According to the Bible of Yoga : Yogasutra authored by Patanjali, an East-Indian scholar, Yoga has eight aspects, which are to be developed in sequence. You cannot jump around and expect to gain the benefits of yoga.
The word yog, means union or addition. What are you adding through the practice of yog? When you graduate from the school of yog, or have mastered all eight steps of yog, your body and your mind become one, and your spirit soars. This is heaven while being on earth, every time you reach that state. So not why aim for it and sail through life?
1. Yama :
Yama means standards. This is how you begin your journey as a yogi. You learn to be mindful of your actions and live in integrity. When I took my first five precepts as a Buddhist, I vowed to:
1.not kill - practice ahimsa. Killing also means not hurting through our words and action. When you hurt someone through unkind words or even thoughts, you kill with your rudeness or indifference. Let's remain mindful of that too.
2. not lie - remain truthful, practice satya - In India our national mantra is Satyameva jayate - meaning truth alone triumphs - this is why most stories end in poetic justice, so you leave with hope as you continue with your life.
3. not steal - respect life, practice asteya
4. not entertain lustful thoughts or actions - practice Brahmacharya - as a Buddhist it means not get intoxicated. To the western mind, this is shocking. The first question I am asked "what about social drinking?" Alcohol is a depressant. When did anyone make a good decision under the influence of any drug (legal or illegal) or alcohol? Lust isn't lust for sex alone. You could lust for anything that is not yours and wish it was yours, now. Lust means the desire to enjoy whatever you see, think of or hear of. This is what leads to spiritual dimentia.
5. not convet - practice aparigraha - when you see or think of something, the first thought should not be the desire to own.
When you begin practicing Yama, the second stage become easier. Niyama means self-discipline and focusing first and foremost on your inner self than on external appearance and wondering "what others will say/think". You develop your personal practices that work towards strengthening of your spirit. You need to invest in your lone-time. Even if you are working and married with a partner and children, you still need to focus on filling your pot, so when others come to you, you may fill their cups. Niyama allows you to do that.
The five niyamas are:
Cleanliness - Saucha. Clean body, clean heart (emotions), clean mind (thoughts).
Contentment - Santosha. Being content with what you have and who you are. Goals are good, greed in evil. Greed is nothing else but uncontrolled and endless goals. A discontented person is like an infectious disease. The only desire must be to be desireless. A contented person lives like that.
Spiritual austerities - Tapas. Keeping your inner lamp always lit. When you step into a room, you don't look for the lamp to light it. You are becoming the light through your personal choices and actions that follow from these.
Investing in personal growth by reading sacred scriptures and autobiographies of luminaries - Svadhyaya. When you know yourself, you know the world. When you connect with yourself, you are connected to everyone.
Surrender to God - align with your higher self, or connect within for your answers and your strength - Isvara pranidhana. I am not sure there is a God in heaven looking down on us and keeping tabs of your rights and wrongs like Santa Clause does so he knows whether to bring us toys or coal at Christmas. Your God is you. If you cannot stay in integrity with your self, then everything else in your life is a lie. When you are aligned with yourself, everything else falls into place and you can live in joy.
Asana means your posture. The postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb or the third stage.When you care for your body, your spirit is at ease. Yoga as is commonly known to the modern world is Hatha-Yoga. You might find other words prefixing the word Yoga and these are names of people who decided to add their names to yoga and create a patent or something to that effect. Yoga does not belong to one person. Yoga is all for all. Everyone must practice yoga to the best of their abilities begining with the first step - yama (not to kill).
The reason your posture is important is to help you regulate your breath.
"Breath control is self-control. Breath mastery is self mastery. "
- Paramahamsa Hariharananda
When you practice yoga, your clear up your internal clutter and energetic debris that has accumulated since you last did your yoga. Only a strong body can sustain a strong heart, mind and spirit. A strong spirit is a spirit free from ego, it is a humble spirit. It knows who it is and lives in humility - constantly aware that every moment is a gift through grace and must be honored and valued. As you create a daily discipline of practicing your postures (asanas), your body gets stronger and you can maintain extended periods of single pointed attention. In your daily life, you gain clarity and can focus well at work, in home, or the road and in life.
Pranayama = prana(life force/breath) + yama(disciplines) = breath control. Pranayama helps you gain mastery over your inhalation and exhalation. Over time you learn how to take slow long deep breaths, hold it for awhile and exhale slowly and feel completely rejuvenated. When you can extend your inhalation, exhalation and the gap between the two, your extend your life force and therefore extend your life is a healthy and pleasant way. Extending life should not demand drugs, contraptions and visits to the western doctors office or hospitals.
You can practice pranayama without yogasanas. But with yogasanas, your pranayama attains perfection. Pranayama could also be called breathing exercises.
The first four stages of yoga help us become stronger in your bodies, emotions, thoughts and actions. The next four steps help us deal with and master our six senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and mind. The physical body is gross matter, the human mind is subtle matter. Your mind comprises of your memory, intellect, imagination, consciousness and ego.
These first four stages of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga concentrate on refining our personalities, gaining mastery over the body, and developing an energetic awareness of ourselves, all of which prepares us for the second half of this journey, which deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.
Pratyahara means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. As you grow in breath mastery, you will also notice that your desire for external validation keeps shrinking. You are not reaching out for the next fascination, house, boat or even pretty face or bling. Your "stuff" will no longer attract you. The proverb "Less is more" will make more sense to you. You begin practicing non-attachment and more compassion. You step back in life and gain objectivity about your cravings. You are amused by your old habits and slowly they are replaced with newer habits that bring you closer to your goal of contentment, serenity and peace. You shy away from anything detrimental to your physical health and inner peace.The gaze is inward and you are more focussed in your life.
Dharana, or concentration becomes easier as you master pratyahara (focus on yourself rather than seek external validations). You learn to relieve your from outside distractiona and now prepare to deal with the distractions of your mind. When you focus on something in particular and sit to meditate, you are engaging in contemplation. Meditating on a form needs to be mastered before you can meditate on the formless. This pin-pointed attention is also called concentration. Dharana could also be called as imagination as long as it is not a flight of fantasy. Dharana(concentration) precedes dhyana(meditation).
Unless you learn to concentrate, it is hard to meditate. You learn to slow down the thinking process. You can start off with learning to concentrate on the flame of your candle or anything that is luminous, or the image of a revered one, or flowing water or a mountain top or the sound of bowl, a bell, or sacred chants. You need something to slowdown and eventually silence the non-stop chatter within.
When you have been practicing yama, niyama, asana(postures), pranayama(breath control) and pratyahara(withdrawing of senses), dharana(concentration) gets easier.. We, of course, have already begun to develop our powers of concentration in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses.
When we engage in asana and pranayama, we pay attention to our bodily movement, our focus is continuously shifting. In pratyahara our awareness of our cravings and habits are heightened. We start noticing our shadow self. We become aware of when to stop and here in lies our genius. Now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point - whatever that maybe: an image, a sound or a light. Extended periods of concentration naturally leads to meditation.
Meditation or contemplation is the uninterrupted flow of concentration which I am still struggling with after years of practice. I find my mind wander and then I forgive myself and bring my awareness back. Then I find my mind wandering again and I again forgive myself like a mother forgives her only child and bring my awareness back. During meditation I return to my posture, return to my breath, maybe even repeat my guru-mantra over and over again and return to the flow of dhyana(meditation).
Dharana is focusing on something and dhyana is focusing on nothing. Dhyana is merely indulging in who you are. Dhyana is acknowledging your presence in the present moment. It is not easy, but if you can stay in it even for a few breaths at a time, you are doing good. Everyday practice of meditation is hard to get you to this state. You need hours of practice every day to get to this state easily and sustain it on your own without having to focus on posture, breath or dharana(focus on an object).
Mastering this stage means your mind is quiet and your still like your breath. Like a pond with no ripples in it, your mind is thoughtless. I know it is possible because I have experienced it many times when I am meditating in the presence of my guru or early in the morning right after I wake up in pre-dawn hours. Like the adage success is 99% perspiration and 1% grace. When you work real hard, your guru shows up and guides you. Any external human who you believe to be a guru is a person who is aware of himself/herself all the time. This guru aligns with the active principle that is your guru, your higher self. Your eight chakra has opened up and you are in constant touch with your truth. This is how masters collapse time and space and conquer themselves. This is how they exist free of ego.
It reques tons of strength and stamina but you can do it when you do not quit. It is difficult and yet possible. Yoga is a the journey of a yogi. Every stage of yoga is beneficial for your progress as a higher being, a better human, a peaceful and powerful person. True power arises out of peace.
According to Patanjali, the final stage of ashtanga yoga is Samadhi, a state of ecstasy.The meditator merges with what he or she is focussing on and transcends the self all together. You arrive at a realization of your connection to divine and your interconnectedness with all sentient beings. You realize a peace that you cannot explain but experience so well. You experience the bliss of your own being. Great teachers like Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was often found immersed in divine bliss singing the name of the sweet lord, dancing and truly enjoying himself. The Bauls of Bengal, the dervishes reach this state through years of practice and towards the end of what seems to us like "song and dance" routine.
All human beings seem to aspire this peace. Patanjali gave us the eight steps to achieve it. The ultimate stage of yoga is enlightenment and this can neither be purchased nor possessed. It cannot even be explained to one who not experienced it. The true price of attaining this state is merging of the three paths: gyana(knowledge), karma(action) and bhakti(devotion).