Ending the ‘chain of rebirth’, reaching enlightenment, it’s doable for all of us. The only thing we have to follow is the Eightfold path, according to Patanjali; the guru and saint who wrote the yoga sutras (around 400 CE), the first complete ‘book’ about yoga.
The eightfold path is the path of Raja yoga. It’s called the royal path, because everybody can follow it. It offers a comprehensive method for controlling the waves of thought by turning our mental and physical energy into spiritual energy. Patanjali calls this path Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with the ‘asana form’) referring to the eight limbs leading to absolute mental control. These eight limbs are:
1. Yamas – There are five Yamas or ‘Don’ts’ They are ‘designed’ to destroy our lower nature. They should all be practiced by the letter and in the spirit.
- Ahimsa – non-violence/compassion for all living things by action and speech. Ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way. Ahimsa also has to do with our duties and responsibilities too. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm. Not directly and not indirectly. So selling weapons is doing harm, even if we don’t use them ourselves. On a ‘lesser scale’ selling candy full of sugar and artificial colourings is doing harm to people as well. Because we know they are unhealthy. We might not eat them ourselves, but we do feed (sell or even make) them for others.
- Satya – speaking the truth. We have to consider what we say, how we say it and how it will affect others
- Asteya – non-stealing. We don’t steal from others, we don’t borrow, without bringing back and when entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of him or her.
- Brahmacharya – sense control; also seen as celibacy. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply total celibacy. On a sexual level it means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm others or ourselves. We don’t want to get ‘negative’ energy of other people in ‘our system’, by having sex with them.
- Aparigraha – take only what is necessary, don’t be greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. To quote Ghandi: “This world has enough for everybody’s need, not for everybody’s greed.”
2. Niyamas – There are also five Niyamas or Do’s. These are rules, attitudes. In comparison with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal.
- Sauca – purity, cleanliness. Outer cleanliness by simply keeping ourselves clean. Inner cleanliness by taking care of our bodily organs (taking care of what we eat) and by taking care of our mind. Practicing asanas, pranayama and meditation are ways to take care of inner cleanliness. Asanas removes toxins while pranayama cleanses our lungs, oxygenates our blood and purifies our nerves. Meditation cleans the mind of poisons like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride.
- Santosa – being content with what we have, with our life.
- Tapas – self control, discipline. Tapas refers to the activity of keeping the body fit, to handle inner urges, to be disciplines in what we do. Literally it means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it.
- Svadhyaya – self study. Why do we what we do, why do we feel what we feel, why do we act the way we act? With svadhyaya we look at our self, study our self, but we also study the work and books of great gurus, so we can learn from them.
- Isvarapranidhana – celebration of and conquering to the divine. We have to have faith that all that is ‘thrown’ at us is in our best interest. Every obstacle in life, every situation we face will help us on our path to enlightenment.
3. Asana – yoga poses. According to the yogis our body is a temple; the house of our spirit. But it’s more than that. It’s also a storehouse for emotions. When we are in a stressful situation our body produces stress hormones which will bring us in a flight or fight mode. In the old days we would run or fight and burn these hormones. Nowadays we get in stressful situation by having a conflict with our boss, partner, friend. We don’t fight of flight anymore and these hormones don’t get used, but stored in our body. They have a negative effect on our physical and mental health. By doing asanas we can release the hormones from our muscles and connective tissue, we can let go of old emotions and feel physically healthier and mentally more balanced. Through the practice of asanas we develop the discipline and the ability to concentrate. Both are necessary for meditation. With the asanas we also ‘re-shape’ our body again; undoing all the damage that is done by bad posture etceteras.
4. Pranayama – control of our breathing. Literally translated pranayama means life force extension. It rejuvenates our body, relieves us from old emotions and quiets the mind. The age of a yogi is not measured by the number of years he has lived (so far), but by the number of breaths he has taken. Controlling the breath, is controlling the mind. If your breathing pattern is slow and easy, your mind is quiet.
5. Pratyahara – control of the senses; a conscious effort to draw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli and turn them inward. With pratyahara we step back from the world around us and take a look at ourselves. If we are distracted by everything we see, hear, feel, smell we can’t meditate and quiet our mind.
6. Dharana – concentration. Having relieved ourselves of outside distractions with pratyahara we can now deal with the distractions of our mind itself. Our focus constantly shifts so we have to tame our mind, learn to focus again and keep this focus. Extended periods of concentration will naturally lead to meditation.
7. Dhyana – meditation or contemplation. Although concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana) look the same there is a difference between these two stages. Where dharana practices one-pointed attention, dhyana is ultimately a state of being keenly aware without focus. At this stage, the mind has been quieted and in the stillness it produces few or no thoughts at all.
8. Samadhi – a state of ecstasy; according to Patanjali. In the state of samadhi the body and senses are at rest, as if asleep, yet the mind is alert, as if awake; one goes beyond consciousness. There is an ending to the separation that is created by the “I” and “mine” of our illusory perceptions of reality. The mind does not distinguish between self and nonself. The mind and the intellect have stopped and there is only the experience of consciousness, truth and unutterable joy. We are at peace.