Yoga’s Power to Heal: The eight limbs of the Royal Path
Yoga, or union, is functionally a healing art. Whether viewed as a philosophy, a science or an art form, the assumption we are making is that ultimately “union” is in itself the ultimate healing.
For there to be union, there must be at least two distinct principles with the potentiality of entering into a harmonious relationship. To make this union take place, at least one of the two principles has to make the initial move toward the other. This may not always be easy, thus requiring the application of force of will (hatha). But no force of will can keep principles that are incompatible in a permanently harmonious relationship. Consider oil and water. Being incompatible, they will always separate when the force is removed (the shaking of the container). But qualities such as those of hot and cold that seem diametrically opposed are actually only the extremes of a pendulum, and when centered, they conjunct in perfect temperature.
In the philosophy of yoga, the two principles that need to come together are the finite and the Infinite.* The belief that powers this move is that the Infinite exists. As finite human beings, we tend to move toward the Infinite. If we are successful, our belief is validated, with a side benefit of ultimate bliss in the ultimate union.
As a science, yoga seeks self-realization. It is based upon the theory that there are three energies that fuel our mental faculties: clarity, restlessness and dullness. The latter two cause mental anguish, whereas in realizing the first, the causes of our suffering are removed. If self-realization is the goal and is equated with clarity, then we must assume that we are lacking clarity. Working backwards, if the innumerable qualities of the self cease to exist when the philosopher’s pendulum becomes still, it becomes apparent that all qualities are measured solely in relationship to their opposite. Thus the Infinite is where individual and opposite qualities cease to exist and merge into stillness. All distractions arising from ignorance, desire, aversion, egoism and clinging are gone.
As an art form though, yoga is a practice in healing. It is structured in eight sequential parts or limbs and is concerned with the flow of energy.
The mind flows in energies of thoughts, sensations, feelings and emotions. Any restlessness or dullness causes disturbance in the clear flow of these channels. Thus the first two limbs, of restraints (yama) and observances (niyama), are about containing and purifying this energy. Together they have the potential of healing the distressed mind and creating a healthy body.
The body flows in energies of wind, temperature and fluidity. It flows primarily through seven channels that nourish, vitalize, strengthen, lubricate, create structure, communicate information and increase fertility. Any waste is disposed through channels of elimination. Distress in these bodily channels—initiated by excesses or deficiencies in wind, heat and fluidity—causes first the appearance of “dis-ease” and then disease. Bodily exercises known as asana are the third limb and address these by regulating their flow. All asana are designed to create an efficient confluence of strength and flexibility. We bring together two mutually attractable qualities to create a harmonious flow of wellbeing in a free flow of motion. This is the beauty of any art, more so one that is dedicated to healing. And as with all art, the end result is always stillness.
As healing is personal, so is yoga. The application may vary with your age and circumstances. In your growing years, your practice may move you strongly towards creating the pose. As you move into your working years, your practice works hard to maintain your pose. And as you move into your mature years, the practice moves you into that which can be sustained once you are in your pose.
The fourth limb is pranayama and is of two types. One is to simply encourage the proper flow of breath and its energy, strengthening the mind. It is the key to a proper asana practice. The technical definition, however, refers to that control of inhalation, exhalation and retention that can be accessed as a result of the above.
As we go deeper, we may find our attention turning inward. This is a signal that we are moving in the right direction, and it is logical to encourage this. Called pratyahara, this fifth limb strengthens our inner focus. It is the prerequisite to the antaranga, the inner and most healing three limbs of yoga, which are expressed as meditation.
Meditation itself is in three parts: The effort required to get to stillness, dharana; staying in stillness, dhyana and finally, samadhi: absorption. Union. Bliss.
All the above are part and parcel of Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path. A secondary pathway, hatha yoga, or the yoga of force of will, gives us the tools that inform this Royal Path. All schools adhere to these tools but vary their methodology based on the unique experiences of their founders. It is important to recognize that though all styles are relevant, not all are compatible.
Having decided that compatibility between principles is essential for a harmonious union and conversely, incompatible principles sometimes have to be forcefully kept in harmony, we come to a sticky point. The relationship between yoga and money.
As with oil and water, their coming together may bring necessary benefits but the shaking of the container to keep them together must be skillful and constant. The purpose of money is to act as an exchange of energy. The power of yoga is to heal. It is important to remember what we are selling and buying. A skillful yoga teacher or school knows that in this “union” the authenticity of what is being exchanged is always based primarily upon the principles of yoga and not those of business, which will dilute the product and perhaps render it meaningless or even harmful.
If philosophy sets our path toward samadhi, then science gives us the tools of the path and the art/practice becomes the joyous work. In the healing path of yoga, the path, the tools and the joy are never separated. This is true healing: as an idea, as the work, and eventually as the stillness at the end of the practice.