The word yoga means union and scholars define it as the union of the mind and the Self (ātman). Assuming it is a fair definition, we need to know what the words mind and Self mean before we can understand how a union of the two may take place.

The difference between the mind and the Self is rather subtle. The mind is the cognitions associated with judgement, language and memory which are mutually intertwined and underpinned by ego, whereas the Self is pure awareness that is not colored by prior experience or emotional attachment to one’s personhood.

The mind is the instrument that, energized by the ego, assumes that it is the real individual. In reality, there are many minds that show up in different situations, and each one of them is a secondary presence, just like the moon that reflects the light of the sun and waxes and wanes. The Self is the inner sun (gold), whereas the mind is the moon (silver). The dialogue of the Bhagavad Gītā (a central text of Yoga) is between Krishna as the sun and the Witness and Arjuna (the name means silver) who represents everyperson’s mind.

By the union of the two one means the mind refashioning itself so that it is able to operate out of detached self-interest and able to take a flight to the inner sun and be one with it. This inner flight requires preparation related to ethical behavior, truthfulness, compassion and empathy. The practice of Yoga is to learn techniques so that one is in such an elevated state on a more or less permanent basis.

In order to practice Yoga, Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtra includes ethical preparation of precisely these goals. The yamas or controls are ahiṃsā (अहिंसा), nonviolence; satya (सत्य), truthfulness; asteya (अस्तेय), non-stealing; brahmacarya (ब्रह्मचर्य), chastity; and aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः), non-avarice. One is also enjoined complementing observances (niyamas) of śauca(शौच), purity of mind, speech and body; santoṣa (सन्तोष), contentment; tapas (तपस्), austerity; svādhyāya (स्वाध्याय), self-reflection; and īśvarapraṇidhāna (ईश्वरप्रणिधान), contemplation of Īśvara (True Self). Therefore, Yoga appears to reinforce changes put in place by the individual at the beginning of the practice.

Before one can obtain a measure of one’s mind, one needs to have a measure of one’s body, therefore the Yogic practice includes āsanas (physical posture that facilitate wellness). This is followed by prāṇāyāma (breath exercises), pratyāhāra(in-drawing one’s awareness), dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation), and samādhi (meditative consciousness).

The ground is prepared by tattva-śuddhi, which is purification of the Sāṅkhyan elements that form the mind. This leads to a balance that facilitates emergence of new insight. It is assumed that the Self transcends the individual and is not merely an artifact that emerges from the electrical activity in the brain.

Now, of course, there are those in the mainstream scientific world who say that the difference between the mind and the Self is illusory and they take it that mind = Self. They add: Whatever benefit accrues from Yoga is from its physical āsanas, and the changes in attitude and behavior resulting from yamas and niyamas. The rest of the eight limbs of the Yoga-sūtra are merely an analysis of the way thinking proceeds and such self-examination is helpful in achieving focus. Mathematics, music, dance or theatre may also facilitate a calm that leads to focus and creativity.

But Yoga claims to offer much more than intellectual, emotional or psychological benefits. According to it, the practitioner not only becomes creative but can also hope to access extraordinary knowledge and intuition about reality. At Yoga’s end are answers about meaning of not just one’s own life but the larger mystery of reality.

This promised extraordinary knowledge goes to the very heart of the difference between Yoga and Western approaches to the mind. Within the Indian tradition, scholars and masters are emphatic that the West doesn’t quite get what Yoga has to offer to the world. Here’s the Dalai Lama claiming that modern psychology is at the kindergarten level compared to what he implicitly identifies as Yoga:

Dalai Lama characterizing modern psychology to be at KG level

Some history

The conception of the mind in the Yoga-sūtra is the same as that of the Ṛgveda which describes two birds on the tree of whom one is eating the fruit and the other merely watches. This resonates with the famous metaphor of the chariot in the Bhagavad Gītā, where the chariot is the body and its horses are the senses. The immature and unwise person is pulled by the horses; for the wise man it is not the senses that lead the chariot but rather the Witness within who is the Self.

The Veda promises intuition from the practice of Yoga:

यु॒ञ्जते॒ मन॑ उ॒त यु॑ञ्जते॒ धियो॒ विप्रा॒ विप्र॑स्य बृह॒तो वि॑प॒श्चितः । Ṛgveda 5.81.1

The learned yoke the mind, also yoke the thoughts in wisdom’s vast inspiration.

The mind acts in paradoxical ways: the unwise person feels he is free but isn’t; the wise one appears to have no autonomy, but is free! The two birds of the Ṛgveda are the source of our two voices. For the unwise the two voices are different, but for the wise, the one who has practiced Yoga, the two merge into one and it is this union that was mentioned in the beginning.

There are many descriptions of yoga in the Mahābhārata, which is by all accounts anterior to Patañjali. In it, Sage Vasiṣṭha speaks of yoga as ekāgratā, one pointed concentration, and Bhīṣma instructs Yudhiṣṭhira in four stages of dhyāna-yoga. The Bhagavad Gītā speaks of four kinds of yoga: karma-yoga, the path of action, jñāna-yoga, the path of knowledge, bhakti-yoga, the path of devotion, and dhyāna-yoga, the path of meditation. The Kaṭha and the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣads also speak of yoga.

In the Maitrī Upaniṣad, it is said that yoga has six aṅgas or limbs which are listed as prāṇāyāma, breath control, pratyāhāra, sense-withdrawal, dhyāna, meditation, tarka, logic, and samādhi, absorption. In the Bhagavad Gītā, there is much stress on Sāṅkhya-yoga (the tattvas and their relationships) which is taken to be the same as the yoga of knowledge; the Mokṣadharma Book of the Mahābhārata also says that Sāṅkhya and Yoga are one.

Vasiṣṭha’s Yoga

The Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, another great classic of yoga that was put together most likely after the Yoga-Sūtras, is a dialog between a despondent young Rāma and the sage Vasiṣṭha. Rāma summarizes the sources of human suffering: impermanence, heartbreak, pain, illness, disease, and mortality, and complains that one cannot find happiness in things for they are like toys of which the child tires before long.

Vasiṣṭha’s teaching is to seek higher planes in which one is attuned to the universal rhythms of life. In the universal frame, one is not different from others and, therefore, the cause of suffering vanishes. Vasiṣṭha concludes: “Between this and that is the body of consciousness: it is unity and diversity. Fullness expands in infinity; and then the infinite alone exists as the world. Wherever consciousness conceives of creation, materiality emerges. Indivisible consciousness exists everywhere, and all that is also this creation.”

He adds that the subject exists because of the object, and the object is but a reflection of the subject. When real knowledge is gained, what remains is not expressible in words. Of that it cannot be said that it is one or that it is many. It is neither seer nor seen, neither subject nor object, neither this nor that.

Yoga and Hinduism

Yoga is the practice of Hinduism; it is the very heart of Sanātana Dharma. Some people are worried by this, but that is only because of the misunderstanding about the nature of Hinduism, which is a universal tradition of knowledge of the Self.

What about the stuff that one reads on caste? “Caste” as a category was created by the British (see here and here); it’s not fundamental to Hinduism and it has been disavowed countless times.

Ritual is spiritual practice as sacred theatre that helps the participant in the process of self-discovery, but it is not required if one doesn’t find its aesthetics in accord with one’s temperament.

Yoga is one of the six darśanas (philosophies) associated with the Veda, which are the lenses through which one can make sense of reality. Indeed the Bhagavad Gītā, the central text of Yoga, is considered the most accessible summary of the Veda.

यत्रोपरमते चित्तं निरुद्धं योगसेवया |
यत्र चैवात्मनात्मानं पश्यन्नात्मनि तुष्यति || BG 6.20||

yatroparamate cittaṁ niruddhaṁ yoga-sevayā
yatra caivātmanātmānaṁ paśyann ātmani tuṣyati

When the restrained mind becomes still by the practice of Yoga, then the yogi is able to behold the Self through the purified mind, and rejoices in the inner joy.

According to the Vedic view, reality, which is unitary at the transcendental level, is projected into experience which is characterized by duality and paradox. We thus have duality associated with body and consciousness, being and becoming, greed and altruism, fate and freedom. The gods bridge such duality in the field of imagination and also collectively in society: Viṣṇu is the deity of moral law, whereas Śiva is Universal Consciousness. Conversely, the projection into processes of time and change is through the agency of the Goddess. Consciousness (puruṣa) and Nature (prakṛti) are opposite sides of the same coin.

(a) upright tree and (b) inverted tree

Two views on how consciousness arises: (a) Materialism, where cognitive capacities arise out of the body; (b)Vedic, reality is like an inverted tree where the root of the tree is Universal consciousness and the branches are various embodiments.

The magic cube of the 6 darśanas. Mīmāṃsā is the floor, Sāṅkhya is the left side, Nyāya the front side, Yoga the right side, Vaiśeṣika the back, and Vedānta the ceiling.

At the threshold

Yoga is everwhere and it is practiced by hundreds of millions for health and wellness. Just the āsanas and prāṇāyāma have proven medical benefits, as here, here, and here, and now increasing number of practitioners are graduating to practices that control the mind with even greater promise for health and strengtheing of the immune system. Given its general popularity, one hopes that the medical establishment will integrate Yoga therapy much more comprehensively in both the training of doctors and treatment of patients.

The next chapter in the spread of Yoga will be the use of its epistemology in the design of the curriculum in schools and colleges and the teaching of its methods, philosophy, and history.

सुभाष काक. Author, scientist.