“Man is taking human body – this is a very rare opportunity. Don’t waste it.” –Sri K Pattabhi Jois
Evolution never comes simply. The path of spiritual development is a rocky one. After all, if enlightenment were easy, higher consciousness would be a commonplace phenomenon. Patanjali himself tells us in his Sutras of the many obstacles the aspiring yogi will face, giving methods for dealing with these roadblocks that are hardly simple themselves. The perseverance required for the solutions reveals the stubbornness of the problems – and just how much devotion and discipline is required to tread the path of yoga.
Reading these texts, it can seem the promise of samādhi is an unattainable one, a nice thought, perhaps, but overly lofty in its aim. Patanjali’s sutras, however, are not the product of a fantastical dreamer. They’re the methodology of a scientist, a how-to book written, believe it or not, for human beings simply doing their best. He provides concrete methods for dealing with the stumbling blocks we may encounter – and acknowledges that we will falter from time to time along the long road. Perhaps most importantly, he gives aspiring yogis tangible instructions, doable mini-goals to work towards on the way to the grander goal.
Not least of these step-by-step early “how-to” guides is the eight limbed, or ashtānga, yoga, expounded in Patanjali’s second chapter, the Sādhana Pāda, or “practice chapter.” After the first two limbs, which lay the groundwork for a mindset conducive to growth, Patanjali enlists the tools we all have on hand – our body and breath.
A Very Rare Opportunity
Ashtanga yoga guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois used to remind his students that man taking a human body “is a very rare opportunity.” The human body is indeed one of the most valuable tools the modern yoga practitioner has on hand – and we’re all blessed enough to be given one at birth! While the idea of controlling the mind in order to reach an intangible higher self is a difficult concept, Patanjali outlines a method beginning with a much easier-to-grasp starting point. By controlling the body and the breath, we are able to hone the mind and the powers of concentration without diving right into the deep end of meditative absorption.
This process begins in the third limb of the ashtānga yoga system, the practice of āsana, or posture. While today physical yoga practice is often presented as an end in-and-of itself, for Patanjali āsana is a meditative tool meant to help the aspirant along the way to spiritual development. There is a psychic element to physical yoga practice, a control of the mind that must be developed in order to find yourself “steady and comfortable” in each pose. Controlling the body, we learn to hone the abilities of the mind, building a powerful concentration that is the foundation of meditative work. Through this third limb, the body becomes a valuable tool, a familiar starting point that makes the mental work of yoga suddenly seem more accessible.
Just as we all have a body, all of us blessed with human form breathe. In fact, when someone has an innate talent for something, we say that it comes as naturally to them as breathing! It makes sense, then, that Patanjali takes the readily available tool of the breath as the medium of the fourth limb of ashtānga yoga. Prānāyāma, or breath-control, is a practice meant to purify the nervous system, control the flow of prāna (the energy of yogic anatomy), and enhance the powers of the mind. In fact, Patanjali clearly states that through the practice of pranayama the practitioner gains “the fitness of mind for concentration.” This breath work, then, is clearly another preparatory step on the aspirant’s path, using the manageable concept of breath control to work towards the more esoteric practices to come.
Through the body and the breath, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali’s ashtānga yoga not only accepts our humanity, but utilizes it is a valuable tool. While the path of yoga may seem to require us to be superhuman, the third and fourth limbs of Patanjali’s ashtānga yoga make it very clear; this is a path made for humans, and it is through our humanity that we will arrive at our destination.
Read more about the two first limbs of the YOGA SUTRAS here: