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An Entry into Yoga Philosophy

These days, most people start by practicing yoga asana. This physical practice usually leads to understanding some basics of Indian philosophy. But let's not forget that traditionally, philosophy was the main yogic study and asana only a fraction of one's practice. In fact, yoga is one of the shatdarshan, the six purely philosophical schools of Indian thought recognized by scholars worldwide.

When we speak about yoga in this context, we are specifically referring to Raja Yoga, the royal yoga, or the path of meditation. This strict definition of this yoga is the universe according to Patanjali, the deified patron saint of yoga.

Patanjali didn't invent yoga, but he codified it and the brilliance of his definition lives on today through what we call the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Yoga was practiced before Patanjali came along and has evolved since his physical departure from our Earth, about two thousand years ago. Yet his definition shines forth as the most recognized and quoted source to answer our many questions, and for Patanjali, yoga is meditation.

So this Raja Yoga of Patanjali Yoga Sutra gives us a few definitions, a few paths to follow, a few hints of how to proceed in our practice. The most explicit and tangible road laid out is the eight-limbed path, or in Sanskrit, Ashtanga (ashtau - eight, anga - limb). Patanjali's eight limbs give the practitioner specific tactics and the first two limbs detail how yogis meet the world during daily life.

The first limb is Yama (restraints) and the second limb, Niyama (observances). Each limb is then divided into five behaviors that yogis take up or emulate. The Yamas are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha (non-injury, truth, non-stealing, chastity and non-greed). The Niyamas are Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Ishvarapranidhana (cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and surrender to divinity).

Note that the Yamas are primarily instructing us to avoid certain behaviors (don't hurt things, don't steal, etc) while the Niyamas give us positive attributes to attain (do be content, do study the self, etc). For this reason, they are recognized as the “dont's and do's” of Yoga.

Yama seems to govern relationship with the outer world, while Niyama governs the internal world of the yogi. In this light, the first two limbs are a journey that begins more externally and leads more internally. One sets out to restrain and purify one's interactions with the seemingly external world and then progresses to purify the internal universe that is so essential to our practice. On this journey, Yama and Niyama mirror the entirety of the eight limbs, which are clearly a progreesion from external to internal practice. This transition is most apparent within Saucha, cleanliness or purity. We often hear that this refers to both external cleanliness (of the skin, of one's surroundings, etc) as well as internal cleanliness or purity (of one's diet, of one's organs, of one's thoughts, etc.). Noting both the external and internal nature of Saucha shows us the evolution from Yama to Niyama. In fact, older traditions include Saucha as a Yama, highlighting its importance as a restraint. But Patanjali has it begin the Niyamas, clarifying the direction of the yogic journey: inwards.

Yama and Niyama exist as very complex edicts, ones that are almost certainly unattainable in their purest forms. It is fascinating that Patanjali advises that Yama is to be practiced by one and all, regardless of their station in life. And at the same time, full compliance with each Yama is impossible to completely attain – even for monks and renunciates, not to mention householders and those with even freer lifestyles.

In the next article, we'll examine Ahimsa and see how it is both impossible and essential for the practicing Yogi. This contradiction will prove useful as taking on a serious study of Yama and Niyama will lead us to wonderful places for debate, deliberation and discussion. And taking on a serious practice of these limbs will lead us in an important direction: inwards.

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