Yoga literally means 'to link'. In the ancient Indian teachings there are many different ways to link oneself with the Supreme. For example, karma-yoga means that you offer the results of your work and activities to God. Bhakti-yoga means connecting with the Supreme every moment through loving devotional service. In jnana-yoga you cultivate philosophical knowledge for spiritual elevation.
|The word 'yoke' - the wooden thing that links up two oxen - comes from the Sanskrit word yoga.|
Asta - 'eight', anga - 'steps'
I started thinking of all this because the other day I was reading Patanjali's Yoga-Sutras. Yoga-sutras are the basis of astanga-yoga, or mystic 'eight-fold' yoga. The practice of astanga-yoga begins with various lifestyle regulations and duties (yama and niyama) such as vegetarianism, honesty, celibacy, abstinence from intoxication, and so on. These are followed by postures (asana - 'yoga' as we know it in the modern world). Then follows the controlling of the body's energies through breathing exercises. When you are able to merge the incoming breath with the outgoing breath - meaning when you stop breathing (!!) - then you gradually move through total sense control to concentration and finally, meditation. The last, eighth step is the state of self-realization, samadhi.
The eight steps once again:
1. Yama - prohibitions
2. Niyama - duties
3. Asana - postures
4. Pranayama - breath control
5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana - concentration
7. Dhyana - meditation
8. Samadhi - trance
In astanga-yoga the breathing exercises must come before meditation because breath is intimately connected with the mind. The airs that move in the body move the mind and thoughts within it. So following the astanga process, as long as you have not merged the airs and stopped breathing, you cannot fully focus your mind.
Step 5 means the yogi learns to draw all his perceptive senses from the outer world, detach from it and focus on his inner life only. Kind of like a turtle who can pull all its limbs under the shell.
The Goal of Yoga
The goal of the eightfold mystic yoga is not good health or a flat belly but detachment from the material world. Yoga is meant to detach us from the matter and connect us with the spirit, the Supreme. Doesn't "real yoga" sound intense?! Actually attaining samadhi through astanga-yoga is intense to the point that it's practically impossible in today's world. Previously meditation would rely on the purity of the prana (ether, air, lifeforce) for yogis to sync their consciousness with the Earth frequency. The yogis would drink water and eat nothing but the pure, clean air. Even if today's aspiring yogi or yogini had the willpower, dedication, physical qualities, excellent karma, long life and everything else astanga requires, the ether is so full of disturbing elements that the type of meditation required to progress in astanga couldn't physically happen. When I say physically, I refer to the subtle physical matter such as radio waves, cell phone and wi-fi signals, radars from satellites, airports and motion detectors, etc. This clutter is everywhere and affects the mind too much for astanga's "mechanical" approach.
As you can see, astanga-yoga is a mechanical path to self-realization. It's a strict, exact science and requires perfection at each level to move forward. Astanga-yoga was meant for those who had the nature of a yogi, for those to whom all this came quite naturally and who had such qualities that they wouldn't have wanted any other approach to spiritual life and linking with the Supreme.
Umm So How Do I Get to Samadhi?
The Vedas foretold human's future scope of abilities, attention span and other qualities and so recommend a slightly simpler yoga process for the current age for attaining self-realization - one based on the attraction of the heart to spirit, rather than ascetically restraining the senses from matter. Many ancient texts describe how just by sincerely chanting and hearing the transcendental sound vibration, all else will come in time, almost automatically. Hello, Om! Om is "a seed of transcendental realization" and one of the spiritual mantras you can chant.
We're staying in the country in North Carolina at the moment and fixing the van (yes once again), getting ready for summer festivals and tour. Not much internet, actually have to hurry away now - more about om tomorrow!