Stages of Ashtang Yoga

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Stages of Ashtang Yoga

Jun 23, 2016

1. Yam & Niyam 
Those who intend to follow the path of spiritual enlightenment must first purify the body, mind, and heart; the tri-fold abode of Spirit. The first two limbs of Yoga help to achieve this goal by establishing a code of ethics that includes truthfulness, love, celibacy, honesty, simplicity, austerity, and devotion to God.
 
The practice of self-discipline (yam) and the observance of vows (niyam) enable the aspirant to control the emotions and passions that normally disturb one's peace of mind. In order to know God one must faithfully practice yam and niyam throughout the practice of Yoga.
 
In his Yoga Darshan, Patanjali lists five restraints under the category of self-discipline (yam):

  1. Ahimsa: non-violence, or dynamic love for all living beings;
  2. Asteya: non-stealing, or honesty
  3. Aparigrah: non-possession, or the adoption of a simple lifestyle
  4. Satya: truth, or purity and harmony in one's thoughts, words, and deeds
  5. Brahmacharya: continence, or celibacy

 
He lists under the category of vows (niyam):

  1. Shauch: purity
  2. Santosh: contentment
  3. Tapas: austerity
  4. Svadhyay: study of the self
  5. Ishvarpranidhan: devotion to God

An undisciplined and unrighteous way of life inevitably leads to unhappiness, misery, and suffering. Therefore yam and niyam serve as practical commandments for the aspirant who carefully adheres to them. The practice of yam and niyam inspires peace, mental steadiness, good deeds, and spiritual growth. It is a first and lasting step for the seeker.

2. Hatha Yoga
Yogis believe that spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved through the instrument of the human body. A sound mind abides in a sound body. Only when there is harmony between an alert mind and a healthy body is it possible to realize God. Unless the body is cleansed of its impurities and maintained in perfect health, every effort to bring peace to the mind will prove futile. In the process of Yoga, the purification and control of the body and mind are complimentary procedures. In the beginning physical discipline and bodily health assume greater importance, but in. the advanced stages of Yoga more emphasis is given to mental discipline. As one's character is gradually transformed through the practice of yam and niyam, the student should begin to practice the initial disciplines of Hatha Yoga, namely, asan and pranayam.
 
Asans are physical exercises designed to restore the natural balance of the body. Pranayams are breathing exercises. The third and final exercise of Hatha Yoga is Pratyahar. Pratyahar helps to turn the mind inward by diverting its attention from the pursuit of worldly desires. This practice leads to true meditation. It is a prerequisite for entryto the advancedstages of yoga.

3. Raja Yoga
The last three limbs of Ashtang Yoga are collectively known as Raja Yoga. They are dharana (mental focusing), dhyan (meditation), and samadhi (divine communion).
 
These exercises are advanced procedures that maximize the aspirant's self-discipline and purity. They prepare him for the final stages of spiritual realization. The Yoga aspirant becomes fit for the practice of Raja Yoga only after the successful completion of Hatha Yoga.
 
In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: ''All the techniques of Hatha Yoga are used to attain success in Raja Yoga." (IV: 103). Again it says, "In the course of Hatha Yoga, various asans, pranayams, and other divine meansincluding mudras and pratyahar-should be practiced until the fruit, Raja Yoga, is attained." (I: 67).
 
In this way the entire process of Ashtang Yoga is broadly viewed as the purification, and ultimate transcendence, of the body and mind.
 
THE GOAL OF ASAN
 
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says, "Asan is the first component of Hatha Yoga and should be practiced first. It brings steadiness, health, and lightness of body." (I: 17). Sage Patanjali defines asan as "a steady and comfortable posture." (Yoga Darshan 2:46) Thus mastery of asan (or asan-jay) is the attainment of an uninterrupted state of bodily equilibrium that is experienced without pain or discomfort. When the yogi accomplishes asan-jay he is no longer distracted and oppressed by worldly opposites such as heat and cold, strength and weakness, and other such dualities that bring pain and difficulty to the human condition. Generally it is considered very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome such natural limitations. But the great yogis proclaim that even natural forces can be vanquished through the practice of Yoga. Mastery of the techniques of asan and pranayam prepares the yogi for the practice of meditation and opens the way for greater spiritual accomplishments.
 
Experienced yogis have said that a person who cannot maintain a meditative posture for a long period of time is unfit for the practice of the higher forms of Yoga. Even pranayam is not truly effective until one attains mastery over asan. Asan-jay (mastery of asan) is achieved when the aspirant is able to maintain undisturbed stability in a meditative posture for a period of three hours without experiencing even the slightest discomfort. Thus, in the Tejobindu Upanishad it is said, "When asan remains steady for three hours, it should be considered adequate for the practice of Yoga." But mastery of asan is not easily attainable. The novice practitioner will find it difficult to assume a posture and hold it steady. The degree of difficulty will depend upon the nature of the posture. But eventually there comes a natural effortlessness to the yoga posture. Once this stage is achieved the movement of the vital air (prana) in thebody slows down, the fickleness of the senses decreases and the mind becomes peaceful.
 
Sage Patanjali advocates "relaxation of effort" to achieve the goal of a "steady and comfortable" posture (Yoga Darshan II: 47). Each asan requires a series of slow and carefully controlled movements that leads to the predetermined physical posture. After sufficient practice,the posture will become easyand very little effort will be required to maintain stability.  Ultimately the posture is perfected to such a degree that it is effortless, comfortable, and stable for a long period of time.
 
The practice of theseasanas, orphysical exercises, helps to develop balance, strength, awareness, and inner peace. The key to this process is "relaxation of effort." Prompted by easy and flowing movements, the mind becomes aware of unrealized inner resources. As the outer discipline progresses, one's physical and mental capabilities expand. The mind and body find greater harmony. One begins to develop a sense of the unity of being, accompanied by an increasing awareness of the inner Spirit.
 
PRANAYAM AND PRATYAHAR
 
All the great yogis agree that the successful practice of asan is the foundation upon which the skyscraper edifice of Yoga is built. Mastery over asan prepares the aspirant for the succeeding techniques of Yoga, beginning with pranayam, or breath control.
 
Pranayam helps to remove mental and physical defects as it purifies the gross and subtle channels of the body. In turn, it creates an introvert mental disposition conducive to contemplation. Thus pranayam establishes the introversion of mind required for the higher practices of Yoga. Pranayam introduces the aspirant to yoga breathing, which is a psychosomatic exercise that leads to higher spiritual experiences.4
 
Prana is a complex phenomenon. Initially the practitioner understands prana only through the movement of the breath (inhaling and exhaling) and his experiences with it are restricted to the gross material plane. Eventually he realizes that prana's field of operation includes the currents of vital airs that flow through the subtle channels of the astral body. Finally, the practitioner experiences prana as the spiritual energy that purifies the mind and the intellect.
 
Pranayam leads to the final stage of Hatha Yoga, which is known as pratyahar. Pratyahar indicates the withdrawal of consciousness from the senses.5In the context of yoga technique pratyahar suggests the mind is not allowed to operate through the five sense organs for grasping their respective objects from the outer world. Pratyahar reverses the common extroverted mental process that links the sense organs with external objects of perception. During pratyahar the cognitive faculties of the mind continue to exist and function, but in an introverted manner. Thus pratyahar generates the profound introversion of mind required for uninterrupted meditation. Once the practitioner is well established in pratyahar, Hatha Yoga is complete and the student is ready for the pursuit of Raja Yoga.

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