The Hindu Path to Enlightenment: Ashtanga Yoga, Part 1

Bodhinatha discourses on The Hindu Path to Enlightenment commencing with with a description of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. With perseverance the path leads to sahaja samadhi, the state of perpetual God consciousness. Bodhinatha focuses on the yamas and niyamas demonstrating that without those two limbs, as a foundation to control of our instinctive nature, even if we are meditating and performing spiritual practice, we may be standing still rather than sustaining progress.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning everyone. We're working on some talks for our trip to western Canada. One of the more challenging talks is a, they asked for a two hour talk, that's harder than a twenty minute talk. Wanted a two hour talk, so it's hard to keep a two hour talk interesting. So I'm also trying to reach out to the non-Hindu community there in Vancouver, a little bit, so I chose what is always a hot topic: The Hindu Path to Enlightenment. It's always a buzz word, enlightenment, everyone is interested in enlightenment. So the talk is roughly in two parts, the first part is about an hour long, and the second part is about forty-five minutes long and the difference is for questions and answers. So, this is the second part and we'll get through about half of it this morning and then we can do the other half next week. So it's on ashtanga yoga and ashtanga yoga and it's relationship to enlightenment.

Certainly one of the key approaches in Hinduism to understanding the spiritual path that leads to the eventual experience of enlightenment is the tradition of ashtanga or eight-limbed yoga. Sage Patanjali is credited with being the first person to present the ancient tradition of yoga in a systematic way. He did this of course in his book entitled: Yoga Sutras. Patanjali explained that when the mind is kept very calm and quiet for a long time in dhyana, or meditation, we become united with God. This is called samadhi, and the deepest form of samadhi is the stage of enlightenment.

Before we look more closely at each of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, let me comment on another meaning of ashtanga yoga that is popular today, that is based on the teachings of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It refers to a system of performing the yoga asanas, postures, which synchronizes the breath with a progressive series of postures. This process produces intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. Our explanation today of ashtanga yoga does not relate at all to this more modern use of the term.

Another point worth making is about yoga asanas in general. In modern times, in both the east and west, the term yoga has become more or less synonymous with the yoga asanas or postures. And the goal of this approach to yoga is quite often simply the health oriented benefits. A typical description from one yoga studio website states that yoga increases the circulation of oxygen rich blood, nourishing and detoxifying the internal organs, musculature, cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, digestive, reproductive and nervous systems. Sometimes mental benefits are also mentioned such as improving concentration and clarity of mind.

However, it is crucial to remember that the goal of ashtanga yoga in its classical sense is samadhi, oneness with God. And that the deepest samadhi is the state of enlightenment.

Sahaja samadhi, or simply sahaja, is the equivalent of enlightenment and refers to the state of perpetual God consciousness. Gurudeva explains it as follows: "Simultaneous perception of the inner and the outer. It is a permanent state of oneness with God, even in the midst of ordinary activities, a plateau reached or aftermath of repeated samadhi experiences. Esoterically, it dawns when the kundalini resides coiled in the sahasrara chakra." So that's our definition of enlightenment. Technical definition.

Moving on to a more detailed description of Ashtanga Yoga, it consists of eight limbs which describe progressively more advanced practices. In other words, the idea is to begin with the first limb and after attaining some proficiency at it move on to the second, and so forth. The eight limbs in Sanskrit and English are:

Yama - restraints

Niyama - observances

Asana - yogic postures

Pratyahara - sense withdrawal

Dharana. (Oop, pranayama's missing here isn't it. Pranayama. Asana.)

Pranayama - breath control

Pratyahara -sense withdrawal

Dharana - concentration

Dhyana - meditation and

Samadhi - enstasy, or oneness with God

We can liken these eight limbs to constructing a tall building. The yamas are the first part of the foundation, like the cement, and the second part are the niyamas which are like the steel pillars. Together they provide the support a tall building needs to stand. Asana, pranayama and pratyahara are like the lower floors, dharana, dhyana the middle ones and samadhi is the top floor.

For those of you familiar with the Saivite denomination of Hinduism, let me take a moment to show how the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga fit into the practices of Saivism.

In Saivism, the spiritual path is divided into four progressive stages, called padas. These four stages, are called:

Charya - service

Kriya - devotion

Yoga - meditation and

Jnana - wisdom

The ten yamas comprise an important part of the practices of the charya pada, or first stage of the path which focuses on service. Likewise the niyamas comprise an important part of the practices of the kriya pada, the second stage of the path focusing on devotion.

The third limb of asana through the eighth limb of Samadhi, all are part of yoga pada, third stage of the path, which is the practice of meditation.

These first two limbs, the twenty does and don'ts of the yamas and niyamas, are a commonsense code recorded in mankind's' oldest body of scripture -- the 6,000 to 8,000 year old Vedas -- in their final section which are the Upanishads, namely the Shandilya and the Varuha. They are also found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Gorakshanatha, Tirumantiram of Tirumular and of course in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

They are the distilled wisdom of thousands of years of religious culture. Observing these twenty restraints and religious practices builds good character which is the foundation for happiness and spiritual unfoldment.

Let me share a quote from Gurudeva on this idea. "It is true that bliss comes from meditation and it is true that higher consciousness is the heritage of all mankind. However, the ten restraints and their corresponding practices are necessary to maintain bliss consciousness."

The idea of improving our character and becoming a more virtuous person is so central to Hinduism that I sometimes use it as an introduction to a general talk that is giving an overview of Hinduism. Let me share an example of such an introduction.

Have you ever tried to explain to another what the purpose of our Hindu practices was? Perhaps as a parent your child asked you: "Why are Hindus vegetarian?" or "What is the purpose of going to the temple?" or "Why do we meditate?"

Of course we can choose to give a philosophical answer -- this is a very good philosophical answer by the way -- such as to resolve our karma, realize God and be liberated from reincarnation. Right? We all know that's the correct philosophical answer to Hinduism.

This of course is a technically perfect answer however, it is so abstract it doesn't give the child a clue as to how in Hinduism we are expected to behave. Therefore a simpler answer would be a more useful one. Now and then we speak to groups of non-Hindus at our monastery in Hawaii and introduce them to Hinduism. I have found the following to be an effective approach for explaining the essence of Hinduism in an uncomplicated way, without using any technical terms. It is a simple answer that focuses on behavior. Hinduism teaches us how to: become a better person, improve our behavior, live as spiritual beings on this earth. As you mentioned earlier man's nature can be described as threefold. Superconscious or spiritual, intellectual or mental, and instinctive or physical-emotional. It is the instinctive nature, the animal like nature, which contains the tendencies to become angry or harm others. The goal is to learn to control these animal instincts as well as the ramifications of the intellect and the pride of the ego and manifest one's spiritual nature.

One of the unfortunate aspects of how yoga is commonly taught today is that the first and second limbs of yama and niyama are skipped altogether and the yoga practitioner begins with the third limb of asana. This is not so crucial for those who are pursuing yoga solely for health benefits, however, other practitioners pursue it in hopes of reaping the spiritual benefit yoga offers. They are spiritual seekers having higher consciousness as the goal of their yoga. And skipping the yamas and niyamas definitely impacts the amount of spiritual progress they can achieve and sustain. In this regard the modern exponent of Hatha Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar cautioned: "Practice of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics. Yama and niyama control the yogi's passions and emotions and keep him in harmony with his fellow man. (Isn't that a good quote? It's a very insightful one.)

My guru wrote at length on each of the twenty yamas and niyamas as he felt their practice and mastery was essential to deeper spiritual progress. We collected his writings on this topic and published it as a separate book entitled: Yoga's Forgotten Foundation: Twenty Keys to Your Divine Destiny, to provide broader distribution of these concepts. (And it plugs the book.) This book can be purchased in Canada from Amazon.com Canada and also from Banyan Books in Vancouver. (Banyan Books is a store we've known for many years and they carry a number of Gurudeva's books.) I found the following review of the book on the Banyan Books website and thought you would enjoy hearing it. So this is just something they wrote. "A strong read for serious yoga practitioners, meditators and anyone deeply involved with transformative spiritual life. Yoga's Forgotten Foundation delves into the integrated approach to yoga as taught by the great masters of India. It is a cogent reminder to those who want to start at the end of the spiritual path that there is an essential beginning, the neglect of which portends failure and disappointment. With full color Indian art it explores the traditional foundation of yoga; twenty little known guidelines on personal ethics, self control and religious practice, called the yamas and niyamas. The yamas and niyamas have been preserved through the centuries as the first and second stage of the eight staged practice of yoga. They provide the essential foundation to support our yoga practice so that attainments in higher consciousness can be sustained. The modern exponent of hatha yoga Iyengar cautioned, (and they repeat his quote.) This book begins with a foreword by the author's spiritual successor Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami and takes the reader step by step through non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual purity, patience, contentment and other facets of virtue. Grounded in a traditional Hindu point of view yet relevant to us all, the book discusses some of the toughest issues and challenges of modern life including: promiscuity, domestic abuse, child rearing, overeating, gambling, vegetarianism, violence, injustice and pornography; relating them all to progress on the yoga path. It also explores essential practices including charity, worship, chanting mantras, austerity, and scriptural study." End of review.

Together the yamas and niyamas provide the foundation to support our spiritual practice so that the progress we make on the spiritual path can be sustained.

Next week we can do ashtanga yoga in depth which goes into asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and two kinds of samadhi -- savikalpa and nirvikalpa samadhi -- in case you forgot the difference. And then Gurudeva's swimming pool analogy, jumping into a swimming pool and comparing it to samadhi. So that's where it's going.

One of the analogies I use to show the importance of the yamas and niyamas in terms of sustaining spiritual progress is a simple analogy to a bathtub, because everyone understands a bathtub. So, spiritual practice is like filling up the tub. So every time you worship, you do your japa or you do your meditation, it's like putting water in the tub and the level of the tub shows the progress which you've achieved. So you know, if you're doing regular progress, putting water in, as long as the stopper is there in the tub, the level's going up. But unfortunately being human beings, sometimes our emotions aren't under control. So we have serious outbursts of anger for example. Anger and argument. So that's like taking the stopper out of the tub. And of course what happens when you take the stopper out of the tub, the water's going out. So obviously, if you have regular outbursts of anger and issues and arguments, the stopper will be permanently out of the tub. So, you're putting water in but water's going out and what's happening to the water level? It's not going up, right? So, it's a simple analogy which shows the importance of the yamas and niyamas. In other words, our basic emotional control over the instinctive nature.

Our ability to control our instinctive nature is needed to make spiritual progress, otherwise we're standing still. We're making progress at the top, but at the bottom, because we can't control out instinctive nature nature, we're losing. So as a result we're standing still, therefore, obviously someone who's, there's no point in putting a huge amount of time into spiritual practices until we control the instinctive nature. That's the point. Some practice is good but there's no point meditating three hours a day if we're getting angry every day. It's obviously working against itself. So better to put in the energy, you know meditate half an hour a day and put in the other two and a half hours learning to control your anger. That's what the yamas and niyamas is telling us you know, let's get the instincts under control and consider that important for making spiritual progress. So, one of the beauties of Gurudeva's description of the yamas and niyamas is that it's very detailed. Talks about each one at length. You don't find that anywhere else. You just find a list or a few words or some story which shows the principle of honesty, but you don't find a detailed description of each one. So it's, it's very helpful because it's not that easy to control our instinctive nature. So we can use all the help we can get, all the insights we can get, all the descriptions of the different sides of the instincts. So that's the beauty of Gurudeva's writing on it which is quite extensive is that it allows us to understand each of the instincts and therefore understand it better and therefore be better able to control it. And the more instinctive nature is under control, then the more our spiritual progress is sustained, it's not going away. Cause of anger and argument, argument problems.

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