Wednesday, December 14, 2011
At last we arrive at the best known stanza of the Yoga Sutras!
Stanza 29 of Book 2 (Sadhana Pada) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is the famous list of the eight stages of the universal and nonsectarian awakening and ascension of the individual soul back to its Creator. I have previously written blog posts on each of these stages and refer readers to those for more details. However in those blog posts my references were not directly to the sutras but to the classic text by Swami Kriyananda, The Art & Science of Raja Yoga. I have been privileged to teach this course for some sixteen years at Ananda in the Seattle area.
The term, Ashtanga Yoga, is commonly translated as 8-Limbed Yoga. Patanjali was not intending to start a yoga studio or yoga movement called “Ashtanga Yoga.” His is a clinical description of the psycho-physiological and spiritual attributes of the universal path toward enlightenment. The stages he describes have several meanings, and here are just a few:
· First, they do represent steps (as in a ladder) that the aspirant is encouraged to take on his path to soul freedom. But this is a linear approach and a transactional interpretation. For example, the fourth stage, pranayama, may be interpreted to suggest that the one practice breath control techniques.
· Second, as “limbs” in a tree, they are more like facets of the diamond of truth rather than steps. Each stage is somewhat holographic, for it contains within its perfection some aspect of all the others. Perfection of the consciousness of non-violence (ahimsa) brings with it or opens the door, at least, to the highest stage, Samadhi.
· Third, the stages represent states of consciousness and degrees of mastery over life force and consciousness. Pranayama, therefore, refers not only to the techniques of controlling life force (starting with awareness and control of the breath) but refers also to the goal of said practices: the state of breathlessness.
· Fourth, each stage brings with it appropriate attitudes and levels of mastery over objective nature. Continuing with the fourth stage as my example, pranayama relates to the heart center and great devotion and pure (unselfish) feeling is awakened and, at the same time, such qualities are necessary for the realization of pranayama. Although it is not clear from the sutras themselves, mastery of prana (pranayama), would possibly bring to the yogi great healing powers, whether of self or others. By stopping the heart pump and breath, human life is prolonged and the effects of aging and disease can be reversed. It is important to note that one can perfect an attitude but cannot perfect its outer expression. For example, perfect nonviolence cannot be achieved insofar as the very act of eating and travelling involves the “killing” of other life forms. (Even a cabbage is a living being.) But no such actions require us to hate or purposely inflict harm. And there are times when one ideal appears to conflict with another. For example, self-defense might seem to place non-violence at odds to the value and protection of human life. In such a case the higher ideal must suffice. Yogananda taught that human life is to be valued, spiritually speaking, and the protection of human life from disease and death is the higher duty where it might involve such policies as mosquito abatement, for example.
· Fifth, Patanjali is describing “yoga” as 8-Limbed. Yoga means, inter alia, “union,” and refers to Oneness or union of soul with the Infinite Power, or Spirit. From Vedanta (the view of reality from the God’s eye), this state has 8-limbs, or eight manifestations. Thus the ladder goes both up and down, and, well, all around! The description of this reality includes the physical body (and macrocosm of the cosmos); the subtle (or astral, or energy) body (and cosmos), the causal body (and cosmos, of ideas and thoughts), and the transcendent realm of Bliss beyond creation (and the various levels of creation in between, as well).
So leaving most interpretation and analysis to my prior blog articles, let us examine the sutras and the remainder of Book 2, which describe the first five stages of the 8-Fold Path:
Verse 29 lists the eight as yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and Samadhi. These eight have a special correlation with the seven chakras (which become eight by the positive and negative polarity of the sixth chakra: the negative pole being located at the medulla oblongata, and the positive pole being the point between the eyebrows. Because these stages exist on all three levels of our Being (physical, astral, and ideational), the correlation between the eight stages and the chakras is only approximate. There is also an approximate correlation of the chakras with the eight facets, or aspects, of the attributes of the soul: peace, wisdom, energy, love, calmness, sound, light, and bliss.
Verse 30 lists the sub-aspects of yama (“control”) as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-attachment. When these are observed under all circumstances we have achieved realization of yama. (Verse 31) When tempted to violate these “great vows,” one should employ positive thoughts, Patanjali advises (in Verse 33). Violations may occur by omission, commission, by indirect means (including ignorance) and may be minor, “middling,” or great in consequence or intensity (Verse 34). Obstacles include greed, anger, and selfishness (V32). One must remember, always, the suffering that such lapses cause. I find it interesting how simply Patanjali states that one should substitute positive thoughts in place of negative one. I have seen this principle employed very frequently in the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.
Angry or violent tendencies in others cease in one’s presence when non-violence is established in one’s consciousness. From truthfulness one acquires the power of attaining for oneself and for others the results of efforts without have to exert the effort (one’s mere word is sufficient). From non-stealing all one’s material needs are attracted to you without additional or strenuous effort. From celibacy there comes great health, vitality, and memory. From non-attachment (to one’s body and possessions) comes the knowledge of one’s past lives. (V35-39)
The second stage, niyama (“non-control,” or the “do’s”), consists also of five precepts, or sub-aspects: internal and external purification, contentment, mortification, study, and worship of God.
With realization of purification (cleanliness) comes indifference (non-attachment) to the demands and needs of the body and senses, and a disinclination for bodily contact with others. Cleanliness (of body, internal and external, and mind) lead to purity of heart, cheerfulness, concentration, control of passions, and awareness of the soul. Contentment yields supreme happiness and joyful peace. Mortification, called in Sanskrit, tapasya, refers to both self-control and even-mindedness under all conditions. The specific instructions regarding mortification should come from one’s preceptor (guru) and the result is the purification of karma. Tapasya leads to the manifestation of psychic powers related to the sense organs (discussed in Book 3, Vibhuti Pada). By remaining focused at the point between the eyebrows (an instruction given by the guru and considered tapasya), the mind becomes pure. By perfection of Self-study (swadhyaya) as a result of meditating and chanting OM, one’s chosen ideal of God appears and higher Beings (devas, rishis, and siddhas) appear before one’s inner sight. With devotion to God while focused at the spiritual eye, Samadhi and attendant siddhis (psychic powers) are achieved. Knowledge of time and space is attained. (V40-45)
6. The third stage is asana. It means, simply, posture. It is to be found by sitting relaxed with a straight spine. This is achieved by awareness and control of the body and by deep meditation on the Infinite. By perfection of asana one is no longer troubled by the ebb and flow of the senses. (V46-48)
Pranayam is the fourth stage and consists of controlling the breath (inhalation, exhalation, and cessation). The external breath is the air moving in the lungs; internal breath is the prana in the astral body; cessation is breathlessness. Cessation is momentary when the breath is held in, or out, but prolonged when it ceases all together in higher stages of meditation. One practices pranayama according to the instructions of the preceptor. Many variations exist and relate to timing, placement of the breath, number of breaths performed, long or short, and so on. Another pranayam is that which results from concentration upon an object, either external or internal. Watching the breath, for example causes the breath to become quiet and even to stop all together. By these four stages the inner light is revealed and obstacles are overcome. (V49-52)
8. With the stage of pratyahara, the prana flowing to the sense organs is reversed and the energy released can be used and focused. The result is a great power of interiorized concentration. Then is complete mastery of the senses achieved. (V53-55).
Thus ends Book 2, Sadhana Pada! The last three stages of the 8-Fold Path, Patanjali consigns to Book 3, Vibhuti Pada, as they are qualitatively on a different level than the first five stages. The five stages (and chakras) relate to the soul’s piercing the veil of maya, especially on the material plane. The three highest stages are, by degrees, stages of contemplation and progressively deeper identification with higher, and finally transcendent, realities.
Thus ends this blog article!