All at the Same Time

By Swami Nirmalananda & Vidyadevi Stillman

There are so many wonderful strategies for managing money, successful relationships, improving your health, etc.  You do these things to attain happiness by improving your life.  Yoga also improves your life and makes you happy, though yoga’s true goal is spiritual upliftment.  The ancient teachings speed you toward attaining the ultimate — the knowing of your own inherent Divinity.  Yoga calls this your “Self.”

A powerful yogic strategy is outlined in the “eight limbs” of yoga.  These important practices and how they move you toward your Self.

Yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana
dhyana samadhayo’stav angani — Yoga Sutras 2.29

This is a “list sutra,” meaning it lists the practices, while explaining more fully them in later sutras.

  1. Yama: restraints, including:
    Ahimsa — non-harming                    Brahmacharya — celibacy
    Satya — non-lying                              Aparigraha — non-greed
    Asteya — non-stealing
  2. Niyama: observances, including:
    Shauca — purity, purification           Svadhyaya — study of the texts on the Self
    Samtosha — contentment                Ishvara-pranidhana — surrender to God
    Tapas —  doing the hard stuff
  3. Asana: body positions, postures
  4. Pranayama: working with your breath and the pauses between your breaths
  5. Pratyahara: turning your attention inward
  6. Dharana: focusing inward, contemplation
  7. Dhyana: meditation
  8. Samadhi: inner absorption

In Sanskrit, these eight limbs are called “ashtanga” (ashta means eight; anga means aspect, angle or limb).  A modern yoga style is called Ashtanga Yoga because the founder, Pattabhi Jois, describes all eight limbs happening during their aerobic sequences.  Patanjali’s description is from 2,000 or more years ago, and emphasizes the seated pose, specifically so you can comfortably sit still, for long and delicious meditations.

Anga does not mean hierarchical levels or rungs on a ladder.  You don’t have to do the limbs in order.  It’s more like a climbing tree:  you can skip some limbs and still climb to the top.  Thus, many Westerners begin with the third limb, yoga poses, or with the seventh limb, meditation.

Fortunately, when you skip limbs, like with yogis who begin at asana (poses), the limbs you skipped happen to you automatically.  You may not understand what’s happening because you didn’t get the teachings about the earlier practices.  It can be surprising when, after starting yoga classes, you find you’re becoming a vegetarian (ahimsa – non-harming).  Or you realize that you’ve lost interest in shopping (aparigraha — non-greediness).  You may discover the bliss of chanting (ishvara-pranidhana) and begin studying yoga texts (svadhyaya).  Yoga is happening to you!

Vidyadevi reports, “A regular yoga therapy client complained that she didn’t like drinking alcohol anymore because she didn’t feel good the next day.  Shaucha (purity) was happening for her.  She wasn’t too happy about it.”

These are signs of spiritual progress.  Yoga is cultivating an inner alignment with your own Divine Self by basically “cleaning up your act”  This means “your act” has been getting in your way of your spiritual upliftment.  No matter the limb in which you start this process, you get the whole process.  It’s like walking into a room.  No matter which doorway you enter through, you still get the whole room.

Originally published January 2018