Eightfold path of yoga was described by the great sage Patanjali who collected centuries-old experience, knowledge and instructions on how a yogi can comprehend the secrets of his nature and nature of being. As a result, he set it all out in the Yoga Sutras. This philosophical treatise is a basis of classical Ashtanga yoga which consists of these eight stages.
Classical yoga (Ashtanga yoga) is a spiritual and physical practice that every person should master. This path consists of eight limbs of yoga: Yama-Niyama-Asana-Pranayama-Pratyahara-Dharana-Dhyana-Samadhi.
Patanjali, who lived in India in the 2nd century BC, teaches that in the process of studying each of the steps, the body and mind become purified. In his Yoga Sutras treatise, Patanjali called yoga “Ashtanga”, because in Sanskrit it means “eight limbs” (ashta – eight, anga – limb, branch, step).
The first step, Yama, is a set of ethical rules of behavior that govern our relationships with other people. Yama is a universal law, a golden rule of morality stating “don’t do to others what you don’t wish for yourself.”
Yama comprises 5 ethical steps:
- Ahimsa – a rejection of violence; vegetarianism can certainly be a part of this as well.
- Satya – being truthful to ourselves and to others.
- Asteya – non-stealing or non-appropriation of what is not freely given, non-exploitation.
- Brahmacharya – continence, control over addictions and passions, right use of energy.
- Aparigraha – non-coveting, not being attached to material goods, non-possession.
The second limb of yoga, Niyama, belongs to the sphere of spirituality and self-discipline. Regular visits of temples, personal meditation practices, and the habit of contemplative walks are all Niyama in action.
Niyama consists of:
- Shaucha – cleansing the mind and body, purification.
- Samtosha – positive thinking, acceptance of both negative and positive events and equal treatment of them, contentment with all that life gives us.
- Tapas – intense self-discipline, regular practice, asceticism.
- Swadhyaya – self-study, analyzing our actions and life lessons, knowledge of spiritual literature.
- Ishvara-Pranidhana – dedication of our merits, of our practice to the higher source, development of altruistic qualities, being grateful for being alive.
The founder of the eightfold path, the guru of yoga, Patanjali, defined asana as a way to sit comfortably without experiencing any tension or discomfort in the body.
The third stage of classical yoga is not just a gymnastics, but special poses that allow those who practice them to become as balanced as possible, both mentally and physically. There is no need to buy additional equipment for asanas, since the body itself has everything necessary to ensure a sufficient load on certain muscle groups and energy channels.
Through the practice of asanas, a person gains balance and endurance; however, these exercises allow you to achieve other results, for example, to increase vitality or eliminate obstacles between the mind and the physical shell, which will lead to complete harmony.
From the point of view of the yogis, the body is the temple of the soul, and taking care of it is an important stage of spiritual growth. The practice of asanas makes us more disciplined and forms the ability to concentrate. Both are necessary for meditation.
The fourth stage of ashtanga yoga is pranayama, control of breathing. It includes techniques teaching to control the breathing while trying to find connection between the breathing, mind, and emotions. The term “Pranayama” composes of two words. So, “Prana” is means “Energy of Life”, and “Yama” – “tension”. This is not surprising – pranayama not only contributes to the rejuvenation of the body, but also prolongs life.
Even in ancient times, people noticed that breathing is associated with many internal rhythms. In this regard, if you want to learn how to manage prana, then you will need to master some breathing exercises.
There are several techniques that we need to practice to learn how to control prana. Among them: upper breathing, inhalation of the air with only one lung, lower breathing, etc. Each of them in its own way distributes the energy in the body, and, therefore, the effect of different breathing practices is also different. Pranayama can be practiced as a separate technique (for example, performing a series of breathing exercises in the sitting position) or be included in a regular yoga program.
Pratyahara, the fifth step of ashtanga yoga, means diverting the senses from external objects. At this stage, we make efforts to direct the consciousness inward and maintain internal focus, without being distracted by external objects. The state when feelings cease to wander from one object to another and help us to take a closer look at ourselves and see the attitudes that define our life and impede our internal growth.
Each level of ashtanga yoga prepares us for the next one. So, pratyahara prepares us for mastering dharana – concentration. Having learned to be distracted from the outside world, we are now able to cope with our mind which distracts us inside. The practice of concentration teaches us to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on one mental object. This may be the energy center in the body, the image of the deity, sound. Of course, we have already developed a certain ability to concentrate during the previous three stages. But though in asana and pranayama we concentrate on our movements, attention wanders. Trying to deal with the slightest nuances of posture or breathing exercises, we constantly shift the focus of attention. In Pratyahara, we observe ourselves, and in Dharana we focus our attention on one point. Long periods of concentration sooner or later lead to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh limb of ashtanga yoga, involves a continuous stream of concentration. There is a subtle difference between concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana). While dharana involves unidirectional attention, dhyana is a state of awareness in which the focus itself is absent. At this stage, the mind is already calm and do not produce the thoughts. To achieve this state you need strength and endurance. But do not despair! Remember, yoga is a process, and every stage of our inner journey is valuable.
Patanjali describes the final stage of ashtanga as a state of bliss. The meditator merges with the object and goes beyond the boundaries of his own self. He becomes aware of the deep connection with the divine, the relationship with all living beings. Along with this comes a peace. The yogi experience bliss and oneness with the whole universe. For some people it seems far from real life. But think for a moment: what exactly do you want from your life? Are not your dreams, hopes, and desires about the same thing – not about joy, self-realization, and freedom? What Patanjali described as the eightfold path is, in fact, what each of us strives for – peace. The final stage of yoga is enlightenment. We cannot buy it or own. Enlightenment can only be experienced and the price for this experience is endless devotion with which you carry out your practice.