Light on Yoga

The word yoga means union and scholars define it as the union of the mind and the Self (ātman). It is a fair definition, but 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 truth, 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 (the 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 to take flight to the inner sun and be one with it. This leap 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 is for balance to facilitate emergence of new insight. It is assumed that the Self transcends the individual and is not merely an artifact related to 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 provides 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:

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 the 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

yuñjate mana uta yuñjate dhiyo viprā viprasya bṛhato vipaścitaḥ |

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 (BG) speaks of many kinds of yoga that include 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.

योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते || BG 2.48||

yogasthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṃ tyaktvā dhanañjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṃ yoga ucyate

Steady in yoga, perform your actions, abandoning attachments, O Arjuna. To have achieved equanimity in success and failure is mark of yoga

योग: कर्मसु कौशलम् || BG 2.50||

yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam

Yoga is skill in action

As skill in action, yoga is a path of mastery in all fields.

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 natural 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. Hinduism is about radical equality since all sentient beings have the same Self (puruṣa).

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.

योगयुक्तो विशुद्धात्मा विजितात्मा जितेन्द्रिय: |
सर्वभूतात्मभूतात्मा कुर्वन्नपि न लिप्यते || BG 5.7||

yoga-yukto viśuddhātmā vijitātmā jitendriyaḥ
sarva-bhūtātma-bhūtātmā kurvann api na lipyate

Yogis endowed with purified intellect, who control the mind and senses, see the Self in every living being. Actions don’t entangle them.

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

yatroparamate cittaṃ niruddhaṃ yoga-sevayā
yatra caivātmanātmānaṃ 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.

सर्वभूतस्थमात्मानं सर्वभूतानि चात्मनि |
ईक्षते योगयुक्तात्मा सर्वत्र समदर्शन: || BG 6.29||

sarva-bhūtastham ātmānaṃ sarva-bhūtāni cātmani
īkṣate yoga-yuktātmā sarvatra sama-darśanaḥ

Seeing the Self within all living beings, and all beings within the Self, he who sees himself united with the Self, sees all with an equal vision.

अनन्याश्चिन्तयन्तो मां ये जना: पर्युपासते |
तेषां नित्याभियुक्तानां योगक्षेमं वहाम्यहम् || BG 9.22||

ananyāś cintayanto māṁ ye janāḥ paryupāsate
teṣāṃ nityābhiyuktānāṃ yoga-kṣemaṃ vahāmyaham

Those who always think of me and are engagedin full devotion. To those absorbed in me, I provide a refuge in yoga.

According to the Vedic view, reality, which is unitary at the transcendental level, is projected into experience that is characterized by duality and paradox. We 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.

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.

Knowing and forgetting

In the consciousness-centered view of reality that the Vedas espouse, the seer is within us. But then why don’t we know? What is the cause of our alienation and grief, and what is the path forward?

सर्वस्य चाहं हृदि सन्निविष्टो|
मत्त: स्मृतिर्ज्ञानमपोहनं च
BG 15.15

sarvasya cāhaṃ hṛdi saṃniviṣṭo
mattaḥ smṛtirjñānamapohanaṃ ca

I am seated in everyone’s heart; from me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness.

We do not know because apohana, forgetting, is a part of our nature.

अधिभूतं क्षरो भाव: पुरुषश्चाधिदैवतम् |
अधियज्ञोऽहमेवात्र देहे देहभृतां वर ||BG 8.4||

adhibhūtaṃ kṣharo bhāvaḥ puruṣaś cādhidaivatam
adhiyajño ’ham evātra dehe deha-bhṛitāṃ vara

Materiality (adhibhūta) is my perishable nature and am puruṣa or consciousness (adhidaiva); I alone am the transformation (adhiyajña) in this body.

The self is manifested both in the inner and the outer (and these conections are called bandhu), but forgetting of real meaning and wishing to see things in materiality alone (apohana) leads to paradox (parokṣa). By transformations within (yajña), it becomes possible to open the inner eye and get to know one’s true self.

At the threshold

Yoga is everywhere and it is practiced around the world 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 are graduating to the discipline to control the mind for even greater promise for health. Given its general popularity, one hopes that the medical establishment will integrate Yoga therapy in both the training of doctors and treatment of patients.

The next phase 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.


See my book The Prajña Sūtra: Aphorisms of Intuition for additional discussion.



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