The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga
There is much more to yoga than asanas, or physical postures. Since it is meant to support the cultivation of union with our true nature, yoga delves in our whole being – as if preparing a garden, for which we would need much more than soil – developing our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and moral well-being.
Patanjali, who is recognized as the father of yoga, wrote the Sutras (a collection of sacred texts) in India around 200 AD. These texts are considered the most important ones concerning classical yoga, and offer us a road map towards the realization of our profound nature.
This road map is named Ashtanga, the eight branches of yoga, and it gives us eight stages to follow – from the external to the internal – which serve as a progressive ladder but must be practiced simultaneously. ⠀⠀
We begin a wonderful journey with this road map, exploring the Yamas and Niyamas!
Introduction to Yamas & Niyamas
Before we can get to the Asanas for a deeper rooting of the physical postures – which may give us a taste of the scent and flavor of the supreme freedom – Pantanjali invites us to prepare our soil with the fundamental preliminaries of the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two Limbs of Yoga; these assist in purifying our behavior and attitudes towards others and ourselves.⠀
Yamas and Niyamas nourish the garden in which blissful human potential blossoms; they act as catalysts for utter liberation. On the one hand, our soil must be free from toxicities, through the Yamas: moral restrictions in regards to behavior (at the level of action, speech and thought/intention). On the other, it must be abundant with nutrients, through the Niyamas: disciplines, attitudes and behaviors that need to be cultivated.⠀
Thus begins the path towards the True Self.
The word ahimsa comes from “himsa”, violence, and the prefix “a”, which means the negation thereof. Thus ahimsa translates as non-violence. It is the first of the five Yamas as outlined by Patanjali.
In the beautiful words of our dear teacher Gesine, “non-violence is the embodied recognition that the same Self dwells in all living beings; and when we come to the intimate understanding of that Reality, Ahimsa transforms into a natural celebration of Love and Unity.”
While we are not inflicting physical harm upon others, maybe we are violent at the level of speech, or mind -towards ourselves, or to others. Maybe we inflict physical harm upon ourselves, by eating or sleeping poorly. In order to practice Ahimsa, we can begin by bringing compassionate awareness to the habitual ways in which we judge and cause harm, with thoughts, words, feelings, or actions.
As Patanjali recommends, we must seek to purify these patterns through the cultivation of positive mental tendencies, such as loving-kindness, sincere compassion, courage (as the cure against the aggressive fear behind violence) and understanding.
Let’s be kind and honest. Let’s ask ourselves the question: “In which ways have I caused any harm, lately?” And furthermore “Do I feel the aspiration to love and forgive, myself and others, no matter what?” “Which thoughts, words, emotions and actions express that love and forgiveness? How can I remember and nourish this genuine aspiration to grow in awareness and celebration of Unity and Love?”
Feel free to share your answer to one of these questions in the comment below.
May we open our Heart, and care for all.
Asteya is the Sanskrit verb “to steal”, and a is the negation, therefore asteya means “non stealing” or “non-theft.” The will to steal another’s belongings, property or attributes has its root in jealousy, competition, the desire to posses, a sense of insecurity, of not having enough, or of being poor. As with each and every Yama, the meaning and effect goes far deeper than the mere translation. Asteya bears its fruit as contentment, cooperation, a sense of security, abundance and generosity.
Stealing is taking something that does not belong to you, or was not freely given. The true aspirant on the path of yoga will never take anything without the expressed permission of its owner. Moreover, he or she will continually grow a sense of union and contentment; a natural desire not only to respect other people’s resources, but to give and to share —without a sense of “me” giving to “you”, rather a Spiritual Heart nourishing itself.
In cultivating Asteya, we purify the actions and emotions that are born from jealousy, thus purifying the mental tendencies associated with this emotion as well. While many may not be interested in stealing another’s physical belongings, there may be the stealing of their time, or energy, or a quiet desire to posses another person’s beautiful looks, partner, or social status. All of which arise from a tendency which all people possess – judgment. These kinds of thoughts only breed competition and jealousy, from which can arise the act of theft.
For our dear teacher Deborah, Asteya is the “attitude of equanimity and serenity in which we do not crave unwholesomely after things and other people’s possessions. We are contented with what we are, deeply grateful every day for what we have.” Since many of us have everything we need, and much more, we can sometimes continue to crave, with greed, so she recommends we “practice humbleness, simplicity, maybe even austerity, for a while, to realize what the opposite feels like, and make us understand more swiftly the depth of this practice.”
Following her recommendation, “Everytime you feel the temptation to break Asteya, even for something minor, pause and reflect: “What lack do I believe I have, that I need to take this from someone else? What impulse is prompting me to do this? What belief do I have about this object, and about what it will give me?” This is a perfect moment to return to yourself, and shine light on that true nature of ours.”
Yamas and Niyamas sum up ten ethical guidelines to develop awareness and integrity, different from dogma or rigid disciplines; they are a means for the gardening of awareness, virtue, love and transparency, to meet Heaven and Earth unite. Approached with the proper attitude, they represent a spiritual path in and of themselves.
Saucha is the Sanskrit word for Purity. We can look at Purity in many different ways, most obviously, perhaps, is the purity of the physical body. The yogis see the body as the vehicle or temple of the soul, and thus it is very important to have a healthy, clean vehicle for the soul’s purpose to be fulfilled.
We can also look, of course, at the purity of the soul, mind and Heart; we can try and look at consciousness, and have it nurtured, in its purest form: unadulterated by vices, or fixed points of view, free from obsessive attitudes, clean from illusions. After all, we aspire to a clean, healthy vehicle, and a clean, healthy driver.
Toxic elements exist at the level of speech and mind, not only at the level of the body; as aspirants, we wish and practice for the fluctuations which obscure the Heart’s natural spark of joy and grace to diminish and cease; the yogi aims to sustain Life in its naturally free and pure being.
For our dear teacher Juergen, “Saucha means the purity of the present moment, of simply Beingness. From this place Saucha radiates.”
The physical body can be purified through the regular practice of asanas and pranayama, the maintaining of a healthy balanced diet, bathing regularly, physical exercise and by the practice of various cleanses, or dhautis, for the internal organs and systems of the body. We have already started some kind of purification process through Yamas; along with Niyamas, and the rest of the Ashtanga Yoga limbs, we serve this purpose, the clean, healthy and optimal performance of our whole organism.
“Through practicing Yoga and Meditation”, Juergen continues, “I am going through constant purification processes, that help me to enter into Stillness, and just be. Becoming aware of what is beneficial for myself, helps me on my path. It can be how I deal with food and sleep, or what I read or watch, or how often I practice.”
An aspirant on the yogic path should also cultivate a purity of mind, relinquishing any negative mental tendencies such as pride, anger, jealousy, dishonesty, judgment and so on. This can be done by cultivating a pure intention, to act for the benefit of all beings, and by cultivating love, compassion and kindness towards others and yourself.
“Saucha is a beautiful practice for letting go of our conditionings”, our dear teacher concludes. Is there inspiration in you for embodying Life in an authentic, healthy and coherent manner? In daily life, which actions and intentions are the ones that allow your pure being to rest and manifest gracefully?
Santosha means contentment, or unconditional joy. It’s the second Niyama (out of five) and seventh of ten ethical guidelines, Yamas and Niyamas, fundamental limbs for the rest of the organism of Yoga, according to Patanjali. Maybe you’ll notice correlations between a particular Yama and a specific Niyama, between the “controls” and the “disciplines”. Do you?
To be firmly rooted in Santosha is to feel genuine happiness no matter what arises in the sphere of one’s being. It springs up from a trusting and accepting attitude, to receive any given situation and drop labels, with deep joy and absolute trust in our own Self, and in reality, capable of union or coherence beyond “good” or “bad”, moment to moment.
Santosha naturally grows into supreme happiness; imagine a streaming sense of satisfaction, in whichever situation, for you are concentrated and certain about the Spiritual Heart. Dear teacher Estelle recalls, “Swami Rama said that “contentment is falling in Love with your Life”, and that summarises it all.”
To practice contentment is to practice a constant awareness of the present moment, where the mind is able to be free from desires or fears for the future, and free from pain or regrets of the past. We establish Santosha whenever we continue to drop the little self’s fantasies and obsessions, whenever we trust and leap, and let ourselves fall into contentment.
“Santosha is finding a deep Trust”, Estelle continues, “an intimacy with Life and with ourselves that allows you to keep smiling and to welcome all of Life’s gifts, even the most challenging ones.”
Only a mind free of desiring -free of thought about past and future-, can concentrate. Thus in practicing Santosha, you improve naturally in the practice of Hatha Yoga and Meditation.
A state of equanimity arises, and labels given to experiences, such as “good” or “bad”, are not so definitive anymore, we have turned flexible. You may also find an increase in physical health and vitality, as the body becomes free of stress, worry, anxiety and sadness.
“Santosha associated with Self-Inquiry brings you to a continuous wonderment”, concludes Estelle. “When I hear Sahajananda saying: “Me, here, what a Miracle!”, that’s what I hear. This cultivation of Santosha: the happiness, the simplicity of being alive, the joy of embracing Life.”
In Sanskrit terminology Ishvara means “God”, in the sense of a personal or named God, and Pranidhana means “uninterrupted devotion” or “surrender”. Thus Ishvarapranidhana, the final Niyama indicated by Patanjali, means surrender and devotion to God; and involves putting yourself at the feet of something greater than you.
The practice of Ishvarapranidhana purifies the remaining desires in the mind, orienting it towards the Divine, until there is no desire for anything but God in your life. The desire for union, for Yoga, is all that remains in a mind purified by constant devotion. Ishvara can also be translated as “the Highest”; you may also practice constant devotion to “the highest ideal,” for example Truth, Reality, Beauty, or Unconditional Love.
Arnaud, Hridaya Yoga teacher recalls “The contemplation on Ishvarapranidhana has allowed me to realize that beside every action and every desire lies a stronger longing for Oneness and wholeness.” and invites us to “listen to those deep calls from the inside. It’s the key to success on the Yoga path. We never have enough aspiration!”
This practice may begin with formal prayers and consecration of actions, and will eventually develop into a natural orientation of the mind, heart, and breath towards “the Highest,” towards the Spiritual Heart in every moment of the day. The “tricky side of Ishvarapranidhana”, relates Arnaud, is that “we never have enough purity of intention and longing for Oneness. That is why, it can happen that a strong spiritual aspiration manifests as a form of “dogmatism” or “fanatism”, specially to beginners”
All the Yamas and Nimayas are discussed in more depth in separate lectures in our Hridaya Yoga Retreat: Module 1 Intensive.
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