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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 71: The Eight Limbs or Stages of Yoga

Yogāṅgānuṣṭhānāt aśuddhikṣaye jñānadīpṭiḥ āviveka-khyāteḥ (II.28): The practice of the various stages or limbs of yoga leads to the purification of the self and to the revelation of knowledge up to the attainment of perfection. These limbs of yoga, or the stages, are really stages of purification and enlargement of the dimension of personality – an enhancement of one’s comprehension of the extent of one’s being.

This calls for a preparation which is uncanny in every way. It needs no mention that unprepared minds cannot take to yoga because the resort to this practice is not merely an activity that is undertaken, but a rebirth that one takes into a new type of thought and feeling, so that all preconceptions may have to be set aside when this new system of thinking is to be introduced. Everything that we regard ordinarily as the meaning of life ceases to be a meaning here. There is a new type of meaning which will come to the surface of one’s mind when one properly prepares oneself for this practice.

These preparations are not really intellectual, academic or even scientific in the common parlance. It is a readjustment of oneself to a new order of reality – a task which is difficult to undertake without guidance from a competent teacher. This is, right from the beginning to the end, a process of living and not merely gathering information or understanding in any type of extrinsic manner. It is, through and through, a process of living and being, and not merely an understanding of things externally. There is nothing in yoga if it is not lived. Therefore, it is quite different from study in the sense of a vocational pursuit or the idea of education that we have in our minds, because our studies in the world are generally not connected with life. They are certain auxiliaries to life, whereas here we are not going to enter into any auxiliary, but go right to the heart of life itself.

Hence, the preparations called for are all-round. It is not merely one type of preparation that is required. It is moral, it is physical, it is intellectual, it is social, and it is spiritual. All things at once are focused into a single point of the student’s preparation for yoga; and when this purification process begins, there is a spontaneous purification of personality. All dross in the form of rajas and tamas – the tendencies of the mind towards enjoyment of things rather than wisdom in regard to things – ceases, and there is a revelation, jnanadipti. It has to be reiterated that this jnanadipti, or illumination, is not merely a vacant light that flashes itself forth on certain objects; it is an enlightenment of oneself – a knowledge of Truth and an insight into Reality. Therefore, it is difficult to understand with any stretch of imagination what sort of knowledge it is.

Because of our inability to comprehend the nature of this knowledge, we still have doubts. Even till the end, this doubt persists as to the relationship of oneself with God, world and society, and there are even doubts concerning the nature of one’s status after liberation, and so on, which are the remnants of the doubts concerning the relationship of oneself with other things. The doubts arise on account of a bifurcation of knowledge from its object, inasmuch as we are born into this doubt, into this world of this distinction that is persistently made between knowing and being. But, every step in yoga is a step towards the unification of knowledge and being, so that we are trying to tread a path which is far removed from the common ways of the man of the world. This is the reason that there is such an insistence on isolation, sequestration, and guarding and protecting oneself from the onslaughts of feelings which are usually connected with the ways of life that the world knows.

These stages, these limbs of yoga, are the ardent and fervent blossoming forth of oneself into the higher stages of one’s own being, which calls for utter self-restraint at every step. Yoga is nothing if it is not self-restraint. It is humanly impossible to understand what this self-restraint actually means if one is not endowed with qualities which are really superhuman, because self-restraint, or self-control – which is the very base, the essence and the quintessence of yoga – is not withdrawal, as it is usually understood, from anything that is existent. It is not cutting oneself off from life in the world; nor does it mean indulgence in the life of the world. The restraint of the self is an attitude of consciousness, an adjustment of oneself which is different from physical activities or psychological withdrawals from realities, against which our modern psychoanalysts are so opposed due to a misconstruing of the nature of Reality and the purpose of yoga. There is, therefore, a necessity to reorientate the very concept of one’s goal of life and, consequently, the methods that have to be adopted for the fulfilment of this goal.

These preparations in the practice of yoga are the gradual changes that are introduced into the outlook of life which one entertains, and the very first step, known as the yamas, is indicative of our attitude to things in general. What do we think about people? What do we feel about things? What is our opinion about the world as a whole? This subtle feeling, reaction, attitude, opinion or conception that we hold in respect of persons, things and objects outside us is symbolic of the stuff that we are made of and the extent to which we are prepared for this higher practice, because our opinions about things are the prejudices that we have in our minds. They cannot be got rid of, inasmuch as we are born into these notions. We need not be taught that the world is outside us, that we have friends and enemies, that there are things to be liked or not liked, that there are good and bad things, that there is a beautiful thing and an ugly thing. These things need not be taught to us. We know very well, instinctively, that such things do exist in the world, but it is precisely these things, these notions, these ideas that we have to shed because the presence of these prejudged ideas in our minds becomes the obstacle that we have to face in the future.

As a matter of fact, what are known as the impediments in yoga are nothing but the concretisations of the prejudices that we have already in our minds, which we have suppressed for various reasons in the earlier stages, because the ideas that we hold are our own children – they are our own selves – and nothing can be dearer to us than our notions, ideas, concepts, feelings and opinions. And, who can give up one’s own opinion? One’s own opinion is the only opinion that can be in the world and, therefore, it is so intimate to one’s being. How can we get rid of notions? Notions are the very ways in which the mind works, and the mind is inseparable from our phenomenal personality.

Hence, the practice of even the most initial of these stages is a herculean task. It asks for a complete turning of the tables round and bringing about a complete revolution in the way of thinking, which may sometimes deal a deathblow at common practice and the tradition of the world. Nothing can be more painful. Sometimes it is even capable of producing reactions, as happened in the case of many saints of the past who were mortified by society on account of the sudden revolutionary thoughts that they held in the light of the Reality which they faced in their experience, but which the world could not understand and the world will never understand.

It is a hard job; and it would be a part of the wisdom of the student to see that even strong thoughts and revolutionary ideas which may be in conformity with the nature of Reality do not suddenly set up phenomenal reactions – physical or social. Well, certain things are beyond one’s control. Occasionally, experiences of such a type may arise in oneself which may have their own say in the matter; and, for good or for bad, whatever consequences follow may have to be tolerated. But as far as one’s understanding goes, to the extent of the capacity of oneself in judging things, it should be proper that extreme steps should not be taken. A very careful harmony should be introduced into our idea of the relationship between ourselves and the world, and also the relationship between ourselves and the goal of life – God Himself – so that it would be wisdom to be moderate, and patient, and go stage by stage without missing even one step.

The limbs of yoga are mentioned to be eight. Yama niyama āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayaḥ aṣṭau añgāni (II.29). These are the stages through which we have to pass. The angas, or the limbs of yoga, are really the realms of being which we pierce in our concentration. These are the various levels of the density of cosmic atmosphere, all which have their own gravitational fields differing one from the other, through which we have to pass with adamantine will and force of thought. But the yoga system also provides us with a clue as to how we can tune ourselves to these gravitational fields of different densities so that there may not be a jerk, or a pull, or a kick at different knots, or junctures, or places of coordination of one level of density with another.

These limbs of yoga are not like isolated rungs in a ladder, one disconnected from the other. They are called ‘rungs in the ladder of yoga’ no doubt, commonly speaking, but they are rungs of a different and novel type. They are not disconnected, one from the other. They are not isolated. There is an organic connection of one stage with the other, just as we may say the stages of life such as childhood, adolescence, youth, old age, etc., are rungs in the ladder of the growth of one’s personality. We know very well how these rungs are connected with one another. We cannot know where one ends and another begins. One fades into another gradually, and there is a living connection of every stage with every other stage so that we may safely say that the whole practice of yoga is one continuous process, like the flow of a river. No disconnection, no disjointed parts can be seen in the flow of the Ganga, notwithstanding the fact that we may conceive of parts in the flow. The parts are only conceptual; they are not organic – not real, and not really there.

Inasmuch as these rungs of the ladder of yoga, these stages, are vitally connected one with the other, there is to some extent the presence of the element of every stage in every other stage. They are not completely different, like watertight compartments, though the predominance of a particular element makes it go by a particular name and designation. These eight stages are names given to certain predominant features of the experiences one has to pass through, though the other features are also present – just as when we say something is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic, what we are referring to is the dominant character of a particular person or thing, and do not imply thereby that the qualities which are not dominant are totally absent. Every stage of yoga is every other stage, and so we have to be prepared, basically, for the advent of a very comprehensive experience which will take possession of us one day or the other. Therefore, the preparation that is taken up is also to be of a similar character. The means should have, at least in some measure, the characteristics of the goal towards which it is moving.

These eight limbs of yoga are really the eight conceptual segments of a single act of meditation or concentration of mind on the goal of life, which was very pithily stated in the earlier sections of the sutras of Patanjali, especially in the Samadhi Pada. Patanjali does not go into such details because he regards these details as intended for mediocre aspirants and not for advanced ones. The advanced aspirants do not pass through stages in this manner. Though it is true that everyone has to pass through every stage, they are all compressed together in a single concentrated focus. Here, in the Sadhana Pada, they are a little bit dispersed, and they are taken up one by one for the purpose of easy understanding and practice.

Hence, as I stated, the very first step, which is the discipline known as the yamas, is really symbolic of one’s total outlook of life. If we can know what our outlook of life as a whole is, we will also know the extent to which we can succeed in the practice of these yamas. If the outlook is one thing, naturally the practice cannot be another, contrary to it. What do we feel, from the recesses of our heart, in respect of things around? Do we like them, or do we not like them? What is it that we feel? Do we want something from them, or do we not want something from them? Are we fed up with them? Are we happy about them? Do we think we are outside them, or they are outside us? What is it that we think about all these things?

This is what will determine the extent of success in the practice of these yamas which are most difficult things, really speaking, because these yamas of which yoga speaks are the counterattack upon the natural prejudices of the mind in respect of things. Naturally, we are inclined to like or dislike, to appropriate, to harm, to hurt, to assert, and so on. Now a counterblow is dealt by these practices. The natural tendency to assert oneself, the natural tendency to be pleased with the pains and sorrows of others, the natural tendency to indulge in physical and psychological pleasure, the natural tendency to appropriate things which need not necessarily belong to oneself, and such other inclinations are indicative of one’s immersion in a set-up of things – an evaluation of the world which is opposed to the structure of Reality.

Why is there so much insistence on the practice of the yamas? What is the point about it? The point is simple. These attitudes of the human being, which are the opposite of the yamas, are the expressions of a vehement insistence of the mind on those features which are opposed to the nature of Reality. We are living in a world which cannot be coordinated with the features of Ultimate Truth if we are to live a life of insistence on those features which are the opposites of the yamas.

Thus, to introduce into the very blood of the student the basic features, the foundational features of the goal which he is aspiring for, the practice of the yamas is regarded as necessary because the opposites of these yamas are nothing but the externalised urges of the human being. These are what the psychoanalysts call the libido – the desire principle, the motive force in the individual which always presses it forward, onward, externally towards those things which one regards as existing outside oneself; and we know very well that there is nothing outside the Real or the Ultimate Truth. These insistent urges are those which are to be sublimated and harnessed for the purpose of higher concentration. The externalisation of the urges, which is the feature of the opposite of the practice of the yamas, is contrary to the attempt at yoga in the practice of concentration and meditation, because concentration and meditation mean the conservation of the motive force, the energy in oneself, and not its externalisation. Meditation is the universalisation of energy, whereas the personal urges normally present in people are the pressures towards externalisation of energy.

While the counter-forces of the yamas are pressing us forward externally towards dissipation of energy, yoga requires us to move in a different direction for the purpose of the universalisation thereof. Therefore, we know very well why the yamas are necessary. The yamas emphasise the need to develop an outlook or attitude of life which will befriend those features of Reality that are going to be the object of one’s meditation. The tendency to universalisation is the requisite of yoga; and the tendency to externalisation is the demand of the senses and the pleasure-seeking ego. Hence, it should be very obvious and simple to understand why there is so much of emphasis laid on the practice of the principles of the yamas, which are much more than what we know as moral principles or ethical mandates.

The yamas do not mean merely moral mandates. They are the disciplinary processes of the total personality, the complete individuality of oneself, which includes not merely the moral nature but other factors also, in such a way that we may say that the practice of yamas means a readjustment of oneself in one’s total being to the character of that Supreme Object which is going to be the aim of meditation in yoga.