Most mornings, after coffee and quiet reading, as soon as dawn starts to show, I take my yoga mat out into the backyard and I roll it out on the deck beneath the rustling trees. I face the rising sun. Then, as the last star fades, I begin.
I don’t remember every pose. I haven’t been in a yoga class for years. But I remember most of them. The more I practice, the more I remember. They come back to me as I come back to them. There’s a lesson right there.
In English they’re called sun salutations. In Sanskrit, if anybody’s interested, it’s surya namskara. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward cycle of poses that begin and end in a standing position. There are many variations on a common core. Just Google it and you’ll see what I mean.
What’s beautiful about surya namskara is its simplicity and effectiveness. Any beginner can do it, yet it tests even the most advanced practitioner. It stretches major muscle groups, stimulates circulation, deepens flexibility, and all while warming and awakening the mind. After a few rounds of surya namskara you remember what a sacred blessing it is to be alive.
If you’ve never done yoga, it’s essential that you begin with a teacher. There’s a lot to learn about proper posture, breathing technique, and avoiding injury. Videos and other online resources are great, but there’s no substitute for a real flesh and blood teacher in the room, someone who can help you adapt the classic poses to your body type and ability, and who can make tiny but significant corrections to your poses. Teachers save you a lot of suffering – trust me. Then once you get the basics down and know how to take care of yourself through the process, online videos and other digital resources are useful amendments to your practice.
What you might not know is this – that what we call “yoga” in the west, the breath and body work, is part of an ancient curriculum with six other key components. Together they are called Ashtanga (Eight-Limbed) Yoga. The breath work (pranayama) and the body work (asanas) that comprise your typical yoga class are numbers three and four of the eight-limbed process. So, what are the other stages, and what is yoga’s deeper, hidden purpose?
The first limb is called yama. Here, we commit to a life of moral integrity by relinquishing bad habits like lying, stealing, sloth, covetousness, and addictive disorders. It’s difficult to move forward on a program of whole-life awakening when you’re an obnoxious creep with self-destructive compulsions.
The second limb is called niyama. Here, we commit to spiritual and mental well-being by deepening into our sacred practices whatever they may be – prayer, study, service, or contemplative walks in the woods. Attend to your cleanliness and self-care. Make an intentional practice of gratitude and contentment. Decide to be happy.
With our life set right by the practice of yama and niyama, we’re ready to move into the deeper stages.
The third limb is called asana. This is what you think of when you hear the word yoga. Asanas are the poses that strengthen, stretch, and vitalize the body temple, a sacred house in need of deep care and attention. As other ancient wisdom traditions attest, (Aristotle comes to mind), our mind, body, and soul are three aspects of an integrated singularity. A healthy body is a prerequisite to a healthy mind and a healthy soul. A violinist cannot make beautiful music if her instrument has fallen into neglect.
The fourth limb is called pranayama. This is the breath work that accompanies the body work of the asanas. Your yoga teacher will really help you with this. Most of us take breathing for granted and, believe it or not, don’t do it right. It matters how you breathe. You’ll be amazed by how deeply transformative this one step is. Breathing is, after all, kind of a big deal.
The fifth limb is called pratyahara. At this stage we begin to disengage from the outer world of sensation. We deepen and go within. Sure, you stay engaged with the outer world – you can’t help it. But you add to that a renewed focus on the inner life. It is out of this deep introspection that insights begin to arise regarding the formerly unconscious processes that enslaved us. It isn’t easy undoing decades of unconsciousness. Simply slow down and feel the realization arise that you are much more than your body, your property, and your persona.
The first five stages were all merely preparation for what’s next. Now we are ready to go even deeper.
The sixth stage is called dharana, meaning concentration. As we gain practice moving into deeper states of intentional consciousness, we notice that our minds are a mess – a cacophony of competing cravings and fears. The practice of dharana helps us navigate this debris field and, believe it or not, quiet the chaos. Different teachers recommend different techniques. Some suggest concentrating on a mantra, a simple, repetitive phrase. Others suggest focusing on the breath. Find a technique that helps you still the thought-waves of the mind and deepen into dharana. As we get better and better at this still-point concentration, we are poised for the seventh stage.
The seventh stage is called dhyana, or meditation. Now that we’ve sharpened our ability to concentrate, we move into proper meditation. In the practice of dhyana we grow adept at deep, soft-focus awareness without a specific idea, topic, or point of concentration. We shift from being the thinker of thoughts to the silent witness of the thinking process – we have unhooked from both the thinker and the thoughts. We realize that we are the spacious, empty field in which both thought and thinker arise. We slip beneath the thought-stream and enter a state beyond all concepts, words, labels, and distinctions. We are moving toward the eighth and final stage.
The eighth stage is called samadhi. This is where it’s all been heading. Here the duality between the experience and the experiencer dissolves. We realize that we are one with everything. Only there is no longer any “we” to realize this. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “There are no enlightened persons. When enlightenment happens, there is no one there to claim it. There is only enlightenment.” The intellectual, conceptual construct of a separate self is just one of the many thought-forms that dissolve in the awakening process.
What’s most surprising about this ancient eight-limbed practice is how all that breath and body work we learned about in our yoga classes was originally conceived and designed merely as preparation for the deeper and more important work of meditation and awakening. There’s no harm of course in doing your sun salutations on the patio without the other six stages. In fact, there are enormous benefits. But now you know there’s more. Much more. It’s about awakening to the truth of who you are. And that’s the secret, hidden agenda of yoga.