Yoga is an ancient art that goes way beyond the practice of asanas – postures. It is a philosophy that goes back to the times before the religions existed more than 2,000 years ago. It is a philosophy that talks about union. It talks about union between all human beings and also about union with a greater energy that itself connects us all.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient art that has the aim of bringing the practitioner back to the true self. The ancient scriptures tell us that the true self is the state of bliss. It is a state of inner happiness. The sage Patanjali who wrote the ‘Yoga Sutra’ – an ancient recorded text on yoga codifying the system to date – gave the definition of yoga as ‘Yoga chiti vriti nirodha’. This translates from the original Sanskrit into English to meaning that yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the psyche. Historically there have been two main paths of yoga — raja yoga and hatha yoga – and these both ultimately aim for control over the mind. Asana practice – the practice of yoga postures – was created in order to stabilise us for sitting during meditation. Yoga was created ultimately to bring us into meditation and hence deeper states of awareness.
Now the next question arises what is meditation or dhyana in Sanskrit? Meditation is the stilling of the mind by the stilling of the body.
Also pranayama – the breathing techniques of yoga – aim to still the breath and hence still the mind.
Our meditational practices in yoga help us to overcome the ego. The ego is individuality. But in reality we are all connected and with yoga we realise this connection. The definition of yoga is union. Through the practice of yoga one realises the union between the you who you think you are, that is your individual consciousness, and the you who you really are – that is you are a part of a supreme consciousness. In order to transcend between the individual consciousness and the supreme consciousness one needs to overcome the ego. And in order to overcome the ego we need what the Upanishad texts describe as Vivek Chudamani. This is the crown jewel of the power of discrimination over what is real and what is not. Hence we need to be able to see that really there is no I but that we are all connected.
We need to establish what it means to come back to the true self – or what is self realisation. Self realisation is in essence identifying yourself as peace and happiness. Once you have made this true identification you will just radiate peace and happiness.
One way of looking at yoga is in terms of the chakras (energy points within us). Now yoga aims for the ultimate functioning of all the chakras within us. This lifts us from individual consciousness to supreme consciousness.
Now the Vedas – the scriptures which talk about knowledge – say that there are three defects in the mind. These are mala which is dirt, waste, excessive thoughts and emotions. Then there is vikshep which is instability and then there is avaran which means cover. The presence of avaran means that it is very hard for us to see the truth.
The ancient philosophy of India was named Sanathana Dharma which can be translated as meaning the eternal law. It saw everything in the universe as being connected, as having a spiritual union – that is man, animals, nature, the whole universe. In Vedic times – the times in which the Vedas were written – the world was called Vasudevakudambakam which means one world family. When we consider the world as one family, we experience true spirituality. The world at that time was seen as being beyond the differences brought about by race, country or religion. Spirituality is about seeing the unity in all things.
The Paths of Yoga
Moving on from this knowledge, it is important for us to understand that there are several different paths of yoga all of which lead us back to self realisation or inner happiness.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action. It is about removing mala. There are two different types of action or karma. Sakam involves looking for the fruit of one’s actions whereas nishkam is purer. It involves not looking for the fruit’s of one’s actions but acting through a pure heart and pure mind with no thought for expectation. Living a life of nishkam karma leads to a happier, more well balanced and peaceful life.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. There exists conditional devotion, however unconditional devotion is what is needed to remove vikshep or instability.
Gyana yoga is the yoga of knowledge. It exists in order to remove avaran or cover. Gyana yoga talks a lot about the nature of consciousness. Now the nature of consciousness can be described as ‘sat chit anand’. ‘Sat’ is existence or truth. We are all immortal in the sense that we are all souls and the soul itself is immortal. This is our true nature. We are all in search of our true immortal selves – our souls. This is why we constantly aim to live a longer life – we are trying to connect with our true selves – our immortal souls. ‘Chit’ is wisdom – hence we are all looking for wisdom, we are looking for the wisdom that inherently is inside every one of us. ‘Anand’ is bliss. Happiness is that which we have all always looked for and in the deepest core of our beings we are all essentially happiness or bliss. On the basis of sat chit anand we are all looking for self realisation or inner happiness through knowledge.
Raja yoga is the kingly path. Just as a king brings law and order into his kingdom, the practitioner of raja yoga rules the kingdom within – the kingdom of the senses, so rather than being ruled by the senses, the yogi is in a state of peace and has his/her senses under control. The yogi brings law and order within.
After the Vedic period of Indian philosophy, the Vedantic period commenced. Vedanta means the end of the Vedas – the time where knowledge ceases and self realisation begins.
Within the Vedantic tradition of philosophy, we read that there are five layers above the consciousness which stop us from identifying with who we are. We are all actually so caught up in these 5 layers that we think we are these 5 layers. These layers are known in Vedanta as the ‘panch kosha’. The word ‘panch’ means five and the word ‘kosha’ means envelopes or coverings over our consciousness. With the practice of yoga we move towards the innermost layer.
The first layer is called the food body or the physical body. This is known as the annamaya kosha. It is our physical body composed of the nutritients we have eaten – protein, minerals and so forth. Many times we identify ourselves with the physical body and do not look beyond that. Even when we are only looking at the physical body it is important to realise that the food we eat makes up our body and our brain. Therefore by eating healthily and also by exercising we maintain a healthy and hence happy physical and mental state.
The second layer is known as the pranamaya kosha and this is the energy or etheric body. Prana can be called breath, oxygen or vital energy and relates to the chi of Chinese philosophy. Oxygen is needed for every cell of our body. Trees and plants release oxygen hence we feel alive when we are surrounded by and at one with nature.
The third layer is known as the manomaya kosha or the mental body. From this understanding we can appreciate that the mind and the body are connected. This is why we are physically more healthy when we keep a positive outlook. Laughter and happiness always create good health.
The fourth layer is the gyanamaya kosha or intuitive body. This is where we experience our sixth sense. The answers to all of our questions are found in reality in the fourth layer.
And to be in the awareness of the fifth layer is our ultimate aim as yogis — this is the bliss body -or anandmaya kosha. We experience this when we have transcended the ego completely and have become aware of who we truly are and our connection with everything. Yoga is a journey that takes us from annamaya kosha to anandmaya kosha. Once we have reached anandmaya kosha we then live in the bliss body.
It can be said that meditation is a practice that allows us to go beyond the mind and senses to the deeper levels to see who we truly are.
Within the practices of yoga, asanas work on the food body, pranayama works on the energy body and dhyana or meditation works on the mental body. Hence the three practices of yoga push us further and further towards the deepest kosha.
A ‘turiya’ is a person who has transcended the five koshas. The Turiya state is the transcendental self. It is not affected by anything – neither likes nor dislikes. It is in a balanced state. When we reach this state – when we are in the bliss body – then we are beyond both pleasure and pain. We practice yoga in order to move away from being the body, the mind and the breath and just move to being the person on the inside.
The raja yoga of Patanjali talks about controlling the mind and hence the breath and hence the body. It has eight limbs attached to it – the asthanga. The word asht means eight and the word anga means limbs. The first steps of the asthanga are yama and niyama. Yama are social rules and regulations and niyama are personal rules and regulations. Just these two limbs alone are enough to give one self realisation. The other paths of yoga also take one to self realisation. To discuss these further, yama includes ahimsa (non violence), satya (truth and honesty, asteya (non stealing), bramacharya (functioning according to the supreme consciousness – which leads to acting in balance) and aparigraha (non accumulation or a sense of non possession).
Niyama includes sauch (cleanliness including mental cleanliness), santosh (contentment), tapa (austerity or self discipline), swadhyaya (self study) and Ishwar parnidhan (belief in the Supreme or seeing the Supreme in everything).
The eight limbs of yoga, the asthanga, are as follows – yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharna, dhyan and samadhi.
Dharna is one pointedness where one is so focused on the object of concentration that all other thoughts disappear.
Pratyahara is withdrawal from the senses. Continuous practice of asanas and pranayama brings one to pratyahara. All the techniques of meditation are pratyahara.
Samadhi is oneness with the universe. Once one has crossed dhyan and reached Samadhi, the awareness of ‘I’ disappears. There is only oneness with the focus of your meditation, and ultimately with the universe. At Samadhi the ego disappears and there is a realisation that we are all connected.
Within Samadhi there is savikalpa samadhi where some seeds of ‘I’ are left and there is nirvikalpa samadhi where no seeds are left. In yoga the aim is to move towards nirvikalpa samadhi.
According to Patanjali the ultimate aim of yoga is towards kewalya where there is no return from samadhi. This is the state of oneness with the universe in which there is no sense of self, no sense of ‘I’, no ego and no awareness of it to return to. It is just a state where we realise how we are all connected and it is a state of bliss because it is where we have overcome all the attachments of the pleasures and pains that attachment to this material world brings. It is where we connect with the supreme self and experience our natural state of bliss. It is at this point where we have realised our true self through the practice of yoga.
Yoga goes beyond the mere practice of asanas, beyond even meditation and pranayama and in fact brings us closer to our original state of self realisation.
Yoga teaches us to go deeper within ourselves and in this deeper awareness there is a great sense of shanti or peace we can all draw from. Ultimately as good yoga students it is this sense of peace within which we are all searching for.