Interest in Hatha Yoga has grown tremendously in the last few years. Students find powerful benefits ranging from simply feeling healthier to feeling a deep inner connection with Spirit. For many practitioners, Hatha Yoga is a purely physical practice and that is enough. But those who look more deeply can learn that it originally evolved as part of an eight-limbed path to experience enlightenment, or the realization of our true nature. This greater context for Hatha practice is methodically presented in the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, and is called the study of Raja Yoga. Here, one encounters a step-by- step approach to what may initially appear to be impossibly lofty goals, such as selflessness, unconditional love, and permanent peace. Fortunately, the approach elucidated is gradual and comprehensive; even a little effort begins to help us understand more fully who we truly are and what will enable us to experience deep peace and lasting happiness.
The first two limbs are Yama and Niyama, and involve the practice of ethical principles that require us to reflect on our relationships with others and ourselves. For example, the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, requires that we consider the wellbeing of others and the harmful repercussions of our actions, speech, and even our thoughts. By practicing non-violence, we begin to see the subtle ways that we hurt each other and how such behavior affects us as well. Can I really be at peace with myself when I speak badly about others behind their backs or answer them sharply because I’m annoyed?
The practice of Yama and Niyama bring more and more awareness to all of our interactions, helping us to reflect mindfully on them and to restrain ourselves from behaviors that hurt others or ourselves. This effort helps us to quiet our self-centered thinking and to be guided by our conscience, or spiritual consciousness. Thus, we can gradually learn to refrain from harmful behaviors (which waste a tremendous amount of energy), and begin to quiet our minds and listen to our hearts.
The third limb is Asana, which is widely practiced, but is often approached incorrectly. Many practitioners apply the same “just do it” mentality to asanas that they have used to be successful in other activities and to get a competitive edge. Asanas should be performed with acute awareness of the body’s capacity in this moment, challenging us to let go of our normal preoccupation with wanting to impress others or straining to look good. Then we learn how to develop our capacity, both physically and mentally, by being present where we are and moving forward gradually with ease and balance.
The fourth limb is Pranayama, which means to extend or control the subtle, vital energy that animates everything. We use breathing practices to influence prana to flow more fully and evenly which in turn calms and steadies the mind. Whenever the mind is agitated, the breath also becomes agitated. Conversely, when the breath becomes smooth, deep and steady, the nervous system is calmed, prana moves more freely and the mind is influenced to become energized, balanced and serene.
The fifth limb is Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses, which infers gaining control of the senses so that the mind can be engaged in one direction without the sense drawing our attention elsewhere. This ability grows stronger as the mind becomes calmer and more balanced, an ability that the previous limbs help to develop. Pratyahara is inherent in our efforts to practice meditation, focusing the mind on one object, such as a mantra or the breath.
The beginning stage of meditation is called Dharana, or concentration — the sixth limb — which refers to the process of bringing the mind back again and again to our intended object. As we practice regularly, we gradually learn to sustain our focus, withdrawing our mental energy from dwelling on other thoughts, an effort that requires patience and persistence. As with Pratyahara, all the previous limbs act as a preparation for Dharana, stabilizing the body and building up the energy that is needed to begin controlling the subtle, mental level. Sri Swami Satchidananda uses the analogy of a rocket propelling itself beyond the pull of gravity to convey how we must restrain ourselves from wasting energy, eliminate physical toxins and reduce mental tension to build up the strength to free ourselves from identifying completely with the thoughts. We always have thoughts and feelings, but they do not have to govern our experience of life.
When a one-pointed focus is sustained, then we reach the seventh limb, Dhyana, or meditation. Here one really begins to experience some stillness in the mind and see whatever we meditate on with real clarity. When the mental level is quieted sufficiently, it can experience the even more subtle spiritual aspect of our being that is normally drowned out by all the “busy-ness” in the mind.
Finally, when even that one-pointed meditation is sustained, Samadhi, the eighth limb, is attained. At this stage, there is a complete experience of our spiritual consciousness and a sense of oneness with all of creation. The inner Light or true Self shines forth unobstructed into the serene mind, illuminating it with wisdom and deep peace.
Even though this final stage may seem distant to us, the first six limbs can be practiced regularly, by anyone of any background or faith. Together, they form a firm foundation for spiritual growth and bring benefits to all aspects of our lives: our health, our mental and emotional stability, our ability to focus on tasks and to be clear in our relationships with others. Most importantly, they help us to experience ourselves as more than just the body/mind and give us access to the deep, peaceful ocean of Spirit within that can, with regular practice, become a source of tremendous healing and guidance.