The eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life and serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct as well as self-discipline.Through this eight fold path, they help practitioner to accept the spiritual aspects of nature. The most important aspect for building construction is the foundation, whereas the construction of the spiritual edifice of raja yoga is constituted by yamas and niyamas. More advanced practices such as meditation should also be pursued but there will be no substantial progress until the 10 practices of yama and niyama are established.
The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. It should be noted that all yamas should be practiced in the spirit and put into practice. All 5 yamas are interconnected and should be practiced in relation to each other. Although sometimes they are contradictory,Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The five yamas are:
- Ahimsa: nonviolence . It also means “entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word or deed.”Non-injury will require harmless mind & actions.
- Satya: truthfulness. It is more than merely telling the truth. Everyone should practised what they preach and walk the talk.
- Asteya: nonstealing and is self-explanatory. However, it is good to bear in mind that there are many subtle ways to desire what does not belong to us.
- Brahmacharya: advocating chastity or celibacy as sex is the most depleting activity to the psychic and nervous system. Like all traditional spiritual traditions, yoga advocates restraining from indulging in sensual gratification. This energy is built up through the practices of yoga such as asanas, pranayama and japa but is dissipated during sensual enjoyment.
- Aparigraha: noncovetousness and the state of being contented. This also includes the notion of not accepting gifts that would bind us to the giver.
Niyama, the second limb, has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice. The five niyamas are:
- Saucha: cleanliness which includes purity of mind and thoughts. It also include the cleanliness of the boday which includes kriyas
- Samtosa: contentment with your life though it is good to do improvement to your lifestyle. One must remember that the world is not a perfect place.
- Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities is required to strengthen ourselves physically and mentally . One of the best way is through fasting.
- Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self. For a vedantin the best scriptures are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras
- Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God’s will and devotion. All ethical and moral precepts of yoga culminate here.
Asanas, the postures practiced in yoga, comprise the third limb. In the yogic view, the body is a temple of spirit, the care of which is an important stage of our spiritual growth. Furthermore the posture must be kept still for a long time and therefore it needs to be extremely comfortable. When the meditator is not able to control his mind, he is advised to practice the asanas of hatha yoga in order to gain the needed mastery.
Generally translated as breath control, this fourth stage consists of techniques designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process while recognizing the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. As implied by the literal translation of pranayama, “life force extension,” yogis believe that it not only rejuvenates the body but actually extends life itself.Very much like the wind creates the motion of the leaves, prana creates the motion of the mind which gives rise to the vrittis. Air is the primary physical medium of prana and breathing is our best method to gain control over the prana.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. The analogy given to us is that of the tortoise which, under perceived danger, pulls in all its limbs and head.
As each stage prepares us for the next, the practice of pratyahara creates the setting for dharana, or concentration. One-pointedness. The meditator is fully focused on the object of concentration, his mind as still as the flame of a lamp in a windless room. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation. Which is dhyana.In asana and pranayama, although we pay attention to our actions, our attention travels. Our focus constantly shifts as we fine-tune the many nuances of any particular posture or breathing technique. In pratyahara we become self-observant; now, in dharana, we focus our attention on a single point.
Meditation or contemplation, the seventh stage of ashtanga, is the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) may appear to be one and the same, a fine line of distinction exists between these two stages. In dhyana there is still duality of consciousness which is the feeling of separation between the meditator and the object of meditation. When maintained long enough this state will lead to the highest rung of the ladder of ashtanga yoga which is samadhi.This may seem to ba difficult task , however do remember that practise makes perfect and at every stage of our progress, we will benefit from this practice.
“The state of consciousness where Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy; Oneness; here the mind becomes identified with the object of meditation; the meditator and the meditated, thinker and thought become one in perfect absorption of the mind.”
At this stage, the meditator merges with his or her point of focus and transcends the Self altogether. The meditator comes to realize a profound connection to the Divine, an interconnectedness with all living things. With this realization comes the “peace that passeth all understanding”; the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. This ultimate stage of yoga which is enlightenment can neither be bought nor possessed. However, it can be attained through continual practice.