Yoga means “union with the Divine.” This union with Bhagavan cannot be attained through effort alone—it occurs only through God’s grace. All that exists is God, and all exists because of God. In an absolute sense, nothing is separate from Bhagavan. All is God’s divine play. If one is to attain liberation from saṁsāra, that would only happen as a gift from Bhagavan. All is God’s to give or not to give.
There are two yogic paths (margas): maryada marga, “the lawful way,” in which the yogi applies discipline and self-effort to bring them to the goal, and pushti marga, “the graceful way,” in which the yogi surrenders to God’s will. Both paths can bring the practitioner only to the doorway of liberation; it is Bhagavan who ultimately and gracefully carries the devotee across the final threshold. You cannot “do” Yoga. Yoga is who you really are. Yoga cannot be attained through effort alone—it arises gracefully. Grace, however, can arise only after the mind has been purified through much disciplined effort. You do your best and let God do the rest.
Patanjali opens his discourse on Yoga by stating in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, the Samādhi Pāda, that Yoga occurs effortlessly when the mind has become purified and concentrated: yogaś chitta-vṛitti-nirodhaḥ (PYS 1.2)—when you stop identifying with your thoughts, the fluctuations of mind, then there is Yoga, identity with Self, Bhagavan, which is samādhi. According to Patanjali, the most direct method of bringing about nirodhaḥ, or Yoga, is by surrendering completely to God. Nirodhaḥ means “to be absorbed in God.” Patanjali gives his one-step method to attain Yoga in the first chapter as Īśvara-praṇidhānād vā (PYS 1.23)—by giving your life and identity to God, you attain the identity of God, meaning, you come to know God. Some souls, because of past karmas, may be able to follow a path of total surrender as suggested in the Samādhi Pāda. By “letting go and letting God” through graceful sādhanas like satsang, kirtan, japa, or seva, one can live a life of devotion—cultivating bhava, the intoxicated mood of love for the Divine.
But the graceful path is not for everyone. In the second chapter, the Sādhana Pāda, the chapter on practice, Patanjali describes a three-step method: tapaḥ-svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ (PYS 2.1). Here he provides the practical means of purifying and concentrating the mind so that nirodhaḥ is possible for those who cannot surrender everything to the Lord, yet. Some feel that they must “do” something, and some minds are restless, doubtful, and easily distracted. These aspirants can find solace in the Sādhana Pāda. Patanjali has compassion for souls who are unable to surrender themselves to divine grace alone and provides a whole chapter describing more detailed sādhana.
The chapter begins by suggesting to the aspiring yogi that, not only is effort essential, but it must be the unrelenting kind of effort. Tapas means “to burn.” We must have a passionate, burning desire to undergo whatever discipline is necessary in order to purify our thoughts, words, and deeds. When we let go of all self-cherishing, ego-driven, or selfish desires, then we can concentrate on svādhyāya, the study of the Self. Svādhyāya means “to focus upon the Supreme Self in all circumstances without any distraction.” To study something means to give it our unwavering attention. These two kriyas (tapas and svādhyāya) will purify and render us able to surrender to God, expressed as Īśvara-praṇidhānā, the third part of the three-step system known as kriya yoga.
Then Patanjali notes the hindrances that may cause the practitioner difficulty in adhering to the three-step plan. He lists and describes these kleshas, along with the underlying karmas that allow obstacles to arise. Even though he has already provided us with a one-step as well as a three-step plan, from a place of seemingly tireless patience, Patanjali provides an eight-step plan (ashtanga yoga) for those of us who still need more “how to” direction in order to untangle ourselves from the duḥkha (suffering) that binds us. Since many of us feel that our unhappiness is caused by the actions of others, the eight-step plan begins with the yamas (the Don’ts). The five yamas address our relationships with others. The first yama suggests that as long as we perceive others and not God, then whenever we interact with another we should not cause them harm, that we should treat others with kindness. The other yamas tell us not to lie to others, not to steal from others, not to abuse others sexually, not to hoard (to share what we have with others).
The niyamas (the Dos) are the second step of the eight-limbed system. The niyamas are five practices directed toward our personal world. They are composed of śauca (cleanliness), santoṣa (contentment), tapas (discipline), svādhyāya (study of the Self), and Īśvara-praṇidhānā (devotion to God). The third limb, āsana, addresses our physical presence in the world. Patanjali suggests that our relationship to the Earth should be mutually beneficial—it should be steady and joyful. The fourth limb focuses on the life force, prāṇa—that invisible force that permeates all of life. To learn how to direct the flow of prāṇa in our own body is to learn how to control our own mind and thus begin to free our mind of whatever may be restricting it from divine ecstasy. The fifth limb, pratyāhāra, deals with the discipline involved in drawing the senses away from outward hankering and redirecting our attention inward, toward in-dependence, toward being dependent on the divine Self. Through these practices the content of our mind becomes more and more purified preparing us for the more inward oriented, subtle, esoteric, meditative practices that comprise the final three steps.
Sādhana Pāda, the second chapter, lists all the eight limbs, but only describes the first five. Sādhana Pāda concludes with the practice of pratyāhāra. Patanjali then begins the third chapter (Vibhuti Pāda) with descriptions of the final three steps: dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyānā (meditation), and samādhi (ecstasy). When the various practices described in Sādhana Pāda have been mastered, the aspirant has achieved a mind capable of resisting distractions and is then able to probe into and gain knowledge of reality. They are ready to embark upon the final three steps and eventually embrace the practice of saṁyamaḥ (the combination of the three), and this is what the third pāda will deal with.
The fourth and final chapter (Kaivalya Pāda) will conclude with descriptions of the exalted state of Yoga and how the effortful practices described in Sādhana Pāda, as well as ideas of doership, and all that seemed to keep the aspirant separate from Bhagavan is eventually dissolved into grace.
Essay taken from Sharon Gannon’s Book Eternity is Happening Now