In our last article, we discussed Ashtanga Yoga, the ancient yogi Patanjali’s 8 step yoga for achieving spiritual enlightenment. You can read it here. It is different from modern yoga. While modern yoga has some steps from this kind of yoga, it is very limited and aims for physical health. The purpose is different and taken out of context.
We discussed the first 4 steps: yam, niyam, asan, and pranayam. Each step follows from the last in a logical order. While all 8 steps are about directing one’s energy towards a singular purpose; liberation or moksha, the first 4 steps deal with the more gross aspects of our human existence.
Yam deals with how one behaves in society; towards others around oneself. There are 5 yams: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (being truthful), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (abstinence not from sex in general but from senseless indulgence in it), and aparigraha (renouncing greed.) Self-restraint in all these ways brings about a revolution in the furthest borders of our consciousness and directs our energy towards positivity.
Niyam deals instead with how one behaves with oneself. There are 5 niyams as well: shauch (cleanliness), santosh (being content with what one has), tapa (austerity; to face challenges with tenacity and righteousness), swadhyaya (the study of quality spiritual literature), and ishwar pranidhan (surrender to and service of God.) Once the most distant horizon of human consciousness, ie., relating to others, is directed positively, we turn our attention inward towards our relationship with ourselves.
Asan, which originally meant ‘relaxed body’ and not ‘postures’ as interpreted by yogis today, recognizes that the body of an ordinary person is not in a good state. It is not in control and is full of lazy energy. Asan attempts to correct this through various yogic practices involving movements of the body, as well as the simple practice of just sitting quietly. Forcing yourself to sit without distractions eventually transmutes the body from restless to restful. Now, we can focus our energy on the subtler aspects of our existence in our search for spiritual enlightenment.
The last of the first 4 steps, pranayam, deals with the fact that our breath and mental state are closely linked. When we are angry, upset, or sad, our breathing becomes shallow and irregular. When we are happy it takes on a more steady and tranquil quality. Conversely, learning to breathe correctly transforms our mind from scattered and weak to something more strong and quiet.
From Gross to Subtle
Now, we will discuss the last 4 steps, which involve much subtler layers of consciousness. We are moving from our everyday interactions with society and ourselves, our bodies, and our breath, to the realm of meditation. The last 4 steps are not physical yoga (although they can be performed in conjunction), but involve the subtle mind in an attempt to attain samadhi, which is a mental state of pure stillness and bliss.
Step 5: Pratyahar
The 5th limb and step of Ashtanga Yoga is pratyahar, which can be translated to ‘sensory withdrawal’. Patanjali recognized that human consciousness is very closely tied to our senses. Because we are always living through our senses – outward – our consciousness is typically weak and fragmented as a result. We watch TV, eat tasty foods, indulge in sex, talk, and listen constantly.
These are all relatively unconscious activities; not that we lack any consciousness when we do them, but we don’t do them with purpose and with a unified mind. We surf mindlessly through channels, lust after junk food and sex, and talk gossip on the phone for hours on end. As a result, the consciousness tied to our senses is diluted,weak, and incapable of becoming truly still and giving us freedom and bliss.
Pratyahar attempts to reverse this. By inwardly withdrawing from senses during a seated practice of meditation, one channels all one’s energy towards one’s inner light.
One common method to accomplish this is to focus on one’s breath. Another method is to inwardly chant a mantra. By bending your mind around a single point, you gain the ability to move your mental focus away from your senses and towards the object of your meditation.
Pratyahar ripens your consciousness for deeper meditation, and the next step, dharan.
Step 6: Dharan
Dharan can be translated as ‘holding steady’. Through pratyahar, by disconnecting from the senses, one lays the foundation for deeper meditation. Pratyahar enables one to enter into meditation; to stay in it is the act of dharan.
There is not much difference between dharan and pratyahar practices, but the intent and experience are different. The intent of pratyahar is to enter meditation, the focus of dharan is to sustain the meditative state.
Like with pratyahar, the practitioner focuses on a singular objection: a thought, matra, or on his breathing. But, the idea is not just to disconnect from the 5 senses, but to stay in a steady state of concentration.
Pratyahar enables one to have a single-pointed mind, and dharan utilizes this ability to focus intently on one mental object.
This is the beginning of meditation. The next step is dhyan, or pure meditation.
Step 7: Dhyan
Dhyan can be considered an advanced stage of dharan. It is experienced through its gateway.
In dharan, the meditator and an object of meditation exist. There is a duality. To experience oneness, the object and subject of the meditation must dissolve into a singular mystical experience.
When one establishes in the practice of dharan, eventually the object of the meditation is forgotten, and with it the subject. Thus, only the state of meditation remains, where both the person and point of focus disappear.
This is called unity experience or oneness. It takes time practicing dharan to achieve dhyan.
Dhyan is the last step that takes effort and will. The final stage in Ashtanga Yoga, samadhi, requires no effort and is a culmination of one’s dhyan practice.
Step 8: Samadhi
This is it, the final step and ultimate goal of Patanjali Yoga.
Through repeated immersion in the practice of dhyan, the meditator becomes purified. One by one negative tendencies, thoughts, and emotional constructs that constitute the personal self, all drop away.
Who and what the person originally thought he was, is now seen as a veil; an illusion. That you are not a person solely of memories and rigid ideologies becomes apparent, and the practitioner experiences gentle ego death.
When the ego dies, the meditator moves beyond the experience of dhyan and into samadhi; pure transcendental bliss.
This is not the bliss of sex or achievement. It is a deeper, more subtle bliss, which is accompanied by learning of great wisdom and understanding. You learn the origin of things, why things are the way they are, and that something supramental and delightfully divine is behind everything. You might have glimpses or suspicions of this before, but in samadhi, one knows it fully; profoundly, intimately, and infinitely.
Ashtanga Yoga: The End and the Means to This End
Many religions, spiritual sects, and philosophers have reasoned that the purpose of human life is evolution. Liberation, moksha, or spiritual enlightenment, is a common concept which postulates an ‘end to suffering’; a final goal in our evolution.
The ancient yogi Patanjali has presented us with a scientific methodology for achieving such an exalted state. It is within his system of Ashtanga Yoga that the steps to achieve it can be found. But, unlike other practices, the practice is both an end as well as a means to an end. The practices of dhyan, dharan, and pranayam all contain the experience of unity consciousness in one way or another, even though they are limited in perspective compared to the final step, samadhi.
The beauty of this yoga system is that one can apply the scientific method to it. A hypothesis is proposed at each step, which one can voluntarily inquire into its validness by practicing as advised. The results have been spoken for by millions of people.
At the very least, Ashtanga Yoga offers significant mental health benefits, even if spiritual enlightenment might seem a lofty goal for some. The calming of the mind, the purification of negative behaviors, and so on, are of value in themselves. It is worth trying this yogic path, even if the beginning is simple curiosity.