Yoga is an ancient spiritual technology, with a precise series of steps and methodologies – and it doesn’t have much to do with the yoga that is currently so popular. Yoga means Union in Sanskrit – Union With God.
In one sense, a yoga is a technique. The yoga which is commonly and popularly practiced is technically called hatha yoga – the yoga of the body. It is an excellent technique for keeping the body flexible and healthy… but real yoga is the yoga of the soul, not the body. It is the technology of harnessing the mind and training it to rest steadily in the Divine. What we commonly think of as “meditation” is in fact much closer to the classical meaning of yoga.
Patanjali, who composed the Yoga Sutras during the second century BCE, laid down a scientific framework for following the essential steps and stages of Union. These are the eight limbs of yoga, and together comprise what is perhaps the most elegant and precise system of spiritual development known to man. They are a series of practices which exist outside of the framework of ideology – yoga is not a religion or belief system. Rather, it is a series of practices and techniques which can be applied within the framework of any belief system (or without one) to accelerate the soul’s progress to the Divine.
The eight limbs of yoga are as follows, and are meant to be followed successively, building upon each other, each increasingly focusing the yogi’s life and practice, and aiding the path to single-pointed focus on God:
1. Yama. Universal morality; rather, living a life free of impurities. Classically, Yama consists of having compassion for all life, truthfulness, non-stealing, proper focus of sexual energy, and getting over the need for constantly trying to get more money, wealth, stuff, status, and so on.
2. Niyama. Proper personal habits aimed at living a pure life, including keeping a clean body and mind, being content and peaceful with one’s lot in life, self-discipline in how one uses one’s time and energy, introspection into one’s own self, and a holding of the importance of the Divine as central to one’s life.
These two form the basis of the yogi’s lifestyle. They are concerned with living a balanced and non-disturbed life – keeping a clean house, as it were – in order to form a good foundation for meditation, clear from the mental disturbances that come with a chaotic, undisciplined and unfocused life. The next two form the physical requirements of spiritual practice.
3. Asana. This is the posture of the body – but doesn’t necessarily mean the pretzel-bending antics of popular yoga. At its most basic, Asana simply means finding a position which facilitates meditation, and which you can hold still in for long periods of time. If you can’t do this, the physical fitness routines of hatha yoga can help, but the goal isn’t to touch your toes to your head. The goal is to be able to sit for long periods of time in still silence, without fidgeting or otherwise allowing the body to get in the way of one’s meditation.
4. Pranayama. Pranayama means the way of breath. It is the regulation of the nervous system by using the breath. As with Asana, there are many complicated forms of Pranayama; however, at its most simple, Pranayama is simply a slow, steady regulation of the breath, through the nostrils. Breath is directly linked to the mind. Steady and still your breath, and you will steady and still your mind.
The next four form the purely internal requirements of meditation.
5. Pratyahara. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. With a calm life and environment, a stilled body, and regulated breathing, the yogi’s (five plus) senses will slowly begin to withdraw from the environment. This is “going within,” turning the senses (and therefore the mind) away from the outside world. Instead of focusing on something “out there,” the mind begins to focus on itself.
6. Dharana. Dharana means concentration, and is what most people commonly think of as “meditation.” With the senses turned inward, and the stimulus of the outside world (the conditions of the yogi’s external life, the body, the breath, and the senses themselves) stilled, the yogi begins to focus the mind on one thing, and one thing only: the Divine. This process is called concentration, but it is not until the mind becomes single-pointedly focused that the yogi can truly be said to be in meditation.
7. Dhyana. Dhyana means devotion, and this is true meditation – when the mind comes to rest in single-pointed focus upon its beloved, the Divine itself.
8. Samadhi. The Holy Grail of Yoga, Samadhi is the erasing of the difference between the Divine and the soul which observes it, between the observer and the observed, subject and object. From meditating only on the divine, the soul now merges with it.
This exceedingly amusing party trick can be studied in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classical manual on Yoga – but true practice takes the commitment of one’s life to the path, daily discipline, and a qualified teacher or Guru, one who has trod the path to its completion.
May all beings in all worlds attain to happiness.