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The Six Aims of Yoga - Why We Practice

Updated: Sep 4

The more we understand the purpose of our actions, the more we can work towards fulfilling our higher goals & aspirations. If we practice yoga to become stronger mentally & physically, then we will need to practice with more discipline to work hard and steadfast. This strikingly different than if we are nurturing an injury - right? Why do we work? To earn money. Why earn money? To provide for ourselves and family? Why do we want to provide for ourselves? So we can live comfortably. But, once we are comfortable, what do we make of our lives? So, it can be very valuable to contemplate what more do we need in life to bring us fulfillment. There is much more to life than merely making money for money’s sake. So too in yoga, the accomplishment of handstands, backbends, and even prāṇāyāma & meditation can also have a higher purpose. It is good to become more clear with ourselves about our life and to use our practice to support our life goals & dreams. We should be cautious about reducing our definition of Yoga & Ashtānga Yoga to merely just the practice of the Primary, Intermediate & Advance sequences. This is an extensive tradition because really yoga is the foundation of sound and fulfilling life. The skills we apply on the inside are far more important than which external sequence (which āsanas and which practices) because the internal dimension directly relates to the quality of our experience our life both on and off the mat. In yoga, along with moving our physical energies throughout the body, we learn to understand and better manage our mental & emotional energies. We learn that - of all the thousands of channels traversing throughout the body - these are all just branches of the oneness residing along the central axis of the body. Some call this the suṣumnā nāḍī, others call it the cerebral-spinal axis. The name is not important; but our experience of it and our skills working with it is vital! As a core dimension of our understanding & practice of yoga, this will foster a broader and deeper knowledge of ourselves: Seeing unity within and knowing that the mind is the maker of both happiness & suffering, both liberation & bondage.

Amongst all the many many yoga practices (and so called yoga brands), there is really just one yoga - yoga - that is all! It is in this sense that we that all the things we do - whether it be chanting, prāṇāyāma, meditation, Primary Series, or whatever - all of it becomes Ashtānga Yoga. So let us look at six different traditional approaches to practicing yoga so we can better understanding what we are trying to achieve and where we are going – and remembering that this changes over time: sṛṣṭi (growth), śikṣaṇa (learning), rakṣaṇa (maintenance), cikitsā (therapy), ādhiātmika (spirituality) & śakti (powers). We need them all in different ratios at different times in our lives.

Sṛṣṭi - Growth: Sṛṣṭi is the development of physical & mental strengths & skills. In this aspect we are learning how and what to practice – working hard developing more skills and learning more practices, postures, breathing practice, mantras, etc. This is a base phase. It is always the beginning of any new endeavor. It may underly our practice even as we progress if we view it also as growing internally, but certainly whenever we are trying to learn a new something. Whether we pursue learning to the extreme or are modest in practice will depend on our temperament and other life goals. Expanding the breadth of our practice is Sṛṣṭi.

Śikṣaṇa - Learning: Śikṣaṇa is when we work to deepen our awareness and knowledge of the practice. This has two primary categories: study of externals & study of the internals. Study of the externals means learning all the breathings and movements of the vinyāsas perfectly, as well as all of the details & subtleties of positioning. While internal studies refers to cultivating our awareness to understand the breath on a subtler level – i.e. in the sense of feeling its effects inside our body & mind. Internally too, we focus to feel the external positioning of the āsanas as an extension, an emanation of our core (head, neck, ribcage, waist & pelvis). Refining our practice and our understanding of how to adapt & evolve our practice is Śikṣaṇa.

Rakṣaṇa - Maintenance: Rakṣaṇa is the use of yoga to maintain our health & vitality so that we can function more effectively & efficiently in our daily responsibilities. If we have jobs and children, then this should be the main focus of our yoga practice. We do need to be impressive in our āsana practice. We simply need to practice to maintain our health & clarity such that we excel in our daily responsibilities. The more our focus is on smoothness & steadiness with each breath and each movement while being attentive to when our energy peaks and taking care not to go beyond doing only what is necessary for waking up & tonifying the body, then after practice, we will find ourselves full of energy, attention, patience and creativity. This moderate approach to practice generally only requires between 20 - 75 minutes and will tremendously increase our mental focus, emotional balance and creative problem solving capacities. When we are optimized within ourselves, we execute tasks with a surprisingly high degree of skill & efficiency. Now that’s impressive!

There is another aspect of Rakṣaṇa - Maintenance: Perhaps we have practiced for more than 15 or 30 years, and have developed some āsana skills that we would like to continue being able to do. However, we no longer feel the need to practice so intensely. It is healthy and natural, when our appetite evolves from a growth based approach (Sṛṣṭi) to more contemplative, self-reflective practices (ādhiātmika). In the initial stages of this transition, we should maintain those skills that we worked so diligently to develop. So although time spent on āsanas reduces, we can practice with an intent to maintain those physical skills that took us so much work to develop. Whatever was difficult to achieve will require more effort to maintain, while that which came easily will remain with us easily.

Cikitsā - Therapy: Cikitsā is the approach when we need healing & rejuvenation. There are two primary categories: diagnostic and energization - viz. working to understand the issue & fix it or simply working to support the miraculous healing energy of this body. In practice these two work together. Diagnostics means that we analyize the problem and formulate a suitable solution. Energization means that we support the innate healing capacity of the body (homeostasis). Diagnostically, we may have educated knowledge about the body that informs a healing strategy; but even still, if we do not have this intellectual knowledge, we can use heightened sensitivity to guide us during our practice. By focusing acutely on the movement of our breath, we develop our ability to know how far to go into a position, how to subtilely adjust ourselves in a position and which positions to avoid. This awareness prevents us from aggravating the problem which would interfere with our healing. Through this approach our consciousness becomes deeply attuned to the life principles governing our body. Everyone is capable of this process without ever opening a book. We simply need to pay close attention to reading the sensations of breath in the body. We need to be patient and trust that the body will heal in its own time. People who follow this method set aside attachments of what was done yesterday and pay sole attention to what is happening, what is possible right now. These people maintain stability in practice and become proficient in yoga.

Supporting the regenerative and healing capacity of the body happens by providing good nutrition and a healthy balance between rest & activity. It also happens by deep internal prāṇāyāma & meditative practices. The body is constantly regenerating itself. Old cells are forever being replaced by new cells. Food - as raw material - is being turned into our bodies, energies & consciousness. Creation itself is happening within us every moment, and we have the ability to energize this process, to become partners in this process of creation. By consciously making efforts to increase our sensitivity, we begin to feel the biorhythms happening inside of us. Everyone feels the changes our breath undergoes as we quickly climb a flight of stairs or as we move through a certain sequence of postures - right? This is a change in our biorhythms. If we truly focus on feeling inside our chest, belly and/or head with each increment of each breath, we will feel the emergence of these changes in our biorhythms as they occur. In this way, we can directly partner with the force of creation happening within us. As beginners in this process, a simple way to support the inner healing capacity (homeostasis) is by breathing smoothly, as smoothly as possible, by making the exhalation & inhalation exactly the same. After this is mastered, then we gradually make the breath longer and more subtle. There are many specifics that will affect the breathing rhythm that the body needs. Our effort to elongate the breath must be done with great care and sensitivity as to how the body is responding, and what the body-breath is telling us otherwise we may create imbalances. However, everyone should engage in making the breath smoother and more even and from this process our sensitivity becomes qualified for stretching the breath into the realm beyond breath - called kevala kumbhaka or caturthi.

Ādhiātmika - Spirituality: Ādhiātmika is any effort to understand ourselves better and ultimately to experience a purer version of ourselves by transcending our boundary creating notions. As we age, the amount of time spent doing āsanas should decrease while the amount of time studying, doing prāṇāyāma & meditation should increase. Our progress should be measured by how much kinder & more thoughtful we have become. We should have a generously patient attitude towards people. Not simply in terms of giving materially to people, but in terms of giving our attention with warmth in our hearts. Whether or not we practice yoga, believe in God or not, no matter what cultural things we identify with or not is insignificant when compared to having integrity, poise, equanimity, warm heartedness, joy, contentment, generosity, patience and such. If we succeed at becoming good humans than we will feel satisfied with our lives. This is a life well lived.

Śakti - Powers or Siddhis: Śakti means that we are pursuing powers. We may think that this just means pursing magical occult powers, but it equally refers to trying to master physical feats with the intent to impress others. This includes posing more beautifully in order to become more popular on social media. The pursuit of abilities & power (śakti) - both esoteric & exoteric - with the motive of being liked by others or for broadening our influence in society can never lead to true happiness nor a sense of fulfillment. The temptation to achieve power arises in us from our compulsions (kleśas) - erroneous belief that something other than our own self can either bring us happiness or unhappiness. The truth is though that the experience of both joy & sorrow is really actually a creation of our own minds. When we seek outside for pleasure or for the cause of our negative emotions, or when we blame circumstances for our anxieties, we dig ourselves deeper into the pit of ignorance & compulsive behavior. So although yoga culture is intermingled with the pursuit of powers, true yoga recognizes this as mere external phenomena that is forever unreliable. We must learn to work with the phenomenal world, but we must simultaneously rely on ourselves for our sense of wholeness, joy & satisfaction in life.

In order to apply this analysis, we need to understand the phase of life that we are in and how the process of growth & maturity best unfolds in our life. Each of us is unique, and will have different levels of interest & propensities in each of these categories. So there is no single right answer that will satisfy everyone. As time passes and we gain in experience, we may even find that our own understanding of what we need, of what balance looks like in our lives changes. That is a good thing - keep studying, keep an open mind and allow things to grow, unfold & change


Image: Milarepa, The Great Tibetan Yogī

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