The Eight Steps of Yoga

The main text of raja yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Raja yoga is also called ashtanga yoga, which means “eight-limbed,” because it has eight fundamentals, eight aspects, which are in synthesis saying the same as the eightfold path of Buddhism. These are two ways of saying the same thing. 

The eight steps of raja yoga are the essential stages of reaching union with reality. In other words, if you want to experience reality, the truth, God, Allah, Brahma, you have to experience these eight steps. You can call them by other names, or no names, but these are not theoretical: they are scientific, exact, and precise, and refer to qualities of consciousness, or perception. If you learn what these are in your own experience, you will experience yoga, no matter what religion you follow. Stated another way, all saints, masters, buddhas, experienced reality, and they did so because their consciousness passed through these eight steps, even if they did not know these words.

So I want to give you an outline of these eight steps, and then we will talk more specifically about the first two. 

1. Yama: Restraint

The very basis and beginning of any approach to spirituality is described by this word Yama, which is a Sanskrit word. This word Yama has a lot of significance. Those of you who study studied our course called Bhavachakra: the Wheel of Becoming know that Yama is also a name of the god of the dead. That name has a lot of meaning, it is very deep and powerful word. In the context of yoga, it means restraint, forbearance, control. Really, the best way to translate this to English is with the word ethics: to be ethical. 

The first thing you have to learn in any religion is what behaviors to stop: do not smoke, do not drink, do not sleep around, do not do drugs, do not steal, do not kill — all these types of behaviors. You have to learn things that you should not be doing. Many people think, “Why are they telling me what to do?” There is a reason: cause and effect, action and consequences. 

Behaviors produce corresponding consequences. When you act one way, you get one result. No exceptions. When you are kind, when you smile, others smile; they cannot help it. Action and consequence. When you frown, when you are angry, you affect others. When you have a bad mood, you come into a place storming around, you affect everyone; action and consequence. Facts. 

Now you notice, just in these simple examples, we do not have any gnosis of that fact of action and consequence; none. That is true, because we still storm around angry, we gossip about others, we talk badly about others, we lie, we steal, we cheat, we do dishonest things — we may say we know we should not do it, but we continue to do things that we should not do. It shows that we do not have gnosis of those behaviors. If we did, we would not do them. We do not really understand how our behaviors produce consequences, not only for us, but for other people. 

2. Niyama: Observances

The second step is Niyama; this means observances, precepts. These are things that we should be doing. We will come back to this in a moment.

3. Asana: Relaxed Posture

The third step is Asana, and it refers to our use of the physical body. This word asana literally means posture. Most people think that Asana means hatha yoga postures, and that this step means you have to sit in hatha yoga postures, or that you have to learn the lotus position in order to advance spiritually. This is not true. This word asana really indicates that our posture needs to be a balance of relaxation and attentiveness. Believe it or not, relaxation is a spiritual requisite. A body and a mind that are tense are a body and mind that are resisting, that are in conflict, that are suffering. So to relax is to let that tension go, to not be engaged in a conflict, to be open. There is a great deal of significance in that. A large percentage of people who give up trying to learn to meditate simply failed at this step: they did not learn how to relax while being attentive.

Most students who enter any type of spirituality skip all three of these steps, because most students think, “These steps are too easy. I want to get to the good stuff,” so they ignore the first three steps, and attempt to start the subsequent levels where they find more interesting practices like Pranayama and Pratyahara. People do not even want to think about ethics. 

There is a reason why the author of the Yoga Sutras — Patanjali — taught these steps in this order: it is because every other religious founder also taught these steps in this order. The steps fit together according to cause and effect. Each step is founded on the one before it. For example, you cannot be successful in Pranayama and Pratyahara if you skip the first three steps; it will not happen. 

4. Pranayama: Control of Energy

Pranayama commonly interpreted as breath control or breathing exercises. It is really much more powerful than that; as Vivekananda said, breathing has very little to do with it. Pranayama is about controlling energy. Prana is life force, the vital energy; it is the root energy of being alive. When you learn Pranayama, you learn to control that energy and utilize it in your spiritual practice. 

You cannot move energy if you are tense (skipped step 3, asana) if you have been doing things you should not been doing (step 1, yama); it will not happen. Pranayama will be ineffective. The same is true with Pratyahara. 

5. Pratyahara: Withdrawl

Pratyahara is when you are withdrawing attention from the physical senses; it is preparation for meditation. But it has more usefulness than simply that. Pratyahara is a state of consciousness in which you withdraw from the physical world in order to turn inward, to work in your spiritual practice. Pratyahara is not just “turning inward.” It is a special state of consciousness that is different from simply looking within. It has certain characteristics by which it can be recognized.

You really need a kind of Pratyahara just to pray. As an example, you will notice that when you have done something harmful or you are in a bad state emotionally or mentally, it is very difficult to pray well, because the emotions surging. But when you are very peaceful, when you have not done anything wrong, when you feel calm and relaxed, prayer is completely different. There is an completely different impact, and that is because of how these steps work together. They are based upon one and other, they are levels. 

6. Dharana: Concentration

When one learns to withdraw attention from the senses, one can then enter into real concentration, which is called Dharana. Real concentration is the ability to place attention on something and not be distracted from it. 

In our current state, we do not have that ability; our attention is easily distracted. We try to concentrate on one thing, but there are so many thoughts, so many emotions, worries, fears, so much anxiety, so many things to think about, things we want to do, tv shows we are going to watch, that we do not really get any far with one activity. That has to change if you want to access other states of consciousness. You have to learn to concentrate very, very well. Concentration is necessary in order for us to reach the higher steps.

7. Dhyana: Meditation

Dhyana is actual meditation. This is a state in which we have suspended the senses (step 5), withdrawing the attention inward and focused on something specific (step 6) and then totally become concentrated and absorbed in that concentration (step 7). 

8. Samadhi: Experience of Reality

From Dhyana emerges this final state, which is called Samadhi. This is where we experience reality. Samadhi is union, yoga.

Now, this can sound a little overwhelming, so what is the point?

Here are the first three lines of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, in the chapter called Samadhi Pada:

अथ योगानुशासनम् atha yoga-anuśāsanam

Now, an exposition of raja yoga will be given.

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ 

Union is the suppression of the modifications of mind-stuff.

तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam

Then, the seer rests in her own nature. 

It is here in Samadhi where you experience who you truly are, what you really are. This arises because you have set your body and your mind in a state of peace, and you have withdrawn perception from external things, so that the perceiver can perceive and experience itself. That is where we discover what we really are, our true nature. 

In Buddhism, our true nature is called Tathāgatagarbha, “Buddha Nature.” It is our true identity, the true nature of the mind, the true nature of perception. In that experience, there is no suffering, there is no anxiety, there is no pain, no doubt, there is a profound peace and that peace is accompanied by joy, and an all embracing love. That is why every founder of every religion has said these things: real religions are about kindness, love, compassion, generosity, all of the virtues are expressions of our true nature. None of this has anything to do with belief. It has to do with experiencing reality — our true nature — and then expressing that in each action.

Our true nature cannot be found outside of us, such as in a temple or a book, you cannot find it in a teacher. You can only find it inside, right now, in yourself, but you cannot perceive it because of the clouds in the mind. By learning these simple steps of Raja Yoga — basically, learning how to perceive properly — you learn to withdraw attention from everything outwards, place attention inwardly, and perceive yourself for what you truly are. Then, in that perception, you see that inner reality is more real that what you are seeing here physically. It may be hard for you to understand this with the intellect, but it is a truth. This is a fact that anyone of you can confirm, it is a type of gnosis.  

If you really study yourself and study meditation, you will experience all of this, you will confirm it. But you cannot skip any step. You cannot say “I am going to have that now; I am going to go to Samadhi right now. I am going to skip all these other stuff, because it is confusing, complicated. I am going to go straight there.” Good luck! It does not work like that. 

Every tradition has their own way of presenting these steps; I am just using this model from Patanjali because it is simple. Even if you do not think it is simple, it is actually very simple. And anyone can do it, it does not matter what you believe. It does not matter what your religious background is, it makes no difference. There has nothing to do with beliefs. It has to do with learning how to use consciousness in the right way, with awareness. 

Regarding this state Samadhi, we are talking about it now in the context of meditation because that is how we probably be first aware of experiencing it. But Samadhi is not restricted to meditation. Samadhi is simply a state of perception. And it is likely that many people have already experienced it, but did not know the name. 

Samadhi is an experience of perceiving reality without any filter, meaning that the mind does not change what you perceive. There is no anger present, there is no doubt, no fear, no lust, no envy, no jealousy — pure perception, unclouded, unfiltered. It may only last briefly. This type of perception can happen to us easily when we are children, when we are very young, because our karmic debts have not fully trapped the mind yet. You may remember childhood perceptual experiences that you cannot explain easily, but that moved you very deeply. It may be something simple, even though to the intellect it may appear to be meaningless. Those experiences can be related to a type of Samadhi, a type of perception that was very pure and were accompanied by a feeling of happiness, joy, and peacefulness. Samadhi is something that we know is real, because most of us have experienced it in some form. 

Samadhi can be our normal state of perception and experience, because it is the natural state of the consciousness. The state that we have now is unnatural, abnormal. The quality of consciousness that we have now, the quality of mind that we have, we made it through misperception. We suffer because we do not perceive the truths of ourselves. We are in pain and in doubt and in darkness, ignorance, because we do not perceive reality. We are confused by our thoughts, by our feelings, and by impulses in the body, and we do not see them for what they are. But when we learn how to use perception and learn how to use our energy, harnessing our energy, we can cut through those veils. 

If you know the Buddhist symbol of Manjushri, he holds a sword that represents the ability of awakened perception to cut through appearances, to cut through everything in order to see what is real. That reality is in us, always. But it takes courage, it takes energy. So the way we do that is by starting at the step one: Yama, restraint. 

Yama: Restraint

In the system of raja yoga, there are five aspects to Yama; these five are present in every religion as well. 

The first aspect of yama — and therefore the first step of yoga — is ahimsa. This term literally means “without harm.” Most people think Ahimsa just means “non-violence,” such as when you protest some injustice and you do not give anyone a beating. Some think ahimsa means one should be a pacifist. But that is not all ahimsa is. 

Ahimsa is compassion, it is love. In this way, the Yoga Sutras is the same as the Buddhist Paramitas (perfections, meaning conscious attitudes). The first Paramita is generosity, so this is the same as ahimsa. It is to have the right attitude towards others. 

Ahimsa is part of yama, restraint, because to have an attitude of not harming we have to restrain our self-love, our selfishness, the ego. By restraining our selfish attitude, having awareness of it, we can then allow our true nature to begin to express itself, which is altruism, generosity, to be kind. 

The second restraint is satyam, which means truthfulness. This yama means that we have to be honest, truthful, not only with other people, but with ourselves. 

Asteya is to not steal. 

Brahmacharya is to have sexual purity, chastity.  

“By the establishment of continence (chastity) , vigor is gained.” – Yoga Sutras 2:38

Aparigraha is renunciation, freedom from desires. 

These five aspects of yama are difficult, especially in the modern era, because we are constantly being assailed with the encouragement to do the opposite of all them. 

Ahimsa, to not harm: every TV show is about himsa, cruelty, violence, not merely physical violence, but mental and emotional violence. Sarcasm is a type of mental violence; most “humor” is really just cruelty towards someone.

Satyam, truthfulness: most of what is displayed through television, magazines and newspapers is not true. The media present a very carefully crafted set of stories and images, based on a precise method to make money. Throughout the internet and all forms of media, there is a great deal of false information, a lot of lying. Worse, more and more people make their living being paid to lie; we should not fall into that. 

Asteya, to not steal: in the modern world, everyone is stealing from everyone else, trying to get whatever they can from nothing. The wealthy acquire their wealth by taking it from others. Everyone wants to steal the position above their own, to “get head” by any means. We also steal the ideas and creations of others and present them as our own. We steal credit. We steal energy. We steal time. We cut in line, or shoulder our way ahead of others, stealing their position in line, stealing their time. We steal in many, many ways.

Brahmacharya: obviously, this humanity has no interest in sexual purity; this is the sad truth. Most people are only interested in lust, pursuing desires, not realizing that lust is the polar opposite of what is required for any spiritual work. 

Aparigraha, renunciation: this is the big one in this world, everybody wants to have their spiritual life, and get all the material pleasures and circumstantial comforts, too. 

Really, the material aspect is irrelevant; whether we have something or do not have something is not what matters. What is important here is our attitude, our relationship with things and circumstances. Both a very poor man and a very wealthy man suffer from the same attachments, so the problem is not their material circumstances, it is the mind. Real renunciation is an attitude, which is to not be always focused on getting things. It does not mean just material things, it means circumstances, too. We are always obsessed with the idea of “I have to get this situation, I need to get into this other place to live,” or “I need to get married,” or get some concept or some belief that “if I have that [insert desire here], I will be happy.” We need to learn instead to not afflict ourselves with so many desires, but to be more simple. 

Niyama: Precepts

The second step of the eight-limbed yoga is Niyama, precepts. 

Saucha is to have purity, and this is not only physically but psychologically, to learn to be pure, to be clean. This is a really big one, and it is the first of these precepts. Some people think it is just keep your clothes clean and take a shower, and while this is part of it, to be clean physically, but the real meaning is to be psychologically clean, and that is not easy, especially nowadays. We are exposed to a lot of dirtiness, filthy things, on TV, in the movies, amongst friends, on the streets, at work — the topics of conversations and things that people are interested in are often really dirty. Not good, not healthy. This also implies to be, to have integrity, to be pure hearted, to not have cunning, not trying to cheat people, but to be honest. 

Santosha is to have contentment, to be happy with what you have, to see what you have and be grateful, not only material things but also the people in your life, the circumstances of your life, even when they are difficult. 

Tapas: austerity or penance. Traditionally, tapas is looked at as behaviors that you adopt in order to pay karma, therefore people will go on pilgrimages, they will do prostrations all the way to the temple and all the way home, or daily chant a certain mantra hundreds of thousands of times, or renounce certain foods or interests; these are a kind of tapas or austerity. While there is value in those approaches to spirituality, in this tradition we look at tapas in a deeper way. When you live these teachings in your life, on a daily basis, the tapas come automatically. You do not need to create penances for yourself. You do not need to make difficulties for yourself, because you will get them anyway; it is part of the work. Part of the spiritual path is that your inner Being will show you the things that you need to change, and those are revealed to you through difficulties. We call them ordeals, trials, challenges, difficulties. 

One of the chief skills that a student needs to learn is to perceive all circumstances as tapas, austerities, penance. So then when you have a problem, you do not immediately react with “oh not again, why me.” Then we go to our friends and say, “Can you believe that this is happening, this guy he did this and he did that,” and we complain. But really, the right attitude is to take that problem and say, “Thank you, because this problem is revealing to me a weakness, a shortcoming, now I can change it, this is my chance to change it, this is my chance to not behave in a poor way, but to reach another level.” And so we learn to take all difficulties as spiritual challenges, austerities that we overcome through virtue. 

The next one is Svadhyaya, which is the study of scriptures. Svadyaya has a lot to do with Jnana yoga, which is the cultivation of the mind, where we train ourselves about the tradition that we are studying, studying the scriptures, studying the teachings. It is not about memorization, it is about comprehension: to really understand what is being taught and make it practical. I am putting it that way because many people read this precept and they think it means they must have scripture memorized and that they can repeat it word for word, but it does not mean that. That is useless if they keep behaving the same way they were behaving before. What svadhyaya really means is to understand scripture and be able to act on it, especially without having to think about it. When you really comprehend a scripture, you know it in your heart; this is not intellectual. Comprehension is in the heart. 

The last of the precepts is Ishvara-Pranidhana. Usually this is translated as “surrendering to God,” but here we call it Self-remembering. That difference is important, because the Sanskrit word Ishvara is a reference to the Innermost, to the divinity that is inside each of us. The word Pranidhana means “to remember, to perceive, to pay attention.” The translation “surrendering to God” does not convey the active, perception component of this precept. Self-remembering is a moment to moment action. It is not passive or just a belief. The phrase “surrendering to God” is passive. It implies that one should let God take over. That is not what this precept is about. It is about actively being aware of the presence of divinity in each moment.

Whatever our approach, whatever our decision, whatever we do with ourselves from moment to moment and day to day, if we can make these ten restraints and precepts into guidelines for our behavior we will be spiritual, whether we believe in spirituality or not, whether we believe in a religion or not. If we can adopt this kind of ethical way of perceiving, we start to change, not only changing our life, but changing what we see and what we experience. This is how someone starts to really understand what gnosis and religion are in facts. 

All of it is summarized in observing yourself: to be mindful, to be aware. That is the beginning of meditation, that is the beginning of Samadhi. All of the steps that we went over are simply that. We broke it in to a lot of pieces to analyze it in detail, but really the synthesis is to observe yourself, all the time. That observation should not be one of judgement, it should be one that is impartial. Look at yourself as though you do not know yourself. This is a different attitude. 

We usually do not really look at ourselves, we are usually looking out and comparing what is out there with what we want or do not want. That is why we suffer, that is why we are tense, that is why we are stressed. Stress and tension are a disagreement between reality and a desire. If you throw the desire out, then you see the reality, there is nothing to be tense about. 

When we look at the facts, it is nothing to be tense about. If you have a problem, you look at the problem; if it has a solution, you can solve it. If it does not have a solution, you cannot solve it. Either way, there is no reason to be upset. The Dalai Lama told us that. It is simple, but we do not know it (gnosis) , because we still get tense. 

All these steps need to become practical for us, something that we work with on a daily basis. The study of scripture is important, the study of the doctrines are important, and understanding the terminology is important, to know about the structures of the mysticism and how all the pieces fit together, this is all important, but it all means nothing if we are really not actively working with changing our perception. That begins with how we perceive ourselves.