontaneously evolutionary behavior of an enlightened being. In working with the yamas, however, we must be alert to avoiding the tendency to use them to judge ourselves and other people. There is agreat potential for getting trapped in ideas of right and wrong, better and worse, good and bad. A kind of heavy morality can creep in, and with that comes a certain kind of arrogance of judgment that ends up constricting our hearts and minds rather than expanding them.
We believe that it is more helpful to see the yamas as how conscious beings behave in the world, how they treat other people, and how they treat themselves. They are about how we can make the most efficient use of our energy and live in a state of spontaneous openness to the progressive unfolding of this connectedness between our individuality and our universality. With this perspective in mind, let’s look at each of the five yamas:
While traditionally translated as “nonviolence,” we believe that ahimsa is really about how a person can travel through the world, through the realm of form and phenomena, in a way that does no harm…where every thought and every action and every word in some way or another is nourishing to the ecosystem. Ahimsa is that state where we’re naturally flowing through life without creating unnecessary perturbations.
In daily life, ahimsa is about choosing actions that create the greatest level of harmony between our personal body and the extended body of the universe. When faced with a choice, we can ask ourselves, “In this situation, which possibility offers the maximum evolutionary value? Which choice is the greatest expression of my values, nonviolence, self-referral, and abundance?”
The second yama is truthfulness or satya. It is an expression of being in a state of such complete present-moment awareness that judgment doesn’t need to enter in. In this expanded state, we are able to observe without evaluating. We accept the world as it is, recognizing that reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation. Recognizing that truth is different for different people and in different states of consciousness, we commit to life-affirming choices that are aligned with an expanded view of self.
Patanjali described truth as the integrity of thought, word, and action. We speak the sweet truth and are inherently honest because truthfulness is an expression of our commitment to a spiritual life. The short-term benefits of distorting the truth are outweighed by the discomfort that arises from betraying our integrity. Ultimately we recognize that truth, love, and the divine are different expressions of the same undifferentiated reality.
The third yama, brahmacharya, is often translated as celibacy or as the control of sexual energy. We believe this is alimited view of this yama. Brahmacharya derives from the word brahman, meaning “unity consciousness,” and achara, meaning “pathway.” In Vedic society, people traditionally chose one of two paths to enlightenment – the path of the householder or the path of a renunciate. For those choosing the path of a monk or nun, the path to unity consciousness naturally includes forsaking sexual activity. For the vast majority of people choosing the householder path, brahmacharya means rejoicing in the healthy, balanced, and responsible expression of creative energy.
The essential creative power of the universe is sexual, and we are each a loving manifestation of that energy. Seeing the entire creation as an expression of the divine impulse to generate, we can celebrate the creative forces. Brahmacharya means aligning with the creative energy of the cosmos. It is about using our life energy impeccably, not wasting a single precious drop.
The fourth yama, asteya or honesty, means to be fully established in a state of self-referral, in which we relinquish the idea that things outside ourselves will provide us with security and happiness. Lack of honesty almost always derives from fear of loss – the loss of money, love, position, or power.
The ability to live an honest life is based upon a deep connection to spirit. When inner fullness predominates, we lose the need to manipulate, obscure or deceive. We stop trying to please people, because pleasing is always based on a sense of inadequacy. Honesty is the intrinsic state of a person living a life of integrity. According to yoga, life-supporting, evolutionary behaviors are the natural consequence of expanded awareness.
The Second Branch of Yoga: Niyama
- Saucha (Purity)
- Santosha (Contentment)
- Tapas (Discipline)
- Swadhyaya (Spiritual Exploration)
- Ishwara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Divine)
5) Ishwara Pranidhana
The Third Branch of Yoga: Asana
The Fourth Branch of Yoga: Pranayama
Prana is the life force that flows throughout nature and the universe. When prana is flowing freely throughout our body/mind we will feel healthy and vibrant. When prana is blocked, fatigue and disease soon follow. The concept of an animating force is present in every major wisdom and healing tradition. It is known as chi or qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine, ruach in the Kabalistic tradition and ki in Japanese martial arts. The essence of prana is that deep connection between our rhythms, seasons, and our cycles of our life.
According to Patanjali, a key way to enliven prana is through conscious breathing techniques known as pranayama. There is an intimate relationship between our breath and our mind. When our mind is centered and quiet, so is our breath. When our mind is turbulent, our breathing becomes distorted. Just as our breath is affected by our mental activity, our mind can be influenced by the conscious regulation of our breathing. There are a number of classical pranayama breathing exercises designed to cleanse, balance, and invigorate the body.
When we are tuned into the pranic energy in our body, we spontaneously become more attuned to the relationship between our individuality and our universality. In this way, pranayama can take our awareness from constricted to expanded states of awareness.
The Fifth Branch of Yoga: Pratyahara
The fifth branch of yoga is known as pratyahara – a word that is traditionally translated as “control of the senses” or “sensory fasting.” In our view, the essence of pratyahara is temporarily withdrawing from the world of intense, externally imposed stimulation so that we can tune into our subtle sensory experiences.
Yoga and Ayurveda recommend that we take time to disengage from the exterior world so that we can hear our inner voice more clearly. Meditation is a form of pratyahara since, in the space of restful awareness we disengage from the outside environment. When the mind’s attention is withdrawn from the sensory field, the senses naturally come to rest.
In a way, pratyahara can be seen as sensory fasting. The word pratyahara is comprised of the root prati meaning “away,” and ahara meaning “food.” If we fast for a period of time, the next meal we eat will usually be exceptionally delicious. Yogasuggests that the same concept applies to all our experiences in the world. If we take the time to withdraw from the world for a little while, we will find that our experiences are more vibrant.
Pratyahara also means paying attention to the sensory impulses we encounter throughout the day, limiting to the greatest extent possible those that are toxic, and maximizing those that are nourishing to our body, mind and soul. It’s about being aware of and doing our best to avoid situations, circumstances, and people who deplete our vitality and enthusiasm for life.
The Seventh Branch of Yoga: Dhyana
Dhyana in its essence is about vibrating between the level of the personal and universal, between mind and no-mind, between constriction and expansion. Even in constriction, we are not attached to a particular outcome or resisting what is; we are just observing with witnessing awareness. In the process, we become increasingly awake and aware of the connection between mind and no-mind, without judging either state. In accepting that we are both an expression of the divine and a skin-encapsulated ego, life becomes lighthearted and fun.
Meditation is one of the most direct ways to develop this state of ever-present witnessing awareness. We may also meditate on an internal object that we visualize, or an idea such as truth or oneness. The object of our meditation may be without form altogether and totally open, as with Primordial Sound Meditation. All meditation consists of dwelling in witnessing consciousness and observing what we see, rather than projecting an involvement with it. This frees our consciousness from outer attachments in which there is pain and distortion.
The Eighth Branch of Yoga: Samadhi
The Integral Practice of Yoga
- The first five limbs of yoga – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara – are said to be “outer aids.” They harmonize the outer aspects of our nature, body, breath and senses, to allow the inner or meditative process of yoga to proceed.
- The last three limbs – dharana, dhyana, and samadhi – are said to be “inner aids.” They are the methods by which we can recognize the projections of consciousness and the subtle levels of the mind.
The ancient sages taught that all life is yoga; that is, all life is aiming consciously or unconsciously at reintegration and unification of its forces with the cosmic life. The essential purpose of yoga is the integration of all the layers of life – environmental, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual.