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The Eight-Fold Path: Does it Matter?

Why the 8-fold path still makes a difference to your practice even if most of today's teaching are based on the work-out.   


During my post graduate work a university professor asked me, “Who cares about the eight-fold path?” In other words, does any of it matter if we feel satisfied with learning the physical postures? Posing this question (as rude as it may sound) actually lead to some interesting discussions as to whether or not students need to be aware of all that yoga offers. The problem of course is that learning yoga as exercise is half, perhaps even less, of all that yoga has to offer. This in turn poses the question, "Why settle for less when the ‘whole’ is available?"

The foundation of the practices of yoga are based on eight stages or limbs called Ashtanga-yoga. (See Eight Stages.) The word 'Ashtanga' is more commonly known today as the style of yoga that made Shri K. Pattabhi Jois famous. The eight-fold path, however, is the ground in which all types of Hatha-yoga (i.e., the physical postures combined with the breath and meditation) have grown out of.

The Yoga Sutras, a classical text written over 1500 years ago by Sage Patanjalim, outlines these stages. What first appears as a linear step ladder from one stage to the next is really a system that is highly interconnected. For most people yoga begins with stage three (the asanas, postures). As one progresses their practice will gradually connect to stage one (the yamas, a set of five ethics) and stage two (the niyamas, a set of five observances or practices).

While Hatha-yoga is more widely known today than its counter part Raja-yoga (the royal path), it is the latter that makes the offerings of yoga complete. Raja-yoga deals with the science of mind control and meditation. The right understanding of Hatha-yoga is that it leads to Raja-yoga, with the reverse also being true. Together they form a symbiotic relationship in that by controlling the mind we use the body and by controlling the body we use the mind. The physical postures of Hatha-yoga were designed to strengthen the mind and body. The system of Hatha-yoga whether it be Ashtanga, Iyengar ,Sivananda, Bikram yoga or otherwise, purifies the body for deeper practices of concentration.

Traditionally, yoga was understood as a practice of enlightenment. For Patanjali, the goal of yoga was to see thru the illusions of the concept of a 'self'; a process that leads to Samadhi (the eighth stage). In the West, the understanding that the self is a fixed identity stands in stark contrast to what the ancient teachings say. It also does not help that most of what is depicted as yoga in media is flat tummies and pulsating biceps.

Yoga is a process: a discovery that the world and ourselves are not as solid as we may think. As a yoga teacher it is not easy to introduce to people that they are not their jobs, their relationships or all the other things they may identify with. Baba Hari Dass put it best when he taught that we came into this world believing that we are this body, but we do not even know who this "me" is, who is claiming the body. From a Buddhist perspective the enlightened state is living without attachments, dependency and fear. Borrowing from Socrates, Swami Rama took much of the esoteric notions out of the idea of enlightenment by saying it was coming to 'know oneself'. The path of hatha-yoga/raja-yoga as described and instructed in The Yoga Sutras leads to a similiar outcome. Patanjali's sutras clearly state that yoga is meant as the cleansing of the lens from which we are perceiving and experiencing 'our' world.

Yoga, as an eight-fold path, is a means that offers tangible techniques. The practice may begin with the physical, but leads to the mental. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar clarified this by explaining how we start with what we know and what is closest to us. Since the state of enlightenment or breaking our illusions may elude us, we begin with the body and with the eight stages of yoga. As Iyengar once said,

It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.

In answer to the question of whether or not it matters if students know the complete offerings of yoga is that it does matter. It matters a lot when we care about the practice, the students and the teachings.

The Eight Stages of Yoga

I. Yamas: (ethics) Ahimsa (non-injury), Satya (truth), Aparigraha (non-greediness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (discrimination). II. Niyamas: (observances) Shaucha (purification), Santosha (contentment), Swadhyaya (study of texts on yoga), Tapas (discipline), Ishwarapranidhana (relinquishing the ego). III. Pranayama: Control and regulation of prana (energy) IV. Asanas: Physical postures V. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses leads to inner awareness. VI. Dharana: Concentration VII. Dhyana: Meditation VIII. Samadhi: Supreme meditation (super-conscious)

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