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The Path to Liberation in Ashtanga Yoga

Ever since man became aware of the human condition (i.e. being able to observe oneself from an external perspective), life’s primordial questions have been ‘Who are we?’; ‘Where are we coming from?’ and ‘Where are we going to?’ These fundamental questions lie at the root of any ontological philosophy and religion alike. They point to the final goal, of how to be liberated from our earthly existence. Every school of thought will apply different terms to describe this final goal: super-consciousness, the infinite, heaven within, enlightenment, to name just a few.

Indian rishi Patanjali, who lived around 150 C.E., calls this goal Samadhi, thus describing the ultimate purpose of Raja yoga, an ancient science of right living which is highly relevant and applicable in contemporaneous modern life.
Patanjali distinguished eight major steps of this spiritual ascent: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and finally pure consciousness: – Samadhi. These are the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.  Let’s look at these stages, or ‘limbs’ in a little more detail:

Yama and Niyama

Yama means control, Niyama, non-control. Literally, these two stages indicate the don’ts and the do’s on the spiritual path of yoga. They also could be called the Ten Commandments of yoga.
Their essential purpose is to develop inner peace and prepare the mind for meditation.
The rules of Yama (the Don’ts) are five:

  • Non-violence or Ahimsa
  • Non-lying or Satya
  • Non-stealing or Asteya
  • Non-sensuality or Brahmacharya
  • Non-greed, Non-attachment or Aparigraha

It is worthwhile noting that all of these virtues are expressed in negative terms. The implication is that once we shed our delusions, we cannot but be non violent, truthful, etc. Acting otherwise would imply an unnatural state of egoistical inharmony.

The rules of Niyama (the Do’s) are:

  • Cleanliness (internal and external) or Saucha
  • Contentment or Santosha
  • Austerity or Tapas
  • Self-study, Introspection or Swadhyaya
  • Devotion to the Supreme being or Ishwara-pranida.

Asana – posture, steady pose

An Asana is a stable and comfortable posture which helps attain mental equilibrium. A sign of perfection in Asana is the ability to sit still for three hours. Many people meditate for years without achieving any notable results, simply because they have never trained their bodies to sit still. Until the body can be mastered, higher perceptions, can never be achieved.

Pranayama – vital energy control

Pranayama is generally defined as breath control, though this does not convey the complete meaning of the term. The word pranayama is derived from joining prana pluas ayama. Prana means ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’ and is part of the astral body whereas ‘ayama’ means extension of expansion. The various techniques of pranayama free the nervous system from its ordinary patterns and habits. Breathing from the upper third of the respiratory system, pranayama can move blocked pathways to the brain and the nervous system, creating new patterns, alleys to the highway of the super-consciousness so to speak. Pranayama revitalizes the body, steadies the emotions, and creates great clarity of mind.

Pratyahara – detachment, the interiorization of the mind

Prayyahara is the fifth stage on Patanjali’s journey to super-consciousness. It can be translated as ‘withdrawal’ or ‘detachment’. Once the energy has been redirected towards its source in the brain, sensory inhibition needs to fall into place: the sadhaka (spiritual aspirant) must then interiorize his consciousness, so that is thoughts will cease to wander in restlessness and delusion, but rather one-pointedly focus on the deeper mysteries of the soul.

Dharana – concentration

Patanjali’s sixth stage is known as Dharana – concentration, or fixed inner awareness. One may have been aware of inner spiritual realities – as for example the inner sound or deep mystical feelings – before reaching this stage, but it is only after reaching it that one can give himself completely to deep concentration on those realities.

Dhyana – meditation or absorption

Dhyana is the stage of meditative training that leads to Samadhi. By prolonged concentration on any stage of consciousness, one begins to assume to himself its qualities. The mind loses its ego identification, and begins to merge in the great ocean of consciousness of which it is a part.

Samadhi – oneness, state of super-consciousness

The eighth and final step on Patanjali’s eightfold journey is known as Samadhi, oneness. Samadhi comes after one learns to dissolve his ego consciousness keeping the gaze steady towards the inner light. Once the grip of one’s ego has truly and thoroughly been broken, and one discovers that he is actually that innermost light, nothing can prevent him from expanding his consciousness to infinity. The drop of water has been reinserted into the ocean and that drop of water will never dry up. It is here that the ultimate goal of yoga – union – is reached.

It is a common misunderstanding that the ‘union’ of yoga is a union of body, mind and soul.

Will realizing the body-mind-soul connection is already a great achievement in today’s world where most people are completely alienated from their inner selves; it is a mere stepping stone on the yogic path laid out by Patanjali towards union with the infinite.

The beauty of Patanjali’ yogic path lies in its simplicity (even though yama and niyama appear to be insurmountable obstacles for most fellow humans) applicability (first steps can be taken here and now, all the way to Samadhi) and universality (the yogic path is beyond any religions, rituals and rites, is is a universal science of life) – this meeting all the requirements of a good theory. The eightfold path will also never expire, but be a guideline for generations to come to answer the three primordial questions.

Finally, Patanjali also answers the question of what is the goal of each and every human being on this planet, even though few of us realize: enlightenment, merging with the infinite, the self-realization of consciousness.

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3 Responses to The Path to Liberation in Ashtanga Yoga

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  2. Flyte February 7, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    Great article! I was looking for something entirely different when I came across your site. I thoroughly enjoyed the thought you put into this writting. i will bookmark to return later.
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