The Purpose and Practices of Patanjali’s Yoga
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series in which Brother Shankara guides readers through the meaning and goals of yoga, based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Swami Vivekananda said, “Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this divinity by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy—by one, or more, or all of these—and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
Vivekananda’s bold proclamation points directly to the purposes of Patanjali’s Yoga—the realization of one’s innate divinity by gaining control of the outer and inner aspects of the human form.
Many people who practice hatha yoga are acquainted with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—it’s usually a sourcebook for their instructors. Students are taught asanas (postures or poses) and other ancient, proven techniques to strengthen the body and quiet the mind. Patanjali claims these exercises lead to greater psychological and physical poise, heightened mental alertness and increased psychic power.
Yet, serious students find these are just the first rewards for regular practice of Patanjali’s Yoga. Over time, they develop a much stronger ability to concentrate; this one-pointedness of mind may lead to meditation. From Patanjali’s point of view, that is the deeper purpose of perfecting the asanas and other techniques: they allow the body to sit perfectly still, comfortably, for long enough to turn a trained and calm mind within.
According to Patanjali, most of his methodology—six of the “eight limbs” of his yoga—is devoted to achieving this ability to meditate.
He defines concentration as the ability to hold or repeat the same thought, mantra, prayer, or other practice without interruption for 12 seconds. Meditation begins when the object of concentration can be held continuously for two minutes, 24 seconds. Sound easy? It is not.
Concentration and mediation are difficult because random perceptions, feelings and other thoughts divert the student’s attention away from an unbroken flow of awareness. These diversions arise from likes or dislikes, fears or worries, good or bad memories, immediate desires or fantasies of future pleasures, or simply stimulation from the five senses.
Years ago, on Saturday Night Live, character Roseanne Roseannadanna often lamented, “It’s always something!” Something, indeed—the “something” that keeps many people trapped in a tedious, unsatisfactory way of life.
Why must people go on being distracted, bored, fearful, even miserable? Patanjali promises that a sincere student of yoga can be free of all that. A yogi who sinks deep into the silence of meditation will not be afraid—of life or of death—and is no longer a slave to empty desires.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras prescribe six methods to achieve this freedom. Practiced together, they help create a calm mind, a strong, poised body, and a tranquil way of life—the prerequisites for meditation:
- Yama means the restraint of tendencies that keep a student at odds with the world. When a person is habitually harmful to others or the environment, deceitful, greedy or selfish, immoderately sensual or covetous, calmness of mind is utterly impossible.
- Niyama practices broaden Yama to include the student’s internal world of body, mind and spirit. Yogis make daily, determined efforts to eliminate all forms of inner and outer impurity, to be content with the circumstances of their lives, to prefer the good over the pleasant, to learn from sacred texts and from their own weaknesses and mistakes, and to offer the results of their practice of yoga to the Divine Presence.
- Asana means “seat”—specifically, a seat for meditation. Hatha yoga’s use of that word is an extension of the term to include many other yogic exercises. These poses, done regularly with proper guidance, can result in a poised, flexible, healthy body. Such a body allows a yogi to sit still comfortably for an hour or even longer, practicing concentration and meditation.
- Pranayama is the combination of two concepts. Yama, as noted above, means restraint. Prana, often translated as “breath,” is actually the subtle life force that causes the lungs to breathe (and all of the body’s other organs to function). Therefore, pranayama is the regulation of a yogi’s life force—consciously or as a spontaneous outcome of other exercises. For instance, while practicing meditation a student’s breathing will slow and may even stop for a time. This natural pranayama happens because breathing is energetically tied to thinking, and fewer thoughts arise during meditation.
- Pratyahara means “withdrawal of the senses.” The senses are naturally outreaching, so it’s easy to become addicted to pleasant experiences of the outside world—and get stuck there, like a fly to flypaper. Students of yoga are taught to witness these sensations as just one level of existence. They learn to turn their attention away from sensory stimulation and explore the universe within themselves. Skill in pratyahara is required to move on to the next step.
- Dharana is the ability to concentrate; Patanjali gives special emphasis to dharana because it will determine a yogi’s level of achievement. As Vivekananda wrote in his introduction to Raja Yoga, “How has all the knowledge in the world been gained but by the concentration of the powers of the mind? … There is no limit to the power of the human mind. The more concentrated it is, the more power is brought to bear on one point; that is the secret.” To perform an asana elegantly, to watch the breath or chant a mantra without interruption, to distinguish the real from the unreal, requires this one-pointed control of one’s attention. Patanjali says it is the gateway to freedom.
Next issue: “What Patanjali Means by Power and Freedom”
Brother Shankara is the resident minister of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta. Email Brother Shankara at [email protected]