What is Yoga?

Classically, in the Bhagavad Gita, there are four main branches of Yoga: Jnana (path of knowledge), Dhyana (meditation), Karma (selfless action), Bhakti (devotion). Here, I will focus on the Yoga Sutras as complied by Patanjali, called Astanga yoga or Patanjali yoga. I have been blessed to study Patanjali yoga with two long-time students of Yogacharya BKS Iyengar for the past three weeks and this essay is my reflection of their teachings and my personal studies.

Yoga is an ancient spiritual science, moska shastra, or science of liberation, originating in India in the Vedas (rites), Upanishads (philosophy and theory), and epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana as well as scriptures such as the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gherenda Samhita, Siva Samhita as well as commentaries from yogis of various spiritual traditions including Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and others through the ages. Throughout history to the present day, the yogis have shown us how to liberate ourselves in this very incarnation from the endless cycles of birth and death, and to avoid endless pitfalls that lead to ignorance, disease and suffering.

The practices of yoga are vast, with differing practices to suite individual temperaments. However, there is a single thread, or sutra, that unites all practices and that is union itself, union with the source of all life, union with the current or universal energy of all. This union it is called by many names including Brahman, God, ultimate or absolute reality, the source, and the truth. The name itself is not as important as the experience that liberates. The path of yoga is to shed the layers which obscure our true self which is, as revealed in the scriptures as sat-chit-ananda, being consciousness bliss. As our yoga teacher here is reiterating in numerous ways, this bliss (which is love) is in the heart of each being and is our true teacher or guru. The quest for liberation and self-realization begins with a heart and mind seeking to know and realize its true nature and abandon the causes of suffering.

Astanga Yoga begins with the external path of yama (universal ethical principals), niyama (personal discipline), asana (posture), pranayama (regulating the breath, vital energy), pratyahara (internal withdrawal of the senses), dharana (stabilization of mind), dhyana (meditation or sustained concentration), and samadhi (absorption, profound meditation).  Patanjali yoga progresses from the external to the the internal universe of prana breath/vital energy, manas (mind), chitta (consciousness), and atman (soul). Progress in yoga would be impossible without an ethical foundation yama, and personal discipline, niyama. Through yama and niyama, our whole life becomes yogic and sets a foundation for the internal practices, in which one works with the subtle aspects of ones being to culture the consciousness and uproot the source of ignorance.

Yoga points to the kleshas, afflictions, as a source of suffering, afflictions, pain and distress and the vrittis, or mental fluctuations, as obscuring clarity. The kleshas are avidya (ignorance), raga (desire), dvesa (aversion), asmita (ego clinging), and abhinivesa (fear of death). We are constantly in the swing of the kleshas. Avidya is said to be the source of the other klesas. Avidya is essentially seeing the unreal as real and identifying with unreal, i.e the body as the Self. Avidya looks to gratify the senses as the way to happiness. In other words, avidya looks externally for happiness, when the true source of happiness is internal. We see avidya manifest everywhere – in the unquenchable thirst for material riches, status, position, rank, prestige, class etc, to gratify a fundamental seeking for happiness. These means of seeking happiness at most provide an external mask of happiness or momentary pleasure.

My yoga teacher here uses the analogy of eating an ice-cream to express avidya. First, the senses look externally for a source of pleasure. Then, the mind and the senses get fixated on the idea of eating an ice cream, in which pleasure is remembered from past experiences. Finally, the senses are gratified when one eats an ice cream. There are five minutes of ice cream induced pleasure, and then that is gone. Sometimes one is left feeling worse after the ice cream. Our teacher even told us of how chemical laden the ice creams often are in India: one evening, an ice cream was sold to him from an insistent ice cream vendor while traveling. The ice cream lay by his bedside through the night and in the morning it was still the same shape as the previous evening – no melting! Often, the things that the body construes as pleasurable cause much toxicity in our mind and body i.e various forms of media, consumerism, gossip, junk food.

Another way we are distracted from our true nature are the vrittis, or fluctuations in consciousness. The second sutra in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s states: yoga chittavritti nirodhah, yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness (Light on The Yoga Sutras, p. 49-50). The vrittis are: pramana, viparyaya, vilkalpa, nidra, smiti – correct knowledge/discernment, misconception, fantasy, sleep and memory. The vrittis causes a continuous oscillation of the consciousness. When the consciousness is stilled, the yogi abides in samadhi – profound meditation and abiding in the bliss of ones true nature.  BKS Iyengar writes, “Thus yoga is the art and science of mental discipline through which the mind becomes cultured and matured. . . The sadhaka’s aim is to bring the consciousness into a state of purity and translucence.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras)

There are also various obscurations which impede progress in yoga and are a cause of distraction. In the Yoga Sutras they are defined as disease, lack of interest or sluggishness, lingering doubt, pride or carelessness, idleness, sense gratification, living in a world of delusion, lack of perseverance and backsliding. (Sutra 1.30, p. 83) The direct antidote to the obscurations is cultivating the Brahma viharas (divine abodes), which are shared with Buddhism: mairti (friendliness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy), upeksa (equanimity).

The yogic practices work to balance the qualities of nature called the gunas. The gunas are comprised of tamas (intertia, lethargy), rajas (activity) and sattva (purity, balance, clarity).  Much of the modern world lives in a rajastic state: busy and running from one activity to another with little pause – mentally, physically, and emotionally. This affects the deeper layers of our being and prevents true spiritual development. For evolution to occur, the body, breath, mind, energy, psychology, emotions, all must be brought into a sattvic, pure state through life style, diet and practice of the eight limbs of yoga. Through consistent practice and adherence to a yogic lifestyle, one naturally gravitates towards sattva. I have been aware of this in my own practice: as life has become less busy and externally demanding, I can devote more energies to the inner world, and find the correct balance between inner and outer involvements.

Ultimately, as ones consciousness becomes purified and rarefied through continuous connection to the source of being (samadhi), and one transcends the gunas and merges with the whole. Shankaracharya writes about this state:

When the mind, thus purged by ceaseless meditation is merged in Brahman, the state of Samadhi is attained. In that state there is no sense of duality. The undivided joy of Brahman is experienced. (p. 109 Crest-Jewel of Discrimination)

There are endless paths to yoga – this essay just scratches the surface. One thing that I have realized is that yoga is a personal practice and each person expresses and practices the teachings in a way suitable to their disposition. One may practice yoga in accord with their own spiritual tradition – and thus strengthen their faith through direct experience of truth. The practices ground one in virtue through the yamas and niyamas and orient the spirit towards its highest expression of self-realization. Asana cleanses and tones the physical body and pranayama takes one into the subtle realm of breath and life energy. The mind becomes still, rarefied and prepared to enter the forest and clear lake of the inner most being – full of light, effulgence, its nature love and bliss.

Om shanti, shanti, shanti

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