The 8-Fold Path: Who Cares?

During my post-graduate work a professor bluntly asked me, "Who cares about the eight-fold path of yoga anyway?" As rude as this may sound it actually opened the door to some interesting discussions!

First, if people are satisfied with the physical does it matter they are missing the rest? The dilemma of course is that learning yoga as exercise is half, perhaps even less, of all that yoga is. This in turn posed the question, "Why settle for less?"

The foundation of the practices of yoga is based on the eight stages or limbs called Ashtanga yoga. The word 'Ashtanga' is often understood today as the system of yoga taught by the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. However, the eight-fold path is the ground in which all systems of Hatha-yoga are united. What first appears as a linear ladder from one stage to the next is a system that is highly interconnected.

We all begin somewhere so that place is usually at the physical. Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar clarified it by stating we start with what is tangible and what we know (i.e., the body).While Hatha yoga is more popular and sexy than its counterpart Raja yoga (the royal path), it is the latter practice that makes it complete. The right understanding of Hatha yoga is that it leads to Raja yoga. The physical postures were designed to strengthen the mind and body. The system of Hatha yoga whether it be Ashtanga, Iyengar, Sivananda, Bikram yoga or otherwise, to purify the body and for deeper practices in concentration.

So is it that no one cares? Or that people just don’t know?

Traditionally, yoga was understood and practiced as a means to enlightenment. For Patanjali, the goal of yoga was to break the concept of the 'self'; a process that leads to Samadhi (the eighth stage). In the West, the understanding that the self is a fixed identity is a bit harder to melt down. It also does not help that most of what is depicted as yoga in media is just flat tummies and pulsating biceps.

Yoga is a process: a discovery that the world and our identities are not as solid as we may think. As a yoga teacher it is not easy to introduce these more esoteric topics to students. Baba Hari Dass said it best when he said we come into this world believing we are this body, but we do not even know who this "me" is who is claiming the body.

I like this a lot because it hits the nail right on the head.

Yoga, as an eight-fold path, offers this great and tangible means to investigate and explore not just postures but the deeper meaning of life. The practice may begin with the physical, but leads to the mental and beyond. B.K.S. Iyengar reminds us, “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”

The answer to the question of who cares if students know the 8-fold path is obvious. Whether teachers directly lecture on the topic is another story but that they hint toward the deeper nuances is going to change the way people practice.

So, it matters a lot when we care about the practice, the students and the teachings!

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