Q: What is the path to enlightenment?
A: According to Putanjali’s Yoga Sutras, enlightenment is attained in seven stages. Including the final stage, these form the Eight Limbs of Yoga:
1. Yamas: Hindrances (Nonviolence, Truthfulness, Nonstealing, Moderation, Non-possessivenes)
2. Niyamas: Oberservances (Purity, Contentment, Self-discipline, Self-study, Surrender)
3. Asana: Poses
4. Pranayama: Control of life-force through breath
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana: Concentration
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8: Samadhi: Non-dualistic consciousness
The last three limbs are so similar and seamless that Putanjali groups them together as samyama (perfectly controlled). Still, they are distinct stages:
Concentration (dharana) is binding the attention of the mind to a single object, place, or idea. Meditation (dhyana) is the continuous flow of consciousness toward an object. Samadhi is deep absorpotion on the object without thought of the self. Then, the essential nature of the object shines forth. (3.1-3.3) Through mastery of samyamah, knowledge born of intuitive insight shines forth. (3.5)
Even in the workout-focused yoga classes of the West, breadcrumbs that lead you along the path are still there. In public yoga classes, the focus is often on asana, the poses, and sometimes pranayama, the breath, but if you listen carefully, the other limbs of yoga are often threaded through many teachers’ cues. When yoga teachers suggests you avoid pushing so hard that you’re gasping for breath, they are talking about non-violence, one of the yamas. When they remind you to be happy in your variation on the pose, rather than grasping for the variation the person beside you is taking, they are talking about contentment, one of the niyamas. When teachers tell you focus the eyes and the mind on a drishti, a focal point, during balancing poses, they are talking about pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. When you hear cues about detaching yourself from mental chatter and keeping your focus on your breath during savasana, corpse pose, your teachers are talking about samayama, the last three limbs.
All of this said, Putanjali’s system is only one way to journey toward enlightenment. There are many other paths.