Hatha Yoga Essays
by Charles MacInerney
Overview of Raja Yoga
Two men travel the same path, intent upon the same quest: to climb the mountain. They round a bend in the road and the Mountain at last comes into view. The first man presses forward with determination leaving the second man seated upon a boulder on the side of the path. Soon he comes to the foot of the mountain, and without hesitation starts up its slope. The first man reaches the top of the mountain that afternoon, and looking around notes that the view is beautiful, but decides to climb back down before sun set and darkness overtake him. He is surprised to find the second man where he had left him that morning and asks "Why are you still here! Are you feeling alright?" The second man does not answer directly, but points to the mountain where deep purple shadows are mounting their final assault on the summit, held at bay by the glow from distant blood red clouds. The first man noted that this was indeed beautiful and hurried on his way.
The second man comes to the foot of the mountain and again sits, watching, listening, breathing. The next day he spends circling the mountain, looking up at it from all sides, pausing occasionally to admire it, noting points of interest, and plotting out a strategy. After a week he starts up the mountain, wandering here and there, exploring the creeks, searching out hidden meadows easily seen from afar. A month passes by and still he explores the mountain, circling, ascending, descending always amazed to discover something new by looking at the familiar from a slightly different angle. Another month passes by and the second man is realizing that the closer he looks, the more there is to see. After ten more months have passed by, the first man knows that he has seen most of the more prominent features of the Mountain, and that he has seen the mountain through the cycle of seasons, spring, summer, fall and winter, and yet he realizes that he has not seen all of the features in all of their seasons from every possible angle and more importantly, the mountain is constantly changing, behind his back, under his feet, in front of his eyes! Every moment infinity is lost to him for ever, and all he can salvage from any one moment, was a single perspective, the tiniest fragment of the whole. Now the second man is humbled.
In time the first man goes on to climb many mountains in many countries and becomes an expert on mountains. But his confidence is built upon the assumption that to climb a mountain is to know the mountain, and when this foundation crumbles there will be nothing left. The second man gave up all illusions of knowing the Mountain, and became one with the Mountain!
THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA: Approximately 200 years B.C. Patanjali wrote down the first systematized treatise on Yoga called Yoga Sutras (aphorisms). In this work he describes the eight limbs of Yoga as: Yamas (Abstinence); Niyamas (Observances); Asanas (Postures); Pranayama (Breath Control); Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal; Dharana (Concentration); Dhyana (Contemplation); and Samadhi (Self-realization).
The first five limbs (Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas, Pranayama,
& Pratyahara) are external disciplines and the last three (Dharana,
Dhyana, and Samadhi) are considered internal disciplines. It is best to
practice each of these disciplines in the order listed before shifting
your focus to the next rung of the ladder.
Since this proves to be impractical for most western students, it is permissible to work on the first three limbs of yoga simultaneously.
It is interesting to see how each limb builds upon the previous limbs. First control of your interations with society - Yamas (don't lie, don't steel, do not harm etc.). Second is control of your own personal habits - Niyamas (hygeine, contentment, effort etc.) Third is control of your muscles - Asana. Fourth is control of your own breath - Pranayama. Fifth is control of your senses (Pratyahara). Sixth is control of your attention - Dharana. Seventh is comtemplation of God - Dhyana. The eighth limb of yoga is illumination - Samadhi. Notice how each successive limb is more subtle and leads the practitioner progressively deeper and deeper into their own true selves.
It is my hope that you will view yoga not as a mountain to be conquered, but to be explored, enjoyed, and appreciated, in the hopes that one day you might merge with the spirit of yoga bringing body, mind and soul into harmony.