The Eight Angas Part The Practices

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The preceding chapter described the mind before any enlightenment takes place. This and the next chapter describe the changes that must occur to bring the mind to the other extreme, to complete enlightenment. As with the Buddhist eight-fold path, in Yoga one also transforms the mind by following a variety of activities. These are collectively called the eight angas, or limbs, of Yoga. While not one-to-one with the Buddhist eight-fold path, the set is very similar.

The eight angas divide conveniently into two categories, the Practices and the Experiences. The four Practice angas are: Yama (attitudes toward the world), Niyama (attitudes toward oneself), Asana (postures), and Prana (breath). These four are presented in this chapter. The four Experience angas are presented in the next chapter.

In Yoga, we not only diminish the cravings but replace them with a set of ideals or "attitudes." These are characterized by the first two angas, the Yamas and the Niyamas. Each of these two angas prescribes several modes of relating to the world and to oneself, respectively.


This first anga describes five attitudes that one should take toward the world, and especially toward other people. These attitudes are described here.


This is the familiar ahimsa (see chap. 11; also Right Action in the eight-fold path). We are to strive to be harmless. Desikachar (1977) made the point that ahimsa is more positive than harmlessness alone. In our relationships with people we should strive to always show concern, consideration, good will, positive regard, to all others. In other words, ahimsa embraces the compassionate stance we discussed in chapter 11.


This is the obvious ethical position that we must speak truly in our dealings with others (cf. Right Speech in the eight-fold path). Being truthful, however, defers to ahimsa. It is recognized that one may need to shade the truth in order to ameliorate or prevent the suffering of others. In a talk at Stony Brook University, Swami Satchidananda gave this example:

Suppose I am sitting alone in the woods when a young woman appears, fearful and agitated, saying "Help me! A man has been following. He wants to kill me!" She then runs off into another part of the woods. A few minutes later a fierce-looking fellow holding a dagger appears saying "Did a woman pass by here?"

I do not feel obligated, says Satchidananda, to tell this fellow the truth.

We can all think of examples: Do we not tactfully temper our criticism of another's performance? Do we tell a dying woman that her son was just killed in an accident? Compassion can be weightier than truthfulness. These examples, however, all describe consideration of others. We are not to stray from the truth for self-serving reasons.


Be trustworthy and dependable. Obligations undertaken are to be carried out as reliably as possible. This Yama overlaps with

Right Livelihood in the Buddhist eight-fold path. It might be characterized as Right Dealings while gaining one's livelihood.


This term is a translation from the Sanskrit term Brahmacarya, which is generally translated as celibacy. Desikachar (1977, p. 109), however, noted that this translation is off the mark, that such an ideal (celibacy) would conflict with the Hindu ideal of having a family. A closer translation is chastity, in the same sense that medieval European literature would describe a chaste wife or husband. They might enjoy appropriate sexual activity with each other, but beyond that they avoid irrelevant erotic stimulation, and turn away when it occurs. The aim is to subdue sexual restlessness.

Let me clarify this meaning with an example. Suppose I am strolling along pondering some philosophical or personal question. I happen to pass an advertisement, a poster showing a couple in an erotic pose. If I am aroused and snared by that arousal then the cravings are not adequately transformed. My inner life is vulnerable to irrelevant, externally evoked sensual disturbances. The attitude of Brahmacarya is not to eliminate sexuality, but to calm its craving.

Inner Focus

One should resist and turn away from the pull of worldly goods. It is like the concept of detachment, particularly with respect to worldly goods. One should learn to ignore their ubiquitous enticement. Wordsworth's "The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending we lay waste our powers" echoes this Yama. This Yama also directs us to cultivate our inner transformation. It is similar to the Buddhist Right Effort in the sense that our efforts are to be directed toward self-transformation rather than to "getting and spending."


This second anga, cultivation of the Niyamas, also stipulates ideal attitudes, but these are attitudes we take toward ourselves. Unlike the Yamas, which specify our relations to the world and to others, the Niyamas could be practiced if we were alone on a deserted island. There are several Niyamas but it suits our purpose to limit ourselves to four of these.


This first Niyama is concerned with our inner and outer well being. On the inner side, we want to monitor our mind and general state of being. This overlaps with the Buddhist Right Thoughts in the eight-fold path. We must become sensitive to thoughts that express anger, greed, (pejorative) judgments, and the like. Such thoughts should no longer be impulses to action, but should be treated as signals that something within needs to be changed. They signal that a craving (or anger or fear) needs to be dealt with, or a value (or bias or conception) needs to be questioned. Furthermore, mental restlessness is to be diminished. When immersion or concentration is difficult, when the mind seems to be going its own way, that is a signal to calm the mind. Meditation practice aimed at calming the mind is part of this Niyama.

Outer well-being, the other side of this Niyama, is a concern with one's health. The posture (asana) and breathing (prana) exercises are a testimonial to this concern. This also includes a healthful diet and abstention from harmful products such as tobacco and alcohol. Except for a greater stress on vegetarianism and less on aerobics, the yogis advocate a diet and exercise regimen similar to what we in the west would consider healthy. It is from a Yoga teacher that I first heard the statement that the body is the temple of the spirit and must be respected.

This emphasis on phy sical health is one of the few points in which Yoga differs from Buddhism. In my experience,

Buddhism focuses entirely on inner process. We aim at escaping not illness but the suffering that illness produces, that is, our reaction to the illness. In all my readings in Buddhism, I have found no manual devoted to care of the body, no prescriptions for maintaining physical health. A few Buddhist monks I've questioned agree with my assessment of this literature. Among yogic writers, however, such prescriptions are commonplace. The attitude of the yogic authors seems to be: To attain serenity it is essential that we purify our minds, but it helps to be healthy.

Attain Right Views

This is identical to the Right Views branch of the Buddhist eight-fold path. Study the insights of enlightened teachers. Meditate on our psychological makeup and on the human condition. As with the Buddhist Right Views, we want to see clearly the truth about ourselves and others, and about the human condition.


Develop an attitude of accommodation to the frustrations and irritations of life when they are inevitable and cannot be changed. Other Yoga authors speak of this Niy ama as "equanimity," a sublime acceptance of the widest range of life's alternatives. This attitude of equanimity is another form of the Buddhist ideal of detachment. The Buddhists teach, don't be attached to winning, to comforts, to particular circumstances of life. Rather, be accepting of a wide-range of possibilities.

Of course, if disturbing conditions can be changed, change them. But if not, cultivate an attitude of contentment with what exists. We're experiencing a harsh winter? Do what you can to be comfortable, but after that, be indifferent. Accept, even be content with that which is unavoidable. I described an incident (chap. 21) where my daughter and I shoveled a car out of a snow bank at 2 a.m. We were both in the same objectively harsh circumstance but our attitudes, our state within this circumstance, sharply contrasted.

Devotion to Isvara

Here for the first time in this book that describes two religious systems, we introduce a god-like idea. Isvara refers to God but is different in conception from the common western sense of God. We in the West tend to think of God as an entity both all-powerful and loving. In times of trouble, therefore, we pray to God to lighten our burdens or to change the world around us so that our difficulties are removed. Thus, we might pray for the health of a loved one, or for the elimination of some danger. We relate to God in prayer much as a child might to a father. Indeed, our most common epithet is God the father. Isvara, however, is better characterized as God the guru. Isvara is conceived as the perfect enlightened being. In a platonic sense, Isvara is the essence of the wise, transformed, clear-seeing individual. The approach of the yogi to Isvara is different, therefore, from the western approach to God. One communes with Isvara to further one's progress along the path. When doubt, discouragement, or any psychological obstacle to progress on the path arises, one turns to Isvara. How would the perfect being overcome these obstacles? When one seeks strength in facing a difficult or fearful situation, one communes with Isvara. In short, one does not pray to Isvara in the western mode, since Isvara does not change the external world nor dispense its benefits. Rather, one communes with Isvara for inner change: for wisdom, and strength. Isvara is the model from whom we draw inspiration.

In Buddhism there is no comparable God. The Buddha, however, plays the role for Buddhists that Isvara does for yogis. I've heard Western religious leaders, ignorant of all but the most superficial aspects of Buddhism, dismiss the Buddhists as people who pray to idols. This, of course, is a misconception. The statues of the Buddha, many and famous throughout the East, are embodiments of the perfect teacher, the model of ideal behavior. The statue is a stimulus for communing with that fully enlightened being. A statue in not, per se, necessary. But the intense evocation of and meditation on the image of the Buddha is an aid to progress on the path, in the same way as is vividly imagining Isvara.

Isvara is also important in helping us relate to our daily tasks and obligations. An attitude is instilled that is similar to Thomas Merton's advice "Make a chair as though an angel were going to sit on it." The corresponding yogic prescription, part of this fourth Niyama, is: Perform your work as a gift to Isvara; work for the sake of the work and not for the sake of the goal. Perform all your obligations and chores with a sense of care, service, and ceremony, as though the finished product were intended for Isvara.


These two remaining Practice angas, posture (Asana) and breath (Prana) exercises, have been mentioned in earlier chapters. Both illustrate the yogic concern for health. Thus, the asanas serve to make our bodies stronger and more flexible. The Pranic breathing serves to dispel muscle tension, and to regulate the heart and blood pressure. They are also, however, the procedures to facilitate meditative practice. As described earlier, in performing the postures with breathing, we are practicing being in a focused, nonjudgmental state. This practice, if anything, is more crucial to yogic aims than the physical effects of the body. Consider our common image of a yogi in meditation, sitting cross-legged, hands resting on his thighs. This posture is simply another asana, called Padmasana (the lotus pose). Focusing on long, slow breaths during Padmasana helps induce the yogic state. Along with improving the body, then, the asana and pranic practices are congenial with the meditation experiences described in chapter 15 and in the next chapter.

We noted that Buddhism arose in India, in this Hindu-Yogic context. It was natural, therefore, for the early Buddhists to employ breathing and posture, particularly Padmasana, in their meditative practices. Slow mindful breathing while seated in Padmasana has been used by both Buddhist and Yoga practitioners down to the present day.


1. "Truthfalness defers to ahimsa." Do you agree with this, or must you always be truthful? Give an example from your (or another's) life where being truthful and Ahimsa came into conflict. How did you (or they) resolve it?

2. Is it possible to always be harmless? What about the "bitter-pill," the life-saving medicine that has painful side effects? What other examples can you think of where knowingly hurting another person is unavoidable? In the light of such examples, give a more precise definition of ahimsa.

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