My take on yoga philosophy
I was not immediately drawn to yoga philosophy. When I started my personal yoga path, as a 29-year old performer, I was mainly interested in the physical aspects of yoga practice- which was really weird, as I was interested in philosophy in general.
Spiritual themes also spoke to me back then but for a reason I still do not completely understand, I felt a great aversion to any hint of a spiritual aspect to my practice. I was completely fooled by the Western view that intelligent people do not fall for this silly nonsense. Patanjali was the first step in softening my convictions and expanding my realm of possibilities.
We studied The Sutras of Patanjali during my first formal Teacher Training and, even without understanding much, something in those short and intelligent philosophy texts resonated with me. Two things stood out during those first explorations: firstly Patanjali’s definition of what yoga is and secondly, what he describes as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Nirodha is the key
Patanjali defines yoga in 4 words “yoga chitta vritti nirodha”. Chitta is our consciousness. A vritti is something that arises within this consciousness, like ripples and waves on a lake. Nirodha is the key (often translated as controlling) as it carries a much subtler meaning. It is the capacity to still something and influence it in the direction we want it to go. Patanjali defines yoga as the practice that can influence, direct and ultimately control all of the fluctuations in our own consciousness.
Do you know someone who has nirodha?
I myself know very, very few. Look around you! How many people can influence their thinking, their feelings and experiences in the direction they believe is right and good? What we normally see is quite the contrary, our minds and feelings dictate our experiences. When we look closely, we see that much of the suffering in ourselves and the people around us is self-inflicted, created by a mind that reacts and projects and is stuck in patterns of behaviour we have no idea are there. If we manage to have some degree of awareness of what is happening, more often than not we are completely at a loss to how to change these patterns and to exercise some degree of influence into what we think and feel. By defining yoga as the capacity to do just that, Patanjali hit the nail right on the head.
There is Hope
The brilliancy of The Sutras of Patanjali, is that he goes much further than just clever descriptions. He enlists the pitfalls along the way and presents strategies to deal with them. His work is a detailed map on how to navigate the turbulent, deep ocean of our consciousness. One of the most useful of his concepts – certainly the most famous – is the descriptions of the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
Eight Levels of Nirodha
According to this idea, there are eight aspects to our efforts of controlling what happens inside of us and influencing our mind towards becoming who we truly are. It is important to understand why the word ‘limb’ is used: the 8 limbs are not steps on a ladder! If that would be the case, the mastering of one stage would mean that we could leave it behind and continue onwards, until, after reaching the eighth and highest level, we would be enlightened and free. By using the word ‘limbs’ Patanjali conveys the idea that those eight aspects are simultaneous and support each other, like limbs on a tree. All 8 limbs are happening at the same time, and after reaching the eighth level we still need to be proficient at all the other ones.
For the yogi, all these limbs are a daily practice throughout a lifetime. They reflect our efforts at resisting impulses that are materialistic and selfish (yamas). Our efforts to adhere to goodness and correctness (niyamas). Our determination to keep our physical body healthy and the ability to sit still (asanas). Learning to control not only our breath but the whole circulation of energy in us (pranayama). Practicing the withdrawal of our senses (pratyahara). Learning to focus the mind (dharana). Practicing becoming completely absorbed in our focus (dhyana) and, being able to completely transmute our consciousness to a higher state (Samadhi).
As I said, achieving this higher state of Samadhi is not the end of the journey: I always say in trainings, after we achieve Samadhi we still need to go out and not get too annoyed at others. The limbs are alive, our efforts are never taken for granted, and our lives are profoundly transformed by them if we choose to follow them to the best of our ability and keep working to improve that ‘best’.
In the coming months we will be exploring each one of these limbs and their subdivisions. Hope you enjoy this stuff as much as I do and hopefully see you here next time!
Cover image: Jan Huber