Ashtanga Yoga as a Path to Meditation
Patanjali’s classical Ashtanga yoga presents a step by step path that leads the practitioner to increasingly subtle states of awareness, leading up to the experience of Samadhi. The word Samadhi is translated variously by different adepts: Georg Feuerstein uses the word enstasy. Desikachar mentions “complete integration with the object to be understood.” Richard Freeman calls it deep meditation. BKS Iyengar calls it union, and if you consider that we also translate “yoga” as union, we could say that Samadhi is the realization of the yogic path.
Ashtanga in Sanskrit means eight limbs, and the practice of yoga as most know it today—asana– is just one of those limbs. Yama and niyama, the first two limbs, deal with foundations such as ethics and behaviour—basically how to be a decent and disciplined person as a first step in purifying the mind. Asana, translated as posture, at least from the Yoga Sutra point of view, means the posture of meditation. Popularization of yoga in the modern era has expanded this term to include all the physical poses found in yoga studios these days that help balance the subtle energy systems. Most modern yoga classes will only include two of these limbs: asana and pranayama. Essentially, yoga is about learning to meditate by preparing the nervous system, and then guiding the mind to stillness.
So, how does one do that? And how does the yoga practice as we know it today help facilitate this process of guiding the mind into stillness?
On my first trip to India to study with Pattabhi Jois, I learned that these steps are the supposed background of the yoga practice, and yet I noticed that we never discussed them. Pattabhi Jois’ famous motto advises that yoga is, “99% practice, 1% theory.”
In the afternoons we would congregate on Guruji’s steps in hopes that he will come out and sit with us. It was very casual, but occasionally he would entertain questions. One day I found the nerve to ask Guruji a question about the physical practices of yoga.
“If Ashtanga is for purifying the body, how do we purify the mind?” I asked.
“Ashtanga yoga is for purifying mind,” he said.
If Ashtanga is all about mind purification, then why do we emphasize the body so much? I pondered that for a few days. Next time we had “conference” on Guruji’s front steps, I asked again.
“Why so much emphasis on the body?” I asked. “Why don’t we practice the other seven limbs?”
“Asana is door” he said in his broken English, “then discovering other limbs.”
Beginning with a physical practice, the mind begins its training. You learn focus and discipline; where to place feet, hands and gaze. You also learn to identify subtle (and sometimes not so subtle!) sensations in the body. But then for the practice to evolve, there must be some context.
One simple place to start connecting the asana practice to the other limbs is by connecting the awareness to the breath. Pranayama, the fourth limb treats the subject of breath, and how to harness it and put it to use in the service of meditation. Prana, the subtle and intangible life force in the body, rides on the breath. You can track the movement of prana by observing the flow of breath. You can experience this in yourself, and with practice, it’s possible to observe this flow in others as well. This is a great skill to have as a teacher as then you can help guide students to awaken areas of the body that may be asleep. The ability to observe subtle patterns in the body requires extreme sensitivity. This is created by finely tuning the awareness by lessening distractions.
Pratyahara, the fifth limb, translates as “withdrawing awareness of sensory objects.” It’s changing the allegiance from external reference points to internal ones and could be considered a primary step in attaining a state of meditation. One practical way this might manifest is that you suddenly notice that you have moments of being completely absorbed in your practice, and not distracted by whatever else is happening in your environment.
The last three limbs of Ashtanga yoga, dharana, dhyana and samadhi, sometimes called samyama together, are essentially more and more subtle levels of meditation, culminating in a state of ultimate freedom from bondage to the conditioned world—the mukti, or liberation all yogis seek. Essentially these last three limbs convey the practitioner through a process of refining the awareness, with longer and longer periods spent in undistracted mindfulness, eliminating the grasping that perpetuates ego.
So while the yoga practice as you may understand it happens on a sticky mat, with experience, it may evolve into a still seated posture as the mind becomes increasingly settled. This is the most conducive environment for Samadhi to arise.
While there is wisdom in the “99% practice, 1% theory” method, over the years it has helped me enormously to study the classic texts on meditation to formulate a sort of map of the terrain. If this is a spiritual path we are walking, it helps to know where you’re going.
The Buddha’s gift to humanity was to create this map—a legacy of teachings on training the mind to be present in order to recognize its true nature. When you are able to rest the mind without distraction on a chosen object for an indefinite period of time, then this is Samadhi. This state has been described as a feeling of quiet, comfy blissfulness.
But, according to the Buddhist path, this is just the beginning. Once you are able to rest the mind for a period of time in this state, then, you can start to inquire into the nature of mind. Settling the mind on an object requires mindfulness; what arises after that is an awareness of the entire process. Mindfulness is recollecting what you are doing, and alertness is being aware of what is occurring. You can use different objects of meditation to learn this process. So you could use the breath as your object of focus to train the mind to be present. With practice, you can use the mind itself as the object of meditation—observing the process of awareness with an attitude of non-judgement. This is when things get interesting.
So how does jumping around on a yoga mat get one there? Good question. You begin by bringing mindfulness and awareness to the process. Mindfulness is the faculty of not forgetting what to do and what not to do. It simply means recollecting what you are trying to do in the practice—remembering postures and internal mudras.
But unless there is also some element of awareness, it’s entirely possible to bypass this process of moving toward meditation and keep the practice on the purely physical level. So you also add awareness, a larger view of what you are doing. You observe the process within the context of mind and its true nature, which, according to some, is emptiness. According to Buddhist philosophy, it is this insight—the vipassana aspect of awareness—that cuts suffering at its root. So while you continually return to the breath, you also keep an open inquiry into the nature of all that is unfolding in the awareness.
The whole point is to be present in your body without distraction and without attachment. Right now. That is meditation. Extend that, and you have Samadhi, which some say is our natural state of being. So if you continue with practice in a disciplined way, eventually you will find your way home to pure, unadulterated bliss.