April 14, 2012

The Eight-Fold Path: Who Cares?

During my post-graduate work, a professor bluntly asked me, “Who cares about the eight-fold path of yoga anyway?”

In other words, does any of it matter if people are satisfied with the physical? Posing this question (as rude as it may seem) actually led to interesting discussions as to whether or not students need to be aware of all that yoga offers. The problem, of course, is that learning yoga as exercise is half, perhaps even less, of all that yoga is. This, in turn, posed the question, “Why settle for less?”

The foundation of the practices of yoga is based on eight stages or limbs called Ashtanga yoga. The word ‘Ashtanga’ is often understood today as the system of yoga taught by the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. However, the eight-fold path is the ground in which all systems of Hatha yoga get united. The Yoga Sutras, a classical text written over 2000 years ago by Sage Patanjali, outlines these stages. What first appears as a linear step ladder from one stage to the next is a system that is highly interconnected. For most people, yoga begins with stage three, the asanas (postures). But this usually gets connected to stage one, the yamas (a set of five ethics), and stage two, the niyamas (a set of five observances or practices), as one moves along.

While Hatha yoga is more widely known today than its counterpart Raja yoga (the royal path), it is the latter practice that makes it complete. The right understanding of Hatha yoga (including Ashtanga yoga) is that it leads to Raja yoga, with the reverse being true. The physical postures were designed to strengthen the mind and body. The system of Hatha yoga, whether it be Ashtanga, Iyengar, Sivananda, Bikram yoga or otherwise, purifies the body for deeper practices in concentration.

So is it that no one cares? Or that people just don’t know?

Traditionally, yoga was understood and practiced as a means for enlightenment. That is a big word. For Patanjali, the goal of yoga was to see through the illusions of the concept of the ‘self’, a process that led to Samadhi (the eighth stage). In the West, the understanding that the self is a fixed identity is a bit harder to melt down. It also does not help that most of what is depicted as yoga in media is flat tummies and pulsating biceps.

Yoga is a process: a discovery that the world and our identities are not as solid as we may think. As a yoga teacher, it is not easy to introduce these more esoteric topics. Baba Hari Dass put it best when he said, “We come into this world believing we are this body, but we do not even know who this ‘me’ is, who is claiming the body.” I like this a lot because it hits the nail right on the head.

Yoga, as an eight-fold path, offers this great and tangible means to investigate and explore, not just postures but the deeper meaning of life. The practice may begin with the physical, but leads to the mental. Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar clarified this by explaining how we start with what we know (i.e., the body). Since the state of enlightenment or breaking our illusions may elude us, we begin with the body and with the eight stages of yoga. As Iyengar once said,

“It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”

The answer to the question of who cares if students know the eight-fold path is obvious. Whether they directly lecture on the topic is another story, but that they hint toward the deeper nuances is going to change the way people practice.

So yes, it matters a lot when we care about the practice, the students and the teachings.

Read more:

Eight Things You Should Know About Backbends.

Myth: Your Teacher is Going to Give You the Answers.

What’s in a Teacher?


Prepared by Soumyajeet Chattaraj/Edited by Tanya L. Markul

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