So… twice in the past week I have read two different articles that were very well-written but incredibly misinformed. In both pieces of writing, the author claimed to drink alcohol, curse, get angry, EAT MEAT, not feel bad about it and still be a yogi. And although each article was very honest, even funny and tender at times, claiming to be a yogi is completely wrong and even a bit disrespectful. Being able to do asana (postures) does not automatically qualify you as a yogi, nor does being honest about how far away you are from living by the Eight Limb Path. Just because you go to yoga class and do a perfect Sirsasana (head standing pose), does not make you a yogi and although the honesty is refreshing and it is the second Yama of Truthfulness, on the Eight Limb Path, it still doesn’t make you a yogi.
Please keep in mind; I, myself, am not a yogi….Not even close! So I am not being judgmental or self-righteous in any way. Let me repeat: I am far from being a yogi! I am a student of yoga and I am learning more every day by my human mistakes and I could never call myself a yogi until I have reached that state of perfection described in the Eight Limb Path of Yoga. Yes, we are human and humans can be yogis, but first we need to move beyond our human fetters and instead move into Oneness with the Divine. And Oneness with the Divine can only be realized by removing the illusions of our separateness. I hope to one day work towards and attain the honored state of yogi, if not in this lifetime then maybe in my next one… Following Patanjaliji’s Eight Limbed Path of Yoga is a tough journey! It challenges you in every way imaginable and breaks down every illusion that you have held so dear to you. It’s not easy and it leaves no room for being lazy or ignorant…It brings you face to face with yourself and there is no greater challenge than to conquer one’s body and mind.
The title of yogi is very sacred and it must be earned. Being a yogi is an art and a science of yoking the body, mind and soul together. You cannot be a yogi if you are still ruled by your appetite, or by your fleeting emotions and desires. Being a yogi means rising above these attachments…These are hindrances on the path of yoga that must be overcome, not indulged in or ignored or rationalized as just ‘being human.’ We are not ‘just human’… we are actually so much more!
So, we are going to address each limb of the Eight Fold Path, exploring each one in-depth, creating a better understanding of what being a yogi actually entails. Watch how each limb on the path ties into one another, weaving together, creating a tapestry of the divine qualities of a yogi.
I. The Yamas
The Yamas are ethical guidelines in which a yogi lives their life. The Yamas are codes of universal morality that actually reveal to us that our true state of being is compassionate, kind, forgiving and peaceful. It is not a list of ‘don’ts’ but instead a list of ‘do’s’.
1. Ahimsa: Compassion for all living beings
Yeah…There’s a reason why this is number one… It is the most important! It is the foundation, the base, the very root of the sacred Eight Limb Path of Yoga. Ahimsa means to bestow kindness, thoughtful consideration and friendliness to all living beings, this includes people, animals, even plants and inanimate objects. Everything has consciousness and deserves to be treated with care and concern. Realizing that the Divine exists in everyone and everything all the time, you become compelled to do no harm. Now, although very controversial; I’m going to go there anyway…You absolutely cannot eat meat and still believe that you are on the path to becoming a yogi. I won’t go into all of the specifics but killing an animal for food is very violent. Even if you aren’t killing it, you’re just eating it, you are still participating in the violence. There is no humane slaughter; what a foolish statement! Animals are living, breathing, feeling, thinking beings just like you and me. Killing them for food is hateful and violent. Furthermore, the ‘my body needs meat’ argument is superfluous…Our Mother Earth has provided us with plenty of living food that satisfies all of the needs of the body. Fruits and vegetables are given to us…they fall from the trees…they grow from the ground…they display visible ripeness when ready to be eaten… they don’t need to be killed violently and they exist without a central nervous system and are packed with nutrients! This is our food and yet fruits and vegetables can still be handled with thoughtful consideration and Love and thankfulness while being prepared. Ahimsa can be applied to every aspect of our lives, actually! From the inner dialogue that we have with ourselves, to the way we interact with the people in our lives, to the way we drive our car on the road. Non-violence is at the crux of everything! This is why it is the very first Yama.
2. Satya: Truthfulness
Satya translates as ‘ to speak the truth.’ Speaking truth is very important and it keeps us transparent and clear. To speak lies and untruth only causes more difficulties and drama. Now, it is important to always consider what we say and how we say it… Sometimes the truth hurts! Always be mindful to speak with love, compassion and understanding for the other person, not forsaking the first Yama of nonviolence…you can be considerate in your delivery of the truth, whatever it may be. This Yama also means to be truthful to yourself, as well. Do not delude yourself into thinking you are something that you are not… Satya requires you to take an honest look at yourself, your thoughts, your words, your actions… Satya commands truth, kindness and honesty of our words because remember; our words are very powerful. Sound creates form. So even by cursing, or gossiping or engaging in unkind conversations, we are misusing our gift of speech and thereby we become unaligned with our primordial selves which is all Love, Bliss and Knowledge.
3. Asteya: Non-Stealing
Asteya requires you to not take what does not belong to you. This also means that we are required to not take advantage of certain people or situations where trust has been placed in us. The practice of Asteya means that we do not take anything that has not been freely given to us and it’s clear that this practice ties into the first and second Yamas of Ahimsa and Satya, as stealing is a violent action that requires dishonesty. I believe this even applies to things like envy. We mustn’t look at our neighbor and become jealous of what they have. Just like we must stay on our own mat during yoga class when the girl in front of us is in a full wheel and we are only in bridge pose. We must learn to be happy where we’re at and not covet others.
4. Brahmacharya: Moderation in All Things
Most hear the word ‘brahmacharya’ and they immediately think it’s referring to celibacy and abstinence from sex. While sex in moderation is part of it, it is certainly not all of it… Brahmacharya commands us to act responsibly with respect to our destination of moving closer toward the ultimate Truth. By mindlessly indulging in casual sex, or drinking alcohol, or even watching TV for hours and hours, we are misusing our power and contributing to the illusions of the world. Sex has it place and we must remember what a sacred and incredibly powerful act it is… It is not something to be toyed with, but instead something to be respected and revered. It is a sacred act of Love, not an escape or pass-time or a tool to get someone to like you OR to get you to like yourself! Once you see sex for what it really is, how can you not engage in it with moderation? The same thing goes with the use of intoxicants; although they do have their place in the world, and can be useful tools for experiencing higher states of consciousness, we need to understand what they really are. We shouldn’t get tangled in the lure of the pleasures of the senses.
5. Aparigraha: Neutralizing Desire for Wealth
This is definitely a tough one! Especially considering the world we live in today… Wealth is almost necessary for survival. But Aparigraha commands us to only take what we need and not to be motivated by greed. Even the collection and hoarding of things continues to breed disillusion and takes you farther and farther away from the ultimate Truth. This Yama reminds us of the impermanence of this world…It’s not like you can take anything with you when you leave this body, so why bother hoarding money or fancy things? We must take only what we’ve rightfully earned and leave the rest…We actually have everything we need within us; nothing on the outside can complete you.
II. The Niyamas
Moving now onto the Niyamas or Personal Observances. These sutras are guidelines for us to study and attitudes for us to adopt. The Niyamas are a bit more self-reflective than the Yamas and they are prescribed codes for living in accordance with our soul.
1. Sauca: Purity
This first Niyama is referring to cleanliness and purity. It has both an inward and outward connotation. They weren’t kidding when they said, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”…It really is! The highest vibration of the Divine will not dwell in a place that is cluttered with negative energy and debri. It is really important to keep our space clean and organized which creates a sacred place, suitable for the Divine to enter. The same thing goes for our body. It is our constant temple and the Divine needs to dwell here too! We must keep our bodies pure and clean and nourished with good, nutrient-rich food, as well as proper exercise and fueled with positive thoughts. By eating dead food (dead animals) or chemically processed food and listening to angry music and watching violent things on TV and even calling yourself ‘fat’, ‘stupid’, and ‘ugly’, these things are sure to keep the Divine away. We need to vibrate at the highest rate possible and anything that lowers our vibration invites in negative energy.
2. Santosa: Contentment
The second Niyama is contentment and it implies that we must be content, grateful and modest with what we have. This conditions us to adopt an attitude of acceptance to whatever happens, because you cannot control what goes on around you. This world is running of its own accord and your only job is to breathe deeply, stay present and keep your inner peace. By learning to be content with what we have, we create an environment to receive more. After all, if you aren’t grateful and content with what you already have, what makes you think you’d be happy with more?
3. Tapas: The Disciplined Use of Energy
This Niyama refers to the activities of the body. It kind of ties into the rest of the sutras we’ve discussed so far. This Niyama commands us to keep the body running properly with proper speech, thoughts, words and actions. Literally translated, the word ‘tapas’ mean to create heat. Certain breathing exercises create heat in the body, as does yoga practice. So by creating heat in the body, we actually cleanse it. So by directing our energy away from the indulgences of the world, and instead carefully directing our energy toward our ultimate goal of union with the Divine is practicing Tapas. Tapas allows us to burn up all the hindrances and desires that come between us and Oneness.
4. Svadhyaya: Self-Study
This fourth Niyama is referring to the inquiry of self. It commands us to be self-reflective and to be totally aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it. Self-study requires us to cultivate a presence of mindfulness in all we say and do; noticing our motivations, intentions and even our limitations. After all, no one knows you better than you know yourself… right? So get to know yourself! Watch yourself with detached awareness and be a witness to your every thought, word and action. By carefully observing yourself, you will come to a better understanding of where you are on your journey.
5. Isvarapranidhana: The Acknowledgment and Celebration of the Spiritual
Our final Niyama is Isvarapranidhana which requires us to rely completely on the Divine power around us and within us. It is the total recognition that Spirit resides in everything and a Higher Power than ourselves is at work. This practice commands us to set aside some part of our day to celebrate the Divine and acknowledge our role as part of this Great Power.
The third limb of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga is Asana or physical postures. This is the most widely known facet of the Yoga system. The practice of yogic postures has endless healing effects on the body and literally creates a new vehicle for you to roam around in. It’s pretty wild! You’re essentially in the same body but it becomes stronger than you ever thought you could be and flexible, even if you were stiff as a board before. Yet on a deeper level, Asana is really conditioning us to just stay put with our breath, regardless of what is happening outside of us. The body may be calling for you to drop the pose… You may feel that you aren’t strong enough or flexible enough but you actually are! All you need to do is breathe deeply and stay present. Asana allows us to start taking control of the unruly mind and body and instead put the Higher Self in charge. Asana is a way of exploring our mental and physical capabilities as well as humbling us and creating balance within. By practicing Asana, we learn to quiet the mind and breathe through the arduous demands of the never-satisfied body…
IV. Pranayama: Control of the Life-Force
This limb refers to control of our breath which our life-force: prana. By the grace of our breath we exist…Without the breath we do not. The practice of breath-control is known as pranayama and it conditions us to control the energy within ourselves, enabling us to restore and maintain our well-being. By regulating the in-flowing breath and the out-flowing breath, we bring relaxation and balance to the body and encourage harmony in all of its functions. Pranayama provides us with balance of the flows of vital forces, so we can direct this power inward to the chakra system. Our breath is everything! This cannot be stressed enough! During Asana, we breathe. During each and every Niyama, we breathe. Through all Yamas, we breathe. Controlling the power of this life-or-death function changes everything! There are countless pranayama techniques that create heat within the body, thereby fostering cleansing and rejuvenation and regulating the monkey-mind. We must understand our breath, respect it and learn to harness its incredible power, aiding us in reaching the ultimate goal.
V. Pratyahara: Control of the Senses
Control of the senses… difficult, indeed! Pratyahara means to retreat or pull back from that which nourishes the senses. This implies to withdraw from the attachment to the pleasures of the senses. Like when we can’t eat just one cookie, and we need to eat the entire sleeve of cookies. Or when the cigarette tastes so delicious that we can’t just quit cold turkey… Things like this; where the senses control our behavior, is where we need to practice Pratyahara. Yes, things taste good and oh yes, things can make you feel good but we humans have a tendency to over do it and then these things ultimately lead to our downfall. Being ruled by the senses is not only dangerous but wasteful! Our senses are not our enemies, actually they are gifts! We just need to learn how to use them properly and not become a servant to them. You mustn’t spend your entire life satisfying the senses because when you are required to leave this body, what will you do? How will you know how to get by? Do not spend your entire life simply indulging in things that make you feel good or taste delicious. We need to condition ourselves to not be dependant on these things. Meditation and mindfulness helps us to understand and overcome to lure of the senses because we start tuning into what’s happening inside of us and start becoming less concerned with what is happening outside of us.
VI. Dharana: Cultivating Inner Awareness
Dharana translates to “the immovable concentration on the mind.” The practice of Dharana is to maintain concentration and to be able to focus one’s awareness in one direction. Instead of being victim to our usual monkey-mind that runs wild like a naughty child, we can practice Dharana and foster a one-pointed awareness. We learn to steady the mind, and train it to be settled and still. It’s really essential to spiritual growth to keep the mind from wandering here and there to different memories of the past or worries about the future…These things are stories and don’t even exist. Past is gone and future is not yet here, so why use the precious power of the mind for these things? Using the power of the mind in the present moment is nothing short of magic! A pure, unfettered mind allows us to discover and access our infinite potential and foster healing on many levels of consciousness.
VII. Dhyana: Devotion
This seventh limb of Dhyana is referring to devotion and clarity of consciousness. It is the cultivation and maintenance of a loving awareness and relationship with the Divine, in all things, everywhere, at all times. We can begin to see the world for what it is, sans our illusions and delusions. It involves focusing on the Truth and craving to know more about it. The consciousness becomes unified by clarity in that we fine-tune our awareness through the practice of meditation, enabling us to see clearly the nature of reality. We can begin to see and understand the world around us, without our own personal reflections and the veils start to lift.
VIII. Samadhi: Union with the Divine
The eighth and final limb on the yogic path is the destination of Samadhi. Samadhi means ‘union’ and it is the highest state of consciousness. In Samadhi, the body and senses are completely at bay, and not in control at all. In the revered state of Samadhi, one realizes the true identity of the soul and experiences the liberation of pure, unfiltered awareness with the All. Samadhi is the true state of Yoga. It completely destroys the distinguishment between self and nonself and between subject and object. All is One and One is All. There is only an experience of consciousness, liberation and bliss. Now, the attainment of Samadhi is an arduously difficult height to reach! See, one must pass through and live by all of the Limbs in order to even qualify for this great destination. The one who reaches Samadhi is a yogi.
The yogi has mastered the Limbs of the Eight Fold Path and earned their title of yogi. If any of us are still struggling with the lower Limbs, we are not yogis… We are yogis in training, students of yoga, humans practicing yoga, but certainly not yogis. Mastering Asana is awesome and exciting and it is a great accomplishment but it does not make you a yogi. Even being mindful of and abiding by the Yamas and Niyamas is amazing but you are still not a yogi. Going forward, let’s reserve the respected title of Yogi for those brave ones who have actually climbed and mastered Patanjaliji’s Eight Limb Path of Yoga. It is very difficult and very few people, myself included, have the courage or capacity to get there… but we must keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get there because it is very possible. But until then, let’s just be humble and honest with ourselves about where we are on the path, giving full respect and reverence to the lofty heights that being a yogi entails.