“By the practise of the limbs of yoga, the impurities dwindle away and here dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment”. (Patanjali’s Sutra #28)
Patanjali was a great yogi mystic and philosopher. His writing on yoga and the Eight Limbs of Raja Yoga are dated to the 2nd century. According to Patanjali’s Sutra’s, the Eight limbs of Yoga are purifying practices designed to clear away the impurities that block enlightenment. These obstacles are to be overcome “by resolving them back to their primal cause.” These impurities or obstacles could also be described as processes of the older reptilian brain, which the first two limbs, Yamas and Niyamas directly seek to transcend.
Yamas, through the practice of non-violence, (ahimsa) teach us to control fear (abhinivesha) and thus overcome the flight and fight signal. By controlling our sexual impulses (brahacarya) and our tendency to hoard beyond what we need (aparigrahah) we curb the reflexes of reptilian brain. By not lying (satya) or stealing (asteya) and behaving ethically, (Niyama) we train ourselves through the pre-frontal cortex, to tame our primitive behaviours.
The Niyamas teach us the discipline to live purely, to pay attention to habits of cleanliness, exercise, nutrition, and to practise self-awareness. By keeping our thoughts in the present moment, and learning through continual study, we are continually engaging the command center of the brain to overcome the impulses of the lower brains.
According to B.K.S. Ivengar, the third limb of yoga Asana, (postures) help bring focus to the physical self, deepening our ability to become aware of its distractions, sensations and inner emotions. Patanjali writes “by lessening the natural tendency for restlessness… posture is mastered”. The yoking of our awareness (mind) to our body is an exercise in concentration and a moving meditation – both of which can only be accomplished through the pre-frontal cortex.
Pranayanma (regulated breathing) takes a completely unconscious autonomic process – breathing – and makes it conscious. Unconscious breathing is regulated by the medualla oblongata, the reptilian brain at the top of the spine. By consciously controlling our breath, this autonomic function is directed away from the reptilian brain and upwards into the frontal lobes.
Meditative practises such as Pratyahar, Dharana, further strengthen the pre-frontal cortex. Sutra #32 advises, “The practise of concentration on a single subject (or the use of one technique) is the best way to prevent the obstacles and their accompaniments.”
Pratyahar, by focusing on a single intent, object symbol or mantra helps us attain a one-pointed focus, only achievable through the pre-frontal cortex. Dharana meaning “ immoveable concentration of the mind” trains us to withdraw the senses, thereby quieting the autonomic and limbic systems.
These higher meditative limbs are thought to help bring about a heightened state of awareness, called Turiya. The word means the fourth or beyond the other three. It is beyond time and space, and is the first stage of super-consciousness or Samadhi, the final limb of yoga.
All told, yoga could be described as spiritual technology designed to inhibit our autonomic systems. In other words, yoga helps us overcome the previous limits of our biology so that we can fully evolve as human beings. In Part Three we will explore how this ascension represents our evolution from ego-absorption toward realization of the Guru or Seer, the higher and divine self.