Stages of Ashtang Yoga

(A) Yam & Niyam

Those who intend to follow the path of spiritual enlightenment must first purify the body, mind and heart; the tri-fold abode of spirit. The first two limbs of yoga help to achieve this goal by establishing a code of ethics that includes truthfulness, love, celibacy, honesty, simplicity, austerity and devotion to god. The practice of self-discipline (yam)

Those who intend to follow the path of spiritual enlightenment must first purify the body, mind, and heart; the tri-fold abode of spirit .The first two limbs of Yoga help to achieve this goal by establishing a code of ethics that includes truthfulness, love, celibacy, honesty, simplicity, austerity, and devotion to God. The practice of self-discipline (yam) and the observance of VOWS (niyam) enable the aspirant to control the emotions and passions that normally disturb one’s peace of mind. In order to know God one must faithfully practice yam and niyam throughout the practice of Yoga.

In his Yoga Darshan, Patanjali lists five restraints under the category of self-discipline (yam):

(1) Ahimsa : non-violence, dynamic love for all living beings;

(2) Asteya : non-stealing, honesty;

(3) Aparigrah :  non-possession, the adoption of a simple lifestyle;

(4) Satya : truth, purity and harmony in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds; and

(5) Brahmcharya : continence or celibacy.

Under the category of vows (niyam), he lists five important observances:

(1) Shauch : purity;

(2) Santosh : contentment;

(3) Tapas : austerity;

(4) Svadhyay : study of the self, and

(5) Ishvarpranidhan : devotion to god.

An undisciplined and unrighteous way of life inevitably leads to unhappiness, misery and suffering. Therefore yam and niyam serve as practical commandments for the aspirant who carefully adheres to them. The practice of yam and niyam inspires peace, mental steadiness, good deeds, and spiritual growth. It is a first and lasting step for the seeker.

(B) Hatha yoga

Yogis believe that spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved through the instrument of the human body. The body should be viewed as the holy temple of inner spirit. Regular efforts should be made to make it a more effective vehicle for spiritual development.

A sound mind abides in a sound body. Only when there is harmony between an alert mind and healthy body is it possible to realize God. Unless the body is healthy it is impossible to realize God. Unless the body is cleansed of its impurities and maintained in perfect health, every effort to bring peace to mind will prove futile.

In the process of yoga, the purification and control of the body and mind are complimentary procedures. In the beginning physical discipline and bodily health assume greater importance, but in the advanced stages of yoga more emphasis is given to mental discipline.

As one’s character is gradually transformed through the practice of yam and niyam, the student should begin to practice the initial disciplines of Hatha yoga, namely, asana and pranayamAsans are physical exercises designed to restore the natural balance of the body. Pranayams are breathing exercise designed to purify the mind. These spiritual exercises cleanse the body and mind as they tone up all the internal systems.

The third and final exercise of Hatha yoga is pratyaharPratyahar helps to turn the mind inward by diverting its attention from the pursuit of worldly desires. This practice leads to true meditation. It is a prerequisite for entry into the higher stages of yoga.

(C) Raja Yoga

The last three limbs of Ashtang Yoga are collectively known as Raja Yoga. They are dharma (mental focusing), dhyan(meditation), and Samadhi (divine communion). These exercises are advanced procedures that maximize the aspirant’s self-discipline and purity. They prepare him for the final stages of spiritual realization.

The yoga aspirant becomes fit for the practice of Raja yoga only after the successful completion of Hatha Yoga. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said: “all the techniques of Hatha Yoga are used to attain success in Raja Yoga.” (IV: 103). Again it says, “In the course of Hatha Yoga, various asanspranayams, and other divine means – including mudras and pratyahar – should be practiced until the fruit, Raja Yoga, is attained.” (I: 67). In this way the entire process of Ashtang Yoga is broadly viewed as purification, and ultimate transcendence, of the body and mind.

ASANA

Asanas: Culture and Meditative

Asanas are the physical postures of Yoga. These exercise focus on one’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. The practice of asanas restores natural balance to the dynamic forces of the body, mind, and Spirit. The harmony it brings enriches every moment of life and unfolds higher spiritual experiences. Success in the practice of asanas improves personal potential, strengthens will power, and enhances self-control.

Asanas can be broadly divided into two categories: meditative and cultural. Meditative postures are those in which one can sit steadily and comfortably for a long time without fatigue. These postures increase calmness, mental focus, and physical stability. They pacify the wavering and wandering mind and bring an inner peace that lifts the spirit.

Cultural postures provide exercise to various part of the body, and generally control and regulate the flow of the vital airs (vayus) within the body. Physically, they allow the practitioner to generate and conserve energy, renew the physical body, and prolong life. They also advance the spiritual quest by removing tensions, controlling emotions, and restraining passions. Practice of the cultural postures also improves general poise, makes one look younger and grants freedom from illness. Ultimately the cultural postures establish a sense of well-being through perfect health. Depending upon the particular posture, specific benefits may include:

(1) Increased energy, strength, stamina, and endurance

(2) Enhanced litheness and suppleness in the body

(3) Increased flexibility, adaptability, and alertness which enhances memory, mental powers, confidence, and determination

(4) Improved respiration, circulation, elimination, metabolism, and endocrine gland function

(5) Stimulation of the internal organs, muscles, ligaments and tendons, which leads to the removal of various physical limitations including aches, pains, and a horde of diseases.

Asanas in the Modern World

According to the ancient Yoga classics there are 8.4 million different asanas. Only Lord Shiva ,the original founder of the system of yoga , Knows them all. Ancient Yoga texts have mentioned the names and described the techniques of no more than 84 asanas. Perhaps the ancient sages and great yogis did not attach much importance to the cultural postures. They focused primarily on the meditative postures, of which there are relatively few.

Today, the physiological benefits of the cultural postures have created considerable interest among people all over the world. Asanas are being taught and practiced in many parts of the world to promote health and achieve specific therapeutic benefits. This trend has encouraged modern writers on Yoga to introduce large numbers of cultural postures.

Asanas improve health and develop mental faculties. They also expand spiritual consciousness. Gymnastics and other systems of exercise improve health and create a strong muscular physique but they fail to create harmony between the mind and body. They do not advance spiritual awareness. Thus the asanas of Hatha Yoga are different from gymnastics and other body building techniques. The practice of asanas brings not only health and fitness, but it also insures the practitioner’s well-being and spiritual advancement.

Moreover, while gymnastics and other body building techniques may only be suitable for healthy, youthful persons, asanas may be practiced by the old and infirm as well. The gender of an individual may matter greatly in the case of other vigorous systems of exercise. The practice of asanas imposes no such restrictions. Women often excel over men in the performance of asanas and other yoga exercises.

Asana, therefore, is not just a form of exercise. Rather, it represents a series of scientific patterns expressed as physical movements. The postures of Yoga are designed to influence the deep control-centres of the body. They stimulate and conserve energy rather than consume it. As a result, the postures generate vitality and sustain energy. They provide the exercise the body needs without stress. The practice of asanas is an important stage on the spiritual path. It brings harmony to the tri-fold abode of spirit: the mind, the body, and the heart.

Asana and Health

Good health is everyone’s birthright. A healthy body allows for the full enjoyment of life. It sustains enthusiasm, vigor, and stamina while simultaneously promoting true relaxation. A healthy body is able to react properly to all kinds of stress and strains. It strongly resists disease and always remains aware, alert, and active.

Physical and mental capabilities develop in a progressive manner only when they are used incautiously  or inadequately, the muscles, nerves, and mind deteriorate. A sound and pure mind in a sound and pure body is the key to the spiritual developments inherent to the practice of Yoga. The body and the mind need sufficient exercise, just as they need adequate nourishment and rest.

Asanas provide the exercise necessary to the body while reducing physical and mental stress. The practice of asanas purifies and rejuvenates the body and restores it to natural health and maximum fitness. Once the body is purified, the restless mind becomes easy to discipline in the advanced stages of Yoga.

If Yoga asanas are practiced conscientiously and patiently, a person of any age can attain good health. These exercise are designed to establish cooperation between every nerve, muscle, and organ. As a result, asanas bestow ideal body rhythms and provide the best prevention against disease. Regular practice of these exercises bestows great endurance, agility, and vigor, as well as internal cleanliness, robust inner organs, and perfect health.

The human body and the human mind are the real instruments of spiritual attainment. The body is the vehicle for the spiritual journey and the mind is its fuel. Therefore, the goal of restoring and maintaining physical health and mental harmony is of prime importance in Yoga.

In order to derive the maximum spiritual benefits, proper balance between the physical and mental aspects of yoga should be maintained. The aspirant should always keep in mind the unity of the body, mind, and spirit.

The Subtle Effect of Asanas

Each posture demands a series of slow and carefully controlled movements that gradually and harmoniously build up to a predetermined physical posture. The easy and flowing movements natural to the asans discipline both the body and mind. When properly performed these postures make one increasingly aware of untapped inner resources. Those resources help to keep the body, mind, and soul together. Awareness of one’s own physical and mental equipment and inner resources develops the unity of whole being. Thus the practice of asans helps to improve the entire self from within. Other systems of exercise work from the outside and develop only the body.

When the asanas are carefully performed, they cause a variety of physiological, psychological and spiritual effects. These effects are tremendously enhanced when the practice of asana is combined with the bandhas (locks) and nauli (control of the rectus muscles). These powerful techniques awaken spiritual awareness and inspire the psychic development that is missing in other systems of exercise.

The centers of physical control in the gross body roughly correspond to the psychic centers (chakras) in the subtle body. When these spiritual centers are properly stimulated through the practice of asanas, the latent energy of the body is awakened. This dormant power is known as prana, of vital force. When the aspirant discovers this force during the practice of asanas the postures are performed with ease. As result, the overall functioning of the body during the performance of asanas becomes automatic. The movements become smooth and coordinated. Such spontaneous and natural movements are the hallmark of the Yoga practice. These spontaneous movements are often referred to as “expressions of meditation in motion.”

SHATKRIYAS

It is well-known fact that the activities of the body and the mind are closely interconnected. In order to function properly, the mental and physical systems maintain a state of interdependence. If either of them is subject to stress or strain there is an immediate effect upon the other. Thus physical illness leads to mental stress and mental tension will cause physical distress. The goal of yoga discipline is to gain control of the body and the mind. The emphasis is placed on physical purification in the early stages of practice and mental purification thereafter.

The shatkriyas purify the physical body quickly and thoroughly. They increase the efficiency of the internal systems of the body and enhance the efficacy of every yoga exercise. They prove particularly beneficial to those who take to yoga exercises at an advanced age or those who possess excess fat, phlegm or bile.

The shatkriyas focus on eliminating poisonous wastes from specific regions of the body. The six cleansing processes and their functions are;

(1) Neti, which cleanses the nasal passages, the pharynx and sinus cavities;

BENEFITS: The practice of neti prevents diseases of the nose and throat, and improves eyesight. It relieves colds, eadaches, sinusitis, tonsillitis, and other such disorders. Neti is a cleaning exercise that need not be practiced daily. It should be performed once a week or once a fortnight, or whenever the nasal passages are congested

(2) Dhauti, which purifies the entire alimentary canal including the mouth, the food pipe, the stomach, the intestines and the rectum.

BENEFITS: Vastra, dand, vaman, and vatasar dhautis are all intended to clean the food pipe and the stomach. This keeps the humors of the body in proper balance. The practice of these dhautis prevents excess acidity and checks various disorders of the liver and spleen. These dhautis eliminate colds, cough, bronchitis, indigestion, and numerous stomach troubles.

Vahnisar dhauti kindles the digestive fire and removes gas and constipation. It tones up the liver, spleen, gallbladder and pancreas. This dhoti also energizes the process of peristalsis and improves the over-all metabolism.

Varisar dhauti cleans, lubricates, and activates the entire digestive tract. It cures acidity, indigestion, constipation, gas, and a horde of other diseases that result from the improper functioning of the digestive and excretory systems. It also cleans and regulates the urinary tract and removes toxins from the blood. It keeps the humors in the body in proper balance and reduces the scope of illness in general. Varisar dhauti is soothing and therefore much better than modern laxatives, which are irritating in effect. It should be performed three hours after sunrise.

(3) Basti, which cleanses the large intestine (colon) and the anal sphincters.

BENEFITS: Though basti is useful for avoiding many different ailments, It is especially effective on disorders caused by the bodily wind. Those who have intestinal hurry, constipation, stones in the bladder, lingering fever, disorders of the spleen, catarrh, enlarged scrotum, colic pain, gout, and flatulence will benefit the most form basti. But those who have asthma, diarrhea, diabetes, weak digestion, dropsy, leucoderma, hiccup, prolapsed anus, or piles should avoid it. The practice of basti not only helps to maintain proper balance among the humors the body, it also rejuvenates the entire physique and makes it youthful. Basti, therefore, is considered to be the best of the shatkriyas.

The best time to perform basti is when one feels hungry. It can be performed at any other convenient time, but only on an empty stomach. Jal basti usually takes longer to perform than sthal basti, but even jal basti may not take more than an hour and a half.

(4) Nauli, which purifies and invigorates all of the abdominal organs.

BENEFITS: Any type of physical exercise will help to improve the respiration, blood circulation, and metabolism, but nauli has a unique effect because only the abdominal muscles are tested while the rest of the body remains relaxed.

During nauli the entire focus is concentrated at the lower abdominal region. All the energy and attention is diverted to the region above the pubic bone and below the navel. The relaxed condition of the rest of the body helps to maximize breath control. It also improves blood circulation without increasing blood pressure. Finally, when properly performed, nauli kriya helps to eliminate unnecessary wastes while allowing the body to make maximum use of all available nutrients.

In nauli kriya all the abdominal muscles and visceral organs are fully kneaded and massaged. as a result they receive an increased flow of blood. The digestive and eliminative systems are toned up. Toxins are quickly eliminated and bowel movements are regularized. Nauli helps to remove and prevent a horde of abdominal disorder. It strengthens the gonads and lends vigor to the body. Various nerve plexuses in the abdominal region are stimulated, improving the efficacy of the automatic functions of the body. nauli prevents premature aging and rejuvenates the entire body.

SUBTLE EFFECTS: Nauli also contributes a great deal toward the spiritual unification of the physical and psychological aspects of being. Through its practice apan (the descending vital air) is united with prana (the ascending vital air). Nauli also proves to be very effective in awakening the dormant kundalini and making it ascend through the sushumna to the crown of the head.

(5) Kapalbhati, which cleanses the cavities in the frontal region of the head.

BENEFITS: Kapalbhati is one of the finest exercises for the lungs. Stagnant, stale air is forcibly removed and fresh clean air is drawn in at a much higher rate than normal. Thus, more oxygen is provided to the cells of the body, including the brain cells. Moreover, it cleanses the nasal passages as well as other cavities in the skull. As a result, kapalbhati rejuvenates the nervous system and improves the circulation of blood. It cures common colds, bronchitis, asthma, chronic catarrh, pleurisy, sinusitis, laryngitis and tonsillitis. It also helps to prevent the accumulation of dust in the lungs as well as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and tumors.

(6) Tratak, which strengthens the eyes and focuses the mind.

BENEFITS: Tratak inspires mental concentration. It relives tension and even insomnia by producing soothing effects on the brain. It improves blood circulation to the eyes and the frontal region of the head, thereby energizing the optic nerves. Thus, it also improves eyesight and corrects minor defects of the eyes.

SUBTLE EFFECTS: In the alternate technique the eyes are kept open but nothing is perceived externally. In fact, the vision does not extend beyond a couple of inches. When these two versions of the tratak are practiced, all awareness of the body is lost and the mind becomes completely introverted. The bhrumadhya and nasagra versions of tratak are the preliminaries to the shambhavi and unmani mudras, which require that the eyelids remain partially open while the vison is focused internally. While practicing these mudras the mind becomes thoughtless and the yogi enters into a state of “non-mind” in which the consciousness is fully absorbed into the inner self.

Tratak is powerful means of bringing the mind under control and increasing psychic power. To achieve this goal it should be practiced on a regular basis in sessions of sufficient length. Tratak yields its most valuable results only after long and persistent practice.

BANDHAS

Bandha means blind, lock, or tie. Thus the bandhas are physical exercises that “bind” the pran energy in certain vital areas of body. In English, these spiritual exercises are known as “locks”.

The three bandha constitute a very important aspect of yoga practice because through them the yogi is able to control the vital life force known as prana. This accomplishment opens the door to the advanced stages of yoga.

The bandhas have a beneficial influence on the vascular organs, glands, and nerve plexuses of the physical body. They improve the coordination between the voluntary and the involuntary nervous systems, tone the central and sympathetic nervous systems, and invigorate important centers of the brain. Through their practice the aspirant regains vitality and youthfulness.

The bandhas also have spiritual value because they purify the senses and inspire psychic development. Through their practice the flow of prana (vital force) is channeled from the perineum to the crown of the head without any perineum to the crown of the head without any loss of vital energy. They are best yoga exercises for arousing the spiritual power that lies dormant in the lower abdominal region.

The bandhas are employed in innumerable yoga postures. Persistence and diligent practice is required to gain proficiency in applying these exercises. They must be performed with care. So it is advisable to teach them the proper guidance of an experienced teacher.

The bandhas can be practiced separately or in combination. When all three locks are applied perfectly and simultaneously, powerful psychic vibrations are created throughout the body. This is a definite indication that the practitioner has reached an advanced stage of yoga practice.

The bandhas are;

(1) Mool bandha: The basal lock

BENEFITS: Physically, this exercise strengthens the pelvis and helps to facilitate bowel movements. It acts favorably on the gonads(ovary or testis), the prostrate gland, and the nerve terminals in the rectal area. Thus mool bandh provides relief in the case of piles and fistula. It also helps in maintaining continence.

SUBTLE EFFECTS: Mool bandh has certain subtle effects that have an important impact on the most significant processes of Yoga. Specifically, it causes apan (the descending vital air) to flow upward, which in turn helps to awaken the serpentine energy known as kundalini.

(2) Uddiyan bandha: The stomach lock

BENEFITS: This is a powerful yoga exercise. It should be practiced only on an empty stomach and after evacuating the bladder and the bowels. Uddiyan bandh massages and invigorates the abdominal organs and the diaphragm. It proves very effective in stimulating intestine peristalsis and improving the functions of the digestive and eliminative systems. This bandh increases the mobility and elasticity of the diaphragm, which leads to improved respiration and blood circulation. It stimulates the liver, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, and adrenal glands, and tones the spinal nerves associated with the coccygeal and solar plexuses. It also helps to sublimate the sexual energy and maintain celibacy.

SUBTLE EFFECTS: With regard to spiritual effects, this bandh lifts the apan vayu(descending vital air) upward into the sushumna(central subtle passage). It also helps to unite apan vayu with prana(ascending vital air). This causes the awakened kundalini (serpentine energy) to ascend into the sushumna, where it pierces the chakras (subtle psychic centers) and releases the granthis (subtle knots).

(3) Jaalandhar bandha: The throat lock

BENEFITS: This is the fine exercise for toning the thyroid, parathyroid and thymus glands. When these glands are stimulated the entire body is benefited through various physiological processes. It slows down the heart rate and brings tranquility to the mind. The pressure exerted on the carotid sinuses during this lock stimulates circulation of the blood in the cranial region.

(4) Tribandha: The triple lock

BENEFITS: Tribandh is a very powerful yoga exercise. Generally, it is applied with the intention of uniting prana (the ascending vital air) and apan (the descending vital air) during advanced stages of Yoga meditation. It is also practiced for guiding the way of the awakened kundalini (serpentine energy) up through the sushumna (central subtle passage).

SUBTLE EFFECTS: When a yogi fully masters tribandh, he becomes urdhvareta, or one whose sexual fluid is fully sublimated. He enjoys perpetual celibacy and everlasting youth, accompanied by extraordinary spiritual powers

PRANAYAM

The Precept of Breath Control

1. BREATH AND LIFE

Pranayam is the most important limb of Hath Yoga. Prana means breath or life force, and ayama means regulation or control; thus pranayam indicates the regulation and control of the breathing process.

Breath is life. Each creature on this earth, be it human, animal, insect or plant – begins its existence with the act of breathing. Life itself is sustained by continuous respiration. Though we can live without eating or drinking for some days, we cannot survive without breathing, even for a few minutes. When the breath stops, all other life processes also come to a standstill.

The ancient sage Yajnavalkya says: “Breath eats up the body.” This means that the continuous process of respiration gradually exhausts  life. When the breath is exhausted, respiration ceases and the activity of the life force (prana) no longer functions in the body. As a natural consequence, the body ceases to live.

The importance of the breath in life hardly needs to be stressed, but the mere act of breathing will not produce a long and healthy life unless some rhythm and regulation are introduced to the breathing process.

According to an India belief, the life span of each living being is fixed by destiny and determined by a specific number of breaths. The number of respiratory rounds available to each creature will vary according to species and individuals. Accordingly, the person who breathes slowly will actually extend the length of his life. But if the breath is dissipated in a rapid succession of inhalations and exhalations, life is bound to be short.

Modern science, for example has noted that the slow-breathing animals such as tortoises, snakes, elephants and whales live for a very long time, while animals that breathe more rapidly like cats, dogs, rats and rabbits have a much shorter life span.

Rapid breathing is characterized by shallow, irregular, respiration that is incomplete and ineffective. Slow breathing on the other hand, facilitates deep, rhythmic respiration that is thorough and healing in its effect.

Generally, any emotional disturbance will accelerate the respiration and quicken the heartbeat. Activities like sexual intercourse, singing or even walking will also increase the pace in respiration. But when there are no emotional disturbances, the respiration and pulse begin to slow down. It is commonly observed that the breath rate and heartbeat are the slowest during deep sleep.

  • METHOD OF BREATHING IN YOGA

The respiratory process is unique. Although it is an involuntary function, it can consciously be brought under partial – or even total- control. This fact is the basis of the precept of pranayam.

A normal round of breathing is a two-stage process that includes an inhalation and an exhalation. These two stages of respiration follow one another at an indeterminate rate. The rhythm of the breath is regulated to suit the individual. The yoga method of breathing introduces “retention of the breath” as a third stage of respiration. In the practice of pranayam each phase of the breath-inhalation, exhalation, and retention-is strictly regulated.

The yogi’s goal is to control the body’s nervous system through the scientific regulation of the respiratory mechanism. This process has far reaching effects on both the body and the mind. The practice of pranayam purifies the body and enhances the psychological efficiency of the mind. It bestows of feeling of lightness and wards of evil. It increases gastric fire and bestows suppleness and brightness upon the practitioner.

But ultimately the most prized goal of pranayam is the internalization of consciousness that makes super conscious perception possible.

 

PRANA: THE VITAL LIFE FORCE

The air that we breath contains something more than known gases such as oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It has another component that is still unknown to modern science because if its subtle and intangible nature. The yogis of India call it prana, or ”vital life force.” When the process of breathing is properly regulated, the latend power of prana is brought into play. For the yogi, therefore, the process of respiration carries greater implications than the mere oxygenation of the blood.

In the ancient Sanskrit texts-as well as the yoga literature of later periods-the word prana is used to convey a variety of meanings, depending on the context. Sometimes prana signifies the life-principle or vital life force. At other time it indicates all of the autonomic reflexes that preserve life. Yet again, in other contexts, prana is described as the force behind nerve conduction and the motor impulses that guide the physical activity of the body. But most often prana is identified with the respiration or breath.

Collectively these descriptions indicate that prana is vital to all of the processes of life. The subtle force called prana causes the first breath of a newborn baby. The movement of the lungs and the palpitation of the heart are also initiated by prana. The prana dynamo sets into motion all of the activities of the body, mind, and intellect.

KUNDALINI

  • The Divine Serpentine Energy

kundalini

The ancient sages assigned the name kundalini to a very subtle and imperceptible from of spiritual energy that lies dormant near the base of the spine and the perineum. It is symbolized as a serpentine from (nagarupa) that is coiled three and a half times in a sleeping position near the basal psychic center called the muladhar chakra. This profound and subtle energy may be compared to the primordial electrical energy known to the ancients as “speirema,” or “the serpent coil.” All of the ancient Asian civilizations, including Egypt and Greece, represented Divine Energy in the form of a snake.

The Kundalini is Divine potential; it is the mysterious energy behind all experiences, mundane as well as spiritual. In ancient yoga literature it is also known as Shakti (Divine power). It is a luminous energy as brilliant as a thousand flashes of lightning.

MUDRA

  • THE NATURE OF MUDRA

In the parlance of yoga, mudra is defined in this way: “mudrayati klesham iti mudra”or“a mudra is that which removes afflictions.” Thus mudra helps to remove physical pain and disease as well as mental affliction and sorrow. The practice ofmudra affects vital parts of the nervous system, generating higher consciousness and mystical experiences. Practice of mudra is of the utmost importance, even to the most advanced sadhak (Yoga aspirant). Mudras confer virtues and bestow happiness upon the yogi. They destroy his vices and lead him to proficiency in Yoga.

  • THE IMPORTANT MUDRAS

The Sanskrit word mudra is literally defined as “closing, shutting, or sealing.” An essential feature common to all mudras is the “sealing” of a particular opening in the skull with the tip of the tongue. This opening is fond at the base of the skull and is aptly called the mudra marg, or passage of the mudra the soul is believed to deseed through this passage at the time of birth. Again at the time of death, the soul escapes through the same portal. Thus it is also called the brahmarandhra or “gateway to the supreme Lord.”

These are the four primary groups of mudras:

(1) The first group of mudras is the triad known as the mahamudras. They include Maha MudraMaha bandha Mudra, andMahavedh mudra.

(2) The Second triad is known as the Bandha Mudras. This group includes Mool Bandha MudraUddiyan-bandha Mudra andJaalandhar Bandha Mudra.

(3) The third group is called the khechari mudras. This group includes khechari mudra , nabho mudrayoni mudramandukimudra, and bhajangini mudra.

(4) The fourth grouping of mudras is called the shaktichalini mudras. They include shaktichalini mudraashvini mudraamaroli,vajroli mudrasahajoli mudratadagi mudrapashini mudra and viparitkarani mudra.

PRATYAHAR

            All creatures strive for happiness but human beings  generally seek it through  self indulgence and the pursuit of worldly pleasures. As such worldly joys are asar (insubstantial) and the thirst for happiness can never be quenched by the extroverted activities and pleasurable experiences of the mind and senses.

Indulgence of the sense organs may bring temporary gratification, but it will never bring real happiness. Ultimately it is bound to produce negative results. Yet it takes many years or many births for most of us to realize such a simple truth.

True freedom from sorrow and suffering is possible only when all yearnings and desires are removed from the mind. True happiness is possible only when inner turmoil ceases and mental diffusion ends. Peace and steadiness of mind will come only through a sustained effort to reverse the mind’s habit of engaging in external sense objects.

It is our avidya (spiritual ignorance) that encourages us to run after sense enjoyments like lunatics. But the practice of pratyaharbrings steadiness, peace and introversion to the diffused mind.

To better comprehend pratyahar it is necessary to understand the relationship between the mind and the senses. Normally the mind seeks input from the sense organs. When the sense organs receive the vibrations or waves that emanate from the objects of the material world, the mind perceives a variety of phenomena.

A naturally extroverted and untrained mind cannot stem the endless flow of sensory perceptions and worldly phenomena. Such a mind becomes increasingly unsteady as it experiences waves of pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion. Under these circumstances mental equilibrium becomes impossible to maintain.

The only way to achieve mental peace is to stem the tide of sensory input that persistently leads the mind toward its outer surroundings. This is accomplished through the practice of pratyahar, which dissolves the link between the mind and the sense organs. Once this link is removed the outflow of mental energy ends and self-awareness begins. This process ultimately produces the introversion of mind required for meditation.

THE PRACTICE OF PRATYAHAR

Three spiritual exercises are essential to the practice of Pratyahar.

  1. Kumbhak, or sustained internal retention of breath.
  2. Naad anusandhan, or attunement to the subtle inner sound. 
  3. Khechari mudra, or the proper application of the tongue lock.

If any one of these three factors is absent, pratyahar cannot be practiced with success. Pratyahar as such is a prelude to the higher abstractions of the mind. These include the final three limbs of Ashtang Yoga – dharana, dhyan and samadhi, which comprise the practice of Raja Yoga.

THE STAGES OF RAJA YOGA

It is assumed that the seeker of Raja Yoga has already successfully dissolved the connection between the body and the mind. Though all the physiological processes continue to function properly, they no longer have impact on the seeker’s mind. Another prerequisite is that the yogi’s sense of faculties is fully withdrawn and his sense organs no longer react to the outside world. Thus his physical body responds neither to external nor internal phenomena. He remains conscious only of mental phenomena that are not in any way conditioned by the physical body. When the body becomes totally unresponsive to external stimuli, the mind alone remains in the field of consciousness and the seeker is considered fit for practicing Raja Yoga. This state of consciousness is a sine-qua-non for the seeker of Raja Yoga.

  • DHARANA

In the practice of dharana the mind is confined to a specific area of mental activity and is fixed upon a particular deity, object or inner region of the body. The mind remains focused there steadily without any wavering or dissipation. Of course, it is very difficult to focus the mind’s attention on any one thing for a long time.

Initially the mind continues to follow its habit of mental disturbance and wandering, but slowly the diffusion is controlled and eventually its attention stays steadily focused within a limited sphere.

The prerequisite to such intense ans steady mental focus is pratyahar, or withdrawal of the mind and detachment from the sense organs. As the degree of concentrated attention increases, the mind becomes fixed upon the object of his focus. With further practice, the power of mental concentration is enhanced. Thus the diffusion of the scattered mind is slowly brought under control through dharana. Ultimately, when the dissatisfaction and restlessness of the mind ceases completely, true concentration is attained and the seeker is qualified to enter the next stage of Ashtang Yoga, which is dhyan, or meditation

  • DHYAN

Dhyan involves the diversion of a continuous flow of concentrated thoughts toward a deity or other object that had been the focus of the mind during the practice of dharana. These ideas flow as a steady stream in a single direction without any distraction. Moreover all these ideas are of a like quality. Thus dhyan implies contemplative thinking that is supported by an uninterrupted flow of thoughts.

Even during this stage of meditation the mind remains active, but now the movement of the mind is peculiar. It flows continuously in only one direction with singular intent. By its nature therefore, it is neither dissipated not distracted. If by chance there is any interruption in meditation, the mind automatically reverts to the unwavering mental focus it learned in the course of dharna. When the distraction disappears, the mind automatically resumes its concentrated contemplative thinking. This process illustrates the techical difference between dharana and dhyan.

After considerable practice, the goal of meditation is achieved. At this point the mind fuses itself completely with the object of contemplation and mental activity ceases altogether. the perception of the mind becomes one with the object perceived, and the distinction between them comes to an end.

When an act is completed, the organ of the action automatically ceases to function, yielding to the next phase. In the same manner, when the task of meditation is over the activity of the yogi is automatically engaged in the final and highest stage of Ashtang Yoga called samadhi.

  • SAMADHI

Samadhi is characterized by perfect equanimity of mind. It leads to total awareness, or super-consciousness. In this state of mind, mind becomes empty of thoughts, with no consciousness of mind itself. Thus it is called the state of ‘non-mind.’

though the mind may be well established in contemplation without even the slightest distraction, in the course of dhyan(meditation)  the yogi yet remains aware of its existence. as long as there is still some consciousness of the mind there remains a sense of subjectivity and duality that serves to hide Reality with a subtle veil. The direct experience of the essence of reality is possible only when one’s self-consciousness is completely absorbed in the final goal.

In samadhi the yogi sinks into the very center of his inner consciousness. All mental phenomena automatically disappear and the factors of time and space are no longer essential for him. At this point his consciousness is illuminated with the light of spirituality and becomes transformed into Pure Consciousness.

Thus the Raja yogi reaches the very core of consciousness and stands face to face with the Ultimate reality, or Brahman, which has thus far remained hidden as a profound mystery. Once he is enlightened with pure Consciousness he escapes from the tortuous wheel of birth and death and becomes established in the ever-lasting Abode of Eternal bliss. This is the epitome of all yoga accomplishments.