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What is Yoga?


Written by B.K.S. Iyengar in his book entitled THE TREE OF YOGA (see also our yoga links)

Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga. But this is too abstract a notion to be easily understood, so for our level of understanding I say that yoga is the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul.

Ninety percent of us are suffering in some way, physically, mentally or spiritually. The science of yoga helps us to keep the body as a temple so that it becomes as clean as the soul. The body is lazy, the mind is vibrant and the soul is luminous. Yogic practices develop the body to the level of the vibrant mind so that the body and the mind, having both become vibrant, are drawn towards the light of the soul.

Philosophers, saints and sages tell us that there are various paths by which we can reach the ultimate goal, the sight of the soul. The science of mind is called raja—-yoga, the science of intelligence is jnana-yoga, the science of duty is karma-yoga, and the science of will is hatha-yoga. For the authors of the ancient texts, these names were like the keys on the keyboard. The keyboard has many keys but the music is one. Similarly, there are many words by which individuals express their particular ways of approaching yoga and the particular paths through which they reach the culmination of their art, but yoga is one, just as God is one though in different countries people call Him by different names.

Those who approach yoga intellectually say that raja-yoga is spiritual and hatha-yoga merely physical. This is a tremendous misconception. As all paths lead towards the source, hatha-yoga too takes one towards the sight of the soul. How many of those who make this distinction between hatha-yoga and raja-yoga have made a thorough study of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or other ancient texts on hatha-yoga? And how many have thoroughly read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which are the principal source for raja-yoga? Do they know that the last chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is called Samadhi Pada and speaks of the state of samadhi, or union with the Supreme Spirit? And what is the culmination of raja-yoga? Its is also samadhi. So where is the difference between the two?

If you give a little psychological thought rather than physiological thought to the word ‘hatha’, you will learn more of whether hatha-yoga is physical or spiritual. ‘Ha’ means sun, which is the sun of your body, that is to say your soul, and ‘tha’ means moon, which is your consciousness. The energy of the sun never fades, whereas the moon fades every month and again from fading comes to fullness. So the sun in all of us, which is our soul, never fades, whereas the mind or consciousness, which draws its energy from the soul, has fluctuations, modulations, moods, ups and downs like the phases of the moon; it is like quicksilver, and as quicksilver cannot be caught by the hand, so we cannot easily catch hold of the mind. Yet when consciousness and the body are brought into union with one another, the energy of consciousness becomes still, and when the energy of consciousness is still, consciousness too is still, and the soul pervades the entire body.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that yoga is ‘prana-vrtti-nirodha’-stilling the fluctuations of the breath. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras says that yoga is ‘chitta-vrtti-nirodha’-stilling the fluctuations of the mind. The mind can go in many directions in a split second. Its movements are very fast and varied. But the breath cannot go in many directions at once. It has only one path: inhalation and exhalation. It can pause for a moment in a state of retention, but it cannot multiply like the mind. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, controlling the breath and observing its rhythm brings the consciousness to stillness. Thus, through the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, begins with the control of prana, breath or energy, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begin with the control of consciousness, yet they meet at a certain point and there is ultimately no difference between them. By controlling the breath you are controlling consciousness, and by controlling consciousness you bring rhythm to the breath.

Like camphor becoming one with the flame, the mind gets absorbed in the flame of the soul. This is the culmination of hatha-yoga. The text tell us that union of the mind with the soul is hatha-yoga. Raja-yoga is also the union of the mind with the soul, so there is no difference between the two. Yoga is one.

To practice yoga is thus to unite the body with the mind. For the cultured person it is also to unite the mind with the intelligence and for the still more highly cultured person it is to unite the body, mind and intelligence with the depth of the soul.

Yoga is traditionally divided into eight limbs or aspects, called yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. If you are not familiar with these terms, this long list may seem rather daunting at first. In the course of concepts and the Sanskrit words will not be a barrier to your understanding.

Yoga can also be seen as having three tiers: external, internal and innermost, or physical, mental and spiritual. Thus the eight limbs of yoga can be divided into three groups. Yama and niyama are the social and individual ethical disciplines; asana, pranayama and pratyahara lead to the evolution of the individual, to the understanding of the self; dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the effects of yoga which bring the experience of the sight of the soul, but they are not as such part of its practice.

Though yoga is often considered in the West to be only physical, it is also physio-psychological and psycho-spiritual subject. It is a science which liberates one’s mind from the bondage of the body and leads it towards the soul. When the mind reaches and merges with the soul, the soul is freed and remains thereafter in peace and beatitude. If a bird is kept in a cage, it has no possibility of movement. The moment the cage is opened, the bird flies out and seizes its freedom. Man attains that same freedom when the mind is released from the bondage of the body and comes to rest on the lap of the soul.

The first level of yoga consists of what can be called do’s and don’ts. Niyama tells us what we should do for the good of the individual and society, and yama tells us what to avoid doing because it would be harmful to the individual and to society. These are ethical disciplines which have existed in the human race in all places from time immemorial. Yama and niyama are traditional whether in the civilisations of the East or the West, the North or the South.

Having followed these traditional precepts, or dos and don’ts, we then work for individual development through the interpenetration of body and mind, mind and soul. This second level of yoga is sadhana, or practice, and involves asana, pranayama and pratyahara. Asana is the practice of different poses of the body. Pranayama is the science of breath. Pratyahara is either the silencing of the senses and keeping them in their positions passively, or the drawing inward of the senses so that they may dwell on the core of the being.

The third tier of yoga is described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras as the wealth of yoga. It is the effect or the fruit of sadhana and consists of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Dhar-ana is concentration or complete attention. Dhyana is meditation. Samadhi is the culmination of yoga; it is a state of bliss and union with the Universal Spirit. When you take care of a tree in its growth, in due time it blossoms into flowers and then give its natural culmination which is the fruit. Likewise the practice of yoga has to culminate sooner or later in the spiritual fragrance of freedom and beatitude. As the essence of the tree is contained in the fruit, so too the essence of your practice is contained in its fruit of freedom, poise, peace and beatitude.

Thank you and gratitude to Mr. Iyengar and those who preceded and followed him.