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Yoga Philosophy

Mar 16, 2022

Yoga Philosophy - What we can learn from it today

Gong at home

It is said that some yogis who have reached the "enlightened" state of samadhi have slowed their pulse so significantly that they have been mistakenly declared dead. This is why some yogis hang a sign on their door saying they are in samadhi.

Even though yoga is a popular sport today, the broader meaning of yoga philosophy is often lost at the expense of pure body awareness. However, a balanced yoga practice with all its physical and mental benefits involves quite a bit more than vinyasas and pranayama, for there exists a complete yoga way of life.

What is behind the ancient yoga philosophy and how can we make use of it in modern life? Find out about Patanjali, Ashtanga Yoga and the 8 paths in our blog article.

Yoga philosophy simply explained

Similar to us today, the yogis already asked themselves questions about existence and the meaning of life over 2000 years ago. Yoga is an ancient way of thinking that refers to ancient Indian sacred texts, the Vedas.

The Vedas and Rigveda

These were passed down orally by wise priests, the Brahmins, as early as about 2000 BC. 1000 years later, the first transcriptions were made and the Vedas reached an even wider audience. One of the most important of them, the Rigveda, asks existential questions not unlike those we ask ourselves today: Is there a God? How did the world come into being and how much knowledge can we humans acquire anyway?

The word yoga in Sanskrit means something like "binding together" or "union" and this representation of yoga as unity is already found in the Rigveda. The connection of the individual with the greater whole takes on an important role here and states that the self is the divine, and this in turn is the "all". God is therefore in everything that surrounds us and also in ourselves. Through meditation we are supposed to realise our true self (âtman) and thus our connection to God.

Meditation candle

The Yoga Sutra and Patanjali

Around 200-400 BC, the yogi Patanjali created the Yoga Sutra. Sutra means "thread" and is thus intended to serve as a guide to yoga teachings. The text is probably the most important foundation of the philosophy of yoga.

In the 196 sutras in four overarching chapters, the yogi explores questions about the freedom of the human mind. According to Patanjali, man should enter into a deeper connection with his own consciousness and in order to achieve this, he must first free himself from his fears, desires, thoughts, memories and from his regrets.

The focus here is on the awareness that our perception is not reality but much more illusion, and that there is another world that is "real". If we now learn to control our mind, we can learn to recognise our fleeting perceptions, thoughts and feelings for what they are - individual impressions of reality and not reality itself. In this way, we shall succeed in simultaneously questioning our own mind and using it to see the true world.

The 8 paths to enlightenment

An important component of Patanjali's teaching in the middle chapters of the Sutra is the Ashtanga Yoga philosophy. The teaching is made up of the two words Ashta (=eight) and Anga (=limb) and thus stands for the eight limbs or components of yoga.

  1. Yamas: The first path of the teaching is how we treat our environment. How do we treat our fellow human beings, nature or even animals? Patanjali focuses here on five important values by which we should live. One should not use violence, be truthful, not steal, be celibate and not strive for possessions.
  2. Niyamas: The second path deals with how we treat ourselves. It is important to keep our body, our thoughts and our words pure. With frugality we succeed in being satisfied with our life and the here and now. Furthermore, we should show self-discipline and keep exploring ourselves. In doing so, we should always trust the Divine, worry less and accept the events in our lives.
  3. Asana: Only this part of the sutras deals with physical practice. This was originally intended to enable a comfortable and stable meditation posture. Beyond that, however, the physical practice helps to focus and distance oneself from one's own thoughts. In the modern sense, the asanas of Ashtanga Yoga are considered the most physically demanding and challenging form of yoga.
  4. Pranayama: In the fourth path, yogis are taught control over breathing. By holding back the breath and breathing consciously, the aim is to gain control over the breath, which is also considered our spirit or life energy. In this way our energy can be brought into balance and we connect with the divine within us.
  5. Pratyahara: The fifth path is meant to make us turn our senses and attention inwards. It is the transition between the first four paths, which focus on the physical world, and the last three, which focus on our inner life.
  6. Dharana: In this last step before meditation, we are to practise concentration. This is about focusing on a single attention, such as a mantra or our breath. While doing this, we still keep our outer world in our awareness.
  7. Dhyana: In meditation, our inner self now comes even more into focus. The outer influences become part of the inner and we lose the awareness that we are in meditation. Our being is solely directed towards an inner focus.
  8. Samadhi: In the path of union we merge completely with our meditation. Our identity loses its meaning and we become one with the focus of our meditation and meditation itself.

All eight paths are important for learning Ashtanga Yoga. Because according to Patanjali, only those who master each of these individual components and combine them with each other can reach the state of enlightenment.

Opened book in half light

Yoga philosophy in our modern world

Patanjali, Sutra, Asana and Samadhi may sound like exotic words from an ancient world at first glance. Yet we can still learn a lot from philosophy today. We live in a world in which the smartphone rings every 20 minutes, in which we are accessible to our outside world at all times and everywhere - even if it is from the other side of the world. Getting closer to ourselves and our spirit, finding peace and connection within, rather than outside, might be exactly what we need instead.

Yoga can not only teach us to get closer to ourselves and to understand ourselves better, but also to treat our environment, nature and fellow human beings better, to live more freely and to bring more awareness into our lives. Who knows: maybe one day you too will reach Samadhi, the enlightened state. Just don't forget to hang a sign on the door so that you don't end up like the yogis of yesteryear.