The Human Condition and its Three Key Questions
The path to liberation in Ashtanga Yoga is one possible answer to humanity’s central mystery. Most noteworthy ever since we became aware of the human condition, this mystery has been part of our body of cultural knowledge. As a result of our unique ability to observe ourselves from an external perspective, we speak of the human condition. Therefore, there have been three primordial in life. First, who are we?’ Second, from where are we coming? And third, where are we going to?’
Consequently, these three fundamental questions lie at the root of any ontological philosophy, spiritual system, and religion alike. And the three existential questions point to the final goal of how to make sense of and be liberated from our earthly existence.
Every school of thought will apply different terms to describe this ultimate goal: super-consciousness, the infinite, heaven within, enlightenment, Nirvana, to name just a few.
The Indian Rishi Patanjali, who lived around 150 C.E., calls this goal Samadhi.
Samadhi is the ultimate purpose of yoga, an ancient science of right living that is highly relevant and applicable in contemporaneous modern life.
The Path to Liberation in Ashtanga Yoga Consists of Eight Steps
Patanjali distinguished eight significant steps of this spiritual ascent. In their Sanskrit original from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, they are called Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and finally pure consciousness – Samadhi.
These are the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga, meaning eight limbs.
When most people talk about yoga, they only refer to the physical practice of Asana. Equating asanas with yoga is a modern reductionism that does not give full credit to this ancient transformational system.
Let’s look at these stages, or ‘limbs’ in a little more detail and see how they form the path to liberation in Ashtanga yoga:
1. Yama and Niyama
Yama means to control, Niyama, non-control. 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 the virtues of Yamas and Niyamas come 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.
3. Asana – Posture, Steady Pose
An Asana is a stable and comfortable posture that 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. Mastering the body is a necessary condition for higher perceptions.
4. Pranayama – Vital Energy Control
Pranayama is generally defined as breath control, though this does not convey the full meaning of the term. The word pranayama derives from joining prana and ayama. Prana means ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’ and is part of the astral body, whereas ‘ayama’ means an extension of expansion. The various techniques of pranayama free the nervous system from its habitual patterns. Through breathing from the upper third of the respiratory system, pranayama can move blocked pathways to the brain and the nervous system. As a result, new patterns emerge, alleys to the highway of the super-consciousness. Pranayama revitalizes the body, steadies the emotions, and creates great clarity of mind.
5. Pratyahara – Detachment and the Interiorization of the Mind
The fifth stage on Patanjali’s journey to super-consciousness goes by the Sanskrit name Pratyahara. Closest translations of Pratyahara are ‘withdrawal’ or ‘detachment.’ Once the energy of attention redirects towards its source in the brain, then sensory inhibition needs to fall into place. As this happens, the spiritual aspirant must then interiorization her consciousness to make thoughts stop wandering. Hence, the goal of Pratyahara is uprooting delusion and establishing a one-pointed focus on the more profound mysteries of the soul.
6. Dharana – Concentration
Patanjali’s sixth stage is known as Dharana – concentration or fixed inner awareness. One may have been aware of inward spiritual realities – for example, the internal sound or deep mystical feelings – before reaching this stage. Still, it is only after reaching it that one can give himself entirely to deep concentration on those realities.
7. Dhyana – Meditation or Absorption
Dhyana is the stage of meditative training that leads to Samadhi. By continued focus on any step of consciousness, one begins to assume to himself its qualities. The mind loses its ego identification and begins to merge in the vast ocean of knowledge of which it is a part.
8. 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 genuinely and thoroughly dissolved, and one discovers that he is that inner light, nothing can prevent him from expanding his consciousness to infinity. The drop of water is part of the ocean once more, and that drop of water will never dry up. It is here that the ultimate goal of yoga – union, or integration as Iyengar would say – is reached.
It is a common misunderstanding that the ‘union’ of yoga is a union of body, mind, and soul.
While realizing the body-mind-soul connection is already a great achievement in today’s world where most people live in complete alienation from their inner selves, it is a mere stepping stone on the yogic path laid out by Patanjali towards union with the infinite.
Patanjali’s Path to Liberation in Ashtanga Yoga is a Universal Development Map
The beauty of Patanjali’ yogic path to liberation in ashtanga lies in its simplicity, applicability, and universality.
Now simplicity does not mean it is effortless. Even the initial steps of Yama and Niyama appear to be insurmountable obstacles for most fellow humans. But then they are something you can try for a limited time and gradually extend. And the experience of lightness from the practice of Yama and Niyama can be compelling.
Ashtanga Yoga is very applicable because the first steps can be taken here and now, all the way to Samadhi. Similarly, there is no preparation or gadgetry required — just practice.
Also, the yogic path is beyond any religion, rituals, and rites. Consequently, it is a universal science of life. Ashtanga, in that sense, meets all the requirements of functional 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 every human being on this planet, even though few of us realize: enlightenment, merging with the infinite, the self-realization of consciousness.