Patanjali’s Yoga is the core of Yoga philosophy, and basis of the ashtanga system – the source of every kind of yoga we find in the world today. Though we have no firm idea of his identity, or even his existence as a single author, he is considered to be the writer of the Yoga Sutras – the oldest textbook of the yoga school of Yoga, dated to the second century BC. In approaching Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it is important to recognize that we are dealing with the basis of Yoga’s method; the starting point of an approach to psychology that will go through many more historical developments on its course to the form we find today.
Psychology of the Yoga Sutra
The standard translation of the Sanskrit word, ‘Yoga’ is yoke, in the sense of fully mindful action; the action of harmony between mind, body and soul. However, most commentators fail to point out that this particular meaning flourished only in Yoga’s later developments. When considering Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in their true historical context, it is more appropriate to translate the word as method or effort. The ‘method’ recommended in Patanjali’s text is mainly a psychological one, the mental ‘effort’ of discriminating between truth and delusion (avidya). It is a practical, psychological approach founded on the highest metaphysical ideal – that the realization of true Being relies on separating the Eternal from the delusional fluctuations of matter (mind).
The key to Patanjali’s psychological method is the focus on citta – the ‘mind-stuff’ that constitutes our subjectivity as thinking beings. Incorporating intellect, self-consciousness and mind, citta is the instrument obstructing the recognition of truth in every human being. Our minds are restless (rajasic), blinded (tamasic) and distracted; ruled by ‘defilements’ leading them into endless delusions of thought. All attitudes, opinions and perspectives of seeing things are really the action of the vrittis; the result of personality and emotions, rather than true objective sight. The aim of Patanjal’s psychological astanga system is to achieve a single-pointedness of mind – a steady and consistent view of the world based on its true nature. This psychological one-pointedness is the true aim of Yoga; a psychological mastery forming the basis of Krishna’s advice in the later scripture, the Bhagavad Gita.
Patanjali’s Ashtanga System of Yoga
Patanajali’s ashtanga system is devoted to achieving this ‘one-pointedness’, and recommends a sequence of actions to this purpose. The first steps, ethical codes of behaviour yama and niyama, end emotional chaos and the production of new karmas in the individual. Physical asana practice seeks to spread the mind’s self-consciousness throughout the body, develop strength and provide the physical ease required for meditation. Pranayama, or breath control seeks to further enhance ones human abilities and capacity for fortitude; and Pratyahara forms the culmination of these first five ‘external’ steps – where the individual masters and withdraws his sense faculties from the outside world.
It is at this point that the final three ‘internal’ means of Yoga commence: dharana (concentration), dhyana (absorption) and samadhi (union). The path completes in the Indian idea of enlightenment (jivamukti), where perfected insight provides the means of escape from the endless wheel of suffering and reincarnation (samsara). Whether or not one subscribes to the Eastern philosophy of multiple lives, the process towards Samadhi can be understood on the basis of universal human nature. The process of maximizing intelligence and clarifying focus towards a single object may be aimed at enlightenment, but the practice is equally applicable to every stage of human thought. The practice of ashtanga Yoga is sure to relieve mental stress and create an advanced form of focus in the mind. It is a pragmatic psychological discipline of universal application, as well as the highest spiritual practice known to man. It is up to you how you approach the path and how far you intend to travel.
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