The eight steps of Patanjali’s method are universally employed in all classical yogic practice.
Yamas/Niyamas These begin with physical and mental purification and observance of the Yamas and Niyamas that correspond with moral and ethical restraints and practices common to all cultures and spiritual training. It is well known that in human culture we must pay attention to the two powerful tools in our servicing of free will…..and in Yoga, the Yamas represent the Do nots and the Niyamas, the positive health practices and character virtues.
Asanas The third step is that of command over attitudes – of both mind and body. The physical attitudes are the well known Asanas of which tradition details 84. These are designed for several reasons including helping physiological function but further, are associated with mental attitudes and attributes. Beginning with the simplest standing posture, Tadasana which is to encourage upright living in all senses to the more complex ones such as Virasana that is to encourage hero-like strength and resolve. The basis health asanas are commonly taught in modern western classes. A serious student will study the psychological implications as much as the health purposes.
Pranayama The fourth step is to gain some control over life energy or prana. This is achieved through controlled breathing and the understanding of life forces in all kingdoms of nature. The ultimate purpose is to not only be able to moderate between the positive electric energies and the negative magnetic energies, but to be able to direct them.
Pratyahara This stage studies the senses, seeking to cultivate them before seeking to control them and command them through the mind. The most elementary level being the sensitizing of the familiar 5 senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. These must then be drawn into willing response to the directives of the mind that must serve as their controller. This important step is to allow full focus upon mental concentration.
Dharana Mental concentration is mind power. We develop our mental ‘muscles’ to be strong enough to hold focus on one thing at a time. It is easy to recognize that we need concentration for the simplest tasks if we are to achieve excellence in our skills. Even more, we need concentration to hold in mind and be true to our life visions, purposes and goals.
Dhyana Once the mind is both strong and flexible through conscious exercising, we encourage the most difficult task to be able to arrive at mental stillness when all thought activity ceases enough to allow our deeper nature, or soul, to be experienced in meditation.
Samadhi Although there are many who have experience wonderfully in meditation, there are less who have known the supreme spiritual energies or universal energy beyond personal self. As in all human knowledge and experience, there are stages of progress and growth and there are even stages of these supreme experiences of Samadhi, as we become capable of understanding and surrendering to the great cosmic Intelligence, or God.
The ultimate state of such surrender is at death and this is called Maha-samadhi when it is likely that both God and Heaven and all things spiritual are fully realized. The student of Yoga seeks to grow capable of knowing a degree of these truths of life whilst in earthly body. It is spiritual aspiration that motivates all the final eight steps and disciplines.