Astaunga Yoga

by Acarya Vedaprajinananda Avadhuta

The goal of Tantra is complete happiness and the method for attaining it lies in the full development of mind and body. Although this perfection of mind and body can be slowly achieved through natural means there is also a well-defined method for more rapid self-development. There are eight parts of this practice and since its goal is union (yoga) with the Cosmic Consciousness, it is also known as Astaunga yoga, or eight-limbed yoga.

The first two steps are Yama and Niyama, which are moral guidelines for human development. The idea of morality here is that by controlling our behavior we can achieve a higher state of being. The idea is not simply to follow a rule for the sake of following a rule. Rather the object is to attain perfection of the mind. When this state is attained then there will be no question of “rules” because the desire to do something which is detrimental to the welfare of our self or another person will no longer be present in the mind, which is in a state of perfect equilibrium. Yama means “that which controls”, and the practice of Yama means to control actions related to the external world. In his book A Guide to Human Conduct, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti has clearly explained the different aspects of Yama and Niyama, giving an interpretation that is clear and also practical for people in the 20th century. Here we will briefly review the five parts of Yama and the five parts of Niyama, but for a fuller explanation one should read A Guide to Human Conduct.

The first principle of Yama is Ahimsa. Ahimsa means not to do harm to others in thought, word and actions. To the best of our capacity we should never inflict injury on another living being. This principle is sometimes interpreted to mean complete non-violence, but if carried to an extreme it becomes very impractical. For example each time we breathe there are microbes which we inhale and kill! To solve this dilemma Anandamurti gives suggestions, saying that in selecting our diet we should choose the food where consciousness is less developed before killing highly developed creatures. Another problem is the question of self defense. Here Anandamurti says that to defend oneself against an aggressor or against an anti-social person is justifiable. Even if you use force, your intention is to save and protect life, not to cause pain or block the mental, physical or spiritual progress of that person.

The second principle of Yama is called Satya. The definition of Satya is “action of mind and the use of speech in the spirit of welfare”. It means to tell the truth and act in a straightforward and honest way which will promote the welfare of all. In cases where telling the exact truth will harm others, then Satya means to say what is best for the welfare of others rather than to tell the exact facts. Adherence to Satya brings about tremendous strength of mind and is extremely important for spiritual success.

The third principle is Asteya. Asteya means not to take possession of things which belong to others. This means not to commit actual theft. Also stealing should not be done mentally. Those who want to steal but who refrain from doing so out of fear of being caught are ‘mentally’ stealing. Asteya means to refrain from both mental and physical stealing.

The fourth principle is Brahmacarya and it means to remain attached to Brahma (the Cosmic Consciousness) by treating all beings and things as an expression of the Cosmic Consciousness. The mind takes the shape of the object of our thought. If we are thinking in a materialistic manner, seeing all things only as material objects, then the mind will gradually become dull. If we can perform all actions remembering that everything in this world is actually the Cosmic Consciousness in a transformed state, then the mind will move towards a state of oneness with the Cosmic Consciousness. In some books Brahmacarya has been described as sexual abstinence. This definition was put forward in the middle ages by priests who wanted to attain supremacy over ordinary family people.

The fifth part of Yama is Aparigraha and it means not to hoard wealth which is superfluous to our actual needs. It means to live a simple life with only as much physical wealth as is actually necessary. This amount is variable according to time, place, and person. It is an important principle in both individual and collective life, because if one person or one nation hoards wealth, it may result in starvation and misery for other people. It is an important part of spiritual practice, because if one is always preoccupied with physical objects, then he or she can not think about the Cosmic Consciousness.

The second major part of Astaunga Yoga is called Niyama. Niyama means self-regulation. Without self-regulation, it is impossible to attain higher states of consciousness.

The first principle of Niyama is Shaoca. Shaoca means Purity of mind and body. It includes cleanliness of one’s external world such as the body, clothing and environment, as well as the internal world of the mind. External cleanliness can be achieved by regular cleaning of the body and the environment, while internal purity of mind can be attained by auto-suggestion. That is, one must substitute a good thought in place of a destructive thought. For example, if one feels greedy, one should think about and then perform a generous action.

The second part of Niyama is Santosa. It means to maintain a state of mental ease. When the mind hungers for something it is in a state of uneasiness. Upon satisfying that desire, the moment of relief and ease which the mind gets is called tosa in Sanskrit. Those people who are easily satisfied and can maintain a state of contentment are following Santosa. The achievement of Santosa is linked with Aparighraha (mentioned previously).

The third principle of Niyama is Tapah. It means to undergo hardship on the path of personal and collective development. An act which is done in the spirit of service helping others without expecting anything in return is considered to be Tapah. The service should be rendered to people who really need help. If you undergo suffering to feed a rich person it is not a very useful service. In the past some spiritual aspirants practiced self-inflicted hardships and austerities (like walking on fire) but such austerities do not provide benefits to the aspirant, to the society or to Cosmic Consciousness, so they have no importance in spiritual advancement.

The fourth principle is Svadhyaya. It means having a clear understanding of a spiritual subject. One should read and assimilate the meaning of great books and scriptures written by spiritually advanced people. Mere reading without understanding is not Svadhyaya. The importance of Svadhyaya is that it gives one contact with great personalities and inspires one to continue on the path of self-realization.

The fifth part of Niyama is Iishvara Pranidhana. It means to make the Cosmic Consciousness the goal of your life. This is done through a process of meditation in which the meditator thinks only of one thought, the Cosmic Consciousness. As previously explained, in Tantric meditation the meditator repeats a mantra which reminds him or her of his or her relationship with the Cosmic Consciousness. Part of this meditation process also includes steps where the mind is detached from other objects and is focused on the Cosmic Consciousness.

The third limb of Astaunga Yoga is Asana. An asana is a posture which is comfortably held. It is the most well-known part of yoga, but it is often misunderstood as well. Asanas are not normal exercises such as calisthenics or gymnastics. Asanas are special exercises which have specific effects on the endocrine glands, joints, muscles, ligaments and nerves.

Thousands of years ago sages used to observe the animals of the forest. They noticed that each animal had certain qualities and that the animals often assumed different poses. By imitating these poses they began to notice important effects on the human body. For example, the peacock is a bird with a powerful digestive system capable of digesting even a poisonous snake. The ancient sages developed a posture for humans, imitating that of the peacock, which strengthens the human digestive system. Other postures were also developed which exercise other organs and glands. The ancient sages developed thousands of postures. However, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti has selected around forty which are useful to help one’s spiritual Progress as well as to cure and prevent different diseases.

The most important effect of asanas is on the endocrine glands which secrete hormones directly into the blood stream. The endocrine glands include the pancreas, thymus, thyroid, parathyroid, adrenals and reproductive glands (testes and ovaries). If the secretion of any gland is too much or too little, then there will be a malfunctioning in the body. For example, if the thyroid gland, located in the throat, secretes too much fluid, a person will become thin. If the gland secrete too little fluid the person will become very fat. The reason is that thyroxin, the hormone secreted by this gland, regulates metabolism or the rate in which the body converts food into energy. Asanas can correct the malfunctioning of the thyroid and other glands by putting pressure on the gland, which in effect massages the gland and regulates the amount of blood flowing to that gland.

Asanas also help to keep the spinal cord flexible which is important in retarding the effects of aging on the body As people grow older the spinal column usually becomes rigid. Proper performance of asanas can prevent this process.

Another important effect of asanas is that they help various organs of the body to function properly. For example there are several asanas which massage the stomach and intestines and the organs involved in the digestion of and the elimination of wastes. Problems such as indigestion, constipation, gastric ulcer, liver malfunction, etc. can be checked and corrected by performing certain asanas in combination with a proper diet.

According to Ananda Marga yoga, yoga postures should be selected for the student by a teacher who is able to prescribe the asanas needed by that individual. Although there are numerous asanas, everyone has a different physical structure with different strengths and weaknesses, so certain asanas may be more suited to one person than to another. In choosing the asanas, the yoga teacher (acharya) will also consider the effect of the asanas on the subtle nervous centers of the body – the cakras. There are two subtle nerves running up the trunk of the body crisscrossing each other five times at the spinal column. Where these nerves cross are centers of psychic energy known as cakras (or chakras). These cakras are not anatomical organs but they control the functioning of the various organs in the region adjacent to the cakra. Thus a person suffering from respiratory problems will need asanas which strengthen the cakra at the center of the chest. To overcome digestive problems, asanas which exercise the cakra at the navel region will be required. The diagram below shows the location of the cakras and the organs and basic factors which they control. Tantric philosophy explains that the world is composed of five funndamentals factors: etherial, aerial, luminous, liquid, and solid. The human body is composed of these factors and the cakras control these factors.

In addition to helping to bring about physical well-being the asanas have an important effect on the mind. when glandular functions are well balanced this contributes to mental balance. Also, by strengthening the psychic centers the asanas help control the mental propensities (vrttis) controlled by these centers. These fifty mental propensities are distributed in the six lower cakras.

The fourth component of Astaunga Yoga is Pranayama or control of vital energy. Pranayama is a well-known practice of yoga, but the principle upon which this practice is based is less well known and deserves explanation here.

Tantra defines life as the parallelism of physical an mental waves in proper coordination with vital energies. The vital energies are known as Vayus or “winds”. There are ten vayus in the human body which are responsible for the moving activities including respiration, circulation of the blood excretion of wastes, movement of limbs; etc. The controlling point of all these vayus is an organ known as Pranendriya. (The Pranendriya, like the cakras, is not an anatomical organ.) This Pranendriya also has the function of linking the various sensory organs with a point in the brain. The Pranendriya is located in the center of the chest and it pulsates in synchronization with the process of respiration. when there is a rapid pulsation of the breath and also of the pranendriya it is more difficult for the mind to link up with sensory perceptions. For example if you run a race of 1000 meters you cannot immediately eat something and recognize the flavor of what you have eaten due to the rapid breathing and disturbed functioning of the pranendriya. During rapid breathing it also becomes more difficult to concentrate the mind.

In pranayama there is a special process of breathing in which the pulsation of the Pranendriya becomes still and the mind becomes very calm. This helps meditation greatly. Pranayama also readjusts the balance of vital energy in the body. Pranayama is a complicated practice and can be dangerous if not taught and guided by a competent teacher. The practitioner of pranayama must maintain a spiritual thought in the mind while doing the exercise – if not, his or her mind may focus on a negative propensity (such as anger for example) and the mind will become degraded rather than elevated. It is also important to know in which part of the body the vital energy should be concentrated. Because of these complexities Pranayama is usually taught following a preparatory period in which the student becomes familiar with the basic meditation process and other practices. In the system of Ananda Marga yoga evolved by Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, Pranayama is the fourth lesson in a series of six lessons of meditation techniques taught individually to students as they become ready for successive lessons.

The fifth limb of Astaunga Yoga is know as Pratyahara which means to withdraw the mind from its attachment to external objects. In Tantra the repetition of mantra is preceded by a process in which the meditator retracts his or her mind to one point. The stories of yogis who are so deep in meditation that they cannot even feel pins which are being stuck into their bodies are examples of the efficacy of this practice. However, it is not an easy matter to arrive at such a state of sensory withdrawal. Progressively, after constant and regular practice, a beginning meditator can gain more success in this process.

Another part of Pratyahara is called “the offering of colors.” Each vibration in the universe has a color associated with it, and for every object of the mind, there is an associated vibration and color. During meditation one’s mind may be occupied with different objects. At the end of meditation, the meditator visualizes and symbolically offers to the Supreme Consciousness the colors associated with the thoughts which have disturbed the mind during meditation. Through this process the mind becomes detached from these thoughts and objects. This lesson of offering the colors is taught as part of the second stage of individual instruction in the Ananda Marga system of Tantra Yoga.

The sixth part of Astaunga Yoga is Dharana. Dharana means the concentration of the mind at a specific point. In the basic lesson of Tantric meditation the aspirant brings his or her mind to a specific cakra which is his or her spiritual and psychic nucleus. This point (called the Ista Cakra) varies from person to person and is indicated by the teacher of meditation at the time of initiation. When the mind is well concentrated on the point, then the process of repeating the mantra begins. If the concentration is lost, the aspirant must again bring his or her mind back to the point of concentration. This practice of bringing one’s mind to the point of concentration is a form of Dharana.

In addition to this Dharana found in the first lesson of meditation, there is another form of Dharana known as Tattva Dharana in which the aspirant concentrates on the cakras and the specific factors controlled by the cakras. This lesson is important because it helps the meditator to gain control over the mental propensities governed by that cakra as well as to increase the concentration powers of the mind which is especially valuable in the other lessons of meditation. Tattva Dharana also has the effect of loosening the pressure of the ida and pingala nerves on the susumna nerve. When this pressure is loosened, then the spiritual energy Kulakundalinii) can flow more easily upward. Tattva Dharana is taught as the third lesson of this series of Tantra Yoga.

When someone has gained skill in Dharana, he or she can then learn the seventh limb of Astaunga Yoga which is Dhyana. In this process, the mind is first brought to a particular cakra and then is directed in an unbroken flow towards the Supreme Consciousness. This flow continues until the mind becomes completely absorbed in the Supreme Consciousness. This process is difficult and is only given after the aspirant has practiced all the preceding steps, particularly Dharana.

There are different forms of dhyana and through the study of Dhyana we can understand the relationship of Tantra with other spiritual traditions. When Tantric teachers from India first brought this form of meditation to China it became known as Chan, and when Chan was brought to Japan via Korea, it finally became known as Zen. Although there are important differences between contemporary Zen meditation and the Dhyana as practiced by the Tantric masters in India, the root teaching was the same. Dhyana helps to perfect the most subtle layer of the mind and leads the person to the final step of Astaunga Yoga which is samadhi.

Samadhi is not like the other seven steps in that it is not a particular method or practice, rather it is the result of practicing the other parts of Astaunga Yoga. It is the absorption of mind in the Supreme Consciousness. There are two principal forms of samadhi, nirvikalpa and savikalpa. Savikalpa is a trance of absorption with distortion or qualification. In savikalpa samadhi the person has the feeling that “I am the Supreme Consciousness”, but in nirvikalpa samadhi there is no longer a feeling of “I”. The individual consciousness is totally merged in the Cosmic Consciousness.

Those who experience this state are not able to explain or describe it because it occurs when the mind has ceased to function. The only way they can even know that they experienced this state is after the mind leaves this trance of absorption. Then they experience waves of extreme happiness and can assume that they were in the state of nirvikalpa samadhi. The attainment of samadhi comes after long practice in this life, or as a result of much practice in a previous life or through the grace of the Guru. It is the culminating point in millions of years of development from lower forms of life to humanhood and finally to merger with the source of all being.

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