The Royal Path to Union

In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.

—Mahatma Gandhi

Your body is a field of molecules. Your mind is a field of thoughts. Underlying and giving rise to your body and your mind is a field of consciousness—the domain of spirit. To know yourself as an unbounded spirit disguised as a body/mind frees you to live with confidence and compassion, with love and enthusiasm. To remove the veils that hide the deepest layers of your being, Maharishi Patanjali elaborated the eight branches of yoga—Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. They are sometimes referred to as the eight limbs (asthanga) of yoga, but they are not to be seen as sequential stages. Rather, they serve as different entry points into an expanded sense of self through interpretations, choices, and experiences that remind you of your essential nature. These are the components of Raja yoga, the royal path to union. Let's review each of them in some detail.

The First Branch of Yoga—Yama

Yama is most commonly translated as the "rules of social behavior." They are the universal guidelines for engaging with others. The Yamas are traditionally described as

1. practicing nonviolence

2. speaking truthfully

3. exercising appropriate sexual control

4. being honest

5. being generous

All spiritual and religious traditions encourage people to live ethical lives. Yoga agrees but concedes that living a life in perfect harmony with your environment is difficult from the level of morality—through a prescribed set of shoulds and should-nots. Patanjali describes the yamas as the spontaneously evolutionary behavior of an enlightened being.

If you recognize that your individuality is intimately woven into the fabric of life—that you are a strand in the web of life—you lose the ability to act in ways that are harmful to yourself or others. You adhere to the rules of social conduct because you are behaving from the level of spontaneous right action. This state of behaving in accordance with natural law is called Kriya Shakti. Although the Sanskrit words kriya and karma both mean "action," kriya is action that does not generate reaction, as opposed to karma, which automatically generates proportionate consequences. There are no personal consequences when you are acting from the level of Kriya Shakti because you do not generate any resistance. People sometimes describe this state as being "in the flow" or "in the zone."

Acting from this level of your soul, you are incapable of being violent because your whole being is established in peace. This is the essence of the first Yama, known in Sanskrit as ahimsa. Your thoughts are nonviolent, your words are nonviolent, and your actions are nonviolent. Violence cannot arise because your heart and mind are filled with love and compassion for the human condition. Mahatma Gandhi championed the principle of nonviolence in the independence movement of India from Britain. He said, "If you express your love in such a manner that it impresses itself indelibly upon your so-called enemy, he must return that love . . . and that requires far greater courage than delivering of blows."

The second Yama is truthfulness, or satya. Truthfulness derives from a state of being in which you are able to distinguish your observations from your interpretations. You accept the world as it is, recognizing that reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation. Recognizing that truth is different for different people, you commit to life-supporting choices that are aligned with an expanded view of self. Patanjali described truth as the integrity of thought, word, and action. You speak the sweet truth and are inherently honest because truthfulness is an expression of your commitment to a spiritual life. The short-term benefits of distorting the truth are outweighed by the discomfort that arises from betraying your integrity. Ultimately you recognize truth, love, and God to be different expressions of the same undifferentiated reality.

Brahmacharya, the third Yama, is often translated as "celibacy." We believe this is a limited view of this yama. The word is derived from achara, meaning "pathway," and brahman, meaning "unity consciousness." In Vedic society, people traditionally chose one of two paths to enlightenment—the path of the householder and the path of a renunciate. For those choosing the path of a monk or a nun, the path to unity consciousness naturally includes forsaking sexual activity. For the vast majority of people choosing the householder path, brahmacharya means rejoicing in the healthy expression of sexual energy. One interpretation of the word charya is "grazing," suggesting that brahmacharya connotes partaking of the sacred as you are engaged in your daily life.

The essential creative power of the universe is sexual, and you are a loving manifestation of that energy. Seeing the entire creation as an expression of the divine impulse to generate, you celebrate the creative forces. Brah-macharya means aligning with the creative energy of the cosmos. Ultimately, as your soul makes love with the cosmos, your need to express your sexuality may be supplanted by a more expanded expression of love.

The fourth Yama, asteya, or honesty, means relinquishing the idea that things outside yourself will provide you security and happiness. Asteya is being established in a state of nongrasping. Lack of honesty almost always derives from fear of loss—loss of money, love, position, power. The ability to live an honest life is based upon a deep connection to spirit. When inner fullness predominates, you lose the need to manipulate, obscure, or deceive. Honesty is the intrinsic state of a person living a life of integrity. According to yoga, life-supporting, evolutionary behaviors are the natural consequence of expanded awareness.

The fifth Yama, generosity, or aparigraha, derives from the shift in internal reference from predominantly ego-based to predominantly spirit-based. A yogi who knows that his essential nature is nonlocal spontaneously expresses generosity in every thought, word, and action. Constricted awareness reinforces limitations. Expanded awareness generates abundance consciousness. This Yama implies the absence of aversion. Established in aparigraha, your attachment to the accumulation of material possessions loses its hold on you. It doesn't mean you don't enjoy the world; you are simply not imprisoned by it. The practice of yoga, which cultivates expanded awareness, awakens generosity because nature is generous.

The Second Branch of Yoga—Niyama

The second limb of yoga as outlined by Patanjali is Niyama, traditionally interpreted as the "rules of personal behavior." We see them as the qualities naturally expressed in an evolutionary personality. How do you live when no one is looking? What choices do you make when you are the only witness? The Niyamas of yoga encourage

1. purity

2. contentment

3. discipline

4. spiritual exploration

5. surrender to the divine

Again, these qualities do not arise by making a mood of moral self-righteousness, but they emerge as a result of a person living a natural, balanced life. H. G. Wells said, "Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo," and yoga would agree.

Like ideal social conduct, evolutionary personal qualities derive from your connection to spirit. Focusing on the first Niyama, purity, or shoucha, adds no value to life if it encourages a judgmental mind-set, but it is of great value if you see your choices in terms of nourishment versus toxicity. Your body and mind are constructed from the impressions that you ingest from the environment. The sounds, sensations, sights, tastes, and smells carry the energy and information that are metabolized into you. Yoga encourages you to consciously choose experiences that are nourishing to your body, mind, and soul.

Contentment, or santosha, the second Niyama, is the fragrance of present moment awareness. When you struggle against the present moment, you struggle against the entire cosmos. Contentment, however, does not imply acquiescence. Yogis are committed in thought, word, and deed to supporting evolutionary change that enhances the well-being of all sentient creatures on this planet. Contentment implies acceptance without resignation.

Contentment emerges when you relinquish your attachment to the need for control, power, and approval. Santosha is the absence of addiction to power, sensation, and security. Through the practice of yoga, your experience of the present moment quiets the mental turbulence that disturbs your contentment—contentment that reflects a state of being in which your peace is independent of situations and circumstances happening around you.

The third Niyama, tapas, is traditionally translated as "discipline" or "austerity." The word tapas means "fire." When the fire of a yogi's life is burning brightly, she is a beacon of light radiating balance and peace to the world. The fire is also responsible for digesting both nourishment and toxicity. A healthy inner fire can metabolize all impurities.

People often associate discipline with deprivation. The lives of people established in a yogic lifestyle may appear to be disciplined because their biological rhythms are aligned with the rhythms of nature. They arise early, meditate daily, exercise regularly, eat in a healthful and balanced way, and go to bed early because they directly experience the benefits of harmonizing their personal rhythms with those of nature. Tapas is embracing transformation as the pathway to higher consciousness.

Self-study, or svadhyana, is the fourth Niyama. Traditionally, this is interpreted as being dedicated to the study of spiritual literature, but at its heart, self-study means looking inside. There is a difference between knowledge and knowingness. Yoga advises us not to confuse information with wisdom, and self-study helps you understand the distinction. Self-study encourages self-referral as opposed to object referral. Your value and security come from a deep connection to spirit rather than from the things with which you are surrounded. When svadhyana is lively in your awareness, joy arises from within rather than being dependent upon outer accomplishments or acquisitions.

The final Niyama, Ishwara-Pranidhana, is often translated as "faith" or "surrendering to God." Ishwara is the personalized aspect of the infinite. Even when considering the boundless, the human mind wants to create boundaries. Ishwara is the name applied that makes familiar the infinite and unbounded field of intelligence. Ultimately, Ishwara-Pranidhana is surrendering to the wisdom of uncertainty. The seeds of wisdom are sown when you surrender to the unknown. The known is the past. True transformation, healing, and creativity flow out of present moment awareness, which means relinquishing your attachment to the past and embracing uncertainty.

A deeply spiritual friend of ours once contacted us from the coronary care unit at a New York hospital to say he had just had an emergency three-vessel coronary artery bypass operation. Only forty-two years old, he had never smoked, he was a vegetarian, and he meditated regularly. We obviously were very concerned about how he was doing and feeling, but he quickly reassured us he was doing well and was confident that everything would work out fine.

He explained that a few days earlier he had been visiting Long Island and had driven to Coney Island to ride on the roller coasters. He enjoyed riding the roller coasters because despite the turbulence, he knew he was safe. In an analogous way, because of his deep connection to spirit, our friend was able to surrender to the unknown when a blood vessel to his heart suddenly became blocked. He trusted that despite the twists and turns his life was taking, he would be okay whatever the outcome. This is Ishwara-Pranidhana—surrender to the divine.

The Yamas and Niyamas represent the inner dialogue of a yogi. These are not qualities one can make a mood of or manipulate. They arise spontaneously as the natural expression of a more expanded sense of self. You can see them as milestones of your spiritual progress. Allow them to resonate in your awareness, avoiding the impulse to be self-critical or judgmental when you occasionally fail to express the highest value of each principle. To awaken spontaneous evolutionary thought and action in your being, Patanjali encourages you to put your attention on more refined aspects of your body, your breath, your senses, and your mind. These are the next branches of yoga.

The Third Branch of Yoga—Asana

The word asana means "seat" or "position." When people consider yoga, they usually think of this branch, which refers to the postures people enter into to achieve physical flexibility and tone. At a deeper level, asana means the full expression of mind-body integration, in which you become consciously aware of the flow of life energy in your body. Performing asanas with full awareness is practice for performing action in life with awareness.

In the great Indian epic, the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna instructs the archetypal human Arjuna first to become established in being, then to perform action in accordance with evolutionary law. The expression in Sanskrit is "Yogastah kurukarmani," which means "Established in yoga, perform action." Yoga here refers to the unified, integrated state of body, mind, and spirit.

The postures of yoga offer tremendous benefit to your body and mind. They help create balance, flexibility, and strength—all essential qualities for a healthy, dynamic life. When performed vigorously in sets, yoga can also be a powerful aerobic exercise to improve your cardiovascular fitness.

In addition to the direct benefits during the performance of postures, asanas provide enduring value throughout the day. If you perform asanas regularly, you will feel more flexible physically and emotionally. Flexibility is the essential difference between the vitality of youth and the lassitude of old age. Here is a yogic expression that we find inspiring: "Infinite flexibility is the secret to immortality." Like a palm tree that adapts to rather than resists gale force winds, a flexible body and mind enable you to adapt to the inevitable changes that life offers. Regular practice of yoga asanas cultivates flexibility while helping to release stagnating toxins from your body that inhibit the free flow of vital energy.

In the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga program, we have chosen asanas that enhance the flexibility of your joints, improve your balance, strengthen your muscles, and calm your mind. If you combine flexibility, balance, strength, and inner peace, you can surmount any obstacle. We will explore in great detail the most important yoga positions in chapter 5.

The Fourth Branch of Yoga— Pranayama

Prana is life force. It is the essential energy that animates inert matter into living, evolving biological beings. As first-year medical students, we took classes in gross anatomy in which there was the implied assumption that studying a cadaver could teach us about life. At the turn of the twentieth century, scientists would weigh someone immediately before and after they died to see if they could quantify what had left. (They did not record a difference, concluding that the soul did not weigh anything.)

From the perspective of yoga, the difference between a living being and a cadaver is the presence of prana, or vital energy.

When prana is flowing freely throughout your body/mind, you will feel healthy and vibrant. When prana is blocked, fatigue and disease soon follow. The concept of an animating force is present in every major wisdom and healing tradition. It is known as chi or qi in Traditional Chinese Medicine and ruach in the Kabalistic tradition. According to Patanjali, a key way to enliven prana is through conscious breathing techniques known as pranayama.

Pranayama means mastering the life force. There is an intimate relationship between your breath and your mind. When your mind is centered and quiet, so is your breath. When your mind is turbulent, your breathing becomes disordered. There are a number of classic prana-yama breathing exercises that we will show you in chapter

4 that are designed to cleanse, balance, and invigorate the body. Just as your breath is affected by your mental activity, your mind can be influenced by conscious regulation of your breathing. Pranayama is a powerful technology to enhance neurorespiratory integration.

Prana is the life force that flows throughout nature and the universe. When you are tuned into the pranic energy in your body, you spontaneously become more attuned to the relationship between your individuality and your universality. In this way, pranayama can take you from a constricted state to an expanded state of awareness.

The Fifth Branch of Yoga— Pratyahara

Patanjali encourages us to take time withdrawing our senses from the world to hear our inner voice more clearly. Pratyahara is the process of directing the senses inward to become aware of the subtle elements of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell. Ultimately all experience is in consciousness. When you look at a flower in your garden, your eyes receive frequencies of electromagnetic radiation that trigger chemical reactions in the rods and cones at the back of your eyes. As a result of these chemical changes in your retinas, electrical impulses are generated that eventually reach the visual cortex at the back of your brain. The interpretation of these fluctuations in energy and information takes place in your consciousness.

Although you imagine that you are seeing the flower outside of you, you are actually experiencing it within you on the screen of your awareness. This is why the great yogis say, "I am not in the world; the world is in me."

Pratyahara is the process of tuning into your subtle sensory experiences known in yoga as the tanmatras. Within your awareness are the seeds of sound, sensation, sight, taste, and scent. By going inside yourself, you can access these impulses and directly experience the knowledge that the world of forms and phenomena is a projection of your awareness.

You can awaken the tanmatras by consciously activating subtle sensory impressions on the screen of your awareness. Ask a friend to read these descriptions to you while your eyes are closed.


Imagine . . . the ringing of a church bell the buzzing of a mosquito in your ear the roar of an ocean wave crashing against the shore


Imagine . . . the feel of a fine cashmere sweater the softness of a baby's skin drops of rain falling on your face during a summer shower


Imagine . . . a sunset over a calm ocean a fireworks display the face of your mother


Imagine . . . biting into a luscious fresh strawberry a spoonful of rich chocolate ice cream a pungent jalapeno pepper


Imagine . . . the smell of the rich earth after a spring rain the fragrance of blooming lilacs the aroma of a bakery

Pratyahara is the process of temporarily withdrawing the senses from the outer world in order to recognize the sensations of your inner world. In a way, Pratyahara can be seen as sensory fasting. The word is comprised of prati, meaning "away," and ahara, meaning "food." If you stay away from food for a while, the next meal you take will usually taste exceptionally delicious.

When your senses are withdrawn for a time, you are able to tune in to the subtler tastes and smells. Yoga suggests that the same is true for all your experiences in the world. If you take the time to withdraw from the world for a little while, you will find that your experiences are more vibrant.

In practice, Pratyahara means paying attention to the sensory impulses you encounter throughout the day, limiting to the extent possible those that are toxic and maximizing those that are nourishing to your body, mind, and soul.

Choose sounds, sensations, sights, tastes, and smells that inspire you. Be aware of and do your best to reduce situations, circumstances, and people who deplete you of your vitality and enthusiasm for life. When it comes to your yoga practice, Pratyahara means defining a space where you are less likely to be distracted by distressing sensations in your environment such as loud music, blaring television shows, and aggravating arguments, so you can bring your awareness to quieter realms within your consciousness. It means taking time on a daily basis to close your eyes so you can settle into more expanded states of awareness through meditation.

The Sixth Branch of Yoga— Dharana

Dharana is the mastery of attention and intention. The world at its essential core is a quantum soup of energy and information. What you actually perceive is a selective act of your attention and interpretation. The difference between an apple and an orange or a rose and a carnation boils down to differences in the quantity and quality of the energy and information that comprise the object of your perception. Through your attention and intention, you freeze the energy and information contained in a fragrant, soft-petaled, thorny-stemmed flower and create a multisensory representation in your awareness that you identify as a rose. Without the unique biology of your human nervous system, the concept of a rose would only exist as a potential.

Whatever you place your attention on grows in importance to you. Whether your attention is on building a business, becoming physically fit, improving a relationship, or developing a spiritual practice, the object of your attention is enlivened by your awareness and becomes a more predominant force in your life. By learning to value your attention as a precious commodity, you will be able to consciously create well-being and success in your life. An essential component of yoga is refining your attention in order to facilitate healing and transformation in your body/mind.

Once you activate something with your attention, your intentions have a powerful influence on what things manifest in your life. According to yoga, your intentions have infinite organizing power. Your intention may be to heal an illness, create more love in your life, or become more aware of your own divinity. Simply by becoming clear about your intentions, you will begin to see them actualize in your life. When your awareness is established in being and you have a clear intention, nature rallies to help you fulfill your deepest desires.

Be aware of your intentions. Make a list of the most important things you would like to see unfold in your life. Review them twice daily before you go into meditation. As your mind quiets down, release your intentions, surrendering your desires to the universe. Then pay attention to the clues that arise in your life that are directing you to the fulfillment of your desires. We'll explore attention and intention in greater depth in the next chapter.

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