Monthly Message
The Eight Rungs of Yoga
Brian Afton
YogaBetsy Discourse Number 20

  Any form of sensible exercise will improve our health; however, yoga produces better results because it addresses the underlying mechanisms that are building stress and disease into our bodies. Ordinary exercise burns off stress chemicals but it does not keep more of them from being created.

  Yoga postures stress the body in controlled way that allows the student to get acquainted with that stress and how it is affecting them. When the beginning student first attempts one of the postures they stress practically every muscle in their bodies when perhaps only half of them should be doing anything. This occurs because the untrained person is unable to distinguish muscles that are doing something from those which should not be. They are also unable to find their center, the point of peace and balance that should exist within the posture.

  It is this discrimination and self-knowledge that is the important part of the posture and, it does not show on the outside. It is this knowledge that tells us when we are collecting stress so that we can do something about it.

  Your body cannot fight and heal itself at the same time. This is why stress can kill you. It triggers the fight or flight response and redirects energy toward that end. Things like digestion and healing are suspended in the process. And, unfortunately for us, modern life manages to keep most of us embroiled in a constant state of stress, fear and aggravation so that the stress response can never entirely shut down anymore.

  Traditional yoga addresses this in its advanced teachings using a variety of methods that have little if anything to do with the reputation they have in the popular media. There is a lot more to yoga than the postures. To begin with, there are eight rungs on the yoga ladder and the postures are only on the third. They are very important, but not for the reason most people think.

  The first two rungs on this ladder most students never even hear about are the Yamas and the Niyamas; the morals and the observances. They amount to being the ten commandments of yoga which is the reason you never hear about them. They sound too much like religion. Nevertheless, they are crucial to mastery of yoga and life. They teach us that the morals and ethics taught by every spiritual tradition on this earth are not arbitrary.

  These are prohibitions against things like Violence, Lying, stealing, Greed and so forth. In yoga these commandments are studied in relation to how they apply within our minds and our bodies.

  Consider Ahimsa, non-harming or non-violence. How are you treating yourself? Are you engaging in destructive behaviors and practices? If the answer is yes you are violating the commandment against violence in perhaps the worst way possible. Consider Satya, truthfulness. Are you honest with yourself? Do you keep your promises to yourself? If you do not, it will have serious consequences within your body and in your life.

  These ideas are so basic to the laws of the universe that you can substitute the Ten Commandments of the Christian tradition directly into your yoga practice instead of the ones used in India. The effect will be the same.

  The third rung of the yoga ladder is the Asanas or postures. They teach us how to get in touch with our bodies and minds. They build health and self awareness but the postures are not an end in themselves. The real purpose of the yoga ladder is to enable a student to meditate. As it happens, this will require strength because you have to be strong in order to relax. In real life, we must work in order to become strong.

  The forth rung of the yoga ladder is Pranayama or the control of breath. This is not generally taught in most contemporary studios. The breath is used as a tool to steady the body, improve concentration and to direct energy flow within the body and the bodies energy system. This is an extremely important study and it is very useful for successful meditation and good health.

  The fifth rung is Pratyahara or sense withdrawal. At this level we learn to withdraw from external stimuli. Systematic relaxation is used to draw the mind inward. This is crucial because you cannot concentrate on the outer world and the inner world at the same time.

  The sixth rung is Dharana, or concentration. At the sixth rung, we start learning about controlling the mind. We are responsible for our own thoughts. The mind cannot be allowed to wander wherever it happens to go or to absorb whatever ideas are presented to it. This would allow your mental state to be determined by whatever is going on outside of you. This is the point at which we ask whose thought is this? And, what is it doing here?

  The Seventh rung is Dhyana or meditation itself. Exactly what this might be is not easy to explain. Meditation is a different kind of consciousness. It is not thinking, it is not sleeping, it is not dreaming. If you think you are meditating, you are not, however if you ever actually succeed, you will know it and you will never be satisfied with anything less afterwards. This point is the 8th rung. It occurs when the eternal self shines in the mind and this represents some level of Samadhi or enlightenment.

  The higher teachings of yoga are embodied in a study known as Tantra. In addition to the eight rungs there are also three main paths. One of the primary differences between Eastern and Western religions and philosophies is the understanding they have in the East that one path does not suit all people.

  Samaya is the path most closely associated with Jnana yoga, the path of Knowledge. It is internal, mental, and seeks to eliminate ego and mind to find Nirvana or pure consciousness within us. It is frequently associated with Buddhism though it is not exclusive to them at all. This is probably the easiest of the paths to understand and probably the most difficult to do.

  At the opposite end of the spectrum we have the Kaula path which is the most closely associated with the Bhakti Yoga. This path is external, devotional and highly ritualistic. Almost the exactly opposite of Samaya, it is very difficult to understand and relatively easy to do. It is what most westerners would associate with Hinduism though that is a great oversimplification of the facts and not really true. It is also not unlike the path of Christianity.

  Mishra lies in the middle between these two extremes and employs elements from both. Each of the paths may also take the left hand or the right hand route which basically means, with sex, or without sex but not in the sense that the sensationalistic media represents this.

  Contrary to the position taken by political correctness and academia the boys and the girls are not interchangeable. They are very different from each other down to the structure of their individual cells and the DNA that contains the blueprints for their bodies. They tend to have very different mentalities, temperaments and physical requirements. They are, if not opposites, complementary, with each sex possessing what the other does not have.

  Sex is part of an energy that fuels our bodies. For most of the 20th century this was a taboo subject in western society. It was ignored and glossed over in schools and churches and little or nothing was done to prepare individuals to deal with it as they passed through life. Wishing this energy did not exist does not make it go away. It must express itself in some manner and repressing it does not work very well. The purpose of Tantra is learning to control and engage this powerful energy in a positive way.

  In the higher levels of yogic Tantra and most religious orders there is a tradition of sexual abstinence known as renunciation or celibacy. Renunciation is completely unsuited for most people. Moreover, the highest levels of enlightenment can and have been obtained by individuals who did not take that route. For those on the middle path what is renounced is allowing the ego to control their lives, not giving up love, marriage or family.

  A study of tantra and advanced yoga also involves the bodies energy system and something known as Kundalini which, again, has little to do with its representation in the popular media.

  In yoga it is understood that there is energy and consciousness in every single cell in your body. In addition to the part of your body which exists in the three dimensional physical world there is a part of it which does not. Your yogic or ethereal body exists in layers like an onion superimposed over the physical one. There are said to be 96,000 energy channels in the human body. These must not be confused with the physical nervous system. Twelve of these channels are absolutely essential to human life. Where two of these nadis or energy channels cross you will have something known as a Marma point or what is called an acupuncture point in traditional Chinese medicine. There are 108 major Marma points in the Indian Science of Ayurveda.

  Where a great many of these energy channels cross you will have what is known as a Chakra. There are 12 major charkas of which 7 are generally regarded as being the most important. These 7 correspond in the physical body to major Nerve Plexuses or one of the endocrine glands. And, while these charkas do effect the functioning of these glands and plexuses they must not be confused with the physical organs, their functions go well beyond that.

  During meditation, energy flows through three of the 12 main energy channels located in the area of the spine. These channels are called Ida, Pingala and Sushuma. In popular literature you will read that energy known as Kundalini Shakti is coiled at the base of the spine in the first chakra located above the perineum. However, this may not be exactly true. Moreover, it is unwise for an untrained person to attempt driving this energy up the spinal column anyway.

  During meditation you cannot force this energy flow. What is required is learning to shut up and get out of our own way. When the ego is silent and the intention is correct inner attunement will occur and the energy will flow as a consequence of that without any interference on your part. This energy flow does not cause meditation; it is the consequence of it.

  There is not one method of meditation which is suitable for everyone. If a method is very complicated it is likely to become a distraction in itself. Generally the student is told to quiet the external senses and turn inward. Concentration and breath are also often used to facilitate the process. In advanced practices something called prana dharana is used in conjunction with several other techniques. However, none of these things is a five minute study and good results may often be obtained with much less preparation if they are accompanied by the proper relaxation and intention.

  One problem is that your ego may intrude with unwanted thoughts or you may hear unwanted sounds. They cannot be fought. Let them go and gently shift your attention back to the meditation. You may feel energy rising up your spine but you cannot force it to do so. What you need to do is to learn how to get out of your own way.

  One method which works fairly well is to quiet the body down with diaphragmatic breathing. The shoulders should be down, the spine and neck should be straight. It is better to lie down well than to sit badly. As relaxation proceeds breathing will become shallower. After a minute or so it is helpful to concentrate upon the breath itself flowing into the nose.

  If you pay attention and draw it in just right you will notice that you can make it flow over the upper surfaces of the nasal passages.

  If you are careful and hold your nasal passages just right you will also notice that you can feel the point at which the air turns down the throat. Just an inch or so above that turning point is your pituitary gland which is the seat of your forehead Chakra or third eye.

  This is, among other things, the seat of your intuition. Concentrate upon it with your breath. If you have been given a mantra by a master you may use it there. If not you may use So Hum. So on the inhalation, Hum on the exhalation. Some people also like to count. 1, 2. 1, 2.

  Let go, be willing to accept Samadhi. You may experience feelings of love, warmth and see light. Do not pass judgment upon these things. Let them fall through you and become the light, the life and the love.

© Copyright 2011 Brian Afton 109 South 6th St Olean, NY 14760