What is Yoga?
This is a question that is important to keep asking yourself, along with, 'What am I doing it for?' and 'Why am I doing it?' As students of this art and science of yoga, it is very important to keep this personal enquiry alive. Of course our reasons for taking up a yoga practice and for continuing to practice evolve and change over time as both our personal understanding and practice matures. But it is imperative that we understand what yoga is and what constitutes practice!
Let's first explore the classical definitions of Yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word derived from the root 'Yuj', meaning to join, unite, yoke, bring together, bind or tether. Yoga is Union, but union of what? The fluffy answer is yoga is the unification of Body, Mind and Spirit. That sounds nice, but in practical terms, what does it actually mean? I am a down to earth, grass roots kind of guy, and lets face it, there is more fluff in today's yoga than in a Chinese garment factory!
Are the body and mind separate, and what about the spirit? Clearly, in truth they are already joined together, but behaviorally we often appear disconnected. I often recall my spiritual teacher Sri Om Prakesh Tiwari's words, 'There is the ultimate truth, and then there is the truth as it appears'. Ultimately the mind and the body are already joined together in a kind of arranged marriage that takes place before birth, yet behaviorally many people live in their heads, or in a space somewhere outside and separate from their bodies.
In Indian thought and yoga philosophy the Supreme One, the creator, Brahman, permeates everything. This Supreme Universal Spirit is known as Paramataman. It separates or fragments itself to take different forms in order to experience and come to know itself. In human beings that individualized fragment is known as Jivatman. The spiritual goal of yoga is to re-unite the jivataman with the paramatman. The system and methodologies by which the individual consciousness is reconnected with the Supreme consciousness is known as yoga. So yoga is both the means and the goal.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, in the second verse of the first chapter he gives us his definition of yoga, 'Yogas chitta vritti nirodhaha - yoga is the channelisation of the fluctuations of the mind'. Simply put, it is complete concentration leading towards total absorption in pure consciousness. This absorption or self-realization is known as Samadhi, a state of being where one abides in ones own divinity; ones true nature.
Again, I am reminded of Tiwariji's words, 'That divinity is not to be created. You are already that. You came from that and you will return to that. How could you be anything else?' So there's a thought, you are God, you came from God and you will return to God. Now, I am sure that like me you can intellectually grasp that, but the experience of knowing, feeling, and being that, is a little more elusive. I certainly do not want to enter into a religious debate here, let's face it the existence or non-existence of God is still being debated today. Even Buddha was smart enough to stay away from that debate. On the question of the existence or non-existence of God, Buddha remained silent.
Whether you have spiritual or religious inclinations, it is really a matter of personal belief and faith. An Atheist has as much right to not believe in a God as those of us who choose to believe. One thing is for sure however, there is something beyond our limited ego identifications, but that is a subject for another time.
Let's here deal with consciousness and the super conscious state. In Yogic philosophy, human consciousness is called Chitta. It is the totality of the individual conscious experience consisting of three component faculties:
These aspects of our consciousness are ordinarily in constant flux and at odds with each other. One only has to honestly examine the fickleness of one's own mind. My teacher always re-enforced to me, 'Your mind is not your friend, leave it alone. Do not get involved with it. To succeed in yoga you have to go beyond the mind. Transcend it! You are not the mind'.
- Buddhi - the intelligence, the power of reason, that decisive state that distinguishes between things, the knowing faculty.
- Manas - the individual mind having the faculty of attention, selection, and rejection; the oscillating indecisive thinking faculty.
- Ahamkara - literally the I-maker, the Ego sense of 'I am', that affirms 'I know'.
The Bhagavad Gita states, 'A person must elevate themselves by their own mind, not degrade themselves. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well.' - chapter 6, verse 5.
Now that is tricky, lets face it; Mind is a trickster, likened to a naughty monkey. The monkey mind, always grasping and attaching, swinging from thought to thought, no sooner having grasped one thought, it gives it up and grasps another. Often simultaneously grasping diametrically opposed thoughts. How to tame this monkey mind?
First we have to understand that the faculties of mind (manas) and Ego (ahamkara) have paired up together to play tricks on us. They have successfully convinced us that we are this separate ego identity and the one who thinks. I think therefore I am; is the famous line.
Buddha said it best through the Four Noble Truths. All life is suffering; the cause of that suffering is the false belief in separateness. It is mind and ego that give rise to this sense of separateness. Most people are unaware that Buddhism is nothing but a deep and profound commentary on the path and practice of true yoga. The third noble truth declares the way out of suffering and the fourth noble truth declares Buddha's Eight Fold Path as the way.
Prior to Buddha, Patanjali also declared that the root cause of all our problems is Avidhya. Often translated as ignorance, but I prefer the translation, lack of awareness, because the root of ignorance is lack of awareness. For someone to be ignorant they lack knowledge or education on a particular matter, therefore they remain unaware. Once the awareness of what's missing is realized the relevant education or knowledge can be sought. He also outlines an eight-fold path, The Eight Limbs of Yoga, The Ashtangas', from the words ashtau meaning eight and angas meaning limbs or branches.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
It is beyond the scope of this first article to go into each of the eight limbs. I will elaborate and expand on them later. For now the best way to understand the eight limbs is in reverse order.
- Yama - how to live in the world
- Niyama - personal disciplines
- Asana - literally 'seat or to sit', the physical practices
- Pranayama - breath control, extension of the life force
- Pratyahara - withdrawal or discipline of the senses
- Dharana - concentration
- Dhyana - meditation
- Samadhi - realization/total absorption
Firstly, we need to accept that there is no problem in the mind; the mind itself is the problem. Through lack of awareness (avidhya) the mind and ego together have created an illusionary reality, a wrong sense of 'I'.
Our true nature is that divinity at the source of our being. The jewel within the lotus, Om Mane Padme Hum. The jewel is your divinity that need not be created, that already always existed, your true essence, your Jivatman. The lotus is the sixteen petalled heart chakra, Anahata Chakra. Anahata means unstruck, it is the seat of the cosmic vibration and sound Omkara or Pranava. In the state of Samadhi, the consciousness (chitta) abides in its essence without fluctuations or separateness, there is no 'I'. This is where the jivatman realizes it is the paramataman, this is the true liberation (Moksha).
The only way to Samadhi is through meditation. Now, meditation is very misunderstood subject and beyond the scope of this particular discussion, but we can get into that later. I want to invite you to understand fully that meditation is not something you can do! Nobody can do meditation! Meditation is an experience of consciousness that arises from within as a result of your practices. You can do your practices but you cannot do meditation.
You can however practice concentration, the slow and gradual disciplining of you mind with full awareness to remain focused on a given subject or object of practice. It is only through concentration that the fluctuations (Vrittis) of consciousness (chitta) can be channelised or suspended. Nirodha Chitta, the suspended mind is at first meditation which when sustained can lead towards total absorption or Samadhi. Remember, Yogas chitta vritti nirodhaha. Ekagra Chitta, one pointed mind is supreme concentration, leading to the meditation experience.
Most of us in the modern world are far from achieving Nirodha or Ekagra Chitta, we mostly fluctuate between Vikshipta chitta - the oscillating or distracted mind and Mudha chitta - the infatuated mind.
So hopefully by now you begin to see that the heart of the matter for both Yoga and Buddhism is taming the monkey mind. It is a deep enquiry into the nature and behavior of the mind. Pattabhi Jois always said 'Mind controlling capacity, that is yoga. No mind control, no yoga!'
I will get into the different approaches to yoga in later posts. The last three limbs are considered internal achievements, Antaranga sadhana. This is the Royal Path, the Raja Yoga. The internal limbs arise as a result of the external practices. 'Yoga is internal cleansing, internal practices.' - Sri K Pattabhi Jois.
So at the most basic level when we look at the behavior of mind, it is always seeking external validation, it is constantly drawn out to the external world through the senses and their corresponding organs. Therefore Pratyahara, the withdrawal or disciplining of the senses is the highest external practice.
In our modern world of excess, the infatuated mind (mudha chitta) is bombarded with sensory stimuli. We have trained our minds to be addicted to visual and auditory stimulation since the advent of the television! Consequently our two most distracted sense organs are the eyes and the ears. Have you ever tried to sit and so called meditate? The slightest visual distraction or movement will occupy your mind and irritate you in your attempt to sit. Likewise, unwelcome noises, dogs barking, children crying, people talking loud, your neighbor playing Call of Duty on his play station, all become a major hindrance to your sitting practice. The fact is that the world is a noisy place and will continue to be. In a world of no agreement, can you sit anyway?
It is your ability to control and withdraw your own mind from its sensory addiction that is important. It is the ego that pipes up, hey I am trying to meditate or do my yoga practice. Don't you know how important 'I' am? Everyone around me should stop what they're doing or at least do it quietly. The world should stop so 'I' can practice!
That's why some people need music for the practice, whether its Deva Primal's angelic voice singing mantras in the background or the latest disco beats to energize your backbends and handstands, but don't be fooled; it is still sensory addiction and distraction!
We are equally distracted by our sense of smell, stinky room, stinky yoga mat, stinky yoga wear, your own underarms, the smell of your neighbors body odor or perfume, their stinky mat, clothes etc.. The receptionist eating her instant noodles, the list is endless. Additionally, there are our other sensory addictions through taste and the tongue. Our addictions to talking, we love to wag our tongues and usually in useless chatter or worse still, idle gossip! Then we have all our kinesthetic addictions, the sense of touch and sexual addictions.
The infatuated mind is obsessed with our own or somebody else's body, wealth, appearances; subject to our own narcissistic tendencies, materialism and vanity. 'Oh I would never be seen dead practicing in that outfit! Does she not see what we see? You'd think she would look in the mirror before going to yoga class.'
Yoga is really about mental discipline, disciplining the mind through sensory withdrawal that is why it is important to practice moderation in all activities. The Bhagavad Gita says, 'There is no possibility on one's becoming a Yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats to much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough. He who is moderate in his habits of eating, sleeping, working and recreation can mitigate all material pains by practicing the yoga system.' - chaper 6, verses 16-17.
The ancient ones were wise and also observed the relationship between the minds disturbances and its effect on our breathing. Just think of or observe yourself or someone in an emotional state, extremely upset and sobbing, how is the breathing? Visualize someone who is chronically depressed, how do they breathe? Or equally someone who is super excited.
The mind rides on the subtle pranic currents that ride on the breath; when the mind is disturbed, the breathing is affected. When the breath is disturbed the mind is affected. This is why in the Hatha Yoga tradition Pranayama is given a high priority. For the Hatha Yogi, channelising the prana automatically channeliseses the mind. The prana is channelised through breath control.
Asana, simply means to sit or have a seat. Originally there were only a few sitting or meditative postures. The cultural asanas developed out of necessity as a result of trying to hold the body in one position for extended periods of time. Anyone who has attempted to sit still for any length of time would have experienced the resulting numbness, pins and needles, loss of circulation and temporarily impaired nerve function, and a host of other symptoms that can result. (More on this in later posts).
Suffice to say that Asana practice without breath control and mental discipline is not Yoga, but really just physical culturing and gymnastics! Lets get real and call it what it is! Those who are stuck in Mudha Chitta, with a mind infatuated with the body and its sensory addictions, have reduced yoga to nothing but an art of body culturing, seeking to sweat, lose weight, develop a yoga butt or yoga abs, reduces this beautiful science and art to nothing but contortionism and physical gymnastics.
The external practices are the first 5 limbs and are known as Bahiranga sadhana. It is a shame that in this body-infatuated world, very few people penetrate into the subject of Yoga beyond asana and stretching. It's time to wake up to the reality that nobody ever became realized by sticking their feet behind their head or by performing handstands, one arm balances or any other form of contortionism, acrobatics or gymnastics. Putting your T-shirt on whilst blindfolded and in headstand is a trick that belongs in a Circus show and has absolutely nothing to do with yoga!
The Kathopanishad describes yoga, 'When the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not - then, say the wise, is reached the highest stage. This steady control of the senses and mind has been defined as Yoga. He who attains it is free from delusion.'
The real gift of yoga is so, so much more! It is a real medicine for a real sickness, a hundred times worse than Cancer! We only have to look around and see the epidemic that has spread throughout humanity. Society is sick, humanity is sick and our planet and great mother Gaia is sick!
I bow to the lotus feet of the Guru's who have gone before me, who are the real medicine Doctors the true Shaman, the snake charmers (jungalikayamane). For they have shown the way to re-awaken that divinity in the form of the Kundalini (Shakti) Serpent that has fallen into the base chakra, as a result of our ignorance and coiled itself around the coccyx sealing the entrance to the Sushumna (the central channel). They have shown the way to awaken the one true and lasting happiness of the divine self revealed, pacifying the poisonous herb (Halahala), that Avidhya, that lack of awareness that blinds us and keeps us bound on the wheel of Samsara (Conditional Existence). This Yoga Vidhya (knowledge) is the path to true liberation (Moksha) and self-realization!
Om Namo, Om Namaha, Om Sri Gurubhyo Namaha, Hari Om!
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