Yama and Niyama

What constitutes, Raja Yoga, is listed in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda in the YogaSutraSādhana Pāda means laying out the practical hints so a seeker can actually practice to make any progress on the yogic path.

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥२.२९

Yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni||29||

According to this sutra the eight limbs, aṣṭāṅga are: Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prānayāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhārana, Dhyāna and Samādhi.

This post is only an introduction to the first two limbs: Yama and Niyama. In Samskritam, Yama may be interpreted as restraint, discipline, self-regulation. Although, Niyama means observance, it can also considered as a form of discipline. There are five restraints and five observances; ten principles that operate on every action, word and thought.

Partaking solely in academic discussions or acting on pretense without strict adherence to Yama and Niyama is not conducive to put each principle into practice. The main object of this relentless ethical code is to eliminate completely all mental and emotional disturbances which charactize the life of an ordinary human being (Taimni). This prepares serious seekers to journey safely on the spiritual path.

At the outset, it is important to remember that morality discussed through yoga philosophy (principles) is not of the conventional type or even the ordinary religious type. Here, however, it is a transcendental morality aimed at liberating an individual from the bonds of illusion and ignorance. Consequently, the virtues expected from a seeker is of a much wider scope and has a deeper significance than what appears on the surface. Each virtue, then, has to be practiced to a higher degree of perfection. (Taimni)

Eknath Easwaran said taking “my life is a school” approach would provide numerous opportunities to experiment these priniciples. Whether it be marriage or rearing a child, graduate school or corporate life, phase of life – midlife or teenage; each provides its own challenges to practice all the ethics. This was what I needed to hear to bring the 8 limbs to life. With this attitude, obstacles became opportunities. When I did catch myself practicing any ethic, my nightly reflection was filled with gratitude. In this way, each conclusion – success or failure, charted my progress, deepened my faith in the tools and boosted my confidence to continue on the path.

Since it is difficult to find exact translations for Samskritham terms, I have included multiple meanings for each of the Yama and Niyama, in an attempt to preserve their authenticity.

Yama

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः॥२.३०॥

Ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahā yamāḥ||30||

The first limb, Yama, यम, restraint, deals with those behaviors that show respect for self and others. As we slowly begin to understand how we are all connected, we realize in caring for others we are also taking care of ourselves. Our daily choices create effects in the world that we may never know. This may be the most important reading for embarking on this path of awakening. (Charlotte Bell)

Yamas are guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry. Practicing the Yamas mechanically as commandments or simply because they are written in the sūtras does not lead to greater wisdom. (Charlotte Bell) Applying them to each context that arises in daily life and learning from the consequences of our actions furthers our inquiry and refines our practice.

Using the word restraint as Yama, may imply taking away certain privileges to be in a yogic frame of mind. On the contrary – it is so much more. I discovered that cultivating restraints is really cultivating the ability to manage my feelings – in essence – to recognize the urge to act or not act, and to stop myself from doing or saying things that are not sensible or correct.

Jack Kornfield describes the evolutionary process of practicing the precepts: “At first, precepts are a practice. Then, they become a necessity, and finally they become joy.”

यम

Restraints

अहिंसा       (Ahimsā) Non-Harming, Non-Violence, Kindness, Dynamic Peacefulness
सत्य          (Sathya) Truth, Authenticity, Sincerity, Benevolence
अस्तेय       (Astheya) Non-Stealing, Honesty, Abundance
ब्रह्मचर्य      (Brahmacharya) Moderation, Continence, Dedicated to the Divine
अपरिग्रह     (Aparigraha) Non-Hoarding, Self reliance, Renouncing, Simplicity, Generosity

For example, the first Yama is Ahimsā, non-harming.  Alice Christensen stated that Ahimsā is listed as the first discipline because the practice of the other nine ethics depended on it. According to her, when trying to practice the second ethic, Satya, truthfulness, lying to myself is a form of harming; or in the practice of the third ethic, Asteya, non-stealing, wasting my time is stealing from myself which is harming.

In Rāja Yoga, the traditional practice of Yamas is equated to taking a vow, an earnest promise of dedicated practice. Patanjali refers to it as a Great Vow, Mahavratham, in the Yoga Sutra (2:31). This implies the seriousness of accepting the responsibility of the practice of Yamas, (Niyamas too!) without the limitations of time, space, season, family, country, etc.; implying – although forgiveness is paramount when I fail, excuses are not entertained when Mahavratham, the Great Vow has been activated.

Niyama

शौचसन्तोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥२.३२॥

Śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāya-eśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ||32||

Niyama, नियम, Observances, the second limb, are those behaviors that convey positive, uplifting self actions. Charlotte Bell attributes these ethics towards conscious everyday living. She expresses how it helped her begin the process of shifting daily habits to align with what would become a lifelong commitment to yoga. As good as āsana practice made me feel, performing poses for an hour a day and stowing my mat and sleepwalking through the rest of my life was no longer an option.”

Niyama, is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self-centeredness. “How we express the niyamasvten years from now may bear killer resemblance to how our practice looks today,” assures Bell.

As long as we apply ourselves to the practice of niyamas, it helps us cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily duties and activities, and makes us rely on the tools to bring us a step closer to discovering our true selves possibly through Samādhi, spiritual bliss.

नियम

Observances

शौच                 (Shaucha) Purity, Cleanliness, Clarity
सन्तोष               (Santosha) Contentment, Peacefulness
तपस्                  (Tapas) Effort, Heat, Discipline, Sacrifice
स्वाध्याय             (Svadhyaya) Self-Study, Reflection, Introspection
ईश्वरप्रणिधान      (Ishvara Pranidhana) Surrender, Faith, Gratitude, Devotion, Higher Purpose

For example, the first Niyama is Shaucha, Purity or Cleanliness, refers to both external and internal. The external concept of Śaucha suggests a clean body through daily ablutions, clean surroundings (owned and public), fresh and clean food to purify the body. Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, negative thoughts are known toxins to body and mind. Hence, purity of speech, clarity of emotions and dusting the cobwebs of the mind is internal Śaucha.

Wisdom

It is imperative to study each ethic and the eight limbs in detail to progress towards mastery. However, struggling to cultivate them may indicate that they are not present within or perhaps the opposite qualities exist. Since the eight limbs work together as one entity, gurus suggests that while you practice āsana, observe the behavior of the body. Regardless of what posture you are doing, the whole body participates; the inner intelligence restores balance and comfort (Swāmi Venkateshānanda).

When this happens ‘self-discipline’ begins to manifest effortlessly. In other words, practice eventually becomes effortless and even unnecessary when these qualities become the ground on which we live and grow. (Bell)

Next Post: First Yama: Ahimsā – Non-harming or Dynamic Peacefulness

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Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association

Kriyananda, Swami. 2011. The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers

Venkateshānanda, Swami. 2011. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, New Delhi, India.

warm ups

The dictionary definition of warm up is the act of preparation for a game, performance, or workout, involving gentle, loosening exercises. To perform the best on the field, stage, tennis court or a yoga mat, warm ups are absolutely essential.

Many in the yoga world agree warm ups are important. But with the push of power yoga and vinyasa flow it is not truly given an honest attempt in the classroom. In the past year the few classes I attended spent less than 5 minutes on warm-ups even on cold days. A couple of times I came home with pain in my lower back, needing to relieve it with additional asanas. Recently, I had to leave a class within the first ten minutes due to severe cramping in my left calf and hamstrings since the vinyasa began immediately after a brief centering with no warm up at all.

The Huffington Post had an article on how injuries related to yoga are on the rise. Is it because classes are lacking adequate warm up? It is the responsibility of yoga teachers to make sure all students leave the class injury free.

Thirties

When I began asana practice in my early thirties, I was suffering from sports related injuries. I found relief almost instantly in my lower back – a pain that had been nagging me for years. Then, during teacher training I discovered these back relieving asanas were preceded by a set of warm ups – detailed beautifully in one of the textbooks. Without a proper warm up sequence, these asanas would not have been as effective.

Still, in the infancy of my yoga teaching career, I seemed to have completely forgotten this crucial aspect and developed a misconstrued image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher. Ignoring the tenet of non-harming (ahimsa) and feeling the need to prove that I can teach a power vinyasa class in order to get a job at a studio or a gym led to costly compromises. Obviously, I had completely overlooked Patanjali’s advice in the Yoga Sutra – 1.12, (अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः॥१.१२॥) – which I interpret here as – the practice is successful only with detachment from the ego – i.e. letting go of illusionary perfection.

With continued study of the Yoga Sutras, I was able to erase the image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher and settled into giving my best one class at a time. I have been using the warm up asanas series for the past fifteen years to help me stay pain free (most of the time) and help others manage theirs as well. Many of my students have been coming to class for over six years and have active lifestyles – playing tennis, running or biking – with asanas to support their sports. I am happy to hear them vouch that the warmup part of the class prepares them to safely enjoy a more involved vinyasa.

Forties

Don’t believe it when people say that forties is the new thirties. My body signaled that a good warm up routine couldn’t be overlooked no matter what. Especially for those who came to the class looking to me to lead them safely in asana.

Very few people can jump out of bed and land in Trikonasana perfectly. It takes patience to identify the tight areas, recognize the muscles needed to create movement so that the “stretch” can occur effectively in Triangle pose. Sadly, I have had people leave the class because the vinyasa flow did not start right away. And – I believe one must be adequately warmed up to perform Sun Salutation correctly, despite the popular opinion that it should be used as a warm up.

Certainly, senior and gentle yoga have found their respectful place in the hierarchy of asana classes. Still, the schedule seems to be filled with power vinyasa classes. The vinyasa classes are designated as beginners, intermediate, or advanced, yet there ends up being a mix of all levels – ability and age. A few come to check if they can graduate from a beginners class to an intermediate one. Some refuse to use props to transition from one pose to another safely. Then, it becomes a serious responsibility as a teacher to not only initiate an effective warm up sequence but also to provide additional variations to make sure the students leave the classroom injury free.

As a student of the eight fold path and a teacher of asana, the vow of Raja Yoga binds me to ethical principles like ahimsa, non harming (Yama/Niyama). This dictates the necessity of being the enforcer of safe, injury free classroom experience. My sincere commitment to these ethics gives me the freedom not to second guess myself when instructing each asana. These ethical principles become my intention and a foundation for an energizing and a mindful class.

In essence, it is a must that yoga teachers be taught the philosophy of Yamas and Niyamas with its application to daily life.  Again, the wisdom of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras 1:14, (स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः॥१.१४॥) irrefutably posits a measure for any practice – asana or teaching. That every teacher must practice these ethics for a long time to set a firm foundation before embarking into the world of teaching asana. The practicality of these principles will be reflected in your work as a yoga teacher and will be perceived by the students in the way you instruct them. It becomes a pleasure then to help the students understand that the warm up movements are designed to open and release the various tight spaces of the body gradually in preparation for more complex postures.

Fifties

It is an erroneous assumption that if one has been practicing asana, all your aches and pains, and diseases are cured. How can years of compromised dietary habits, sedentary lifestyle, genetic predispositon – disappear with just a weekly yoga class?

Now, in my fifties, inspite of regular asana practice, I wake up each morning quite stiff. Genetic predisposition of arthritis or process of aging – or both? Don’t expect me to touch my toes without warming up the hips, hamstrings, knees and lower back. Still, it is because of the ‘right’ warm-up asanas with props each morning that I am able to bend safely – to get down to my toes.

Recently, I began warming up at home before I teach a class, and then some more with my students – especially if I have to teach an early morning class. While some are blessed with flexibility and strength, others clearly aren’t. For those who aren’t, warm up asanas provide a sure way to initiate movements with care and confidence.

I realized that cutting down on warm ups to accommodate ‘difficult’ poses – whether to remove the boredom factor or to prove to my ego that I can still teach like other teachers is completely futile. Asana done correctly is not a competition, even with myself. Each of us needs to honor our bodies by acknowledging the aging process. Adjusting our asana practices with proper warm up, keeping in mind aging and other health related changes is simply a logical choice. A big part of mastery in practicing asana lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch. Priority is to learn how to stay injury free so I can keep myself and my students practicing asanas safely well into our seventies.

It is a fact that the muscles are continually loosing their elasticity, joints will begin to creak – the body is aging even though the mind stubbornly ignores it. Have you noticed your body getting stiff due to lack of movement – especially after a long flight or six to seven hours of sleep, no matter your age? Gentle, loosening exercises called warm up is where you should begin.

Warming up for yoga-asana is called काय, Kāya or शरीर सञ्चलन, Śarīra Sunchalun. 

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The YogaSutra

There are people who say that most texts – scripture or academic can be a tedious read. While some knowledge can be gained from studying these texts and their various interpretations, they realize that ‘true’ understanding is largely intuitive – a continuous outpouring of ‘aha’ moments. Others while enquiring about the phase of life you are in might be implying that empty nesters can happily dedicate more time to texts of all sorts – even the Yoga Sutra, while a mother of three is finding her moment of joy between the pages of Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web or Harry Potter.

I was introduced to the Yoga Sutra in 2002 in one of the intermediate classes at YogaLife Institute. I looked through the book that was needed for the 8 week session and put it back on the shelf, obviously not ready to give up Goodnight Moon. Life had the upper hand – toddler and parents in the house – family and work – different priorities. In 2004, I read only the prescribed sections needed for teacher training using 3 different commentaries, grasping mostly the superficial meaning and an occasional deeper significance.

In 2007, I bought another book – or two in an attempt to restart when I realized that I did not how to study the text. It is only in the last few years that I have returned to study the sutras more patiently while staying alert for unexpected insights in my daily practice.

The Student

Although the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is one among many yogic texts, it is the one frequently referred to by yoga practitioners all over the world. It is an extraordinary treatise which outlines a royal path for self-transformation by addressing the physical, mental, emotional facets while spiritualizing the human existence. I am realizing what I learn on the way down to my toes is more important than just touching my toes.

For example – how many times do you think of surrendering your ego as you drop your head down to touch your toes? The Yoga Sutra is teaching me to separate the action and the sense of doer-ship (second chapter). Of course, it is difficult to separate the ego from the action, but noticing the presence of the ego in each action has been a great learning experience for me.

Or – when your arms reach over your head in sun salute, the joy you feel at the glimpse of the infinite sky is just a morsel of what is to come when you realize the crux of yoga in Samadhi (first chapter). I presumed to have experienced a tiniest morsel of this joy on my yoga mat. In any case, the author clearly states that yoga is not about poses, asana, and then proceeds to lay down the dos’ and don’ts of Abhyasa, yoga-practice in preparation to infinitely multiply this joy

The Author

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, was authored by Patañjali, पतञ्जलि, who is also credited with writing other texts on Ayurveda and Samskritham. Essentially, nothing of any degree of historical certainty is known about the author (Feuerstein). It is unclear whether Patañjali was an individual or merely a name forged to represent several people living in different periods of time. It appears there were several authors known as Patañjali which was just a family surname according to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Aranya & Mukerji).

Patañjali, also a compound word, has been explained by Sanskrit scholars in a few different ways. Leaving the literary paradox for the scholars to decode, here is a popular version that makes him a person. The name, Patañjali comes from a legend surrounding his birth. The story claims that Adhishesha, the divine serpent fell (पत् –puthinto the folded hands (अञ्जलि, Anjali) of a pious woman who had prayed long and hard for a child. Her prayers were answered. She raised this child who is portrayed as a person with the head of a snake and body of a man, who grew up to be Patañjali, पतञ्जलि(पत् +अञ्जलि), the author of this wonderful yogic text, the YogaSutra.

The Text

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, contains 196 Sutras, aphorisms. Sutra, सूत्रmeans thread, that connects each of 196 aphorisms. It was structured this way to make it easy for students to memorize the least amount of material in a time where there was no concept of books (Prabhavananda & Isherwood).

The YogaSutra,योगसूत्र, may have been compiled sometime around 350 CE or even as early as 3000 BCE. Now, as we study together we weave this thread and connect our practices to carry this ancient wisdom through time.

Sutras are composed of few words – meant to provide in a very condensed form all essential knowledge for an advanced student of yoga and not to serve as an introduction for a beginner who has yet to learn the abc’s of this subject (Taimni). Each sutra, सूत्र is rich with meaning and depth, even the most ‘advanced student’ can continue to gain new insights after years of study.

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is also referred to as Raja Yoga. The text outlines eight limbs, Ashtanga, for self-realization. The confusion regarding Raja and Ashtanga being a type or a style of yoga is dealt with in other posts. Barbara Stoler Miller says “Yoga Sutra is not a sacred scripture but a set of philosophical analyses that probe timeless dilemmas of cognition and obstacles to spiritual tranquility.”

The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, is not a religious sermon like the Vedas, the Bible or the Koran. The text contains no creed or rituals, verses nor hymns. Although it appears that yoga is a part to Hinduism (Sanathana Dharma), it is actually found in the Sankhya philosophy and can stand on its own without the dogma of religion. Yoga psychology is based on the Sankhya system of philosophy; i.e., you arrive at the truth by calculation, experimentation and careful reflection through the study of YogaSutra.

Despite arising amidst the most religious of all cultures, there is no direct reference to a divine incarnation or goddesses such as Krishna or Durga in the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र. Still, the word Ishvara, ईश्वर, accessible through chanting OM – is mentioned in the first chapter. (YS 1:25-27). What this word actually signifies in Patañjali’s use may be contentious even though some translations allude to a formless Universal Spirit.

Patañjali also mentions the word, Purusha, पुरुषः, (similar to Atman, आत्मन् in Vedanta/Upanishads) possibly with an intention to indicate the presence of the universal sentient being – separate but identical – within each of us (Prabhavananda & Isherwood). Hence, the belief in multiple Purushas. Ishvara, then is a superior Purusha who remains untouched by afflictions, action, fruits of action and seeds of Karma (Satyananda Saraswati).

The Chapters – Four Padas, पादाः

Samadhi Pada  समाधि पाद :      51 Sutras

  • The first chapter provides a definition of Ishvara, alluded to as a universal Absolute and the purpose of Ahbyasa, practice with detachment, Vairagya.
  • According to Sankhya Darshana, there are many Purushas and Ishvara is the superior of them all (1:24, Satyananda Saraswati).
  • Patañjali focuses on cognitive dynamics, thought modifications, and their relationship to the sense of self, the ego. (Mishra)
  • He also characterizes yoga as surrender. It is the letting go of all doing that allows yoga to reveal itself in a state of cognitive absorption called Samadhi.
  • Samadhi is the main technique the yogis learn in order to dive into the depths of the mind to achieve true freedom, Kaivalya.
  • Many levels of Samadhi are described. By repeatedly diving deeper into Samadhi, the yogis emphasize cognitive deconstruction and eradication of the ego.
  • Here, Patañjali is presenting yoga as an deep awareness state.

Sadhana Pada    साधन पाद :         55 Sutras

  • The first part analyzes the dynamics of identification of self in Kleshas, hindrances of the mind. This is linked to cognitive dynamics by way of the suffering they cause. (Mishra)
  • Patañjali presents yoga as Abhyasa, repeated practice of techniques until one is completely habituated with them, and at once detached from them (Vairagya)
  • The second part contains the practical approach to achieving the goals of yoga. Here, two forms of Yoga are outlined: Kriya Yoga (Yoga of Action) and Raja  Yoga, Ashtanga, an Eightfold systematic approach, providing a map to the inner world. (Yogananda)
  • This section explains the five ‘external’ limbs, (बहिरङ्ग  -Bahiranga) of yoga with exercises in physical, mental, emotional and moral concepts in order to increase inner-self awareness.
  • Patañjali insists that Abhyasa, practice is deep and liberating leading to the process of reflection.
  • Here, he calls perseverance of this practice – Sadhana.

 Vibhuti Pada    विभूति पाद :    56 Sutras

  • Although this chapter is named Vibhuti Pada, this is word is not used again through out this portion of the text. (Feuerstein)
  • The first part of this third chapter deals with the three ‘internal’ practices (अन्तरङ्ग – Antaranga) of the Eight-Fold Path
  • Practice of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi is referred to as संयम:, Sumyamaha, and is a tool of achieving various perfections, Siddhis. (Taimni)
  • The second part focuses on Siddhis, supernatural powers of an adept yogi.
  • Patañjali explores the depths and subtleties of the meditative mind through Siddhis.
  • Here, yogis warn us that Siddhis are distractions (you can get lost in the maze of supernatural powers) or with discernment view them as milestones on the path. (Satchitananda)

Kaivalya Pada    कैवल्य पाद :   34 Sutras

  • Patañjali delivers a wonderful concluding chapter, summarizing the nature of consciousness and its implications on human experience, Karma.
  • He describes Kaivalya as perfect isolation or fulfilling freedom – the final fruit of yoga within which no sense of ego-self remains.
  • This chapter describes the process to the liberation of the ego and promises the attainment of the highest freedom when we bravely go beyond kleshas (hindrances) and karma-samskaras (action-reaction); i.e. deliverance from earthly bondage. (Satyananda Saraswati)
  • We arrive at a state of consciousness that is natural and wholesome, induced with pure, non-dual awareness – without prejudice and finite constraints.
  • Here, Patañjali also presents Kaivlaya, as perfect detachment – the yogis’ most sought out state of true freedom.

The Study

Traditionally, a Guru is responsible to elaborate each sutra after the student has mastered preliminary practices. Today, the Yoga Sutra is best learned from an Acharyaa, आचार्या – “the one who walks the path and leads by example”; an experienced teacher who can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in this text as every word has clear meanings and expansive connotations. He or she, will also point out that the concepts expounded in the Yoga Sutra, योगसूत्र, cannot be understood through the intellect alone.

In essence, the YogaSutra is a reference guide that inspires me to practice everyday and encourages me to trust the inner language that unfolds during my asana and pranayama practice. So far, it has been an amazing study.

Next post – how to study the योगसूत्र, Yoga Sutra.

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Further Reading

http://www.swamij.com/yoga-sutras-intro.htm

Aranya Hariharananda, Swami; Mukerji, P.N. 1963.Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. (Reprinted in 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sutras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York

Prabhavananda, Swami; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Ramakrishna Mission  Press, Mylapore, India.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.

Saraswati Satyananda, Swami. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India

Taimni, I.K., 1961. The Science of Yoga. The Ind-Com Press, Chennai, India

Iyengar, B.K.S.2013. Core of Yoga Sutras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins India

Satchitananda, Swami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.

Yogananda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Swami. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sutras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA

Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sutra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada

lessons in yoga-abhyasa

“We are what we repeatedly do; Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle 

Ready, Mat, Go

Asana as just an exercise is called Vyayama. This is where we all begin. So where is your yoga mat? Is it tucked away under your bed or in the corner of your hallway closet? Are you hitting the snooze button every morning instead of getting up for your practice? Are you scheduling meetings or work events at the same time you were hoping to take your own class? If the answer is yes to even one, you are not alone.

We all have good intentions to begin yoga-asana as exercise. Life happens. But, if we persist, Vyayama will lead to us to Ahbyasa. 

Abhyasa

For me, Abhyasa, yoga practice, clearly refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga- the path I was initiated into.

It is very easy to leave the theory of Raja Yoga between the pages of yoga texts. The only way to bring them to life is to practice them; disciplines that must be experimented consistently to gain deeper insights. Being able to study at YogaLife Institute with my teacher, Bob for 10 years and sharing in the yoga companionship of other teachers was a blessing.

My Abhyasa had its hiccups at first, but eventually found its rhythm. Every time I felt my practice had settled, something would happen (sickness, vacations, injuries, moving) to unsettle it. In any case, it is confession time to share the lessons learned.

Lesson 1 – Ego

At the infancy of my Abhyasa, I remember being so pleased at accomplishing 5 rounds of Surya Namaskar, sun salutations, that my whole body would swell with pride. When someone commented on my alignment in Virabhadrasana 1 or 2, Warrior pose, I beamed with pride again. When my eyes rested on a peer at the yoga studio, I remember thinking that my pose looked better than hers possibly with a sense of competition. When a different or new instructor came to teach the class, I compared her to my ‘regular’ teacher and dared to criticize her style for not fitting my personality. Now, I smile at my ignorance and recall the consequences of such pride-filled thoughts either through injuries or being humbled by teachers.

I have a long way to go before I can claim eradication of the ego in all thoughts and actions. I am fervently hoping that this practice can alert me when the hood of an ego-thought rises so I can catch it before its venous response is released to the world.

Lesson 2 – Mind

Abhyasa made me realize that my mind was constantly a critic, on and off the mat. It always seemed have an upper hand. I remember talking incessantly about yoga as if I were the designated spokesperson. It was I who was creating the busyness and depleting my energy. The quality of thoughts dictated my state of mind and the quantity determined whether I could ‘turn off’ the busyness on the mat.

It took me a long time to realize that it was the mind that controlled the outcome of my mat practice. When I anchored the mind to the breath and directed it to follow the movement, I began to notice a certain quiet in my body as well as settling of the thoughts. So, mat practice I discovered – is not just about body sculpting, it is about training the mind through asana.

Lesson 3 – Honoring the body

There are reasons some asanas are categorized as advanced. Watching some teachers and peers moving skillfully into positions that I could only dream of was annoying. You guessed right – I attempted them anyway, and paid the price – rehabilitation and forced reflection.

After going through repeated study of the first ethic, ahimsa, non-harming, eliminating the competitive attitude during mat practice became easier. I realized only when I am injury free, I can be of service. I had to consciously train myself to restrain and observe my body; muscles, joints, organs, breath, and the mind as they moved in each asana. Now, I remind myself each day to pause with reverence and send pure love to each part thanking them for their daily adeptness.

Lesson 4 – Forgiveness

Reminding myself to use the 8 fold path in thought, word and action is not simple. In fact, it is downright frustrating, and at times tantrum worthy. But, it is a practice that I have chosen to pursue. My failures – succumbing to laziness or participating in gossip, losing patience in the grocery line or lose it with my child. Blaming the other guy or the hormones did not work. Only with forgiveness I was be able to return to Raja Yoga practice.

Of course, I cannot control how others perceive my words or actions. But working to purify my intentions and motives is a primary part of my Abhyasa. In time, with my motives purified – I will not have to worry about the outcome of any interaction. I’m learning to define ‘progress’- one day, one mat practice, one interaction at a time.

Lesson 5 – Awareness

Before yoga, I was acting on the strongest impulse and reacting to the slightest provocation. I was acting without awareness and was a slave to the mind. To be established in awareness through yoga means to attend to all aspects of my being – body, mind, breath, emotions and the inner Self. It took me years to understand what that meant – to watch my actions, words and thought without a conflict. A very difficult practice.

Bringing awareness to the body helps me to release the pain and discomfort by just guiding my attention to it. And, awareness with gratitude brings a feeling of calmness. Awareness during the practice of ‘silence’ means not ask a question in response to a thought. If I do, I’m in for a long chat. The secret then, is to just watch everything that is going on in the body and mind without judgment. Training myself to be a detached observer – a silent witness.

Lesson 6 – Breath

Initially, it was a struggle to breathe; with tightness in my chest in certain poses and definitely during an emotional outburst. The muscles responsible for the act of breathing were so knotted that it took a lot of asana practice to release. In class, I was repeatedly told that awareness of breath induces an inner calm and urges the muscles to release. It also establishes you in the present moment. It is finally sinking in.

My teacher, Bob told me that the best way I can find the connection between breath and action is to become aware of how the small choices I make each day affects me, my family and friends, my community, – and  by extension- the world. Again, not easy at all – but great advice, nonetheless. Consciously relying on the breath is definitely helping settle my thoughts. It is urging me to indulge in loving actions – one breath at a time.

Moving towards Sadhana

Abhyasa after tedious efforts brought forth joy in the asana practice. Slowly, I began to hear the whisperings of the inner language of the asanas on the mat. Sometimes my heart filled with joy for unexplainable reasons. I am slowly being guided to elevate the asana practice from ego level of vanity, intolerance and impatience to a higher level of humility, compassion, and acceptance.

Yet, documenting my “progress” on and off the mat is a joke. The moment I think that I am close to mastery I fall off the ladder and it is uphill again. Of course, failure is hard to swallow. But my faith in the 8 fold path has prevented me from quitting and is inspiring me to become a seeker.

Yoga class on Wednesday and Friday mornings doesn’t cut it especially after being initiated into Raja Yoga. Because,the disciplines outlined on that path have to be practiced daily in order for them to be internalized. Therefore, starting the practice at the sound of the alarm is absolutely required and expected of a serious student-seeker. Patanjali calls this dedication – a Great Vow, Mahavratham.

Abhyasa then, is a start towards becoming a spiritual seeker; one who follows a path of purification – in order to discover the Higher Truth. Abhyasa done with reverence and gratitude matures into Sadhana. Going deeper in Sadhana means one has to act with a sense of non-doership by accepting the inner teacher’s guidance unequivocally. 

Yogis assure us that once our Abhyasa crosses over to the realms of Sadhana, we are in different territory. No one can stop us from going all the way to discover the Highest Truth. One day I hope to find myself in that realm. Of course, it begins with me – showing up each day – on the yoga mat.

Sharing the Practice

The days I get to share my practice as a teacher is humbling. I try to remember that everyone who walks into the classroom is dealing with ‘things’. Perhaps the yoga mat represents for them the same sacred space it represents for me. Our collective Abhyasa – each of us in our own sacred space, is sincere and heartwarming. I am honored to practice together and share everyone’s deepest desire to find their original goodness – to be the best we can be when we step off the mat. I am only just beginning to like the person I am becoming after each practice.

Gurus promise that the yogic disciplines not only improve health and well-being, but also prescribe a definite way to uncover the Spirit. We just have to be ready for a long, hard journey to travel from the surface of the mind into the depth of our consciousness.

“Strive to be calmly active and actively calm. Never compare your journey with someone else’s. Your journey is yours alone, and not a competition. ” Paramahamsa  Yogananda

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choosing your yoga path(s)

Truth is One; paths are many. – Rig Veda

My family loves exercise and sports. Growing up, my brother and I were introduced to tennis and table tennis by my father who was an avid player. While early morning walks was my mother’s exercise, she supported his love for the sport by regularly driving us to our practices amidst her busy schedule. Trying her hand at table tennis, she got quite good to make our family game nights in our garage a roaring success. While volley ball, track and field were the other choices, yoga-asana was not one of them.

Decades later, I went to YogaLife Institute, in Devon, PA for a yoga class and was introduced to Classical or Raja Yoga. I had not frequented many studios or tried different styles. The choice fell into my lap and I did not find the need to question it at that point. Once my practice was established in Raja Yoga, I did experiment with other styles.

The act of choosing a yoga path – of choosing one of the oldest exercise systems – is not an easy task. It takes patience, perseverance and practice to find a yoga path that suits you. The differences between types of yoga which includes asana – postures within its practices, and styles of yoga where the main focus appears to be the way asanas are taught – are elaborated in the two previous posts to help with your choice.

How does one make the right choice? How many yoga -(asana) studios are listed in your hometown? How many gyms have recently added yoga – (asana) to their exercise schedule? Probably a lot. Seeing an array of classes – restorative to vinyasa flow, can make the choice confusing and frustrating as these classes are taught by instructors who have been trained from various lineages and styles.

When you bounce from style to style with no commitment it is hard to improve and perfect what you learn. For instance, you’ve probably heard an instructor give specific alignment cues only to attend another class with a different instructor completely contradict what you heard a week ago. Each instructor has his or her own approach to teaching. Gaining exposure to different teachers, types and styles is a way of discovering what agrees with you – in the beginning. But be wary of getting lost in the variety and using it as a diversion.

No matter which style of asana practice you choose, without the tenets such as non-harming, ahimsa, or contentment, santosha of yoga philosophy, you may not observe change in your attitude or in your lifestyle. However, choosing the type of yoga such as Raja Yoga (8-fold path) which is inclusive of philosophy and asana, will effect a change in your body via asana, (3rd limb) and in your mind via the other six limbs.

Of course, choosing a yoga path is a very personal decision. Different philosophies, though similar, have a varying appeal to different people. Spending time with each philosophy, and ideally, with the teacher or diciples of the teacher, to help decide which teachings feel best for you is a necessity.

There are many wonderful paths, many true teachers; but one teaching will tend to draw you, will inspire you to get more involved, and to make a commitment. The root cause of all our sorrows and sufferings is loss of contact with our true Self according to Swami Adhisvarananda. Yoga philosophy prescribes four spiritual paths to attain this Self-knowledge: karma-yoga, path of selfless action; bhakti-yoga, path of devotion; raja-yoga, path of meditation; and jnana-yoga, path of knowledge.

In the text, Yoga Sutras, Swami Satyananda Saraswati noted that Patanjali clearly understood the presence of four categories within the human personality: emotional, active, intuitive and volitional. Each person has a different temperament and inclination according to the predominance of one or more of these categories. Meaning that the yoga path had to be decided to suit the specific characteristics of an individual.

Swami Adishvarananda says that each seeker is called to decide which type of yoga best corresponds to his or her natural disposition. Karma Yoga is advised for the active, Bhakthi yoga for the devotional, Raja yoga for the strong-willed and Jnana Yoga for the rational. It’s best to ask for guidance from an illumined teacher who is able to advise which path a seeker is to follow and prescribe the specific practices suitable for his or her natural disposition.

My disposition: I’m active, devotional, strong-willed  and somewhat rational. My primary practice should follow the path of my strongest disposition (strong-willed) and use other types to supplement it. Right? Is this a contradiction to choosing only one yoga path? Not at all. I started with Raja (Classical) Yoga and added Kriya Yoga a few years later which also uses the 8 fold path at the core of its practice.

The instructions for yoga given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras is not confined only to the eight fold path. Swami Satyananada Saraswati clearly points to the hidden implication behind many obscure verses; Mantra or Japa yoga is clearly indicated in the sutras 1:27-29, bhakti in 1:23, 2:23, jnana in 1:27-29, 2:20-21, karma in 1:30-32 and raja in the entire text.

Of course, each seeker may uncover something for themselves as well. For example, the 5th Niyama of the 2nd limb of Raja Yoga, is Ishvara Pranidhana, which implies surrender (ego) to the Self. To surrender the ego, you must have unconditional love of the practices, fierce dedication to attaining the Self, Ishvara. I see this unconditional love as Bhakti yoga amidst Raja Yoga practices. As a part of this surrender, I also practice Mantra (Japa) yoga, Kirthan, soulful singing and some Puja, worship as it fits perfectly with Raja/Kriya Yoga practices.

The 4th Niyama is Svadhyaya, study of the Self. In this study, you are unveiling the layers of Maya, delusion and Avidya, ignorance, in order to uncover the true Self. Jnana Yoga is the study of understanding the presence of this ignorance and process of unveiling the delusion.

The knowledge thence uncovered will help us understand that we operate in this world using lower knowledge to achieve material desires and instant gratification. The yogic disciplines help to overcome egotistical desires to realize who we really are. In essence, Svadhyaya and Jnana Yoga can be sister practices.

Swami Adhisvarananda states that the goal of the four yogas is essentially the same – Self-Realization. “Exclusive practice of any of the four yogas is difficult. Although each of them have been presented as an independent path to the Divine, the four are interconnected. When one of the four yogas leads the way, the other three remain in the background.”

The beauty of yoga is that you can dip as far as you like in the sea of practices and still receive wonderful benefits. Not only will you feel great at the end of each class, but over a period of time other aspects of your life will begin to change for the better. Of course, the deeper you go and the more disciplined your practice, the more profound the changes.

Finally, when we settle into our chosen practice, it is not just our physical (ego) self that evolves. Gurus want us to notice that – our Spiritual Self – will slowly begin to reveal itself in subtle ways. When this happens – when we become aware of a quiet presence – an inner teacher; this is when practice really begins to create transformation within our individual selves.

Ultimately, there is no contradiction once you have chosen your path(s), found your teacher and owned your practice.

Choose your path. Begin. The right time is – Now.

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Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

Saraswati Satyananda, Swami.1976. Four Chapters to Freedom – Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India

types/paths to yoga

Teachers from various lineages have contributed to the evolution of yoga that is practiced in the West over the past hundred years. Here is an attempt to outline the paths to help you make your choice. The word ‘yoga’ was explained in the post ‘what is yoga’ . Now, lets define the words type and style before relating it to ‘yoga’.

Types versus Styles

Frequently, the words type and style are used interchangeably. This gets confusing for students who are sincerely trying to choose one in an effort to deepen their practice. Defining these words will help to clarify the meaning and intent of using them accurately.

Type indicates a category of people or things having a common set of characteristics or practices. According to Swami Adishwaranandayoga darshana, yoga philosophy prescribes four main paths to attain the knowledge of the Self through yoga, spiritual  union. Here,the words paths and types are used alternatively. For example, Rāja Yoga is a type of yoga, or a path that outlines the practices a student of yoga can follow.

Style implies a manner of doing something; designated with a particular name, description, or indicating title to a person or thing symbolizing exemplary practices. For example, Iyengar Yoga is a style of yoga, named after B.K.S. Iyengar. Although his basic teachings align to Rāja Yoga, here the practices have been taught a certain way by Mr. Iyengar and hence the style is named after him. (styles – another post)

the four main paths to yoga, spiritual union

Karma yoga            

Spiritual Union through action/selfless service

  • कर्म योग, the “discipline of action/service”is achieving ‘union’ by perfecting action through selfless service.
  • Karma is derived from Sanskrit kri, meaning ‘to do’. In its most basic sense karma simply means action, and yoga means union.
  • In Yoga philosophy the word karma means both action and the effects of action; i.e. the law of cause and effect. Karma yoga is described as a way of thinking and acting in accordance with one’s duty (dharma) without egotistical desires, likes or dislikes and without being attached to the fruits of one’s deeds .

Jnana/Gnyana yoga            

Spiritual Union through realized knowledge

  • ज्ञान योग is union through the path of ‘realized’ knowledge.
  • Knowledge used to achieve material desires is lower knowledge or ignorance, Avidya.
  • The knowledge that helps to overcome egotiscal desires to realize who we really are is true knowledge.
  • The veil of maya delusion, prevents us from knowing our real nature and the nature of the world around us.  Jnana yoga is the process of lifting this veil.

Bhakthi yoga          

Spiritual Union through devotion/surrender

  • भक्ति योग is spiritual union through the path of love, unquestioning faith and surrender (of ego).
  • Bhakthi is love for love’s sake without expectations or fear. It is the easiest way for the layman to realize spiritual union as it doesn’t involve extensive yogic practices.
  • The term Bhakthi comes from the root ‘Bhaj’, which means ‘to be attached to God’.

Rāja yoga

Spiritual Union through the Royal Path of self-control and meditation

  • राज योग Rāja yoga was first described as an Eightfold or Eight-limbed (aṣṭānga, ashtanga) path in the text Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali.
  • Also known as Classical (Paarampariya पारम्परीय) Yoga or Classical Aṣṭānga yoga. 
  • The term Rāja Yoga is a term introduced in the 15th-century text Hata Yoga Pradipika and popularized by Swami Vivekananda in order to distinguish it from the school of Hata Yoga expounded by Yogi Swatmarama
  • It is a complete path with clear guidelines, and encourages learning by way of discipline, experimentation and reflection.
  • As we pursue Rāja Yoga thoroughly, we will discover that it is inclusive of the above paths within its Eight- Fold Path.

Frequently asked question – what is the difference between Hata Yoga and the four main types?

Hata yoga  – Yoga of physical movement/force

  • Note: The popular word “hatha” is actually  pronounced as “haṭa” or “hua“in Samskritham.
  • हठयोग haṭayoga, or haṭa vidya (हठविद्या), is a system of yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, a sage of 15th century India, compiler of the Haṭa Yoga Pradipika.
  • Sanskrit term haṭa हठ, refers to the use of persistence or force; haṭayoga is translated by the Monier-Williams dictionary as “a kind of forced yoga or abstract meditation (forcing the mind to withdraw from external objects)
  • This is based on asana, pranayama and shatkarma, cleansing practices – is a preparatory stage of physical purification for higher meditation. This must be followed by practices listed in Rāja Yoga.

Kriya Yoga

Kriya Yoga (क्रिया योग) is a comprehensive spiritual path based on the 8-fold path and specific Kriya  pranayama techniques. This ancient system was revived by Mahavatar Babaji through his disciple Lahiri Mahasaya.

Kriya Yoga was brought to the west in 1920 by Paramahamsa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi.

The Kriya yoga system consists of a number of levels of pranayama, breathing practices, mantra, chants, and mudra, energy seals intended to rapidly accelerate spiritual evolution and evoke profound tranquility and spiritual union. There are similarities to the pranayama taught in Rāja Yoga. 

A few other paths to yoga.

  1. Kundalini yoga              yoga through energy awareness

कुण्डलिनी योग, Kundalini yoga is a combination of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines focussing on the expansion of sensory awareness to achieve Spiritual Union. Kundalini is untapped energy, prana at the base of the spine that can be drawn up through the body awakening each of the seven chakras, energy centers

Each Kundalini asana series is done with a specific breathing technique that intensifies the effects of the poses with the purpose of freeing energy in the lower body and allowing it to move upwards.

Kundalini energy is often represented as a snake coiled at the bottom of the spine at the first, Muladhara Chakra. Spiritual Union happens when this energy reaches the crown, Sahasrara Chakra at the top of the head.

2. Tanthra yoga          yoga through rituals 

तन्त्र, Tanthra means theory, system, series of the spiritual disciplines based on power (shakti), as the Divine Mother. Tanthra scriptures are usually presented as a dialogue between Shiva and Shakti explaining the divine play of Shakti, feminine energy and Shiva, male energy.

Most misunderstood of all the paths, Tanthra Yoga is about using ritualistic forms of worship to experience what is sacred and to liberate the practitioner from ignorance and rebirth. Although sex is a part of it, it is not the whole of it since this path aims to find the sacredness in the act of procreation.

Tantra Yogis must possess purity, humility, devotion, dedication to the Guru, and truthfulness among other qualities to attain spiritual union.

3. Manthra yoga         yoga through vibration of chants

A मन्त्र manthra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of “creating spiritual transformation”.

Simply, a manthra is a sound vibration. The word “manthram” is a Samskritham word consisting of two syllables: “mun” (mind) and “thra” (deliverance). In the strictest sense, a mantra is pure sound vibration that delivers the mind from its material inclinations and illusion. 

Chanting is the process of repeating a manthra. This act of silently (Japa) chanting mantras and merging with the vibration is Manthra Meditation. 

4.    Nāda Yoga        yoga through sound 

नादयोग, Nada yoga  is based on the premise that the entire cosmos including human beings, is made of sound vibrations called nāda. This system promotes that sound and music are something more than sources of pleasure.

Nāda Yoga divides music into internal music, anahahta, and external music, ahatha.

Ahatha music made by external objects is conveyed to the hearing consciousness via the ears. Here, mechanical energy is converted to electrochemical energy and transported to the brain where the sensations of sound is translated to music.

Anahatha music is defined as the unstuck sound, which is heard in the heart chakra, – not by the way of a sensory organ.The anahatha concept implies listening for one’s own sound vibrations. This inner sound is sacred and will open the chakras, energy centers, creating yoga, spiritual union.

And finally ….

There are other misconceptions about yoga, for instance – if yoga is a religion. Mostly, yoga is a system of disciplines/tools to spiritualize daily living. Currently, yoga is being practiced by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and others.

Hopefully the above information is helpful to make your choice of a ‘yoga path’ less confusing. It is also important to trust yourself, trust your teacher and know that although there are different paths to attain yoga, dedicated practice is imperative.

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Adishvaranada, Swami.2006. The Four Yogas – A Guide to the Spiritual Paths of Action, Devotion, Meditation and Knowledge. Skylight Paths Publishing, VT

Easwaran, Eknath. The Mantram Handbook. Nilgiri Press. Blue Mountain Meditation Center, CA.

 

last 3 limbs of raja yoga

Writing the introduction to Rāja Yoga and its first 5 limbs made me realize how difficult it is to write about spiritual practices. But it was a wonderful exercise in discovering what I have understood in order to convey the essence to you. At this stage, learning continues to be an intense study, with frequent challenges and rare aha moments, propelled by vacillating effort. I have to believe that each limb prepares me for the next and brings me one step closer to the most sought after state of everlasting calmness and Bliss.

The last 3 limbs – a deceptive phrase suggesting that we are on the home stretch to destination, Rāja Yoga, royal union. I am certainly not implying that at the end of this read you will know exactly how to get from Asana to Bliss in eight steps. Hopefully, you’ll find inspiration within these paragraphs to join me on this quest.

Paramahamsa Yogananda taught Rāja Yoga, – but the limbs 5- 8 may be referred to as Kriya Yoga. Traditionally, the first 5 limbs are referred to as the external limbs, Bahiranga Sadhana, which are practiced simultaneously to prepare the body and breath for the next phase of practice. The last three limbs, referred to as the internal limbs, Anataranga Sadhana, are practices to silence the vrittis, thoughts, which must be practiced sequentially. 

I’ve learnt that in the ancient gurukulas, when personal attitudes, habits and daily practices are streamlined (yama and niyama), a comfortable seated position (asana) and a slow deep breath (pranayama) are obtained, only then one is introduced to Anataranga Sadhana, internal limbs. However, that’s not the case in today’s world. It has become a practice to begin yoga with asana, poses or meditation, but it is essential to add the complete study of the 8 limbs for spiritual progress.

Last 3 Limbs of Raja Yoga

Dhaarana धारणा Concentration, Focussed Attention, Single-mindedness
Dhyana ध्यान Meditative State
Samadhi समाधि Spiritual Union, Self- Realization, Liberation, Oneness, Ever-New Bliss

Dharana

The sixth limb, Dhaarana, power of concentration, begins when we become somewhat successful in channelling our awareness inward. Now, we begin dealing with the distractions of the mind. This practice too, is not easy. However, when the mind is able to draw inward consistently, Dhaarana, is used to train the mind to concentrate on a single object, usually the breath, a chosen deity or mantram.  The purpose of Dhaarana is to create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction only, instead of going out in different directions.

According to Gurudev, I have already begun to develop my powers of concentration in the previous three stages – asana, posture, Pranayama, breath control, and Pratyahara, training of the senses. When practicing asana my attention juggles between movement and stillness, but in pranayama, I am becoming aware that my attention is sustained for short periods during a specific breathing technique. In the practice of concentration, I am learning how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object: my breath or silent repetition of a spiritual sound, mantram.

The purpose of the object is to stop the mind from wandering through memories, dreams, or reflective thought. An arbitrary selection to focus the attention upon some static object creates boredom leading to inconsistency or giving up of the practice altogether. Selection of an appropriate object for concentration is a serious process, one that requires your effort as well as guidance from a spiritual teacher.

For example, I was inclined towards choosing a mantram as an object of concentration for Dhaarana. According to Eknath Easwaran, the author of The Mantram Handbook, a mantram is a spiritual formula, when invoked has the ability to calm, heal and develop divine attributes. Let’s assume I chose the mantram, ‘Krishna’, which means the Lord of Love, among other meanings. This formula helps to achieve the mental state of pure love where the mind, intellect, and ego are purified and offered to the Lord for His use and in His service without the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. Keeping the mind focused, and at the same time, releasing attachment to ‘I’ thoughts is extremely challenging. Selection of an object of concentration that can bring about such transformation, therefore, requires some serious forethought, and must be chosen with a sense of reverence, surrender and gratitude.

Dhyana

Yogis declare when one obtains the ability to concentrate the mind on a single object to the point of being completely absorbed in it, then one has moved into the 7th limb – Dhyana, meditation, uninterrupted flow of concentration. The attitude of effort is evident in the previous limbs, however, in Dhyana, the state of meditative mind happens when these previous limbs have been mastered. Yogis call this effortless effort.

An ancient yogic analogy: Dharana, concentration is compared to a dripping faucet where the space between each drip is the time when the concentration peaks – which can be short or long based on the rate of dripping. Then, visualize concentration as a continuous flow without breaks just as the flow of oil being poured without drips. This is Dhyana, the seventh limb, the meditative state of mind.

Recently, I was speaking with someone who had been referred for yoga. Over the phone, I gathered that his doctor had prescribed yoga and meditation along with medication to deal with poor health, stress and anxiety in his life. I asked him to come in for a consult and an asana class to find out more. He kept repeating the question, “what techniques of breathing and meditation can you teach me?” I explained to him that I needed more information about his health, personality and lifestyle to make the right suggestions. Then he asked how long would it take to notice improvement. It is difficult for me to answer these questions at an instant, without having met in person.

Watching closely how my practice has progressed and morphed over the years of studying and practicing Rāja Yoga, my answer is – a few years to say the least. Best guess – he was not looking for this answer. Of course, I did not want to scare him off by giving this answer. The only reason I mention this is to highlight the fact that meditation, Dhyana is the seventh limb of Rāja Yoga; meaning it is preceded by six important, preliminary limbs that are absolutely necessary to prepare the body, breath and mind to achieve a meditative state.

Samadhi

It is said that when the mind is completely absorbed in Dhyana, thoughts cease and the mind stills. Although the dictionary defines meditation as awareness, stillness, reflection, contemplation, absorption – many descriptions; its best to begin practicing the yogic techniques and directly experience this stillness. This stillness is alluded to as the meditative state of mind, and when sustained, leads us to the last limb, Samadhithe ultimate state of yoga, blissful union.

In Samadhi, Paramahamsa Yogananda and other yogis guarantee that one sees pure awareness reflected on the still surface of the mind. Enlightenment, Self-Realization, Union, Liberation, Superconsciousness and Ever-New Bliss are all words used to describe this pure awareness. Here, the object of concentration, the subject, you, and the act of perceiving, all merge into an awareness of Oneness. In other words, the mantram or chosen spiritual formula as the object is God or Divine. If my chosen mantram is ‘Krishna‘ then in Samadhi, my awareness becomes Pure Love.

As the Indian mystic, Meher Baba puts it, “you and I are not we, you and I are One.” I understand this as: with dedicated and systematic practice, eventually, I will arrive at this universal awareness – where there is no difference between you and me, hence no conflicts or favoritism, no misunderstood intentions, just complete acceptance and unconditional love. This is the promise of Rāja Yoga to a dedicated seeker.

With this realization comes the “peace that passeth all understanding”; the experience of bliss and being one with the Universe. This can neither be explained by another, taught or read from a book; it can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, with surrender to the Guru, with persistent effort and total devotion by the seeker.

This is my effort to bring you the last 3 limbs of Rāja Yoga from a place of limited understanding. But, the 7th limb, Dhyana, meditation and 8th, Samadhi, Liberation, can only be explained using the words of illumined masters. Although, it was a futile attempt on my part to bring them to light, this was more of an exercise to validate my Ahbyasa, and deepen my faith – so that I may experience the state of Self-Realization, Samadhi – sooner than later.

***********

Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1955. Autobiography of a Yogi. Rider Press, CA

Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Easwaran, Eknath.2008. The Mantram Handbook: A Practical Guide to Choosing your Mantram and Calming Your Mind. Nigiri Press, CA

my practice, my abhyasa

 “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.”   Ashtanga Yogaacharya, Shri Pattabhi Jois

In the Fall of 2000, I felt a gentle push to begin yoga. Opening the yellow pages, I found YogaLife Institute, located only 3 miles away. On a warm September evening, I entered their doors for a simple yoga class. What I got was a royal introduction to the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Here, are the beginnings of my practice before it turned into real Yoga-Abhyasa.

Although I was fascinated by Raja Yoga at the outset, I had to work hard at being disciplined, combating laziness on a regular basis. If I skipped a day of practice after hitting the snooze button or having to care for a sick child, it would quickly turn into a week, or more especially on voyages to India. Sadly, my practice was the first thing to be dropped when life got hectic. I had many reasons for not upholding my new year yoga resolution – some valid, while the rest which I validated so skillfully, fell into a long list of excuses.

The word Ahbhyasa in Samskritham means having an attitude of patient, consistent effort; a discipline; simply referred to as practice. To do anything well, including yoga (asana) requires practice; meaning it must be repeated over time to invite mastery.

Remember mastering shoelaces and abc’s, math equations and computer code? As adults we are called ‘experts’ in our professions. What about those not-so-flattering vices like anger, greed and worry?Through repeated practice, we are masters at these too.

I can be a master at procrastinating. I can also be a master at being critical, at reacting, at getting angry, worrying, making excuses – a long list. Becoming aware of my shortcomings was hurtful, but nonetheless, a wake up call to act, to change. And to change I needed guidance, a path – a prescription for practice if you will. That prescription was Raja Yoga. The hard part – undoing the effects of prior destructive mastery and replacing it with new constructive ones. Heeding to the call to act, I began the practice with the popular choice, asanas, poses.

I bought my first yoga mat a year after I joined Yogalife Institute. At first, it seemed like I was always in a hurry to get to class and find my corner in the classroom. I would lay down the yoga mat and mark my territory before the other students entered. Cornering off a space so no one else can have it, is selfish. Obviously, I had not yet learned the essence of yoga or understood the sacredness of the yoga mat.  

At that phase of my life, there was always something to do (infant in the house!). At the peak of this busyness, bright lights were bothersome, loud noises made me jumpy, chocolates made me cranky and Sundays brought the blues. Though I attended playgroups and planned birthday parties with a smile, there was a false impression of being in control. I did not know how to turn ‘off’. But for some unexplainable reason, after that first yoga class, the mat was always inviting. I fervently hoped that the busyness that accompanied me everywhere would melt away as soon as I settled on my yoga mat.

Each week my body and mind were in a state of anticipation. With child-like eagerness I arrived at the class happy to move and grateful to rest. Once on the mat, I realized how tight my body was only when I began to convince it to move and release. I noticed how shallow the breath sounded only when I was introduced to my own breath. And I hadn’t the faintest idea how loud my thoughts were until I experienced a moment of silence. No wonder I was not able to turn off and relax.

The class always began with centering – a process of noticing the breath by deliberately slowing down inhales and exhales and checking in with our thoughts. I wondered if today was the day that I would be successful in turning off my thoughts and find some peace. I wondered if everyone in class was thinking the same. Because each of us probably knew that we must leave behind the concerns of ordinary life, of chores and bawling kids, the world of meetings and schedules. I believe each one’s yoga practice is unique and an individual experience. However, was everyone hoping that they might get some relief from the stressful, chaotic and unpredictable nature of life by practicing on the mat?

Centering was followed by a 15 minute introduction to the week’s topic. Topics, based on the eight fold path of Raja Yoga, helped to set an intention for the day or the week. We began by using this intention while moving in asanas.

For example, Ahimsa, non-harming the first Yama (1st limb) as an intention, was a prerequisite for asana practice. Was I hurting myself in poses? Was I pushing myself into positions that caused injuries? Answers to these questions began the practice of Ahimsa. Being a novice, I was just looking for relief from my aches and pains. So I did not push. But, sadly, a couple of years later as I became somewhat proficient, competitiveness and pride crept in which led to injuries. This was when I was harshly persuaded to practice Ahimsa, each time I stepped on the mat.

After the 15 minute introduction, the instructor would start the warm ups and lead us through series of poses from standing to seated to lying down on the mat. In her calm voice she guided us through the movements. She somehow knew the right place to pause so we could breathe and experience being present. Soothing chants wafted in and out of my ‘hearing’ consciousness. It was exhilarating. It was calming. It was incredible. You get the idea.

When balancing in Vrikshasana, tree pose, my shaky legs did not upset me. In fact, it reminded me that I was still on the yoga mat and the best was yet to come. The sound of collective breathing of my peers while we moved through the asanas, was somehow comforting. The pain in my back became bearable and my posture improved because of asanas. Bottomline, it was sheer pleasure to be in my corner practiceing asana with others.

When it was time for relaxation in Shavasana, corpse pose, the instructor asked us to focus our attention on the breath. Then, she asked us to make each inhale a nourishing breath and each exhale a letting-go breath. What a wonderful way to train the mind and at the same time, help the body. After a few breaths, my mind drifted back to the habitual mental chatter (still does). Slowly I became aware that the breath had taken me deeper into the comfort and protection of the yoga mat. There was an elusive moment where time seemed frozen. Here,  I knew I could not be touched by the ups and downs of life.

The gentle sound of the singing bowl, roused me out of the stillness, signaling the finality of this earthly heaven. The end of the  class – but mostly a warning that real practice begins off the yoga mat. Then, with immense difficulty I stirred, not wanting to be awakened from this momentary peace. As we sat breathing as one, the instructor hinted to take the ‘peace’ off the mat and into the world we were about to enter. The chatter of the students at the door, waiting to enter for the next class signaled that we were already connected to the outside world. Then slowly, I rolled up the mat, tucked it carefully under my arm and would leave, taking with me the serenity of the classroom and hoping that it would last longer this time.

This routine went on for quite a while, a few years, until I signed up for teacher training. It took me a long time to realize that I was ‘turning off’ on the mat, but I am still learning to turn off at will. I left each class with a hope that someday I could live a life of inner calm without having to work so hard for it. Although at times I was discouraged when I “lost it”, I still returned to the class each week ready to try again. Each class was a preparation to face the triggers in the material world with renewed sense of hope, courage and compassion. However, when I did slip-up (many times and still do), I was/am able to slowly regroup by going back to the mat and to the tools of Raja Yoga.

For me, Abhyasa, daily yoga practice, specifically refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga, the path I was initiated into. My Abhyasa, is still evolving. To bring the eight limbs to life has been both frustrating and inspiring. Here, I realized, to invite mastery means that these practices must be done for a long time, and without a break.

I have learnt to move my body in various asanas using my breath. I have learnt how to center myself using my breath. I have learnt that yoga-asana practice is not just for the body; it is about training the mind using the breath. I am still learning how to settle my thoughts and anchor my mind to the breath to find those precious moments of peace. I am becoming aware that this practice is helping me to play the various roles in my life a little better. Now I realize that ongoing study of the eight fold path is mandatory in order to adopt a true yogic lifestyle. In other words, bringing the theory of Raja Yoga to life is what true Abhyasa, is all about.

I have a very long way to go before I can claim eradication of vices or everlasting calmness. Right now, I am happy  to show up on the yoga mat and on the meditation blanket – everyday, ready to work hard and enjoy my practice. Every morning I set an intention of Raja Yoga and every night I have to forgive myself for my lapses in order to begin again the next day.

The first step of Abhyasa is showing up. My favorite first line by Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutras, states – “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction on practice of yoga.”

I translate it as “Now begins the true discipline of Abhyasa.”

Only when I show up each day, I can truly begin my Abhyasa .  

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. St. Francis of Assisi

first 5 limbs of raja yoga

Raja Yoga, the “Royal Yoga,” is a combination of all other yoga disciplines and the science of God-realization with a step-by-step means of reuniting the soul with the Spirit.

Paramahamsa Yogananda

As I introduce you to the eight fold path of Rāja Yoga, it is a pleasure for me to study it with you – again.Though I promised to elaborate on the first 5 limbs, this is still only a broad synopsis. It is best to study each limb separately to understand how to use them in everyday interactions. The first five limbs are referred to as the external limbs, Bahiranga Sadhana and are to be practiced simultaneously. They are considered external because these limbs affect our relationship with the outside world. The first five limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara are the foundation of Rāja Yoga.

Yama and Niyama, are the principles of right conduct and lifestyle, the dos and don’ts – referred to as the moral disciplines or ethics of yoga. They are a very important part in the practice of Rāja Yoga – a part that I have come to rely on. The 10 ethics are:

दश नीति

Ten Ethics

यम Restraints नियम Observances
अहिंसा Non-Harming शौच Purity
सत्य Truth सन्तोष Contentment
अस्तेय Non-Stealing तपस् Effort
ब्रह्मचर्य Moderation स्वाध्याय Self-Study
अपरिग्रह Non-Hoarding ईश्वरप्रणिधान Surrender

Yama

The first limb, Yama, यम, frequently referred to as restraints or disciplines. Yama, restraint, deals with those behaviors that show respect for self and others. Using the word restraint may imply taking away certain privileges to be in a yogic frame of mind. On the contrary – it is much more that. I discovered that cultivating restraints is really cultivating the ability to manage my feelings – the ability to stop myself from doing or saying things that are not sensible or correct.

I have included multiple meanings for each of the Yama and Niyama, as Samskritham (Sanskrit) terms tend to have multiple meanings. It is also difficult to find an exact translation for each term, while preserving its authenticity.

यम

Restraints

अहिंसा       (Ahimsa) Non-Harming, Non-Violence, Kindness, Dynamic Peacefulness
सत्य          (Sathya) Truth, Authenticity, Sincerity, Benevolence
अस्तेय       (Astheya) Non-Stealing, Honesty, Abundance
ब्रह्मचर्य      (Brahmacharya) Moderation, Continence, Dedicated to the Divine
अपरिग्रह     (Aparigraha) Non-Hoarding, Self reliance, Renouncing, Simplicity, Generosity

The first Yama is Ahimsa, non-harming.  Alice Christensen stated that Ahimsa is listed as the first discipline because the practice of the other nine ethics depended on it.  According to her, when trying to practice the second ethic, Satya, truthfulness, lying to myself is a form of harming; or in the practice of the third ethic, Asteya, non-stealing, wasting my time is stealing from myself which is harming. Slowly, with tedious practice, I finally began to notice that practicing Ahimsa has helped me to stay ahead in the practice of other ethics. This doesn’t mean I remembered to do it all the time.

In the beginning, I entrusted the job of reminding me to the most reliable person I knew at that time – my 5 year old. In her own direct way and without hesitation she would remind me that I was not practicing Ahimsa – yes, you guessed it – I was arguing with my better half. My first reaction was to get upset with her reminders, which again is not Ahimsa. She would say “But you told me to remind you,” and start to cry. Of course, I would melt, give her a hug, to which she would sweetly add – “I’m sorry too, mommy,”- another reminder – to forgive myself for the slip-up. What a sweet and effective taskmaster! This went on for a while before she lost interest.

Eknath Easwaran said taking “my life is a school” approach, would provide numerous opportunities to experiment with the eight fold path. Whether it be marriage or rearing a child, each phase of life – midlife or teenage – provides its own challenges to practice Ahimsa. This was the best practical advice to bring the 8 limbs to life. With this attitude, obstacles became opportunities. When I did catch myself practicing Ahimsa, my nightly reflection was filled with gratitude. In this way, each conclusion – success or failure, charted my progress, deepened my faith in the tools and boosted my confidence to continue on the path.

In Rāja Yoga, the traditional practice of Yamas is equated to taking a vow, an earnest promise dedicated to the practice – called Mahavratham, Great Vow, by Patanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutra (2:31). This implies the seriousness of accepting the responsibility of the practice of Yamas, without the limitations of time, space, season, family, country, etc.; meaning although forgiveness is paramount, excuses are not entertained when Mahavratham, the Great Vow is activated.

Niyama

The second limb, Niyama, नियम, referred to as Observances, are those behaviors that convey positive self action. Niyama, Observance, is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self centeredness. It helps to cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily activities and makes us rely on the tools to bring us closer to spiritual bliss, 8th limb, Samadhi.

नियम

Observances

शौच                 (Shaucha) Purity, Cleanliness, Clarity
सन्तोष               (Santosha) Contentment, Peacefulness
तपस्                  (Tapas) Effort, Heat, Discipline, Sacrifice
स्वाध्याय             (Svadhyaya) Self-Study, Reflection, Introspection
ईश्वरप्रणिधान      (Ishvara Pranidhana) Surrender, Faith, Gratitude, Devotion, Higher Purpose

The first Niyama is Shaucha, Purity or Cleanliness, which is both external and internal. The external concept of Shaucha suggests a clean body through daily ablutions, clean surroundings (owned and public), along with fresh and clean food to purify the body. Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, negative thoughts are toxins to body and mind. Hence, internal Shaucha includes purity of speech, emotions and the mind. Only with mastery of Shaucha, progress within the internal limbs can be witnessed.

Asana

The third limb is Asana, pose. It took me a long time to realize that Asana in Rāja Yoga, is not the same asana that we do in yoga classes each week. In class, I was taught how to align my body and move in a sequence of poses as in Surya Namaskar, Sun Salutations. I also learnt that the poses worked on both lengthening and strengthening of my muscles and joints. I noticed that there were variations within each asana. These variations could be created and supported by yoga props. Some asanas were simple and others were advanced. They were grouped into standing, seated, balance and lying down asanas. They are also grouped as forward bends, side bends, twists, backbends, inversions. This was only the beginning.

yoga_silhouette_vector_179799

I realized that the world of asanas was so vast and overwhelming that I could easily forget about all the other limbs and just be consumed by this 3rd limb. Amidst all this, I discovered that in the text Yoga SutrasPatanjali simply instructs us to find one comfortable and stable seated position; he calls this position Asana. Nowhere does he mention groups of asanas or their variations. Out of 196 sutras, only one (Y.S. 2:46) is dedicated to asana.

Pranayama

The fourth limb is Pranayama, प्राणायाम. It is a disciplined practice of controlling and mastering the breath. In yoga, the breath is considered as the source of the body’s vital life force, prana. Although, Patanjali states pranayama as means of attaining higher states of awareness, it is not very popular in asana classes.

Since the process of Pranayama is concerned with the breathing, it is the indicator of good health. If it is done incorrectly, it will cause harm to the person.  For example, there are heating and cooling pranayama practices. Since our breath is tied to our emotions, these practices may abnormally enhance or deplete these emotional energies in the body. This fear dissuades many from starting the practice. Another reason for its unpopularity is possibly the absence of teachers who can teach it correctly. A knowledgeable teacher is observant of the students’ personality, and behaviors before teaching them the correct sequence of the breathing practices. This does not mean that it is a difficult process, or it cannot be learnt. But, when it is done correctly, you can experience wonderful benefits.

Breathe

As with asana, a similar confusion exists with Patanjali’s instruction in Pranayama. Patanjali only instructs the student to observe and slow the breath down to the point where one cannot distinguish between the inhalation and the exhalation (Y.S. 2:49). To clearly understand this instruction and apply it to practice is where you need an experienced teacher. The numerous asanas as postures and Pranayama as breathing exercises were developed much later as part of the Hata Yoga system of mastering the body to still the mind. Ashtanga Yoga teacher Pattabhi Jois used to explain this sutra 2:49 as “When asana is mastered, pranayma begins.” Unfortunately, this is not the preferred practice.

Pratyahara

The fifth limb, Pratyahara, is the practice of drawing the mind’s focus away from the external senses to the inner workings of the body and mind. The word ahara means “nourishment”; Pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” Although nourishment implies to provide adequate sustenance to foster health, in this case, feeding the senses will only steer us away from the inner poise and daily yogic practicesTherefore, withdrawing from sense temptations to support the practice is the nourishment referred to in Pratyahara. Eknath Easwaran teaches this concept as training the senses to come under our control instead of being slaves to them.

Yogis declare that the information gathered through the senses – eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin are not reliable. Ordinarily, the senses are the masters rather than being our servants. They entice us to develop cravings. Each of the senses invokes deep desire which provokes us to act according to our likes and dislikes leading to short-lived happiness or distress. To avoid pitfalls, we have to cultivate the habit of witnessing and deciphering the right message the senses are trying to convey to us. This is the first step in Pratyahara.

Have you ever felt tired after returning from the mall? Bob, my teacher at Yogalife Institute, says the tiredness comes from the draining of prana, life force energy, through our eyes just by window shopping. Getting to know how my eyes behaved at the mall, or at a dinner party, and the role the mind plays in executing the action after the eyes have made their capture, has been enlightening. In the beginning, besides window shopping, looking longingly at a brownie and having to stop myself from eating it, was equally draining. It is not so bad now, and I am still learning to detach from that tempting object, a.k.a. chocolate brownie to stop prana leakage but enjoy an occasionally treat without a conflict. Just when I thought I had conquered one temptation, the eyes have made another capture – this time under the alias of jalapeño chips, lurking on the next table, waiting to reel me in. Depending on our list, Pratyahara can become a lifelong practice.

The next step, Gurudev counsels, is the effort of withdrawing attachment to external objects.  This practice of Pratyahara provides me with an opportunity to step back and take a closer look at my habits. It forces me to objectively observe my likes and dislikes, and my cravings: essentially, habits that are detrimental to my health and which interfere with Abhyasa. I am working hard to draw my attention away from the world of temptations, one stimulus at a time. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Like everyone else my practice began with asana, poses, falsely believing it is the easiest and most tangible place to start. But I quickly realized that asanas are not that easy – especially when I saw others doing them better and when I couldn’t do many of the advanced asanas. That’s when the code of ethics became more important than the asana practice. I was told to practice Yamas and Niyamas concurrently, so I could lose the attitude of competitiveness, pride and self-criticism in asana and pranayama practice. It is through the movement of the body, asana, and the movement of the breath, pranayama and restraining our senses through pratyahara that we begin to enter the gates of silence and access the mind. Hence, these 5 limbs must be practiced simultaneously, to prepare the mind for internal practices, Antaranga Sadhana, the next 3 limbs.

Focussing on the first five limbs of Rāja Yoga, helped me to begin trusting the process. I resolved to set the Yamas or Niyamas as my intention, sankalpa. This way I could constantly and mindfully rehearse one or two of them everyday on a short-term rotation schedule. This has made the practice efficient and manageable. Of course, it is still a long and bumpy road to destination Bliss filled with failures and short lived successes. But the path itself is clear, as long as I bring the right attitude and diligence to the practice. And, in my opinion, assigning adorable taskmasters to assist is mandatory for success.

The idea is to make the practice of the five limbs a habit, so they become the most important part of my life. Only then I can confidently declare that I am living a yogic lifestyle.

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Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association

Kriyananda, Swami. 2011. The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers (2 volumes)

first things first

Faith is taking the first step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.” Martin Luther King Jr.

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There are many firsts in life; a first step, first bike-ride, first hike, first job. Yoga-asana practice, has many firsts as well – first yoga-mat, first yoga teacher, first yoga class, first yoga retreat, first yoga chant, first yoga text. Of course, if you didn’t have a ‘good first yoga’ impression, it is difficult to get a second chance to create a first impression. This becomes a hurdle to get to the next stage of practice. But once you cross this ‘first’ hurdle, and seriously commit, practice becomes surreal.

My first yoga experience is an amusing story. I did not frequent many studios or try different styles, although this is how many make their choice. There is some wisdom in doing this as long as one doesn’t fall prey to their likes and dislikes. That makes commitment to a style or studio challenging. I am grateful to have skipped this step.

Anyhow, at 6 months pregnant, I was introduced to Prenatal yoga by my husband’s cousin; my first exposure to yoga. She, at that time, had been taking classes at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, India. She gave me a handbook specific for prenatal issues published by the institute. I read through the book and was diligent with the practices as they helped keep my back pain-free and my mind calm. Having had lower back issues for a few years and frustrated with not finding a remedy, this was a welcome relief.  I promised myself to continue ‘yoga’ after delivery as well.

But first, I had to find a yoga studio. Few had heard of Phoenixville, a little town in eastern Pennsylvania, where I delivered a beautiful baby girl and where we settled for 11 years. Six months after my daughter’s birth, I discovered YogaLife Institute, a small studio that had recently opened 3 miles away. The name sounded familiar, but I was focused on the short drive to my first class. The thought that the studio in Mumbai, India and this one in Phoenixville, PA were related, never crossed my mind.edificio-de-la-escuela_318-62517I remember being excited, ready for my first class, my first impression. There was a room in the back where the students were filing in, books shelves on the left with small plant, an incense plate, a small couch and a couple of chairs. Bob (my teacher) was at the desk on my right, speaking with a student. After a casual greeting he told me that the first class was free. I remember thinking that was good and that I did not have to worry about coming back if I didn’t like it. Obviously, that’s not what happened at all. I signed up for the next session on the spot and haven’t looked back since.

Here is what some might call a coincidence, while I feel that I was truly blessed. As I was signing up for the session, I was surprised to see a set of thin books on a corner table titled Yoga for Total Health, Rs.15, currency of India. Curious, I asked Bob about it, he said that he had done his training at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, where those books, a monthly journal were published. My mind overflowed with questions for him. Since I had just met him, I decided to hold off the inquisition. Anyways, it didn’t matter; the decision was already made. I paid for the sessions, thanked him and left.

My first impression; was it the day I was introduced to the prenatal practice or the day I took the class at the studio? I chose YogaLife Institute, without knowing that the prenatal practices that provided physical relief and emotional respite, came from its parent studio in Mumbai. But I also chose YogaLife because I was inspired by the introduction to the eight limbs of yoga in the first class. So began my first phase of Raja Yoga study with Bob, which continued for the next 10 years. I am blessed.

Eight-Fold or Eight-Limb yoga is referred to by many names.  In the text, Yoga Sutra, it is called Kriya YogaSelf-Realization Fellowship by Paramahamsa Yogananda uses the name Kriya Yoga, which involves other breathing protocols as well. Moreover, in Sanskrit, the term for eight limbs is ashtanga, (ashta – 8, anga –limb). But, Ashtanga Yoga that is popularized, is a set of asanas (primary & secondary series) taught by Sri Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. The term Raja Yoga, was propagated by Swami Vivekananda, as the eight-fold path that is complete within itself. Whatever the name, it is the wisdom within the eight limbs that matters the most. For those who put their effort, the Yoga Sutra gives clear instructions on how to enable the practice. I cannot begin to explain what the practice of these eight limbs has taught me.

Eight-steps-of-ashtanga-yoga

First and foremost, these eight limbs must be studied frequently. Each time I read through them, new insights emerge that support my practice. I have slowly and tediously applied them to my life, experiencing both failures and successes. Being in the YogaLife Institute setting initially, helped me as I was able to study it each time the topic came around in the teaching cycle. Experimenting with them in daily activities has brought them to life. Raja Yoga has certainly kept my yoga practice fresh and dependable. I am on this path for the long haul.

I can be the first to tell you that the eight-limbs of Raja Yoga is good for you. But you already knew that. I can be the first to also tell you that it takes hard work and commitment to persist in the practice. But, you know this too. Then, I can be the first one to tell you that there will be failures and successes, although the failures (opportunities to do better) may outnumber the successes. Of course, you know this as well.

But please, let me be the first to tell you that when and not if you begin on the path of Raja Yoga, you will be guided all the way. Moreover, Sage Pathanjali assures us that these practices will transform our personality from selfish to selfless, from uncaring to loving, and ultimately from human to divine. This is the privilege of yoga that we will receive. There is no doubt about that.

The first draft refuting this privilege is yet to be written.

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SUGGESTED READINGS

Rama, Swami. 1979. The Royal Path: Practical Lessons on Yoga. Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, PA

Vivekananda, Swami. 1920. Raja Yoga. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, NY, NY

Butera, Robert. 2009. The Pure Heart of Yoga: Ten Essential Steps for Personal Transformation. YogaLife Institute, Devon, PA