How does Astanga Yoga lead to liberation?
The path of the classical yoga system described in the Vedic tradition is long and severe. This system is called astanga yoga, or the eightfold yoga system, and was conceived by the ancient sage, Patanjali.
It is a scientific, psychic method to gradually raise the consciousness to higher levels of awareness, culminating in Samadhi, which is the stage where the self, realizing its own true nature, leaves its mortal shell and enters its liberated state.
The eight progressive steps of the astanga yoga system are called yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, and in the following I will loosely describe each one, and then contrast it to bhakti-yoga.
The first two principles, yama and niyama, are the do’s and the don’ts, and they are applicable not only in yoga but in all conditions of life, for regardless of whether one aims at success in material or spiritual life the key-word is renunciation. No one can have their wishes fulfilled or reach their life’s goal without being to some degree renounced.
Our practical lives confirm this. I remember as a child I had a friend who would save up his pocket money. Instead of spending it all on sweets and cinema trips, like the rest of us would invariably do, he would hold back and eventually had saved up enough money to buy a stereo equipment.
I was most impressed by this. As far as I was concerned it was an almost unfathomable feat, because I could never save my money. I always spent everything I had at once.
Later in life this same friend went on to make a successful career and become a doctor. While his friends were out partying and having fun, he would remain at home to study and prepare for exams. I realized then, that if one wants to obtain success in the long run, he will have to renounce many short-term pleasures.
To work towards a better position in adult life one has to forego many of the immediate pleasures one is often pushed to pursue in youthful life. In other words, one has to be renounced. One has to be able to control one’s senses. Without sense control there is no possibility of success neither in material nor spiritual life.
To control the senses is the preliminary aim of any genuine yoga system, and in astanga yoga this is accomplished in a very diligent and systematic way. Yama, the first step, refers to the things one should avoid that would hinder attainment of the goal.
Niyama, the second step, refers to the beneficial undertakings one has to undergo to reach the higher goal, Niyama, which constitutes the positive things to be done like daily meditations, rituals, and exercise, contributes to attaining the ultimate goal of yoga, which is union with the Supreme.
And yama is the things one must avoid as unbeneficial for one’s advancement on the path of yoga. Illicit sex, TV, movies, intoxication, and certain foodstuffs like meat, fish and eggs, pollute the consciousness and distract the attention away from the self and places it instead on the bodily demands and other externals.
One of the crucial things that a yogi must avoid at all costs in astanga yoga is sex. It is not possible to advance in this system unless one practices complete abstinence.
In ordinary mundane life pleasures are mostly pursued outside of ourselves. We search for happiness in the body or mind by connecting the senses with objects outside of ourselves like things or other bodies, or we seek mental gratification in the form of name, fame, distinction, and power.
The astanga yoga system, however, gives entrance to the deeper pleasures that lies within the soul. But before one can access this hidden pleasure one has to restrain the senses from their engagement in the external world.
In other words, in the yoga system, the happiness sought after is not the happiness that arises from sense gratification. Sense gratification is not considered genuine happiness, because it invariably leads to suffering.
“An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them.” (Bg 5.22)
This brings us to the next and third step – asana, also known to most westerners as Hatha-yoga. This is the discipline that prepares the body to remain in different postures for long periods of time. The side-effects of this discipline is a healthy and a slim body, but the real purpose is to gradually train up the body to enable it to remain in the same position for hours or days and eventually even months and years.
Before one can sit in the lotus position for hours and days without shifting and being uncomfortable, there is for instance no possibility of a successful rising of the kundalini. The concept of kundalini we will come back to later, as it is an integral part of the astanga yoga system.
After the yogi has trained the body to master the asanas or the hatha-yoga system, which will take years and years of practice, he will begin to work on his breathing. This next step is called pranayama.
The aim of pranayama is, simply speaking, to gradually lower the breathing cycle. It is said in the Vedic tradition that the life span of all living entities is measured out in number of breaths.
By lowering the breathing cycle the yogi can, according to how accomplished he becomes in this discipline, prolong his life span significantly with years or even decades or centuries. This is necessary as it takes a long time to become adept in the different disciplines of the astanga yoga system.
There is a story in the Srimad Bhagavatam of a kshatriya prince named Dhruva Maharaja who went to the forest and took to this practice in order to meet Vishnu. He was practicing yoga very determinedly minimizing his food intake, so that at one point he was eating only leaves.
Then he was standing on one leg and practicing pranayama, gradually lowering his breathing cycle to the point of inhaling and exhaling only once in 6 months.
To ordinary folks this may seem fantastic, but considering that Maha-Vishnu is breathing in and out once, as He is exhaling and then inhaling all the universes, over a period of 311.04 trillion years (which is the total lifespan of the universe), it is an insignificant span of time. As always Krishna reigns supreme and shows the way, even in pranayama.
If a yogi should ever become proud of his ability to maintain his breathing cycle at extremely long spans of time, he may refer to Maha-vishnu’s breathing cycle of 311.04 trillion years, and have his pride curbed.
The aim of pranayama, however, is not to prolong one’s lifespan. The real aim is to be able to sit in trance and meditate, first on the life airs and chakras, then on the inner self and finally on the Supersoul within the heart. By gradually extending the breathing cycle one can subdue the actions of the body and mind.
When the mind becomes still one can turn it from being engaged in the external world to being focused within. We all know the expression, take a deep breath, to calm the mind. It actually works.
After the yogi has mastered his breathing by being able to offer the outgoing breath into the incoming, he is ready to proceed to the next step in the astanga yoga process called pratyahara – the stage where the senses are being withdrawn from all external engagements.
What happens at that point is that the awareness of the self, who is usually observing the physical world through the senses, is being diverted to the inner world of the mind. The senses which are absorbed in the objects and relationships of the physical world are being forced to retract and instead focus on the inner, psychic world.
The world of the mind is very fine and subtle. Some people call it the astral plane. In pratyahara the consciousness of the self goes from being absorbed in the external physical plane to being absorbed in the internal psychic plane. Transcendental to or above both these planes is the plane of pure consciousness, and it is towards that the yogi is striving.
Through further hard practice, when the yogi is able to maintain the focus of his consciousness on the inner world of the mind, he progresses to the state of dharana. This is the state where the senses have been completely withdrawn from the physical world and is totally fixed on the inner, subtle world of the mind. On this platform all sensual engagements have ceased, and one is only perceiving the mind.
There is no more any sound, touch, form, taste or smell. Any awareness of the external world has ceased to exist. When one can maintain this state of inner focus it is called dharana. It is not until one reaches the dharana state, ie. Is able to maintain complete inner focus and has ceased all awareness of the external world, that dhyana, or meditation arises.
In the modern world we use the word meditation cheaply to describe almost any kind of mental state. Some people even think that to just sit down and relax and let the mind wander is meditation, or if they are a little more advanced they think that focusing on a flame or a ring on the wall for five minutes is meditation, but we should note that in the classical yoga system described in the Vedic tradition meditation does not take place before one is able to completely cease all external sensual engagements and focus the consciousness on the self. Then and only then can one progress to the state of dhyana or meditation.
Now the yogi begins to meditate. It is then that he discovers his soul. The soul is the real observer within, and now the soul finally observes its own self as an illuminating particle of consciousness.
The yogi now understands that this is his real self, and further more, besides himself situated in his heart, he sees the Supersoul, Sri Krishna Who lives in the heart of all living entities. Sometimes due to insufficient knowledge or pride the yogi will mistake the Supersoul for his own self, thus thinking that he, the yogi, is the Supreme self. If he makes that mistake he will not reach Vaikuntha but will go no further than impersonal Brahman.
Thus when the yogi discovers God in his heart he can either maintain a humble position and surrender to Him, or he can reach any goal he desires within his mind up to liberation from the material world.
This is the final test of the yogi – he can either become a god, or merge with Brahman, or he can become God’s servant. What ever he chooses at that point he will attain. This state is called Samadhi, the final goal of his meditation.
It is then the yogi is ready to leave his body. Some people call this the rising of the kundalini. At this point the yogi with violent force pushes his soul out through the top of his cranium, and whatever his consciousness is fixed on at precisely that moment, that is where the soul will go. The energy that is released at this point is so immense that the body combusts into fire.
It is not until one has reached the state of Samadhi, in which the consciousness is totally withdrawn from the external world, that one can begin to raise the kundalini.
What happens is that the yogi pushes the life-airs up from the mula-chakra, the lowest chakra, gradually up through the other chakras of the body until it reaches the heart chakra.
Here the soul is picked up from its seat there and is pushed further up to the top chakra at the top of ones head. This pushing of the life-airs, the prana, up through the different chakras of the body is what constitutes a kundalini rising.
As the kundalini is rising the pressure inside the body becomes so great that the yogi now must use the asana and pranayama techniques he practiced and learned at an earlier stage to block all holes in body lest the soul should escape through any one of them. In the Vedas the body has been called the city of nine gates.
There are nine holes in the body – anus, genital, two nostrils, two ear holes, and two eyes. Already at the asana step the yogi learns to block all these holes from within as he raises the kundalini.
As we can see, this type of yoga is very hard to practice in the modern age. One can only imagine what could happen if this is practiced in an apartment in the city. One might very well burn down the whole apartment. Therefore the yogis of yore would go to the forest to practice astanga yoga and leave their bodies.
We learn from the Srimad Bhagavatam that when King Dhritarastha went to the forest to leave his body in this way, he started a whole forest fire. It was into this fire that his wife Gandhari and the mother of the Pandavas, queen Kunti, entered together to gain release from their mortal bodies.
Contrary to this severe practice, which is not recommended for the people of Kali-yuga, we find the simple sublime method of chanting the Hare Krishna maha mantra, which will yield exactly the same if not greater results, and which can be practiced anywhere, even in an apartment down town.
In fact, a person can benefit more from chanting the holy names of the Lord sitting in an inner city apartment than he can gain from sitting in the Himalayas practicing astanga yoga for 100.000 years, which was the general lifespan of people in satya-yuga, when this practice was the norm.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that all results that can be obtained from practicing any kind of yoga or dharma automatically befall one who practices bhakti-yoga.
“A person who accepts the path of devotional service is not bereft of the results derived from studying the Vedas, performing sacrifices, undergoing austerities, giving charity or pursuing philosophical and fruitive activities. Simply by performing devotional service, he attains all these, and at the end he reaches the supreme eternal abode.” (Bg 8.28)
It is further stated in the Srimad Bhagavatam that the results of the astanga yoga process practiced millions of years ago in satya-yuga can very easily be obtained in this present age of Kali simply by chanting the hole names of Krishna:
“Whatever result was obtained in Satya-yuga by meditating on Visnu, in Treta-yuga by performing sacrifices, and in Dvapara-yuga by serving the Lord’s lotus feet can be obtained in Kali-yuga simply by chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra.” (SB 12.3.52)
In this present age of Kali people are simply too disturbed to sit down and practice the ancient yoga system. Maybe a few yogis can still go into the Himalayas and sit in seclusion in a mountain cave and practice this system, but for the people in general it is not possible, nor are there any qualified teachers who can guide a serious student in this yoga process.
The fundamental difference between the astanga yoga system and the bhakti-yoga system is that in the first, the yogi is trying to elevate himself by his own mental and intellectual endeavors. In bhakti-yoga we ask Krishna to pick us up and carry us back to Him.
Srila Prabhupada has likened it to the cat and monkey. The baby monkey holds on to its mother by its own strength. When the female monkey jumps around from tree to tree it happens quite often that her baby looses its grip and falls to the ground. The baby kitten, on the other hand, is carried to safety by its mother, depending solely on her strength.
In the same way, the bhakti-yogi depends solely on Krishna. He knows very well he is powerless without the mercy of Krishna. The astanga yogi is struggling to cross over the materiel ocean of suffering by his own powers, and even then he is not guaranteed success. But someone who surrenders to Krishna can very easily cross over nescience.
“This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it.” (Bg 7.14)
Krishna helps His devotee to reach the final goal, and that it infinitely more easy and secure than manipulating the life airs and chakras of the body to press out the soul of the top of the head at the final moment.
By Jahnu Das