Aṣṭāṅga: Viewing the 8-limbs through the Prism of the Gunas

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:

‘Haṭha yoga, aṣṭāṅga yoga, kuṇḍalini yoga, bhakti yoga are well known and practiced systems of Yoga even now in India and elsewhere. Classical Aṣṭāṅga Yoga, made up of eight aspects and forming part of Pātañjala Yoga, is a systematic, step by step integral yoga system. Like in a human system all critical parts have to work in unison, in the aṣṭāṅga yoga every aspect is essential to reach the goal of yoga.

‘Here is a look at aṣṭāṅga yoga through the prism of the three guṇas.

‘Firstly the five fold yamas. Himsa is a rājasic tendency. It is of three levels, physical, verbal and mental. Causing pain to other beings corporeally, through offending words and then thinking ill of others are the three known as mano-vāk-kāya. According to Patañjali, violence is usually returned in kind whereas non-violence would in general be reciprocated with kindness. By deliberately curbing initially anger and then cultivating nonviolence one would slowly control the rajas thrown at the yogi by the outside world.

‘The second yama is satya or speaking the truth. Telling lies usually becomes a habit if uncontrolled, It is a tāmasic tendency. By speaking untruth the prospective yogi gets more involved with the outside world, developing and strengthening an unhealthy tamasic entanglement with the world. So is steya or stealing or the modern term ‘misappropriation’ which eventually leads the Yogi to be tied to non yogic activities.

‘A-brahmacarya is again a tāmasic tendency and propelled by rajas. Brahmacarya is the trait of having a reign over sexuality and is the governing principle of yogi while dealing with people of the opposite sex. According to my guru, Brahmacarya in this Kaliyugu is ‘ respecting the institution of marriage’ .Abrahmacarya could be very distracting for the yogabhyāsi who would like to keep the mind sātvic. It also leads to make the mind more and more tāmasic and make it even more difficult to make any meaningful progress in yoga.

‘The last yama is aparigraha. In general one can say that the attraction the outside world offers by way of power, wealth and fame are rājasic tendencies while being drawn to the outside world due to the various sense objects is a tāmasic tendency. Uncontrolled involvement in these activities stimulates more Rajas and Tamas in the yoga practitioner and are therefore said to be counterproductive. So parigraha is the rājasic tendency to accumulate possessions especially wealth. While it is a legitimate pursuit for everyone, it is not so for a committed yogābhyāsi who wants to become first as much sātvic as possible for a start. A Yogi has to deliberately focus attention on yogic practice and not on accumulation of wealth. This is said to be aparigraha: ādi śankara wrote extensively on this. Accumulation of wealth produces many concerns in the mind which is disturbing (duhkha). Once wealth is accumulated with great difficulty, it is equally concerning to maintain it. If you spend it or worse still lose it, it again produces duhkha or mental anguish. ( ārjane, rakṣaṇe, jīrṇe, naṣṭe)

‘Such a mind is never peaceful and is not sātvivc and hence not fit to make yogic progress.

‘The niyamas the more intimate practices tend to strengthen the benefits of yamas and also help to purge the personal rājasic and tāmasic traits. The first niyama is śouca or cleanliness-of body and mind. Keeping a simple clean environment, a clean body and a clean mind are considered essential niyama for a yogi. Some advice about how to keep one’s yogaśala or yogamaṭha clean is given in Haṭhayoga. Unclean habits are considered tāmasic. Cleanliness leads to a healthy attitude about one’s own body/mind. Patañjali mentions that a clean uncluttered mind is a sine qua non to be able to experience the Self the ultimate goal of Rājayoga.

‘The second niyama, santosha is a positive state of satva. Santosha is contentment and the lack of it is a Rājasic tendency. Santosha or contentment leads to unsurpassed peace of mind (sukha). There is an interesting saying in Tamil (podum yenra maname ponn seyyum marundhu). It says the chemical that helps make gold is contentment.

‘The third niyama is tapas or austerity. According to my Guru quoting Vācaspati Miśra, tapas is moderation in food intake and moderation in speaking. Further what we eat should be satvic so should what the yogi speaks. If what the yogi eats is not sātvic or what he speaks is rājasic or tāmasic these two unwelcome traits (guṇas) fester in the yogi. There is a saying that without tapas no yoga is possible (na atapasvino yogah…)

‘The fourth is svādhyāya or study. Study and contemplation cultivate the mind. Study of sātvic spiritual subjects like yoga import more satva to the yogābhyāsi. A solid theoretical base is necessary for any meaningful activity like yoga. So study of spiritual texts and contemplation thereof is the intended activity called svādhyāya. The yogi would take special efforts to avoid studying a lot of tāmasic (smut?) literature or provocative, hate or violent literature. Religious and spiritual literature like the vedas, upaniads, the Gita and others were included in this read category in the olden days.

‘The last niyama is īśvarapraṇidhāna a profound sātvic state of mind. A total surrender to the supreme being, observing the yamaniyamas and practicing yogic activities as a loving offering to the Supreme is indicated by this niyama. Practicing yoga looking for immediate benefits is a rājasic tendency. Practicing yoga mindlessly is a tāmasic attitude. And īśvarapraṇidhāna is said to inculcate a sātvic attitude to the whole practice of yoga.

‘So we may say that yamaniyamas help the yogi to prevent the ingestion of a lot of unnecessary rajas and tamas from the environment. Then what of the systemic rajas and tamas?.

Patañjali calls the puruṣa which is unwavering pure consciousness or awareness in us as the real Self. It is said to be pure indicating that it has none of the three qualities or guṇas of prakriti. However what is considered commonly as the person, is the physical person, also called the ‘dṛśya‘ self or the self that is seen physically. This dṛśyātmā the one that is wrongly recognized by our minds as the self, is made of the three gunas, the five bhutas and their tanmātras, the eleven indriyas and the internal indriyas of ego and intellect. With the yamaniyamas the yogi is able to prevent accumulation of rajas and tamas from the outside world into this dṛśya self.. Now the dṛśya ātma or the physical self, has to be purged of rajas and tamas and made more and more sātvic. This is the first yogic transformation. Transforming irrevocably a predominantly rājasic or a tāmasic person into a predominantly sātvic person is the first aim of yoga. Why should the dṛśya ātma be made a sātvic person? Because it is said that only a sātvic minded person becomes a yogi so that she/he could see distinction between the ego and the real self, puruas as daylight (viveka-khyāti).

‘How to get rid of the systemic rajas and tamas, so that one becomes satvic?. Patañjali in his aṣṭāṅga yoga following the tradition of yoga introduces āsana to accomplish it. ‘āsaneana rajo hanti say the upaniads. Patañjali also mentions that the benefit of āsana practice is to reduce rajas. He says “tatah dvandva anabhighātah” By āsanābhyāsa, dvandva or the pairs of opposites will not bother the yogi any more. Dvandva abhigāta would mean intolerance or brittleness of mind which again is a manifestation of excess rajas—and āsanas are expected to reduce it.

‘Now for the systemic tamas. Tamas, āvaraṇa, moha are all synonyms. Prāṇāyāma practiced systematically is said to eradicate tamas from the system. Prāṇāyāma is the most effective way to detoxify oneself. Regular prāṇāyāma helps to keep the tamas under a leash. In the yoga sutras the benefits of prāṇāyāma include the elimination of tamas or āvarana on the one hand and making oneself sātvic so that one can be ready for meditation.

‘With all the yamaniyamas, āsana and prāṇāyamā, now the dṛśya ātma is an embodiment of satva. The yogi feels light (laghu) at the physical level and enjoys unhurried clarity at the mental level (prakāsaka) a manifestation of satva. As Patañjali points such a satvic person is ready for meditation or antaraṅga sādhana. A sātvic mind is dhārmic or very orderly. It is fit for understanding and realizing the nature of one ‘Self’ (jñāna). It develops a natural disposition towards vairāgya or desirelessness as per the sāmkhyas. It also develops an enormous capacity for concentration or one pointedness. While a rājasic mind or citta has a natural tendency to be distracted (vikepa) the satvic mind is not easily distracted. Patañjali would now like the yagābhyāsi to strengthen the hard earned sātvic predominance of the mind.

‘The three stepped antaraṅga sādhanā or meditative practice would involve dhāranā in which procedure the yagābhyāsi makes repeated attempts to keep the mind on one uplifting chosen object. Consistent practice would lead to the mind remaining with the object in a continuous flow for an extended period of time which state is known as dhyāna stage. This is possible only for a citta which is already rid of rajas and tamas enabled by consistent preliminary aṅgas explained earlier. Only a satvic mind can successfully meditate. It is said in the sutras that dhyāna on the same object can mature into a stage when the meditator forgets himself/herself allowing only the object to completely be engaging the meditator’s attentions without any distraction whatsoever. This is the highest sātvic state called samādhi with an object. Then the yogi having acquired this unique capability called samyama can contemplate on any object and attain samādhi in it. This extends up to the state wherein the yogi is able to see the distinction between the real Self or puruṣa and the what is generally considered to be oneself, the physical self or dṛśya ātmā.

‘Then the mind sees this unique distinction which was only inferential becomes real and direct. Then the citta completely satisfied, loses interest in any further contemplation and remains in itself peacefully. Yogis call this as sāmya avasthā or a nirodha state of the citta or the kailvalya state of the real Self, puruṣa. In this state even the dominance of satva settles down. It is a state where all the three gunas satva, rajas and tamas are in a state of equilibrium of sāmya avasthā. Several texts like the Bhagavat Gita call it guṇātita (beyond the guṇas) or nistraiguṇya (a state which is dominated by none of the three guṇas)

‘Summarizing we may say that yamas help to prevent the ingestion of the non yogic guṇas of rajas and tamas and encourages the absorption of satva (through food, study etc). Niyamas strengthen this and also correct some rājasic and tāmasic behaviors or tendencies. āsanas are said to remove the systemic rajas whereas prāṇāyāma is immensely helpful in eradicating systemic tamas. Pratyāhāra helps to keep the wandering senses on a leash. The citta is now predominantly satvic. This satvic guna is sought to be strengthened by antaraṅga abhyāsa of dhāranā, dhyāna and samādhi also known collectively as samyama. Ultimately having completed the yogic journey with the direct perception of the Self (ātma sākātkāra) the mind settles down to a permanent peaceful state variously known as sāmya avasthā, nirodha avasthā, guṇatia, nistraiguṇya and others. In it all the three guṇas reach a state of absolute balance.

‘Every yogi should set a goal for the lifelong yoga sādhanā one undertakes to follow. For Aṣṭāṅgis or
Aṣṭāṅga yoga abhyāsis, the initial goal would be to become very sātvic and the end goal would be, as per yoga Sutras, achieving the complete resolution of the gunas to a state of equilibrium (..gunanam pratiprasava.. last YS), like in the state of mulaprakṛti. Goal setting is necessary in all activities of life especially in Yoga.

If a man does not know to which port he is sailing,

No wind is favourable to him—Seneca

Aṣṭāṅga!

‘PS. You may also consider watching my videos on this subject ‘Yoga and the three Gunas II to V’ in my you tube channel. These videos running totally for about an hour contain a talk I gave at Sarah Matah’s studio in Los Angeles a few months back.

(c) Srivatsa Ramaswami www.vinyasakrama.com
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