For many people yoga simply means a relaxing and energizing form of exercise. Its gentle stretching and bending make the spine and muscles supple and relaxed, bringing blood to all tissues and organs of the body, and at the same time energizing them. The breathing exercises bring about a sense of peace and mental calm giving one the sense that we are in tune with our bodies and in balance with the universe.
This important and integral physical part of “ashtanga” yoga is called “asana” and refers to the physical postures. The breath control used in conjunction with asana is called “pranayama”. The benefits gained teach us how to direct our vital energy, the life force within us called “prana”. In Chinese medicine this vital force is referred to as “chi”.
There are actually 8 limbs of yoga and they are meant to progress a person not just toward physical and mental health, but towards higher realization of who we really are and what we are doing in these bodies in this world. My own teacher once said to me many years ago “religion without science is simply sentiment”. Yoga is the scientific process of action leading one towards spiritual growth.
The first 2 principles of yoga are “yama” and “niyama”. Yama pertains to following the proper rules of true human social conduct. Its principles are nonviolence, truthfulness, never taking what does not belong to us (stealing), nonattachment to temporary things, which must disappear in course of time and learning to control our sexual energy.
Niyama refers to proper rules of personal conduct. Its effects develop from following the social conduct taught through yama. Niyama brings about contentment, purity of mind and force, self-discipline, a desire to imbibe higher spiritual teachings and ultimately inner surrender to the Supreme energy of Godhead.
Yama and niyama are actually the first 2 limbs of yoga, which are traditionally taught to allow students to become eligible and ready to swiftly advance on the path of yoga. Then asana and pranayama are taught which begin to bring the body and mind under our control.
This takes us to the next stage, or limb, of yoga called “pratyahara”. Pratyahara means the student now actually is able to not only control the bodily senses and urges, but also the mind. At this stage there begins equanimity and freedom from the anxieties that most people running the “rat race” of the material world are subject to feeling. It is a turning within, rather than looking to external stimulus for pleasure.
Once achieving this stage of peace, strength and control we are now ready for the next stage. This is called “dharana”. This means we now are able to have complete concentration and control of our attention. Living in our modern society with the hustle-bustle of material life our minds generally are impossible to control. Try to concentrate on one thing or point with no other thoughts entering your head for even 2 minutes. For most people not trained in yoga it is simply not possible. Right? Yet, it is absolutely necessary to master in order to move to the next stage of meditation.
The next stage, or limb, of yoga is called “dhyana”. Dhyana means meditation and proper reflection and direction of our concentration and attention gained through dharana. Real meditation means you can control the mind and senses first. If the mind is constantly flitting from one thing to the next and hasn’t been properly trained, it is not possible to truly meditate. One must be calm, peaceful and have the mind and senses under control first in order to be able to meditate. Meditation takes our consciousness through the dimensional layers of the universe and brings us to the transcendental plane. This is what we are all seeking, whether we realize it or not. No material gains, facility or acquisitions can bring such peace, bliss and total satisfaction of the soul.
The 8th and final stage of yoga is called “samadhi”. At this point one has fully mastered full control of the mind and body. The aspirant is fully absorbed in meditation and one’s vision pierces the dimensional veil on all levels. We have correct vision and understanding of the world we live in and the existence of so many other worlds and dimensions of existence, be they temporary, material planes or those that never dissipate or are subject to destruction.
In samadhi we are not only unperturbed by events around us, but become fully enlightened in spiritual truth and self-realization. This stage is the final stage one passes through toward entrance into the spiritual dimensions from where one never returns to the material world’s cycle of repeated birth and death in so many forms of life, be they human, animal, plants, etc.
In practicing yoga with a view to eventually achieve the highest goals of human existence we gain so many benefits that enrich our lives in the here and now, as well as the lives of those with whom we associate, our families and friends. First there is a purification of the body. Then there is purification of the mind and a change in our desires toward higher human qualities of love and compassion. Through the pranayama breathing the vital force within us is strengthened.
Our intelligence becomes sharpened and reoriented while the false ego and false identification with temporary matter is dissolved. At that point our minds become focused and internalized bringing greater control of the bodily senses. Ultimately the consciousness becomes calm and emptied of all material consideration, having been filled with knowledge of the “self”.
In the “Bhagavad-Gita”, chapter 2 verse 13, it says “As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change”.
Yoga is a scientific process that raises our level of awareness so that we act in accordance with proper principles that keep our bodies and minds healthy. It raises our consciousness so that we act in ways that allow us to have meaningful relationships together. One who sincerely practices yoga, developing self-discipline, then begins to gain a higher awareness on a spiritual, cosmic level. From this point one’s path in life becomes very clear. With a healthy mind, body and spirit we can all go forward, healing ourselves, our relationships and all that is out of balance on this planet today.