Patanjali, an ancient sage compiled ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’, the aphorisms of yoga, in which he provides an eight-limbed approach for the well-being and purification of body, mind, and soul. This is a multidimensional approach in which all eight limbs are practised simultaneously.
The philosophical basis of Ashtanga yoga can be found in the “Yoga Sutra.” Sutra means a brief statement which explains the ancient Spiritual texts of threaded, string, line, short rule etc. The yoga sutra was written between 400 BC and 200 AB, yoga sutra is the most important text of classical yoga. The author, Patanjali, collected and systematized the existing techniques and knowledge of his time in this work. The yoga sutra defines yoga as “the quieting of the mind” (Yogas Chitta – Vritti- Nirodha). Only with a calm mind can the true nature of existence be realized, in the yoga sutras, Patanjali describes adherence to eight “limbs” or steps which constitute “Ashtanga Yoga” to quiet one’s mind and reach kaivalya (Solitariness or detachment), which is the ultimate goal of yoga.
Yamas and its complement, Niyamas, represent a series of ‘right living’ or ethical rules.
Yamas – Ahimsa, Satyam, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha
Niyamas – Shoucha, Santosha, Tapas, Swadhyay, and Ishwarapranidhan.
The Five Yamas
It should be noted that all yamas should be practiced in the spirit. Furthermore they should be applied in deeds and words, as well as thoughts. Perfection in any of them is for the very few but much progress can be made in a given lifetime. Also they should each be practiced in relation to each other. Sometimes they will seem to conflict and much soul searching will be needed to know how to act righteously (dharma).
Ahimsa, or non-injury, implies non-killing. But non-injury is not only non-killing, it is much more than that. More comprehensively, ahimsa means “entire abstinence from causing any pain or harm whatsoever to any living creature, either by thought, word, or deed. Non-injury needs a harmless mind, mouth, and hand. Ahimsa is not merely negative non-injuring. It is “positive, cosmic love.”
Satya is truthfulness. It is more than just telling the truth. One’s actions should be in accordance with one’s words and thoughts. God and man’s true self are truth, and in order to tune in with that consciousness we need to live truthfully at all times. Furthermore lying creates many thoughts in the mind which go against the objective of calming the mind.
Brahmacharya has two main meanings. In the broad sense it means control of the senses or indriyas. More specifically it refers to celibacy or chastity. Like all spiritual traditions, yoga advocates restraining from indulging in sensual gratification. One of the many reasons is that practicing the higher limbs of ashtanga yoga – dharana, dhyana, samadhi – requires a tremendous amount of energy or prana. This energy is built up through the practices of yoga such as asanas, pranayama, and japa but is dissipated during sensual enjoyment. Of all the sensual activities, sex is the one that will be the most depleting to the psychic and nervous system. Most people don’t like to hear this but, like the other yamas, everyone should practice brahmacharya to the best of their ability. It is a fact that the more people gratify their senses, the less energy they have and the less ability they have to meditate on the absolute.
Asteya is non-stealing. This one is pretty self-explanatory. However, it is good to bear in mind that there are many subtle ways to appropriate what does not belong to us. As for the other yamas, much self-analysis will be necessary to catch the subtle lower tendencies of our mind.
Aparigraha is non-covetousness. This involves being happy and content with what we need and not always coveting unnecessary and luxury items. To possess more than we need is a violation of this precept. Note that aparigraha includes the notion of not accepting gifts that would bind us to the giver.
The Five Niyamas:
The second limb refers to the propensity of the body/mind. Stain ability is the propensity of the body and mind to take on a conditioning or imprint from the environment. These are physical and mental cleanliness, contentment, simplicity, study of sacred texts and acceptance of the existence of the Supreme Being. The first two limbs initially implement feel from the outside, and they form a platform from which practice is undertaken, once we are established in yoga they become our second nature: they will arise naturally.
Saucha is purity. The deepest and most subtle aspect of Saucha is purity of thoughts and feelings. But it also means cleanliness of the body, which includes the internal cleansing practices known as kriyas. A yogi must also keep his surroundings (home, car, workplace, etc.) very tidy and clean. Purity is the essence of the “sattva guna,” of paramount importance to meditate successfully.
Santosha is contentment. This is the ability to recognize that although it is important to try to better our environment and life situation through proper effort, the world around you is never going to be perfect and absolutely to our liking. Therefore the raja yogi should be happy with what he has and endeavor to do the best he can with what he has got.
Tapas is austerity. The luxury and comfort of our modern society, with all its advantages, makes our mind soft and weak. To strengthen ourselves physically and mentally, we must practice austerities. The highest tapas is meditation on God or the divine Self. Daily practice of yogic disciplines is considered tapas. A very good practice is fasting.
Swadhyaya literally means study of the Self. The main practice is the study of the yogic scriptures but it also includes japa (mantra repetition). Not any yoga or spiritual book qualifies as proper material for swadhyaya. The best scriptures are the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. There are also many other scriptures such as the Puranas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, etc. Next come the books written by great mystics or masters such as Swami Vivekananda, Swamy Paramahamsa Yogananda, or other saints from all traditions. Also suitable are books written about these masters – biographies.
Ishwarapranidhana is surrender to God’s will and devotion. All ethical and moral precepts of yoga culminate here.