Weaving: the limbs of yoga, the layers of self

To be human is not one thing but a symphony of things.  I’m not speaking of metaphysics or epistimology, but of what we know.  We know, each of us, a symphony of selves.  We “know” ourselves according to the various roles that we play in life, as parent, child, partner, employee, community member.  But we also ‘know’ when we fall in love, when we fall ill, when we intuit or dream.  We “know” the aging body, and the laughing body.  We “know” who we think we are in the world, in time, what we think it means to be ourselves. 

To over-simplify, we’re many different selves.  Most of us are better at one or a few pieces to the neglect of the others.  Many of us are only vaguely aware of parts of ourselves, or deny they exist.  We become overly intellectual, overly physical, or overly emotional.  Some folks live only as a career beast, unable to focus on anything but the struggle.  Others of us may become so caught up in the material aspects of living that we forget or deprecate the ethical, universal, dreaming and creating and spiritualizing self.

Alienation, loneliness, stress and overwork are the natural outcomes of this splintering.  So are the strange sense of longing, emptiness, or hunger.  We have far too much to ever consume, ever get done, or ever understand.  At the same time, we know restlessness, boredom, longing.

It’s human nature to experience or know ourselves in different ways and, at times, to feel disconnection or alienation. But our culture and historical time amplify the splitting, coursing us through sound bytes and flashes of image.  Meanwhile, more and more people define themselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious’.

I think I understand what people mean when they say ‘not religious’.  Religion comes with a set of beliefs, rules, and practices, as well as a historical context that usually isn’t very pretty.  Religion can place the dogma before the human, the practice before the principal, and end up leaving common sense behind.  It can be a practice of exclusion when what we most need is inclusively, a group to belong to in order not to be alone, and a way to define one’s set of people against the ‘other’.  I have no desire to attach myself to those things, and so I understand the disclaimer ‘not religious’.

And I wonder if people say ‘spiritual’ when they’re referring to the parts of the self unhinged, a kind of longing or dis-ease.  A simple ache in us that knows there must be ‘more’.  Or, the other side of the ache: people may be referring to the ‘spiritual’ as that knowing we come across when we are at peace, or so deeply invested in our work we forget time, or know a connection exists, somewhere, in compassion between the self and every other being out there.  “Spiritual” might be what we mean by the inexpressible in art, in joy, in sex.

Yoga is, in it’s very body and articulated philosophy, holistic.  Part of it’s appeal to “western” society is it’s recognition of, and devotion to, the holism of being human.  There is some irony, then, in the fact that we’re so hot on ‘holistic’ practices and ‘spiritual, not religious’ paradigms but have only really taken one piece of the yogic system into account.  Most of us only know yoga as ‘asana’, the physical poses.  Even those of us who know yoga is a larger system of ethics, philosophy, science and culture know very little about what the ‘whole’ of it is.

Five selves, Eight Limbs, Four types

The Five Bodies of the Human Body

Yogic philosophy talks of the self being multidimensional, or the self as having different skins, different bodies.  We all exist in the world, and experience that existence, in different ways.  Yoga is transformation, no matter where you approach it from.  It transforms us by weaving our different selves together, living out a unity, binding and wheeling what in every day life we often feel as detachment, splintering, or oppositions.

Vedantic philosophy says that the self, or Atman, has five koshas; kosha is usually translated to mean ‘sheath’ or ‘layering’.  The nature of being human encompasses both physical and psychological aspects – no single one is the ‘self’, though it’s through the subjective experience of the different koshas that we know life.  The dense physical body gives to the more subtle layers of mind, emotions, and spirit.  Each aspect works in accord rendering a holistic subjective experience of ‘being’.

Rather than thinking of each dimension as a sheath or covering, I find myself thinking of each kosha as a body: entire, undivided, a ‘self’ as truly as I understand my ‘self’ to be one.  Layering, to my western trained mind, gives rise to the idea that one is higher or lower, deeper or more ephemeral, than the other; ‘dense’ physical body too easily becomes ‘crude’.  As I see it, no one of the koshas is ‘better’ or ‘more important’ or ‘higher’ than any of the others.

The koshas are the physical body (annayama), the energy (pranayama) body, the mental (manomaya) body, the intellectual (vigyanmaya), and the body of bliss (anadamaya).

The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga(yoga)

Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras over two thousand years ago.  It’s considered, along with the Upanishads, to be the seminal yogic text.  Each “sutra” is a verse, small and profound, that explores the nature of mind and the human condition.  Patanjali elucidated not only the thoughts, cosmologies, and science of yoga, but the application and practice as well.  It’s a text of self-discovery, transformation, reverence, science, and poetry.

Patanjali describes the path to spiritual freedom – Ashtanga Yoga – as an Eight Limbed Path.  It’s also referred to as a ‘tree’.  The Eight limbs of yoga have been linked to the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism.

  • 1. The Yamas or ‘restraints’, ‘social’ discipline: Ahimsa, non-harming; Satya, truth or truthfulness; Asteya, non-stealing; Brahmacarya, sexual purity or integrity; and Aparigraha, non-greed and detachment.
  • 2. The Niyamas or ‘observances’, ‘individual’ discipline: Shaucha, purity or cleanliness; Santosa, contentment; Tapas, self-discipline or burning spiritual desire; Svadyaya, self-study or contemplation; and Ishvara Pranidhana, Surrender (to the Absolute) or devotion.

In historical practices of yoga, the yogi was expected to have mastered the first two limbs of yoga before even beginning a practice of physical postures.   The focus, traditionally, is not on the physical postures.  Lotus pose was the first yoga pose.  Originally, all were seated meditational postures.  Other postures grew in time with the intention to be able to sit comfortably and in alignment in meditation; the poses develop into a moving meditation and alignment of their own.  Many of the poses we know today (especially the more advanced gymnastic poses) are relatively modern, probably added to the repertoire in the early 1900’s.

  • 3. Asana – steady posture.  The object is transformation, the means the calming of the mind; yoga is the experience of transformation through the bodily practice of asana.  The asana have been described as ‘dynamic internal dance’; a pose is not static, not a place to reach, not a holding still.  It is a movement, constantly changing, different at different stages of our lives and between one breath and the next.  Ultimately, it’s internal: though the poses are aesthetically beautiful, though many of us come to yoga looking for the physical benefits, what happens in yoga mostly happens inside.  And asana is a dance, in all the meanings dancing has come to have: it is a beautiful expression through movement, the linking of one body to another, the dynamic exchange and movement between them.  Serenity comes only to a quiet mind, and yoga recognizes that a quiet mind is only possible in a quiet, steady body.  The body is a gift, a vehicle for enlightenment, as the Buddhist aphorism has it.  Body and mind are intimately connected – hatha postures are means by which to steady the mind, bring the body into poise and balance, and allow the for meditation.
  • 4. Pranayama – steady breath.  “Prana” is breath, as well as life force.  Most of us have come across various pranayama practices in yoga, and have heard how the breath not only symbolizes the life force, but is that vital energy.  That breath is with us so long as life is, and leaves us when the life is gone. 
  • 5. Pratyahara – detachment.  Detaching the senses from the objects and passing nature of the world.
  • 6. Dharana – concentration or focus.  The practice of Dharana leads the meditator to a point of absolute concentration, flow, and effortless effort.  The mind becomes like a candle flame in an absolutely still room.  Dharana feeds the intellectual, compassionate, and dynamic parts of the self.  It allows for ‘self-forgetting’ and a complete concentration on the ‘other’, whether that be an object of meditation or a being regarded with ultimate compassion and reverence.  Dharana, practiced long enough, leads to Dhyana, or devotional meditation (on god, or the absolute).
  • 7. Dhyana – meditation.  At it’s purest state, meditation is a flow of consciousness, energy, and love from the meditator to and from the object of meditation.  It’s compared to the flowing of water or oil from one vessel to another.  Importantly, Dhyana is an approach toward the object of meditation, yet remains aware of the duality or separation of the self from the absolute and all others.  Dhyana, devoted mediation, can and will unfold to the ultimate rung of the Ashtanga ladder, Samadhi, bliss or enlightenment.

    dhyana mudra

  • 8. Samadhi.  “The state of consciousness where Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy; Oneness; here the mind becomes identified with the object of meditation; the meditator and the meditated, thinker and thought become one in perfect absorption of the mind”, according to Swami Sivanada.

The Four Paths of Yoga

Hindu tradition understands that there are unique personalities, proclivities, talents and histories to each of us, and that there can never be one right ‘path’.

  • Bhakti yoga–path of devotion; the lover seeks union between the self and the heart of god
  • jnana yoga–path of rational inquiry or philosophy; the philosopher seeks the union behind all existence.
  • raja yoga–path of mental concentration (meditative it said), the path of mysticism.  The mystic seeks union between ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ self.
  • karma yoga–path of right action, worker seeks union between self and all of humanity

To say, though, that we take one path to the exclusion of others would be unfair.  Ultimately, the mature and balanced (union of yoga) personality would know and call on each of the four paths in equal measure, according to need or appropriateness.

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