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

Arrived In India

On April 2nd, Dillon and I arrived in New Delhi at 1:30am after about 20 hours of air travel. Stopping in Shanghai, our trip to India started by visiting two giant cities with serious environmental pollution. It has been alarming to see a grey/brown sky with no horizon in sight. The hot sun of Delhi found its way through the smog and the temperature peaked around 40 degrees C, or close to 100 F.

We’ve spent our first “night” (2am-6am sleep) in Paharganj (the only place I could book a hotel the night before), which is not recommended, as it serves as a budget travelers transit neighborhood. The second night we spent in Manju-ka-Till, the Tibetan refugee camp in Delhi.

I am filled with memories and flashbacks from my time here 10 years ago, when almost no one had a mobile. Now smart phones and wi-fi are ubiquitous. Ten years ago, in my more youthful days as a 20 year old college student, I found everything fresh, new, adventurous and mind expanding. Now I find myself 10 years older, 30, with some significant life experience. Having loved, studied, traveled, worked, experienced heartbreak, and followed the spiritual path to some extent, there as been an enormous change in me. Am I that same 20 year old? No – but those impressions and experiences have lead me to where I am now.  I am, however, interested in retaining that freshness of vision and curiosity that taught me much about myself and the world.

Sometimes I wonder why I/we decided to return to India. What is it about this place? I know the trials, hassels and constant encounters with people who are seriously undernourished and living in very difficult circumstances are a part of life here. Delhi is especially trying to traveler as everything is hot, dusty, noisy – cars, motorbikes, buses, rickshaws constantly honking – and for me is quite overwhelming to a jet lagged and newly arrived traveler. As the days have gone by, it has become more clear to me why I have come: The gravity of this place, its ancient spiritual sciences that have survived by a small number are pulling me back to my very center as a human being.

On April 3rd, we took an afternoon train to Haridwar, 5 or 6 hours North of Delhi in the edge of the Himalayas where the Ganga river flows swiftly into the heart of India. A hot ride and humid ride, my clothing sticking to every part of my body.  It was not entirely unpleasant; there is an underlying gentleness and humanness to many people which makes connection come naturally.

Our first morning, I took a bath in the Ganga, the cold water rushing quickly and pilgrims bathing joyfuly, splashing themselves and each other, praying, enjoying the sacred banks of mother Ganga. Our 2nd night in Haridwar, we discovered an old-style ashram right on the banks of the Ganga called Vanaresi Vaisram built around 2 generations ago when the surrounding land was still jungle. Our room was right on the edge of the fast flowing Ganga. What a blessing.

The next day we left by train uphill to Dehradun, where we are now, in Rajpur,  a small settlement in the foothills of the Himalaya. We began our Yoga course yesterday with Rajiv and Swati Chanchani at Yog-Ganga. Much to say about this, so I will save that for the next entry.

It seems the internet connection is too slow to upload photos. Those to come as well.

Om Shanti


“By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.” -Mother Theresa

“The fool thinks, “I am the body.” The intelligent man thinks, “I am the individual soul united with the body.” But the wise man, in the greatness of his knowledge and discrimination, sees the atman as reality and thinks, “I am Brahman.” – Shankacharya, The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination

“The navel chakra: a vortex into the sanctum sanatorium.”

“Satiated in Radiance.”

– Rajiv Chanchani (paraphrased)





However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath and mind we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience inside, deep within our being. Yoga is not an external experience. In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do. Yoga is different from dance or theater. In yoga we are not creating something for others to look at. As we perform the various asanas we observe what we are doing and how we are doing it. We do it only for ourselves. We are both the observer and what is observed at the same time. If we do not pay attention to ourselves in our practice, then we cannot call it yoga. 

T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga

There is no state to be attained…

“There is no state to be attained other than our practice of letting go.”

-Dogen Zenji

Letting go is a commitment to return to what is in front of us, rather than dwelling in the world of the mind,  fabrication, habit, or karma. Continuous practice is the practice of letting go and fully experiencing each moment. When we practice in each moment, life becomes a gift, as each moment is unique and full.

“This life is fleeting, wake up, wake up! Don’t waste this life!” Living in a Zen temple we are reminded of impermanence and fleeting nature of life. We are reminded that there is nothing  to hold on to or take with us.  We exist in a world where nothing is “known” and the best we can do is act in harmony with the unfolding of life.

In letting go, I return to what is most immediate, the breath, the body the sensations of being alive. In letting go, I acknowledge the powers of the mind, of planning and discernment and practice awareness, knowing how easy it is to identify with thoughts and feelings. The base of practice is awareness.

How can I let go and not be governed by impulse and desire? How can I flow with the constant changes of life and maintain my inner compass? I am realizing slowly that to sit quietly, live and move with awareness, notice and let go, over and over again is the practice of Zen. Letting go, letting the thoughts of the mind, and the pieces of the broken “self” be offered up to the empty sky – in their place, moments of peace and appreciation of this very life.