What is the Eightfold Path of yoga? Why is it known as the foundation of any style of yoga? How can you practice the Path?
The Eightfold Path of yoga consists of eight practices that help practitioners achieve physical, mental, and spiritual mastery of themselves through exercises and meditation. In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda explains that the Path is not a checklist of tasks but rather a way of life.
Keep reading to learn about each step of the Eightfold Path of yoga, according to Yogananda.
The Eightfold Path of Yoga
In his memoir Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda explains that, in addition to being a type of worship, yoga is also a process of personal growth. Practitioners work to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual mastery of themselves through exercises and meditation. That’s why the foundation of any style of yoga, including kriya yoga, is the Eightfold Path of yoga.
According to Yogananda, the Eightfold Path of yoga consists of eight practices that help yogis master their bodies and minds, as well as guiding them toward a true understanding of God. Although he doesn’t explore the Path in detail in this book, we’ll cover its eight practices here to provide helpful context for understanding Yogananda’s teachings.
Also, note that the Eightfold Path is not a checklist of tasks to work through one by one—a yoga practitioner should strive to practice all eight of these things at all times.
1. Yama: behaviors to avoid. The five Yamas are violence (in action, speech, and thought), lying, stealing, sex, and greed. These are selfish actions that keep you focused on the illusion of “you,” instead of on God, and therefore block you from reaching enlightenment.
(Shortform note: The five Yamas closely resemble five of the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not kill (violence), thou shalt not bear false witness (lying), thou shalt not steal (stealing), thou shalt not commit adultery (sex), and thou shalt not covet (greed). This is an example of universal morality: the phenomenon that almost everyone—regardless of culture or upbringing—holds similar fundamental morals. Those morals boil down to the belief that harming others is bad and cooperating with others is good. However, note that the exact details of morality may vary among cultures and religions, like how the Ten Commandments only forbid adultery while the Eightfold Path of yoga teaches total abstinence from sex.)
2. Niyama: good deeds, or duties to observe. The five Niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, discipline, learning, and devotion to God. According to Yogananda, these practices are important to the Eightfold Path of yoga because they create a healthy physical and mental environment, allowing you to more effectively seek God.
(Shortform note: The first four Niyamas have obvious functions: They’re designed to keep you physically healthy, emotionally calm, and mentally ready and able to learn. However, devotion arguably requires some more explanation. It means “devotion” in the literal sense—dedicating everything you do to a higher power. It also carries a connotation of surrender; in devoting your actions to God, you’re also giving up control over the outcomes of those actions. This type of devotion is like saying, “It’s in God’s hands.” Remember that this kind of selfless action prevents you from accruing karma.)
3. Asana: posture. Holding yourself in a stable and comfortable position allows for extended meditation. This helps you to build physical strength and discipline, thereby gaining better control over your own body.
(Shortform note: “Asana” originally referred to a specific type of seated pose, but in modern yoga practices, it can mean any type of posture or physical exercise. What most Western people think of as yoga is actually asana, and it’s therefore only one part of what yoga really is.)
4. Pranayama: energy control. Breathing techniques allow you to control energy currents both within your body and in the world around you. For example, Yogananda says he once saw a yogi perform a particular pranayama with such skill and power that he created intense wind in a closed room.
(Shortform note: There’s scientific evidence that breathing exercises have numerous health benefits, particularly in terms of relaxation and stress reduction. Since stress can cause or worsen many health problems, ranging from body aches to anxiety and depression, reducing stress with breathing exercises will arguably promote good health and make you feel energized. However, there’s no scientific backing for Yogananda’s claim that proper breathing will allow you to control energy.)
5. Pratyahara: inward focus. This means detaching your senses from the outside world. Directing all your attention to your own thoughts and moment-to-moment experiences helps you to gain a greater understanding of yourself. According to Yogananda, skilled yogis can shut out the outside world and direct their attention inward no matter where they are.
(Shortform note: If you aren’t yet practiced enough to close your mind off from distractions, it’s often easier to start by physically closing yourself off from distractions—finding a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed while practicing your yoga.)
6. Dharana: concentration. This means focusing on a single thought for extended periods of time, which helps you build mental strength and discipline.
(Shortform note: Shutting out all the stimuli that modern society bombards you with may seem difficult, so here are some tips to help you focus on just one thing. One common practice is to pick a mantra: a word or short phrase that you repeat to yourself, focusing on nothing but that. Another popular method of focusing is using visualization exercises—for instance, imagining a lightbulb emitting light that expands to fill your entire being, leaving no room for extraneous thoughts.)
7. Dhyana: meditation. This is a state of calm and focus.
(Shortform note: It may be hard to understand the difference between dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation). The easiest way to explain it is that dharana is an action, while dhyana is a state of mind.)
8. Samadhi: expanded consciousness. This is an all-seeing state of bliss. It’s the most difficult part of the Eightfold Path of yoga, and most people must practice the other seven steps for years before even their first experience of samadhi. Yoga masters can enter this state at will, but less accomplished practitioners must be guided to it through meditation.
|Samadhi and the Dangers of Siddhis
Progress toward samadhi frequently gives rise to siddhis, the seemingly supernatural abilities that yogis say come with practicing yoga. Although Yogananda frequently describes yogis (including himself) making use of siddhis, other teachers warn that siddhis are obstacles on the path to samadhi. This is because sudden revelations and new abilities are likely to distract you, break your concentration, or frighten you. Even worse, you might come to see siddhis as goals, rather than obstacles.
The key to moving past these obstacles is to maintain your focus, accept the siddhis for what they are, and trust that God is guiding you. Finally, remember that the goal of yoga isn’t to develop superpowers; it’s to connect with God.
The Eightfold Path of yoga leads to the ultimate goal of enlightenment, called kaivalya: true understanding of the universe. Yogananda describes kaivalya as the intuitive understanding of something that can’t be understood intellectually—the “something” being God. The only way to gain such understanding is to unite your spirit with God through yoga.
(Shortform note: One segment of the Bhagavad Gita helps to illustrate why God can’t be understood rationally and must be experienced spiritually through kaivalya: Arjuna asks to witness the true form of God, but he’s immediately overwhelmed by what he sees. Arjuna receives a vision of everything that’s ever existed and ever will exist, all together in a single infinite entity. God is much too vast and powerful for his limited human mind to comprehend; the experience leaves Arjuna terrified and confused. This is why Hinduism teaches that God must be experienced through samadhi.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Autobiography of a Yogi summary:
- The memoir of Paramahansa Yogananda, a famous yoga practitioner and teacher
- Practical lessons about yoga, spirituality, and how to live a good life
- An explanation of the Eightfold Path of Yoga