Patañjali as an incarnation of Adi Sesha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Patanjali, a yogi who probably lived in the 2nd century, is considered the most studious and the primary compiler of the system known today as Raja Yoga. In his writing “Yoga Sutra”, he described systematically the eight phases towards self- realization, the path which every practitioner has to walk, from the outer to the most inner stages until achieving an understanding of his own “I”.
According to Patanjali’s writing, a scholar proceeds step by step from what is immediately perceivable – the body, to the understanding of what is usually unknowable; he merges himself, progressively, into the deepest fields of his being: from the manifested, through an exploration of his mind, intellect, will, the discriminating consciousness, and awareness, until he achieves the awareness and understanding of the true self, or “I”.
The following are the eight steps articulated by Patanjali:
- Niyama: abstention from offenses, greed, squandering, falsity, robbery;
- Yama: observation of pureness of thought, moderation, study and devotion;
- Asana: stable and comfortable position;
- Pranayama: breath control;
- Dharana: concentration on only one object;
- Dhyana: meditation, the conscious focus on the object of concentration;
- Samadhi: merging with the object of meditation, pure awareness;
The scholar’s mind, initially confused and untamed, can be purified through the phases of Niyama, Yama, and Asana, so that the intellectual field could be stimulated to an intentional activity; through the stages of Asana and Pranayama, mind could become more stable and, successively, (through Pranayama), the senses are retracted inward, and this is the stage of Pratyahara; the mind becomes more attentive, able to focus intentionally on its own energy. Through the Dharana, mind becomes motionless, unflappable, and the consequential increase of attention brings the scholar to the stage of meditation- Dhyana. Once this stage is maintained for enough time, the scholar will experience the final step of his path, Samadhi.
Taking a deeper look at the brief explanation of the above mentioned stages, it is evident that, before realizing the higher stages of awareness, one must first learn to know and understand the body and its functions, besides learning to manage the vital breaths, the energy, mind, intellect, and ego. Only after the exploration of the “manifested” fields, he will be able to enter the realm of the “non-manifested” – the part of every human being which is usually hidden from his eyes – the unknown.
Such as a stream pulled by the necessity to find the sea, the student, once having overcome the rough obstacles, will be pulled towards the unknown. The moment of flowing in the deep seas will produce the experience of fusion with the whole, the most elevated state of joy a human being can experience. This state is called in Sanskrit Ananda.
This is the path described by Patanjali, a way able to bring a practitioner from the state of identification with his body, to the realization of his True Self. A system which has been tested by millennia, that begins from the body, the nervous system, to the sensorial perceptions, proceeding until the mind, the intellect, goes deeper toward the inner “I”. A path to return to ourselves. A path which leads from ignorance to a true understanding.
I would like to say, here, that the stages of Yama and Niyama must intentionally be in a modern, contemporary language, so as to be understandable to modern men and women, as an education to a universal ethic, free from cultural contents that belong to other ages, so no more actual in ours. Indeed, the habit of literally transcribing the observances and the abstentions suggested in the ancient texts is useful from a point of view of a translator, an anthropologist, historian or a scholar committed to the analysis of ancient Hindu society, but it’s less useful for someone who would like to approach this tradition in a practical way. We don’t live in India, and even if we live there, we don’t live in the third, eighth or the second century B.C.
The real meaning and sense of Yama and Niyama lies in the fact that everyone who wishes to undertake a path for self- development must develop in itself a greater sensibility towards not only others, but also the whole life, educating one’s mind to ethical values that bring intellectual honesty, kindness, and self- integrity.
This has to be “translated” in a way which is in accordance to the intellectual development of contemporary men and women, so that it could become possible to dedicate ourselves to a protocol of altruism and mental “cleansing”, and all this in a modality that is compatible (therefore, effective and useful) with the age in which we live.