Ashtanga Yoga: The Eight Steps on the Ladder of Yoga

Sage Patañjali constituted the Aṣṭāṅga Yogaḥ system to help prepare for Meditation and reap the benefits thereof.

Patañjali’s Aṣṭāṅga Yogaḥ is an important, preparatory, eight-fold discipline, but not an end in itself as, without the teaching of Vedāntaḥ, one does not gain mokṣaḥ. It consists of:
• yamaḥ, (five) prohibitions
• niyamaḥ, (five) injunctions
• āsanam, posture
• prāṇāyāmaḥ, breathing exercises
• pratyāhāraḥ, sense control
• dhāraṇā, concentration
• dhyānam, meditation
• samādhiḥ, absorption

1. Yamaḥ is a set of five prohibitions in aṣṭāṅga-yogaḥ, namely: ahiṃsā, satyam, asteyam, brahmacaryam, aparigrahaḥ.

Ahiṃsā refers to the deliberate practice of abstaining from hurting, harming or killing anyone or anything in thought, word or deed. It is about leading a life of harmlessness. It is the primary virtue, following which all others become followed and is considered the most fundamental and exalted of the universal values.

Satyam is staying on the course of pursuit of truth while at the same time living a life in harmony with it. This pursuit of truth also is deliberately practised in thought, word and deed. Only ever speaking the non-hurtful truth, devoid of untruth, is the discipline of satyam in speech. Even speech that is pleasant but not factual is not Satyam.

Asteyam is the non-stealing in thought, word or deed. Never possess anything which does not legitimately belong to you. Any unfair deal is stealing. Any benefit we get through any unfair deal, that benefit comes under the stolen benefit.

Brahmacaryam is leading a lifestyle wherein a student is given the discipline of entertaining only the Vedic teaching in the mind. The word Brahma also means Vedaḥ, which is why a brahmacārī constantly dwells upon the Vedic teaching that his true nature is sat, chit and ananda, avoiding worldly concerns.

Aparigrahaḥ is to have no claim upon anything of this world as one’s own. It’s about living a life free of hoarding possessions or keeping them at a minimum by sharing what we have in excess.

2. Niyamaḥ are the five injunctions or rules or precepts. They are namely saucam, saṃtoṣaḥ, tapaḥ, svādhyāyaḥ and īśvara-praṇidhānam.

śaucam is cleanness or a sense of hygiene, both inner and outer. It means giving sufficient attention to one’s body, one’s environment, one’s thoughts from a hygiene point of view.

saṃtoṣaḥ is contentment with one has, a certain basic level of satisfaction that comes from appreciating life’s gifts and gratitude towards the same.

tapaḥ (tapas) is a religious discipline or purificatory penance or austerity to build endurance. It also means adopting moderation in all walks of life.

svādhyāyaḥ is the study under the care of a competent ācāryaḥ and can include daily recitation of the Vedaḥ.

īśvara-praṇidhānam is keeping Īśvaraḥ always in one’s heart. It means that we appreciate the intelligence behind the laws of nature and karma and abide by them.

3. āsanam is learning to keep the right posture and seat. Meditation involves sitting for long stretches of time and to do this without discomfort takes training. If we are able to sit for even 20 minutes in a seated posture without moving or feeling discomfort, we have achieved enough.

4. Prāṇāyāmaḥ means right breathing (prāṇaḥ), exercise (āyāmaḥ); right control of the breath. Since prāṇaḥ is associated with the mind, its properly exercised control assists in quietening the mind as well as in restoring and maintaining bodily health.

5. Pratyāhāraḥ is gathering the mind and senses (withdrawing them from a variety of concerns) in order to be able to focus on something; a prelude to dhāraṇā.

6. Dhāraṇā is holding or placing the attention of the mind on a chosen object for meditation, or on one’s own svarūpam for contemplation. Meditation (dhyānam) and contemplation (nididhyāsanam) both consist in returning attention to that chosen focus when it moves away.

7. Dhyānam simply means Meditation. Meditation is a purely mental activity. If the object is Saguṇa-Brahma (Īśvaraḥ) and it results in calmness or steadiness of mind it is saguṇa-brahma-upāsanam in which there is a difference between the meditator and the meditated.
“To see everything as Bhagavān is dhyānam or upāsanam. To see everything is Bhagavān is jñānam.”
Meditation is formally defined as vijātīya-vṛtti-rahita-sajātīya-vṛtti-pravāha-rūpa-saguṇa-brahma-viṣaya-mānasa-vyāpāraḥ. This means it is a mental activity (mānasa-vyāpāraḥ) whose subject matter (viṣayaḥ) takes the form (rūpam) of saguṇa-brahma, where all thought (vṛttiḥ), that is devoid of (rahita) or other than the chosen object or topic (vijātīya) is let go of and only thought (vṛttiḥ) concerning the chosen object (sajātīya) flows continuously for a time (pravāhaḥ).
For the Vedantin, meditation is not limited to an action done at a given time daily but is a certain commitment that one keeps many times a day. It is a mental action to which one is committed and it is done the whole day.
“Meditation will not reveal ātmā because the meditator is atma.”
If the object is the truth of the subject (i.e. the nature of reality, which is one’s own svarūpam or intrinsic nature) meditation is contemplation, nididhyāsanam – otherwise known as nirguṇa-brahma-upāsanam. In nididhyāsanam there is no meditator-meditated difference.

8. Samādhiḥ means absorption. We have seen that focusing attention on a chosen object is dhāranā, concentration. Bringing attention back to the object when it wanders from it is dhyānam, meditation. When attention no longer wanders but is consistently and fully absorbed in that object, that state is called samādhi. It is a state in which the intellect is suspended yet the mind is fully awake.
Being a highly refined state, samādhiḥ is unlikely to occur in a mind that is beset by emotional difficulties, strong attachments and aversions, unhealthy choices and other similar impediments. Facing and dealing with such problems while living a life of karma-yogaḥ is a necessary preliminary step, not only for meditation but, more importantly, for the mental and emotional growth needed for jñāna-yogaḥ, and for the eventual freedom from limitations that is mokṣaḥ. Moreover, even the most mystical experience in samādhiḥ will not be present afterwards when samādhiḥ ends.

The consciousness by which any and every experience is revealed is ever-present and needs no special experience to be known. Being the substratum and reality of all experience, it is never absent, never not known, and simply needs to be recognised as such rather than ‘experienced’ or ‘realised’. Some, unable to accept that knowledge is enough, will say they have understood but now need to ‘realise’ the self. Only an unqualified student talks like this, whereas a student with sādhana-catuṣṭayam (four necessary qualifications) sees that knowledge alone is mokṣaḥ.

While the students of Vedanta wholeheartedly accept and adopt the method of Patanjali, some aspects of his philosophy they happily reject. The first 6 stages of this system are simply preparatory steps for Meditation- preparing a mind fertile for meditation and the last step Samadhi is where one reaps the benefits of Meditation. This system is not an end in itself but a means to moksha, which can come only by understanding Vedanta. This is a quick overview of the eight-stepped ladder of Yoga as expounded by Patanjali.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s