Understand the Eight Stages of Yoga
Purpose: Achieving the eight stages of Yoga may lead to enlightenment. The purpose of this WavyFields topic, “Understand the eight stages of Yoga,” is to simply present the eight stages of Yoga. The third stage of Yoga, called Asana, is covered in the WavyFields topic “Improve Flexibility with Yoga.”
Indian scholar B.K.S. Iyengar describes Yoga as, “the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human uplift.” A person who follows the path of Yoga is referred to as a yogi.
Few people attain all eight stages of Yoga, and thus there is little research on the benefits of completing Yoga. However, there are elements within the different stages of Yoga such as postural exercises, breathing, and meditation that do have proven benefits of calming the mind and body. Asanas, which are postural exercises, can build strength, flexibility, and a sense of well-being. Controlling the breath can help to calm an overactive nervous system. Meditation can increase feelings of compassion, decrease stress, and rewire the brain to naturally feel more peaceful.
The Yoga Sutra is a collection of ancient texts, written by Patanjali in India at least 1,700 years ago. The texts describe the eight stages of Yoga, which build upon each other. The Practice section below will provide a brief overview of the eight stages. The information that was used to write the Practice section comes from B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga. There are many interpretations of Yoga, but the work by B.K.S. Iyengar was chosen because it is considered to be some of the most credible.
Practice: This practice may help someone to understand the eight stages of Yoga.
This Practice section is different from other Practice sections on WavyFields because it does not give instructions on how to practice. The eight stages of Yoga are complex and require a teacher or a book such as Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar in order to gain a thorough understanding. This Practice section provides a brief overview of the eight stages of Yoga. The third stage of Yoga, called Asana, is expanded upon further in the WavyFields topic, “Improve Flexibility with Yoga.”
Stage 1: Yama
Yama is a set of moral commandments for the yogi to follow. These commandments include:
Non-violence: This commandment is about being non-violent and also having a loving embrace for all sentient beings. The yogi puts the happiness of others before his/her own and becomes a source of joy to others. The yogi encourages and builds up those who are less fortunate. The yogi believes that a wrong done by another should be met with forgiveness and then shows the wrong-doer with love and compassion how to improve. The yogi is gentle towards others but firm with himself/herself when dealing with his/her own faults.
Truth: This commandment places high importance on having thoughts of truth, speaking words of truth, and taking actions based upon truth. The yogi believes that reality is composed of love and truth, and thus expresses himself/herself this way.
Non-stealing: This commandment involves removing the desire to possess and enjoy what another person has. The yogi reduces his/her physical needs to the minimum and believes that gathering things that are not really needed is similar to stealing. The only craving of the yogi is not wealth, power, or fame but the craving to adore life.
Focus of energy: This commandment is about focusing energy where it is most needed. The yogi will direct his/her resources towards effectively achieving their aspirations.
Non-coveting: This commandment is about not collecting items that are not really needed or taking items that were not earned. The yogi believes that the collection of unnecessary items implies a lack of faith in himself/herself to provide for himself/herself in the future. The yogi trains his/her mind to not feel the loss or lack of any possession and to remain satisfied with whatever happens to him/her.
Stage 2: Niyama
Niyama is a set of disciplines that help the yogi control his/her passions and emotions and remain in harmony with others. These disciplines include:
Purity: This discipline involves cleansing the body and mind. The yogi cleanses his/her body externally with bathing and internally with Asana, Pranayama, and good food. Asana cleanses the entire body and removes toxins and impurities caused by overindulgence while Pranayama cleanses the lungs, oxygenates the blood, and purifies the nerves. The yogi consumes food to promote health, strength, energy and life and does not overconsume. The yogi’s mind is cleansed of disturbing emotions such as hatred, passion, anger, greed, delusion, and pride. The cleansing creates radiance and joy and helps the yogi see the good in others and not merely their faults.
Contentment: This discipline involves creating a content mind. A yogi believes that a mind that is not content is unable to concentrate. Since a yogi does not feel the lack of anything, he/she is naturally content.
Self-discipline: This discipline is about character building. Through self-discipline the yogi removes all desires that stand in the way of his/her ultimate goal of achieving union with the divine. The yogi gains courage, wisdom, integrity and simplicity when obtaining unshakable faith in self-discipline. Self-discipline relates to the body, to speech, and to the mind. Non-violence and the focus of energy are self-discipline of the body. Speaking the truth and not speaking poorly of others are self-discipline of speech. Remaining tranquil and balanced in joy and sorrow are self-discipline of the mind.
Study of self: As the yogi learns about himself/herself they discover that there is divinity within themselves and that the energy which moves him/her is the same that moves the entire universe. The yogi studies sacred books from all religions of the world, which expands knowledge and allows him/her to solve difficult problems when they arise. By learning about all religions, the yogi can better appreciate their own faith.
Dedication to the Lord: The yogi believes that all creation belongs to the Lord. This helps to remove feelings of despair or feelings of pride. At this point, the feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ disappear and the individual soul has reached full growth.
Stage 3: Asana
Asanas are postural exercises that help bring balance, endurance, agility, flexibility, and vitality to the body. Asanas have been created over centuries and there is an Asana to exercise every muscle, nerve, and gland in the body. Asanas reduce fatigue and soothe the nerves. But, most importantly to the yogi, Asanas help to train and discipline the mind. Though Asanas build great physique, the yogi focuses on the senses, mind, intellect, and soul as he/she conquers the body. The yogi considers his/her body to be a vehicle that helps him/her be of service during each moment of life. Health is obtained when a state of complete equilibrium of body, mind, and spirit is obtained. The yogi believes that the mind, body, and soul are interrelated and cannot be divided. Please review the WavyFields topic “Improve Flexibility with Yoga” for a guide on how to practice Asanas.
Stage 4: Pranayama
Pranayama is the rhythmic control of the breath. Prana means “vital life force” and ayama means “to gain control.” Pranayama teaches the yogi to regulate their breath, which is intimately connected with the mind. Control of the breath helps the yogi to control their mind. When desires create an agitated mind, the breath will often be in disarray. The yogi can still the agitated mind and nerves by controlling the breath. The only parts of the body that are actively involved in Pranayama are the nostrils, nasal passages and membranes, windpipe, lungs, and the diaphragm. Improper practice of Pranayama can create respiratory disease, so it is advised to begin by practicing slowly and with a teacher.
Stage 5: Pratyahra
Pratyahara is about using rhythmic control of the breath to detach from external objects of desire and instead turn inwards, bringing the senses under control. The yogi believes that the mind can cause bondange when it is bound to objects of desire or liberation when it is free from the objects. Bondage occurs when the mind craves, grieves or is unhappy over something and the mind is pure when the bondange is removed. Instead of choosing what is pleasant, the yogi chooses what is good and is able to turn something bitter into something sweet. The yogi renounces the fruits of his/her labor and works only for the sake of working. The yogi is generous and self-controlled and has a tranquil mind with charity towards all. The yogi does not shrink from unpleasant things and does not cling to pleasant ones. The yogi who has achieved disciplined study of the self learns which thoughts, words and actions are prompted by delusion, ignorance, attraction, longing, or attachment. Choosing to pursue a state of harmony, balance, joy, and intelligence the yogi uses self-control to free himself/herself from the pull of external objects of desire that are not aligned with their ultimate goal of achieving union with the divine.
Stage 6: Dharana
Dharana is about concentration. Since all stages of Yoga build upon each other, this sixth stage can only happen after the body has been trained by Asanas, the mind refined by Pranayama, and the senses brought under control by Pratyahara. During Dharana, the yogi is able to concentrate completely on a single point or task. The yogi believes that the mind is a product of thoughts and is an instrument which classifies, judges and coordinates impressions that come from the outside world and from within the self. The yogi understands that thoughts are difficult to restrain and that he/she must first understand how the mind works before being able to guide or control the flow of thoughts. Yoga classifies mental states into the following five categories:
Ksipta state: in this state mental forces are scattered, being in a state of disarray and neglect.
Viksipta state: in this state the mind is agitated and distracted, which prevents one from enjoying the fruits of their efforts.
Mudha state: in this state the mind is foolish, dull and unable to know what it wants.
Ekagra state: in this state there are superior intellectual powers and one knows exactly what they want, but proceeds in a ruthless pursuit of the object. This then creates misery and a bitter taste when the object is achieved.
Niruddha state: in this state the mind, intellect, and ego are restrained, offered to the Lord for His use and service, and there is no longer any feeling of “I” or “mine.”
To achieve complete concentration, the yogi sets his/her concentration on the Lord with a prayer called Aum. Aum is a prayer to the Lord that symbolizes speech, the mind, and the breath of life. Aum symbolises the absence of desire, fear, and anger and thus stands for the perfect person who is firmly established in the divine. The prayer helps the yogi realize that divinity lives within himself/herself. This realization helps to liberate the human spirit from the confines of the body, mind, intellect, and ego.
Stage 7: Dhyana
Dhyana is meditation that helps take the yogi inwards to the Inner Self. The yogi believes that when the mind contemplates an object, the mind is transformed into the shape of that object. Therefore, since the yogi uses his/her mind to think about divinity, it is through long-continued devotion that the yogi’s mind is transformed into the likeness of that divinity. When the flow of concentration is uninterrupted, the yogi has reached the meditative state of Dhyana. In this state there is said to be a feeling of supreme bliss.
Stage 8: Samadhi
Samadhi is the final stage of Yoga and the end of the yogi’s quest. At this stage, the yogi passes into the state of Samadhi where the body and senses are at rest, as if the yogi is asleep but the mind and reason are alert and awake. When the yogi has attained true Yoga, there is only the experience of consciousness, truth, and joy.
Resources: Below are additional resources that may help someone to practice Yoga.
Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
The website of Yoga with Adriene, containing paid courses and free Yoga videos
The website of Yoga with Kassandra, containing paid courses and free Yoga videos
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