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The Fast-track to Enlightenment: An Introduction to Yoga Darshana

Out of the six primary Vedic philosophy systems we are covering in this #VEDA101 series, Yoga Darshana is probably going to be the one most of you are familiar with because well... we just call it Yoga across the globe. You may be surprised to learn, however, that in itself and at its core, Yoga is a complete system of philosophy. (Ps: “Darshana” translates to “philosophy” in Sanskrit if this is the first article of this series that you’re tuning into)


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Within ancient texts, it is explained that “Yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yug,” which can be loosely translated as to yoke, unite, join, attach, clicked on, equip harness, and more.


Depending on where you look, you will come across varying definitions of yoga, here are a few:


"Yoga means unknotting of mind to reach a degree of consciousness."

(Rajaneesh)


"Yoga is that state, where all sense organs are controlled and steady."

(Kathopanisad)


"State of balance between failure and win, or body and mind. Remaining unbounded with the happiness and miseries of the world is yoga."

(Swami Vivekananda)


"Yoga is an education and character building. It is a general systematic set of practices,

through which, one can attain super natural power through the process of concentration."

(BKS Iyengar)


"Role of yoga is an all-around personality development in physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual level"

(Swami Aravinda)


The underlying theme across the board is that Yoga works by ‘uniting’ different layers of existence- mind and body, body and soul, mind and soul, human and universe, human and inner self, etc.


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Yoga Darshana is rooted from the information contained in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is not known if Patanjali was a single person or multiple people under that alias, but in this article, we will refer to him/them as ‘they’ just in case.


Written over the span of 200bc-200ce in Ancient India, the Yoga Sutras are typically referenced as one of the primary texts on Yoga. When Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, they basically went through the Vedas and pinpointed all the information about yoga and self-realization, then condensed it into a compilation of 196 verses to make it easy to remember. Within this work, they describe how the mind works and how to master it to attain enlightenment, supporting our deep desire to return to our creator.


The verses of the Yoga Sutras are split into four different limbs known as “Padas.” They are Samadhi, Sadhana, Vibhuti, and Kaivalya Pada.


  1. Samadhi Pada describes the path of developing self-awareness and self-knowledge by quieting the mind and controlling the body. On top of this, it lists the obstacles that we can face along this path, taking into account individual diversity and that there are often different routes to the same destination. This limb also introduces Astanga Yoga, which we will discuss in detail later in this article.

  2. Sadhana Pada, the second limb of the Yoga Sutras, studies the knowledge from Samadhi Pada, and learning experiences that came with it, on a much deeper level. This section examines the five causes of suffering and advice on how to overcome them. It also specifies the ways to reach Moksha (liberation) through yoga.

  3. Vibhuti Pada discusses the last final three limbs of Astanga Yoga, where the practitioner is learning how to develop deep meditative states. It goes as far as outlining how to manifest divine or “supernatural” powers from these Yoga practices, such as levitation, astral projection, time travel, accessing past life memories, and much more.

  4. Kaivalya Pada, the final pada of the Yoga Sutras, is a much higher, yet subtle, level of practice and awareness, where the student discusses the ideas surrounding reincarnation, karma, psychoactive herbs, and more intense spiritual practices.

Although it would require a lot of work, the text clearly states that all four Padas are accessible for every single human on Earth. The writer(s) of the Yoga Sutras truly believes that everyone has potential to achieve enlightenment and, eventually, liberation through Yoga. More specifically… through Astanga Yoga.



Astanga Yoga

Literally meaning “Eight Limbed Yoga,” Astanga Yoga is not just a multi-faceted approach to spiritual mastery, but only authentic one. The Yoga Sutras explain that a complete Yoga practice consists of eight different pillars or limbs.


This eight limbs of Yoga are:

  • Yama: universal morality

  • Niyama: personal observances

  • Asana: physical postures

  • Pranayama: breathing practices

  • Pratyahara: sensory control

  • Dharana: developing inner awareness

  • Dhyana: devotion to divine

  • Samadhi: union with divine

PS- this Astanga Yoga is not like the one you will find at your local studio, where you can expect a fairly intense asana (pose) based practice instead.


The first two limbs of Astanga Yoga, Yama and Niyama, guide our behavior toward ourselves and the world around us. Each limb further breaks down into five different subjects, for a total of 10 recommendations on how to live spiritually-aligned life. By practicing these first two limbs, we raise our consciousness and boost our levels of Prana in order to handle the practices to come in the following limbs.


Before we get into these two limbs, I want to clarify that their content is not being presented as absolute practices, laws, rules, or commandments. You aren’t a bad person or deserve punishment if you go against them. They are merely suggestions on how to behave to create the spiritually-aligned life we envision. Yoga is referred to as a practice for a reason, you are allowed to mess up. In fact, you are encouraged to make mistakes and to learn and grow from them.


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#1: Yama


Called as “Yama” or “the Yamas,” this limb outlines five guidelines on how to interact with ourselves and the world around us in a more peaceful, ethical, and equitable way. These five parameters are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha.


Comprised of the Sanskrit prefix “a-“ meaning “no” and the word “himsa,” meaning “violence” or “suffering” Ahimsa literally means “non-violence” or “no suffering.” This Yama asks us not to be cruel, in any way, to any living being, including ourselves. And when it says “in any way,” it also means in thought and speech. It asks us to always act, think, and speak from a place of love and compassion rather than fear or violence.


The next Yama, Satya, advises us to always speak the truth, and to do so without being violent or in a way that may upset them. Practicing this limb requires maintaining a more objective approach to life so that setbacks don’t get in the way of being able to see or act on the truth. Satya also asks that we maintain an open mind to the reality that there are many truths, and that what we see as true today, we may see an untrue later on. It involves living a life of integrity, where we strive to have no dirty secrets and tell no lies (even to ourselves).


Asteya, the third of five aspects of Yama, also contains the prefix “-a” meaning “no,” followed by the root word “steya” which refers to the practice of stealing or something that can be stolen. This limb solicits us not to take anything that does not belong to us, including items such as ideas, energy, time, trust, love, attention resources, etc. Beyond just “not stealing,” Asteya is the practice of consent and generosity where we do not take anything that was not rightfully offered to us first, and continuously offer of ourselves and our resources to others.


The next Yama is Brahmacharya. “Brahma” is the name of a deity, or divine being, commonly associated with the Vedas, while “Charya” can be translated as conduct, behavior, engaging with, etc. While this limb is often translated as “celibacy” by some teachers, it is far beyond that. In Vedic wisdom, our sexual energy, aka Ojas, is a potent source of energy (as most marketing experts would agree with). When we participate in sexual activities, we deplete ourselves of this energy, especially if it resulted in ejaculation. Sex, however, is not the ONLY activity that depletes Ojas, which means that Brahmacharya should be seen as the practice of moderating, balancing, and protecting that energy instead. Brahmacharya empowers us to set those much-needed boundaries in our lives and asks us to fully commit to ourselves. It enables us to draw the line between giving what we can and giving beyond that.


And finally, Aparigraha, the fifth Yama, guides us on how to not being blinded by our desires. It is made up of the prefix “a-“ meaning “no” and the root words “pari,” meaning “on all sides,” and “graha” meaning “to grab.” It can be translated literally as not taking from all sides or not taking more than is needed. This limb attempts to neutralize our aspirations of acquiring and hoarding wealth by teaching us to only take what is necessary and not act out of greed. It asks us to be aware of and grateful for our abundance without always striving for more.


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#2 Niyama


The second limb of Astanga Yoga is Niyama or the Niyamas. Like Yama, Niyama is not merely a set of rules to be memorized, or attitudes to replicate, but suggestions on how to live more peacefully and soulfully. In comparison to Yama, Niyama is a much more intimate and personal practice, encouraging us to develop a deep awareness of and relationship with every part of ourselves. Broken down into five parameters, Niyama consists of Saucha, Santosa, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Isvara Pranidhana.


The first Niyama is Saucha, which means “purity,” “cleanliness,” “clearness,” and other like words. It preaches about the benefits of maintaining cleanliness of both inner and outer worlds- from our body and mind to our surroundings and relationships. Practicing Sauca helps us gain inner tranquility by acquiring exquisite hygiene habits, keeping our space neat, getting rid of items we do not use or need, eliminating toxic thoughts from our minds, and so much more. Sauca essentially asks us to grow aware of and eliminate everything in our lives that no longer serves us, including certain items, ideas, and even people.


Santosha, the next Niyama, is derived from the Sanskrit words “sam” meaning “all,” “complete,” or “together,” and "tosa,” meaning “pleasure,” “contentment” or “acceptance." It suggests cultivating contentment and learning to find pleasure in every state of our life, even in the setbacks. This involves learning how let go of how we think things should be or should happen, and being able to surrender control in the situations that we realistically have no control over. If we can accept this moment, and not fight it, then we reserve our energy to contribute to the life we do want.


Tapas, the third of five Niyamas, means “to burn,” or “something that burns,” and is referring to the inner fire necessary for self-discipline. This Niyama asks us to observe where we put our energy and preferably commit to practices that enhance our well-being. This means learning how to find the middle ground of building our fire just enough to carry out our dharma, but not too much or in the wrong ways that we burn ourselves out. Practicing Tapas is intentionally adopting reasonable limitations in order to create the life we want and person we want to be.


The next limb, Svadhyaya, is a practice of self-reflection and inquiry where we grow increasingly more aware the habitual patterns and repressed aspects of our actions, thoughts, and words that have been holding us back. It allows us to be so aware of these patterns that we consciously choose how to show up in each moment. The word “sva” means “own,” “self,’ or “soul,” while “Adhyaya” means “lesson,” “lecture,” or “reading.” It isliterally the study of one’s own self, down to the soul. In knowing ourselves, our identities, our snags, triggers, privileges, and traumas, we are able to discern whether to keep these patterns or change them. Svadhyaya is an opportunity to get really present with the way we are, and to make some conscious choices that will direct us in the way we want to go.


Isvarapranidhana, the final Niyama, is recognizing that there is some sort of omnipresent power or force that is greater than us and placing your trust in it. But, this doesn’t mean just sitting around, waiting for the universe to resolve your problems for you. Derived from the Sanskrit words “Isvara,” which is often translated as “god,” “supreme being,” “highest reality,” plus others, and “Pranidhana," which means “devoted” or “supported by” Isvarapranidhana evokes the realization that we are not always in control of every situation and provides a deeper layer of trust and peaceful surrender.


The lessons within Yama and Niyama help us perform all the inner work necessary to properly and healthily practice the remaining six limbs of Astanga Yoga. Now just a reminder, while we have already covered 10 different guidelines within Astanga Yoga, they only make up the first two limbs. Now, let’s move on to the next limb of Astanga Yoga… Asana!


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#3 Asana


The third limb of Astanga Yoga is often the one that most people think of when they hear the word “Yoga” in conversation. And, this is often followed by recalling the fancy poses they saw while scrolling through social media the other day.


Literally translated as “to sit,” Asana was classically designed to train our mind/body complex to comfortably sit for long periods of time in order to participate in deeper practices like Pranayama and Meditation.


Nowadays, people often interpret Asana as “postures,” referencing the various physical poses that are performed in this limb. Beyond just being a form of exercise, Asana enables a unique relationship to form between mind and body, developing harmony on all levels.


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#4 Pranayama


The fourth limb, Pranayama, details how to control our prana our life force through specialized breathwork exercises and practices. ‘Pranayama’ is made of two words “prana” and “ayama” or “a” + “yama.” “Prana” is translated in many ways depending on the context, including: lifeforce, vital energy, wind, breath, and respiration. “Ayama” or “A-“ + “Yama” means no limit, no restraint, or to lengthen, expand, and stretch. Pranayama is the practice of cleansing, expanding, and regulating your aura and vitality by practicing various forms of breathing exercises.


The Vedas believe that we each have a set number of breaths in our life. The more you can slow, control, and maximize each individual breath, the longer you are extending your own life. Beyond inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, Pranayama concerns itself with breathing in such a way that we influence the flow of Prana within our body, awakening us to greater potential.


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#5 Pratyahara


Have you ever been in a loud place and wished you could just turn your ears off? Or maybe you’ve passed through a smelly area and wished you could tell your nose to stop taking in the smell?


Enter Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Astanga Yoga. This pillar of Yoga Darshana trains the mind/body complex to withdraw or pull back our senses. While it may begin this way, the goal of this limb is not to ignore the stimulators around us, but to detach the connection our ego has to that sensory load. Pratyahara empowers us to stop our mind from negative thoughts, our eyes from seeing horrible sights, our ears from hearing unpleasant sounds, our mouth from tasting yucky foods, our hands from feeling dirty sensations, and our nose from inhaling nasty odors.


While we already do this throughout the day without realizing, Pratyahara teaches us how to hone the skill. Rather than constantly turning away from what we don’t want and chasing what we do want, we are able to detach ourselves from those sensory inputs and understand that we are more than our responses to the material world. In the beginning, it may seem like this practice is a means of suffering instead of enjoying life, but it actually heightens the power of the senses and makes us appreciate them more.


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The sixth, seventh, and eighth limb of Astanga Yoga are collectively known as “Samyama,” and together outline the various levels of meditation and depths of consciousness. They describe the path from being easily distracted in your practice (and therefore, your life) to being completely absorbed in it.


These final limbs of Astanga Yoga are called Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi… now let’s dive in!


#6 Dharana


After gaining control over the body through practice of asanas, controlling movement of prana by process of pranayama, withdrawing the senses by pratyahara, the practitioner reaches Dharana. “Dha” means “to put,”, “to place,” or “to lay in,” while “Rana/Rani” means “delight” or “king/queen.” As a unification of mind and spirit, Dharana supports us as we lay our mind in the delight of our supreme being by cultivating one-pointed focus. This involves directing the mind to attend to one topic or object, and remain there, unaffected by intrusive thoughts or outer distractions. Being able to focus on one thing for a long time without distraction requires patience and practice. Often this is done by focusing on the breath (prana), mantra (chanting), yantra (symbols), or an idea/philosophy.


#7 Dhyana


The seventh limb of Astanga Yoga is Dhyana, which is often referred to as “Meditation.” Dhyana is considered the fourth state of consciousness, where profound rest and rejuvenation meets heightened awareness and alertness. Derived from the root words “dhi” meaning “reflecting” or “understanding,” and “yana,” meaning “vehicle,” Dhyana refines our “vehicle of understanding and reflection” aka our mind’s ability to stay focused for even longer periods of time. In practicing this, we feel we are living in the moment without having to actively try to do so.


#8 Samadhi


Translated as “Ecstasy,” the eight and final limb is called Samadhi. Derived from the words “Sam,” meaning “to be undisturbed” or “Sama,” meaning “calm” or “tranquil,” and “dhi,” which we already covered, means reflecting or understanding. Samadhi, in itself, is not an actual practice but the result of practicing the previous seven limbs. We may feel like we have merged with whatever it is we are observing or experiencing in that moment- a complete connection with our universe and its creator. A connected that can be witnessed in the fleeting moments where you lose yourself while sitting in nature, reading a good book, or even spending quality time with someone you love.


The goal of Astanga Yoga is to attain this state of Samadhi as a fast-track toward eventual liberation.


While the eight limbs discussed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali progress and build upon each other, they are eventually practiced simultaneously. Unlike a video game where you complete one level and move onto the next, practitioners of all levels practice all of the limbs of Astanga Yoga.


So, rather than thinking of them as hierarchy or linear progression, you can imagine concentric rings that continuing to build upon on the other. Likewise, you can start practicing Yoga Darshana with any limb, such as how many people begin with Asana… but eventually the other ones bubble to the surface asking to be practiced as well.








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