Astanga Yoga is a system of yoga codified by Patanjali. Astanga is a Sanskrit word meaning 'eight limbs or branches' and contains many universal truths, beneficial practices, and all around application to better one's life.
To begin, the eight limbs of yoga are made up of first limb the Yamas, known as the five disciplines of practice. These five disciplines are as follows:
not to steal (aparigraha)
Now as you can see these five truths are pretty universally applicable and relatable. Unfortunately, the English language doesn't translate fully the rich meaning of Sanskrit words so easily so I will expand on a few of these...
Ahimsa in essence means non-violence, do not cause harm to yourself or others. But it also means to do the opposite of violence. This is an action word and encourages us not only to refrain from hurtful actions, but is meant for us to do helpful deeds, speak kind words, and show love and grace towards ourselves and others.
Bramacaraya translating to mean celibacy, really confused me for awhile. I heard many different definitions and explanations for this in my Ayurvedic school as well as other texts I was reading. I thought, in this day and age how can I possibly apply this? I'm in the prime of my life and what if I want little ones some day!? Well, I'm no extremist and took the explanation that resonated with me the most for this one. Bramacarya doesn't necessarily mean to abstain from sex entirely, but is an understanding that sexual activity and release expends vital life force energy, weakening our energy source. Thus it encourages to regulate how often we engage in these acts. It also emphasises that sexual acts are deep and intimate not only on a physical level, but an emotional and spiritual level as well and should be acted upon only when unconditional love for another is present. Now I know this isn't for everyone, but I think most people can agree that too much "activity" can lead to sleepiness and meaningless sex hasn't lifted too many spirits or filled too many hearts!
Moving on ;) Now lets take a look at the second limb, a set of principles known as the Niyamas or five devotions and observances. The Niyamas are as follows:
self-study & scriptural study (svadhaya)
devotion to the journey (isvarapranidha)
Okay, to expand on a couple... Cleanliness is a little self-explanatory, but it doesn't just mean having a clean house or making sure you catch a shower. The deeper insight into sauca is cleanliness of self to allow space for spirit energy to flow through. If you have a cluttered house, but want new things, soon you won't have anywhere to put it and it'll more than likely get lost! Cleanliness has to do with keeping our environment clear as well as our energy bodies to allow room for new energy to come in.
Svadhaya means to study the self and scripture. Now scripture can be anything you believe in that helps you gain insight into the world, love, yourself and expands your heart and mind. It doesn't need to be the Bible or the Koran and it can absolutely be the Bible or Koran! Whatever it may be, allow it to make your spiritual world bigger, not smaller.
Make your spiritual world bigger, not smaller...
The third limb is Asana which I'm sure many people have heard if they've taken a yoga class. Asana is movement of the body in specific ways to create more space and grace, as I like to say :) If you've been to a yoga class or know of yoga poses, they have been designed over time by gurus of the body system. Asana is meant to help prepare you for meditation. To create ease in the body is to create ease in the mind.
The fourth limb is Pranayama, prana meaning breath and yama meaning to slow down or control. Thus pranayama is slowing down and controlling the breath. I'm sure you'll notice as time goes on many of these words have several meanings and that's just because Sanskrit is such a rich language, I love it! There are several different forms of pranayama such as nadi sodhana known as alternate nostril breathing, ujjayi known as dragons breath, shitali, and many others. Pranayama is the practice of ones breath so it is appeased and doesn't agitate the mind, thus also preparing you for meditation.
"the mind becomes reabsorbed into it's source - the heart"
Next! The fifth limb of yoga is Pratyahara which means withdrawal of the 5 senses and mastery of the 5 senses. The 5 senses being taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound. This is a huge part of clearing ones mind and clearing ones energy. It is encouraged to practice this frequently especially in this day and age where we are bombarded and overloaded with sensory stimulation and messages. Withdrawing from sensory stimulation will help you tune into you senses and help you regain power over them not only in your meditation, but in all areas of your life! An excerpt from one of my books says if "the fuel of the senses is withheld, then like a fire that dies down without fuel, the mind becomes reabsorbed into it's source, the heart." Read more on the senses in my post The Ego's Hidden Agendas.
Moving on to the sixth and seventh limb which merge together so nicely :) Dharana is concentration. This the preparation meditation before delving into a deeper state of consciousness. It is a time to center yourself by focusing on one "object". It doesn't need to be a physical object but can be a single focus in ones mind. If I'm focusing on an object, I'll often look at my crystal or a small lit candle and simply observe how often my eyes try to look away or I'll chant "Om" or "Om Mani" mantra outloud or in my head. This channeling your focus and senses will move you to the seventh limb; Dhyana.
With a heightened sense of focus and control over the senses, dhyana is becoming fully absorbed into the point of focus through sustained concentration. If I'm looking at my crystal, in the beginning I'm concentrating on just sustained gazing while my mind simmers down. But over time, I become absorbed in the moment I am having with the crystal, becoming very aware of it's presence in the room and my presence in the room. Soon my life is no longer all my plans for the weekend, thoughts for dinner, and all the phone calls I need to make, but is right here, right now. My life is simply this moment where I inhabit this body in this physical space I'm sitting in.
Om Mani Padme Hum
It's as if my consciousness has integrated fully into this moment in time allowing expansive feelings yet pure emptiness. Thus leading us into the eight limb of yoga, Samadhi. Samadhi, where it's all leading, is the ripe fruit of meditation and integration of all these limbs. In its highest state, samadhi is pure consciousness where one feels aware and connected to themselves, others, and all things around them. All of this practice is leading us to a place where there is now open space inside for new energy, new thoughts, expansive hearts, and expansive lives.
When we cultivate room for something new, we can fully see it and appreciate it, but we have to go through the clutter. Sometimes making space is uncomfortable and we want to fill it, but it is the new space that is useful for us. We can connect with someone in a mere moment because we have that cleared space in our hearts and when that moment passes we also have the ability to let it go with deep thanks and appreciation, allowing all things to ebb and flow through our lives with non-possessiveness and non-attachment.
In Taoism, there is saying that the empty space of the bowl is what makes it useful... May we all be clear and be at peace ~Om Shanti~