The Yoga Tradition
Yoga is part of a cultural heritage based in India that stretches back thousands of years. Because of the physical and cultural divide between West and East, there is a patina of exoticism and glamour that pervades the Western view of eastern philosophies, but they are as well-considered with as much intellectual rigor as the pillars of our own culture, the philosophies of Ancient Greece.
The Yoga tradition was codified by a man named Patañjali in the second century B. C. in a book that has become known as the Yoga Sutras. Patañjali took an already old tradition and pared it down to 195 terse verses. (Sutra is Sanskrit for “thread”). This is what has become known as “classical” yoga. He boils it all down to a system comprising eight steps or limbs, which are often referred to as Ashtanga Yoga (Ashta = eight, anga = limb).
The Path To Liberation
Patañjali’s eight limbs are as follows:
Yama - universal observances
Niyama - personal observances
Asana - posture
Pranayama - regulation of the life force or breath control
Pratyahara - sense withdrawal
Dharana - concentration
Dhyana - meditation
Samâdhi - enstasy
The Yamas and the Niyamas are equivalent to the Ten Commandments. The Five Yamas are codes of conduct for the individual in his or her relationship to society: ahimsa or non-violence, satya or truth, asteya or non-stealing, brahmacharya or continence and aparigraha or non-coveting. The Niyamas refer to individual discipline: saucha or purity, santosha or contentment, tapas or intensity, svadhyaya or study of the self and, finally, isvara pranidhana or dedication to the Lord. This last one can be somewhat controversial, especially in the West. It is important to remember that Yoga is a spiritual discipline from India where Hinduism is the predominant form of religious expression. Yoga is not, however, a religion. Though it is often presented in a Hindu context, it can just as easily be applied to any other spiritual context. What Patañjali is calling for is an acknowledgment and a dedication to a power greater than that of the individual.
The third limb, Asana, is the one that most people are familiar with when they think of Yoga. Two different translations of the word are “posture” and “steady seat.” It is thought that, in Patañjali’s time, this referred to the ability to sit for extended periods of time for the practice of meditation. Many of the very early yoga manuals refer mainly to different seated positions. Over the centuries, however, a whole range of poses have been developed to exercise every muscle, organ and gland in the body, to make the body healthy and flexible enough to endure prolonged periods of contemplation.
The first three limbs have more to do with the outside world and the practitioner’s relationship to it. The next two limbs start to take the practitioner in a more inwardly direction. Pranayama refers to the regulation of the life force or Prana. In the Indian tradition this life force is carried on the breath, so, practically speaking, Pranayama refers to breath control. By regulating the breath one is at once controlling the life force and calming the mind. Pratyahara, the fifth limb, is restraint of the senses. The vision is easy enough to restrain, one simply needs to close the eyes, but the other four are a bit harder to control. This limb refers to relinquishing the distractions of the outside world so that one’s awareness can remain inside the body with the mind, the better to be undistracted in contemplation.