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The Eight-Limbed Yoga

By ~Gurudevi Ma, Satguru Shri Mahashaktiananda

The Teaching
Shaktiananda Yoga is taught to all ages and all levels as a flowing dance, and is developed in the tradition of the Yoga of Patanjali. The Shaktiananda Yoga technique is Patanjali Yoga. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the eight fold 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. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline. They direct the attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature. Ashtanga Yoga is a system of yoga developed by Patanjali; recorded by the sage Vamana Rishi in the Yoga Korunta, an ancient manuscript said to contain lists of many different groupings of asanas, as well as highly original teachings on vinyasa, drishti, bandhas, mudras, and philosophy. According to Patanjali, the path of internal purification for revealing the Universal Self consists of the following eight spiritual practices:

The Eight Limbs

Yama: moral codes Niyama: self-purification and study Asana: posture Pranayama: breath control Pratyahara: sense control Dharana: concentration Dhyana: meditation Samadhi: absorption into the Universal The First Four Limbs Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama. These are considered external cleansing practices.

1) Yama 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. 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: Ahimsa: nonviolence Satya: truthfulness Asteya: nonstealing Brahmacharya: continence Aparigraha: noncovetousness 2) Niyama 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: Saucha: cleanliness Samtosa: contentment Tapas: heat; spiritual austerities Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of one's self Isvara Pranidhana: surrender to God 3) Asana 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. Through the practice of asanas, we develop the habit of discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. 4) Pranayama 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. You can practice pranayama as an isolated technique by simply sitting and performing a number of breathing exercises, or integrate it into your daily Hatha Yoga routine. 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. This deals with the senses, the mind, and attaining a higher state of consciousness.

The Second Four Limbs: Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi-are to be considered internal cleansing practices. 5) Pratyahara 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. Keenly aware of, yet cultivating a detachment from our senses, we direct our attention internally. The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings which are habits that may be detrimental to our health and interfere with our inner spiritual growth. 6) Dharana As each practice prepares us for the next, pratyahara creates the setting for dharana or concentration. When outside distractions have been ignored, we can now deal with the distractions of the mind itself. In the practice of concentration; which precedes meditation; we learn how to slow down the thinking process by concentrating on a single mental object such as: a specific energetic center in the body, an image of a deity, or the silent repetition of a sound. The powers of concentration have already begun to develop in the previous three stages of posture, breath control, and withdrawal of the senses. 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. Extended periods of concentration naturally lead to meditation. 7) Dhyana 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. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted, and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all. The strength and stamina it takes to reach this state of stillness is quite impressive. But don't give up. While this may seem a difficult if not impossible task, remember that yoga is a process. Even though we may not attain the "picture perfect" pose, or the ideal state of consciousness, we benefit at every stage of our progress. 8) Samadhi Patanjali describes this eighth and final stage of ashtanga as a state of ecstasy. 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. On the surface, this may seem to be a rather lofty, "holier than thou" kind of goal. However,

if we pause to examine what we really want to get out of life, would not joy, fulfillment, and freedom somehow find their way onto our list of hopes, wishes, and desires? What Patanjali has described as the completion of the yogic path is what, deep down, all human beings aspire to: peace. We also might give some thought to the fact that this ultimate stage of yoga-enlightenment-can neither be bought nor possessed. It can only be experienced, the price of which is the continual devotion of the aspirant.

It is advisable to practice these techniques with the guidance of a teacher. The Shaktiananda Yoga technique is Patanjali Yoga. The definition of yoga is "the controlling of the mind" (citta vrtti nirodhah). The first two steps toward controlling the mind are the perfection of yama and niyama. However, it is not possible to practice the limbs and sub-limbs of yama and niyama when the body and sense organs are weak and haunted by obstacles. A person must first take up daily asana practice to make the body strong and healthy. With the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady and controlled. With mind control, one is able to pursue and grasp these first two limbs of yama and niyama. To perform asana correctly in Ashtanga yoga, one must incorporate the use of vinyasa and tristhana; Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. For example, in Surya Namskar there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, etc. In this way all asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas (breaths). The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Synchronizing breathing and movement in the asanas heats the blood, cleaning and thinning it so that it may circulate more freely. Improved blood circulation relieves joint pain and removes toxins and disease from the internal organs. The sweat generated from the heat of vinyasa then carries the impurities out of the body. Through the use of vinyasa, the body becomes healthy, light and strong.

This refers to the union of three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind. They are always performed in conjunction with each other.

The method for purifying and strengthening the body is called Asana. In Ashtanga Yoga, Asana is grouped into the following series: 1) The Primary Series Yoga Chikitsa detoxifies and aligns the body.

2) The Intermediate Series Nadi Shodhana purifies the nervous system by opening and clearing the energy channels. 3) The Advanced Series Sthira Bhaga integrates the strength and grace of the practice, requiring higher levels of flexibility and humility. Each level is to be fully developed before proceeding to the next, and the sequential order of asanas is to be meticulously followed. Each posture is a preparation for the next, developing the strength and balance required to move further. Without an earnest effort and reverence towards the practice of yama and niyama, however, the practice of asana is of little benefit.

The breathing technique performed with vinyasa is called ujjayi (victorious breath), which consists of puraka (inhalation) and rechaka (exhalation). Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even; the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Over time, the length and intensity of the inhalation and exhalation should increase, such that the increased stretching of the breath initiates the increased stretching of the body. Long, even breathing also increases the internal fire and strengthens and purifies the nervous system.

The Bandhas are essential components of the ujjayi breathing technique. Bandha means "lock" or "seal". The purpose of bandha is to unlock pranic energy and direct it into the 72,000 nadi (energy channels) of the subtle body. Mula bandha is the anal lock, and uddiyana bandha is the lower abdominal lock. Both bandhas seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Mula bandha operates at the root of the body to seal in prana internally for uddiyana bandha to direct the prana upwards through the nadis. Jalandhara bandha is the "throat lock", which occurs spontaneously in a subtle form in many asanas due to the dristi ("gaze point"), or head position. This lock prevents pranic energy from escaping and stops any build-up of pressure in the head when holding the breath. Without bandha control, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit.

Looking Place
Dristhi is the gazing point on which one focuses while performing the asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind. In the practice of asana, when the mind focuses purely on inhalation, exhalation, and the drishti, the resulting deep state of concentration paves the way for the practices of dharana and dhyana, the six and seventh limbs of Ashtanga yoga. Instruction in pranayama can begin after one has learned the asanas well and can practice them with ease. Pranayama means taking in the subtle power of the vital wind through rechaka (exhalation), puraka (inhalation), and kumbhaka (breath retention). Only these

kriyas, practiced in conjunction with the three bandhas [muscle contractions, or locks] and in accordance with the rules, can be called pranayama. The three bandhas are "mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha, and they should be performed while practicing asana. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic. In this way did Patanjali start Yoga. By using mulabandha and by controlling the mind, he gradually gained knowledge of Yoga. Practicing asana for many years with correct vinyasa and tristhana gives the student the clarity of mind, steadiness of body, and purification of the nervous system to begin the prescribed pranayama practice. Through the practice of pranayama, the mind becomes arrested in a single direction and follows the movement of the breath. Pranayama forms the foundation for the internal cleansing practices of Ashtanga yoga.

The Four Internal Cleansing Practices

Pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi bring the mind under control. When purification is complete and mind control occurs, the Six Poisons surrounding the spiritual heart [kama (desire), krodha (anger), moha (delusion), lobha (greed), matsarya (sloth), and mada (envy)]-will, one by one, go completely, revealing the Universal Self. In this way, the correct, diligent practice of Ashtanga Yoga under the direction of a Guru with a subdued mind unshackled from the external and internal sense organs eventually leads one to the full realization of Patanjali's eight-limbed yoga. This is Shaktiananda Yoga.

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