Ashtanga Yoga; A Path to Self Realization

Author: Louisa Michel

Louisa Michel

In the Bhagwad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna “by steadily and continuously practicing yoga, the yogi wins over his mind and realizes the peace which is my true nature.”

Using Patanjali’s eight limbed Ashtanga path, I am going to attempt to describe to you how a yogi can achieve spiritual awakening, or in this case, understand Krishna as the embodiment of consciousness and self realization.

The word Yoga means to join – body and mind to soul – Atman to Parataman. It describes the union with God, which, for many of us, is the ultimate goal in life. Patanjali’s sutras provide just one set of yogic guidelines of the many yogic paths to accomplish this.

Before I begin to explain the specifics of each limb, I want to point out that I am presenting a very simplified version of what is effectively a vast universal topic. I would also like to mention that I do not have personal full understanding or accessed the teachings yet. However, I am going to work through each limb consecutively in an attempt to unravel the complex nature of Ashtanga and self-realization.

Ashtanga combines four external practices; Yama, Niyama, Asana and Pranayama which lay the foundations for the more advanced four internal practices of Pratyahara, Dhyrana, Dhyana and ultimately Samadhi.

While practicing the first four limbs, the yogi refines and develops particular characteristics such as purification, dedication, self-discipline, control and detachment. All are necessary skills for walking the yogic path according to Patanjali.

The quality of detachment is of vital importance in the Ashtanga path to realization. It is mentioned many times in the sutras that the yogi can only succeed if he withdraws his attention from worldly possessions and pre-occupations. By committing to the codes of conduct set out in the Yamas and Niyamas, the yogi learns exactly how to manifest this quality of detachment. By practicing all ten guidelines, he will learn to shift his gaze from the external to the internal, casting off the veil of ignorance, or maya (illusion), which has been distracting and diverting him from his true purpose. With this achieved, he will then be able to establish a greater individual and social balance in his life. Ghandi once wrote, “Only through complete harmony of thought, word and deed can one truly know oneself,” and it is this that the yogi is aiming for in his commitment to the first two limbs.

The third limb of asana is the next step on the yogic path. Through asana practice, the yogi trains his body into physical perfection, thus creating a fit and trained instrument through which his mind can better function.

The body is the temple of God as the saying goes and in yoga, it is where the seat of the Atman, or self, resides. By bridging the gap between body and mind (at least in short moments throughout asana practice) the yogi moves into a deeper state of consciousness where he makes contact with the Atman.

Pranayama, the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga is the practice in which the yogi learns to take control of his breath. Here the yogi learns to control the flow of prana in his body which increases his vitality and concentration. He also learns that Pranayama is an effective device in altering his moods and emotional states of being. Once the yogi has cultivated the tools of all four limbs, he has learnt not only to control the external workings of his physical body, but also the control of his internal systems too. At this stage he has created the perfect conditions for the next four stages of Ashtanga.

Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. With this tool the yogi further learns how to curb the outgoing tendencies of the mind. By reducing his attachment to taste, touch, smell, and sound and all the desires that go with them, he avoids distraction and begins the process of internal refinement. With his focus on self-realization, the yogi now drives his attention inwards, establishing a deeper connection to his true self, or Atman. Patanjali states that a strong and steady internal focus is the yogi’s means to realization, and in “Sure Ways To Self Realization”, Sivananda adds that pratyhara provides the means to realizing the true scale and power which resides within. Through internal exploration and self enquiry, the yogi begins to understand himself as a microcosm of the world around him, it dawns on him that whatever exists in the universe also exists in him.

With increasing awareness of the Atman; the all-seeing, unchanging, and ceaseless witness, the yogi is able to comprehend a little of the splendor of the power of the self, which has been at the back of his mind, thought, will and memory since birth.

With a heightened sense of his true nature, the yogi is now ready to immerse himself in the last three techniques in the path to realization. Dhyrana is the focus of pinpointed attention on one object for a particular length of time. With his new insight and ability, the yogi now takes control of the mind, strengthening it – through Dhyrana – like a muscle. Over time, he builds the mental capacity to maintain unwavering awareness on the object before him, removing all other thought-forms from his mind. The power of this mental capacity, once established, in turn creates a stable foundation for meditation, the penultimate step to Samadhi.

Sitting for a length of time with the eyes closed, mentally concentrated and yet physically relaxed is a very difficult practice, especially when it is done with the absence of any external focus. He may choose to have an internal focus, for example, the sky, a fire, or nature but with a controlled gaze he does not allow the mind to describe any of the qualities of his focus. In Yoga meditation is considered to be the best system for increasing the speed of spiritual evolution, and once the practice has become accomplished, it is said the yogi experiences a distinct expansion of consciousness. At this stage, according to Patanjali’s sutras, he may also experience subtle psychic and spiritual powers.

With total mental discipline, complete commitment to his goal, and deep insight into the nature of himself, the yogi can finally embody the true essence of “yoga”. Patanjali describes Samadhi as a state with many subtleties, but ultimately is the state in which the individual consciousness merges with the divine universal consciousness. It is the moment when Atman meets Paratman. In this state, all separateness dissolves, freeing man to connect with the divine and fully realize himself.

“The views expressed above are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with these statements.”

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