In life, we all have to deal with the unexpected.
None of us are exempt from trouble, conflict, and challenges.
I am currently dealing with all of the mixed emotions that arise from feeling like we have been “cheated.” I am reminded that even written agreements or “executed contracts” are only as good as the people attached to the signatures.
However, as disappointment, disbelief, sadness, frustration, anger, and absolute helplessness began to consume my thoughts, I realized that I was in the midst of an opportunity to practice what I teach—yoga.
Because let’s face it: the only thing we have control over is how we respond in any given situation. The practice of yoga teaches us that when the unexpected happens (and it will) or we find ourselves facing a crisis, we can choose not to automatically go into “panic mode,” fall apart emotionally, or react from a place of past conditioning and habits.
By using the tools provided in Pantanjali’s Eight Limbed Path of Yoga, we are able to actively take control of our lives, rather than become a victim of our circumstances and emotions.
Let’s break down and demystify how this yogic path provides us the necessary coping tools to flow through those sometimes unexpected life fluctuations.
In brief, the eight limbs (or steps) of yoga, are as follows:
1. Yama: Universal morality.
2. Niyama: Personal observances.
3. Asana: Body postures, physical exercises.
4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises, and control of prana.
5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses.
6. Dharana: Concentration and cultivating awareness.
7. Dhyana: Devotion, meditation, perhaps even prayer.
8. Samadhi: Union with the divine.
Rather than a list of do’s and don’ts, the yamas tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest, and peaceful. They offer suggestions on how we should deal with people around us and the attitude we should maintain when engaging with our world.
>> Ahimsa: love and non-violence.
The word ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. Ahimsa implies that in every situation, we should do the loving thing.
>> Satya: truthfulness
Satya means “to speak the truth,” yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, ahimsa always trumps, so it is better to say nothing.
>> Asteya: non-stealing
Steya means “to steal,” so asteya is the opposite: to take nothing that is not offered to us. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of them. The practice of asteya implies not taking anything that has not been freely given. This includes becoming conscious of how we use others’ time and space.
>> Brahmacharya: sense control
Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relation to sexual activity. Brahmacharya does not necessarily mean celibacy, though, but rather suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths and connection to Spirit. It also means that we don’t use our sexual energy in any way that might harm others.
>> Aparigraha: non-hoarding
Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary and to not act greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. The yogi feels that the hoarding of things implies a lack of faith in God. Aparigraha also implies letting go of our attachments to things and an understanding that impermanence and change are the only constants we have in life.
Compared with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal. Rather than speaking to how we should treat others, they refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves as we create a code for living soulfully. Like the yamas, the five niyamas are not things for us to simply study, but are part of a lifestyle we can adopt and practice.
>> Sauca: purity
Sauca means purity and cleanliness both inside and out. Outer cleanliness simply means keeping ourselves clean, while inner cleanliness has to do with the health and functioning of our bodily organs as well as the clarity of our mind. Practicing yoga poses (asana), focusing on our breath (pranayama), and maintaining a healthy diet are all essential means for cultivating inner sauca.
>> Santosha: contentment
Santosha is modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. It means being at peace within and at peace with our outer lives. We can practice finding contentment even while experiencing life’s difficulties. We learn to accept that there is a purpose for everything. It means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don’t have.
>> Tapas: disciplined energy
Tapas literally means to heat the body and, by so doing, cleanse it. Behind the notion of tapas lies the idea that we can direct our energy to enthusiastically engage in life and achieve our ultimate goals. Tapas helps us burn up all the desires that stand in our way of a stronger connection to Spirit.
>> Svadhyaya: self-study
Sva means “self;” adhyaya means “inquiry” or “examination.” Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive and to burn away unwanted and self-destructive tendencies.
>> Isvara pranidhana: celebration of the spiritual
Isvara pranidhana means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” It is to contemplate God (Isvara) in order to become attuned to God’s will—in other words, attuned to how we can best be of service in this life. It is the recognition that the spiritual suffuses everything, and through our fixed attention, we can align ourselves with our highest purpose here on Earth. The practice requires that we set aside some time each day to recognize that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives.
Asana, or the practice of assuming and holding yogic postures, is the most commonly known aspect of yoga. Asana has been found to have many benefits, among these, improved health, strength, balance, and flexibility.
However, the true meaning of asana in Sanskrit is “staying” or “abiding.” Beyond just staying in a physical pose, asana teaches us to stay with sensation and discomfort as a means of calming the mind and moving into more subtle inner energy. The challenge of the poses offers us the opportunity to explore and control all aspects of our emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and spiritual body.
Yoga asanas act as a binding agent to bring us in harmony with all the unseen elements of our being and the forces that shape our lives through our responses to the physical world. Asana then becomes a way of exploring our mental attitudes, and strengthens our will as we learn to release and move into the state of grace. We cultivate the balance between our material world and spiritual experience.
With consistent asana practice, we start to foster a quiet mind, and it becomes a preparation for meditation. Releasing to the flow and inner strength that one develops brings about a profound spiritual grounding in the body. The physicality of the yoga postures becomes a vehicle to expand a higher consciousness that pervades every aspect of our lives. The bridge that leads to this expansion of awareness and consciousness is the breath, which is the fourth limb.
Prana is the breath or vital energy in the body—and on a more subtle level, prana represents the energy responsible for all life force. Ayama means “control”—so pranayama is the control of breath.
Using our breath, we can literally control whether or not we want to energize or slow down our systems. The rhythmic patterns of breathing strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system, and reduce cravings. As desires and cravings diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration.
Pranayama is a means of attaining higher states of awareness, which encourages us to pause in the moment and choose how we would like to respond, rather than simply react.
Pratyahara means gaining mastery over external influences, as it comes from the word prati, or “against,” and ahara, or “the object of our senses.”
Essentially, it’s the practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions. We withdraw our senses like a turtle withdrawing into its shell—the turtle’s shell is the mind; the turtle’s limbs are the senses. This means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate them, and are no longer dependent upon or fed by them.
When the senses are no longer tied to external sources, the result is restraint or pratyahara. It occurs almost automatically when we meditate because we are so absorbed in the object of meditation. Under normal circumstances, our senses are our masters rather than being our servants. However, when the mind is so focused, the senses follow the mind—not the other way around.
It’s important to note that while we try to put the senses in their proper place in pratyahara, we do not wish to cut them out of our experience entirely. Putting them in their proper place and not allowing them to entirely lead our minds helps us realize that our emotional imbalances are often our own creation. When we are readily influenced by outside events and sensations, we can never achieve inner peace and tranquility. We waste so much mental and physical energy in trying to suppress unwanted sensations and to heighten those that feel nice. This tiresome effort can create physical and/or mental imbalance within us, and often result in illness or disease.
Many yogis believe that desire is at the root of human unhappiness. Through this process of pratyahara, however, we realize that the inner peace we seek is already within us. Yoga is a science which enables us to stop and look at the processes of our own minds.
Dharana means “concentration,” or fixing the mind on one place, object, or idea. The particular object of attention has little to do with the greater purpose, which is to keep the mind from replaying the past or dreaming about the future, and instead encourage it to deliberately focus single-mindedly upon a static object. In this space, there is no feeling of “I” and “mine”—only full absorption in the present moment.
When we purify our minds through yogic practices, we become able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience, unleashing our great potential for inner healing.
Sustained dharana turns into dhyana, which means “to worship,” or to practice profound, abstract, religious meditation. It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. The concept holds that when we focus the mind in concentration on an object, it is transformed into the shape of the object. Hence, when we focus on the divine, we become reflective of it—and we will begin to know our own true divine nature.
During dhyana, we heighten our level of consciousness and gain clear insight into being able to distinguish between objects and the subtle layers of our own perception. We learn to differentiate between the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived. Take hearing words, for example. The words are the objects perceived. Our ears are the means of perception. Our minds hold the lifelong conditioning that helps assign personal, as well as societal, meaning to these words.
But our minds can also perceive directly without the lens of our conditioning and conceptual frameworks. Meditation becomes our tool to see things clearly for what they are and perceive reality beyond the illusions that cloud our mind.
The final step in the eight-fold path of yoga is the attainment of samadhi, which means “to bring together, to merge.” In the state of samadhi, the body and senses are at rest, as if asleep, yet the faculty of mind and reason are alert, as if awake—one goes beyond consciousness. During samadhi, we realize what it is to be an identity without differences, and how a liberated soul can enjoy pure awareness of this pure identity. The conscious mind drops back into that unconscious oblivion from which it first emerged.
In samadhi, we enter into union with all beings—a union found when the separation that is created by the “I” and “mine” and “you” and “yours” falls away. It’s found when our illusory perceptions of reality cease to control us. The mind no longer distinguishes between self and non-self, or between the object contemplated and the process of contemplation. The mind and the intellect have stopped, and there is only the experience of consciousness, truth, and joy.
The achievement and especially the sustaining of samadhi is a difficult task. For this reason, we work in steps. We adjust our attitude and intention through the yamas and niyamas. We then use the practices of asana and pranayama as preparation for dharana (concentration) because these influence our mental activities and create space in our crowded minds. Once dharana has occurred, dhyana and samadhi can follow.
The eight steps of yoga therefore provide a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change us; rather, it allows the natural state of total health that resides within each of us to become a reality. It allows us to unbuckle the seatbelt and step off the emotional rollercoaster we may have been riding.
So instead of focusing on my current situation and perceived problem, I acknowledge how I feel and then shift my focus on what I do have control over—my practice. By being proactive in our lives, we release ourselves from a victim mentality and assume the role of co-creator of our own lives.
Author: Tymi Howard
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis