Often today, when people hear about “yoga philosophy“, they react by saying that yoga is a practice and not a philosophy; and of course they are completely right.
Yoga is a Practice, a practice that is not just limited in the way you shape and arrange your body on the mat, but a practice that extends to the entire way we look at our existence, a life style.
So it’s important for a practitioner to know and understand the basic principles that are “hidden” behind the practice of yoga poses (asana), otherwise their practice remains a simple physical exercise (that of course is still a good thing).
The Yoga Philosophy is the “map” that show the practitioners the path they are travelling during the yoga practice.
Personally I think that the two most important aspects that a yoga practitioner should know and understand about yoga are:
1) Patanjali’s system of yoga
2) The theory of the five koshas
One of the most important texts about Yoga is the famous “Yoga Sutra” written by Patanjali. It’s a document made of four chapters, where the philosophy of yoga is explained.
Patanjali describes the meaning of Yoga in the second verse of the first chapter:
“yoga chitta vritti nirodaha”
This is usually translated as: “yoga is the cessation (the mastering) of the activity of the mind”.
In the following verse Patanjali continues to say:
“Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam”.
Translated in English:
“At this point the observer rests in his own nature”.
Those two verses explain that having full control over mental activity, it’s possible to go behind the mind and realize the true nature, the Self (Atman), the principle that goes behind the Body-Mind.
How do we do this?
The eight limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga Yoga)
Patanjali explains the method that allows the realization of the real nature.
This method is called Ashtanga Yoga (the eight limbs of yoga), not to be confused with the most popular Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga of Pattabhi Joys.
The eight limbs are:
▪ 1) Yama
▪ 2) Niyama
▪ 3) Asana
▪ 4) Pranayama
▪ 5) Prathyahara
▪ 6) Dharana
▪ 7) Dhyana
▪ 8) Samadhi
Yama e Niyama are rules to follow so that we can regulate our behavior with the others (yama) and with ourselves (nyama). These rules should not be seen as the Christian commandments, that if followed lead to heaven and if not lead to eternal damnation. Yama and Niyama are conditions that allow our mind to become more satvic more balanced so that the movement of the mind (chitta vritti) can be easily mastered.
Asana is the comfortable and steady posture that we assume in order to get a balanced state of mind, useful for the process of meditation / witnessing / listening.
Pranayama means “extension of the prana” where prana indicates the vital energy. The awareness of prana is obtained through the correct use of the breath, that’s why the term pranayama usually refer to breathing exercises. The breath is considered to be the bridge between the body and mind.
Pratyahara means “withdrawal of the senses”, it’s a prerequisite to meditation practices, during prathyahara we shift our awareness from the external to the internal.
Dharana means concentration, where the attention is fixed on an object, and the perfection of concentration leads to
Dhyana (Meditation) where the attention is fully absorbed by the object, the perfection of dhyana lead to the state of
Samadhi where the difference between subject, object and action that connects the two disappears, the self-identification of the mind ends at this point.
The stages from Yama to Prathiahara (1-5) are known as bahiranga (external) yoga.
The stages from Dharana to Samadhi (6-8) are known as antaranga (internal) yoga.
Bhairanga yoga is the prerequisite for antaranga yoga.
The five Koshas
According to Yoga, the individual consciousness is an expression of the universal consciousness. Basically the individual consciousness and universal consciousness are one.
The human consciousness is described as folded in five layers called Kosha around an immovable central point (Atman). The five layers are called:
▪ Pranamaya kosha
▪ Manomaya Kosha
▪ Vigyanamaya kosha
▪ Anandamaya kosha
1. Annamaya Kosha (kosha made of food)
As the name suggests, this is the first sheath, the physical body and all the physiological processes, fed and sustained by food and water.
2. Pranamaya Kosha (Kosha made of prana)
This sheath is the “energetic body”, Prana refers to the vital energy that allows the body to function. According to the tantric tradition, the pranic energy flow through particular channels called “nadis”. According to the yogic scriptures there are 72,000 nadis, among these, the most important are Ida, Pingala and Sushumna.
3. Manomaya Kosha (Kosha made of mind-thought- emotion)
Residing within this kosha is the entire mental – emotional pattern that makes up the personality of an individual. The feelings, stimulations and reactions to different situations, thought and actions all come from this kosha. This kosha shows the way we interact towards the different situations we face in life.
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha (Kosha of the intellect)
This Kosha is also situated on a mental level, but here we refer to the intellect. While in manomaya kosha the mind works on a level of stimulation / response, here it is possible to understand and discriminate. This is the level of cognition, condition and de-conditioning of our knowledge and beliefs, at this level we come across the identification we have with ourselves (ahamkara-ego).
5. Anandamaya Kosha (Kosha made of Bliss)
This is the most internal of the koshas, the first sheath that folds the Atman, the eternal center of consciousness. Ananda means bliss, however this bliss is not an emotional / mental experience. Ananda is the bliss that goes behind the reality perceived by the mind. It’s peace, joy and love independent from any reason. This bliss is just a sheath that folds the pure consciousness of the Atman. At one point this experience also fades away in a way that it’s possible to “experience” the “center”.
Atman is the true Self, the eternal center of consciousness, never born and never dead.
Atman cannot be described. The realization of the Atman is the aim of Yoga.
At the beginning of the yoga journey, the attention goes on annamaya kosha, the physical body. Once we connect with this sheath it’s possible to use the breath to connect with pranamaya kosha, the energy manifested in the body.
The awareness of body, breath and pranic flow absorbs the mind and the thought reducing the “chitta vritti” and calming manomaya kosha. In this way it’s possible to get in touch with vijnanamaya kosha increasing our intuitive knowledge and wisdom.
In this way we go behind the first four kosha and taste the “divine” ecstasy of anandamaya kosha.
The final step happens when all the kosha dissolve and we become absorbed is the Self.