What is yoga?

yoga philosophy

Insta-yoga

Yoga has evolved from the esoteric mediation practice of Himalayan hermits to a trendy fitness phenomenon inspiring countless group classes, altheisure lines, hashtags and luxury retreats. There is so much yoga online and in gyms/studios, so many people who have become famous for their portrayal of yoga. Most of what I see is photos of thin white women in beautiful places doing incredible poses that I have never seen before, paired with words that alternate between vulnerable and motivational. It feels strange to see strong postures and seemingly unrelated words, with all of it disconnected from yoga’s Indian roots, and yet, I am so much in awe of the business acumen and physical prowess of the InstaYogis.

I wonder too: is this yoga? Where is the science, the philosophy, the knowledge? The constant stream of #yogainspiration runs parallel to the lives most people live behind desks and deadlines. Are these images and fitness classes helping us feel peaceful, or are they distracting us from the fuller living of the tangible lives? Has yoga become a product to consume? Are we creating inspiration or entertainment?

Does it matter?

These questions existed long before Instagram and exclusive gym memberships. Eknath Easwaran, Fullbright scholar and Indian spiritual guru, wrote in 1985 of yoga and yogis:

The word yogi may bring to mind images of amazing people who do strange contortions with their bodies. Yogis are still thought of as standing on their heads or reclining on a bed of nails. It is true that there are many practitioners of a kind of yoga that involves physical exercises and postures; and there are those who have achieved remarkable feats like lying on beds of nails, or even being buried alive and surviving. But this physical side of yoga (called hatha yoga, “the yoga of force”) is not what is meant in the Gita. In fact, though physical techniques have a place, the Gita regards undue emphasis on them as outside the normal course of spiritual development.

In the Gita, the word yogi often has a more modest definition: it can mean a person who does his or her job with detachment from the rewards (6:1), or it can be rendered as “one who has attained the goal of meditation.” For yogi literally means “one who is accomplished in yoga,” and yoga means “integration of the spirit.” In this sense, yoga means wholeness or the process of becoming whole at the deepest spiritual level.

The overemphasis of the physical practice existed long before InstaYogis, and though yoga is still associated with spirituality, I also see a strange veneer of emotional vulnerability, serene politeness, and spaciness that characterizes the stereotypical yogi today. Are those the trappings of spirituality? What are the true roots of yoga as a way of life?

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Ancient yoga

The first codified explanations of yoga were written circa 200BC. The Bhagavad Gita (song of God) is an excerpt of the Indian epic tale Mahabharata—in the moments before war, Krishna teaches Arjun of yoga. Yoga is described as “perfect evenness of mind” as well as “skill in action.” Yogis are described as “established in meditation” and equanimity, “alike in success and defeat.” The only posture described is that of sitting for meditation “with a concentrated mind, and with the workings of the consciousness and senses under control”. The essence of asana is a straight spine: the posture is described as seated with “head and neck erect, motionless, the vision drawn in”. This is a practice not of physical fitness (which warrior-prince Arjun would not have needed), but of stillness, contemplation, and wisdom.

Through dialogue Krishna teaches Arjun the different life paths of yoga:

Jnana yoga– the contemplative path of spiritual wisdom

Karma yoga–  the active path of selfless service

These two paths are equal in that each of them leads to inner peace, though neither path would be on a gym class schedule today. Jnana yoga is the pursuit of knowledge and belongs in the realm of today’s academia, while karma yoga can be practiced anywhere in any lifestyle, so long as we act selflessly, without attachment to the fruits of our labor. These are not yoga paths that lend themselves to photography or consumerism or group fitness, but can be practiced by any individual who seeks to live a life of peace, knowledge, and harmony.

Around the same time, 200BC, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, which are 196 aphorisms (one-liners!) that describe the purpose and practice of Raja yoga, the yogic science of meditation. A few of these sutras outline an eightfold path, which compliment the broader teachings of the Gita. The first two steps of the path are divided into five concepts each, which together encompass the lifestyle of a yogi. The last three steps of the path are essentially stages of meditation. The full path is outlined below in the original Sanskrit, along with my interpretations in English:

 


 

1. Yamas

the five restraints

Satya– truth (in thought and action)

Ahimsa– the opposite of harming

physical and emotional goodwill to all living beings; often inspires vegetarians/vegans

Asteya– the opposite of stealing; not wanting others’ possessions

Aparigraha– the opposite of grasping; non-attachment; let it be

Bhramacharya– usually translated as chastity, though I believe the Sanskrit refers to the sexual state of a student or ascetic, which is to say: celibate.

This is an interesting point, considering the current sexualization of yoga in Western culture, which I think is a phenomenon not because yoga is sexy (it really isn’t) but because our visually-oriented and porn-obsessed culture sexually objectifies attractive bodies. Not to mention that many businesses are currently capitalizing on the benefits of yoga, and sex sells.

2. Niyamas

the five observances

Santosha– contentment (increasingly difficult in our consumer society!)

Saucha– often translated as cleanliness, though I think of it as purity, a concept that encompasses not only regular bathing but also living a skillful, simple life

Tapas– austerities; practices that generate heat for the purpose of purification

Physical practice of asanas generate purifying internal heat, but there are also other personal practices for body and mind. One of my tapas is spending very little time with phone/internet/news, and taking more time for creativity and presence. It is a difficult practice but makes my mind clear and my life full.

Svadyaya– study of one’s self; introspection

This niyama resonates well with the modern fields of psychology and neuroscience.

I also like to work with the intersection of writing and yoga for the practice of self-study.

Ishvara pranidhana– devotion of oneself to god

If the concept of god does not suit you, it can be replaced with the concept of something much larger than yourself. For example, you may consider the idea that you are one person on a very large planet, which is itself a massive living entity hurtling through unknown and infinite space, propelled solely by the invisible force of an even larger ball of flame. Yes. That, to me, is the intersection of physics and Isvara pranidhana.

3. Asana

the physical postures you may already know and love

My understanding is that Patanjali was speaking of asanas for seated meditation, as described in the Gita. These seated postures are also the ones that children find very naturally, because they are balanced ways of sitting and concentrating. But it is also possible to go beyond these fundamental postures. With a little interest and training, the human body can take on incredible shapes unavailable to most of the animal world, simply because we stand upright and have unusual mobility in our spines and shoulders.

To me, the physical practice of yoga brings strength, mobility, and therefore freedom of expression, to both body and mind. Are the postures an effective workout? Of course. Are any of today’s popular asanas described in the Gita or the Sutras? Not at all. Can today’s creative flows be called yoga asana? I don’t know. So I practice and I teach the postures that I know have been taught by generations of teachers in India.

4. Pranayama

breath control; expansion of the life force (prana=life force; ayama= extension)

In many languages, including Sanskrit, the word for ‘breath’ is closely tied with the word for ‘spirit’. Prana is the life energy that flows through each of us, and working with the breath is the practice of lifting and nourishing the life force itself. By attuning the breath, we naturally attune the energy that enlivens the body. A more conscious breath is a more conscious life.

This is the only place in the eightfold path that Patanjali delineates an order of practice, stating that asana must be mastered before pranayama is attempted. BKS Iyengar explains: “In pranayama, the spine and spinal muscles are the sources of action and the lungs are the receiving instruments. They must be trained to open and to extend backwards, forwards, upwards and outwards… the whole range of postures are therefore essential if we are to derive from pranayama the maximum benefit with the minimum strain.” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1966)

5. Pratyahara

drawing the senses inwards

Ever more challenging as we live ever more online. There will always be something to want, something inviting attention away from the present moment. Pratyahara is the practice of taking vision inwards, hearing inwards, seeing and listening to the inner life. Then the desires and cravings naturally fade into contentment (santosha).

This step is a natural bridge from the first four limbs, which are action-oriented, to the last three limbs, which cannot be strived for, only received with grace:

6. Dharana

complete concentration of the mind on an object or idea

This is the state of undivided attention, as opposed to a mind full of conflicting thoughts, rushing ideas, distractions, etc. In this stage, the yogi still feels separate from the object or idea of concentration, but maintains steady, singular focus.

7. Dhyana

flow of energy between the mind and the object such that there is no longer any differentiation between self and other

This is the limb that seems closest to what we call “meditation” in English. When I am sitting in padmasana (lotus pose) at home, and my parents are walking and talking quietly so as not to disturb me, they say that I am in dhyana. It is a word that is commonly understood in Bengali. But in English, I hear of meditation apps, and techniques, and books and courses and all kinds of material trappings. As I understand it, when one is in dhanya, there is no language happening in the mind. There is space, and the sound of silence, and the natural unity of self with surroundings. So, to me, these well-intended apps and techniques get in the way, creating more and more language when all we need is less tech, less language, less fear of silence in solitude.

I practice, and I teach, just sitting, with the understanding that dhyana will come with naturally with time. Orit Sen-Gupta writes that “meditation is a state that’s within us, we don’t have to invent it or create it. We have within us the seed of wide mind, and if we sit long enough and enough times, something will reveal itself. And this something will be the thing itself and not the technique that was meant to take us closer to it… In this state of not-knowing, the mind reaches at times places it wouldn’t meet if it were busy with a technique and with ambition.” (Heart of Practice, 2012)

8. Samadhi

enlightenment, or merging the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness

Yoga is the path to this state of being, and yoga is this state of being. Buddhism calls it nirvana.


 

I see the eightfold path less like a step-by-step manual and more like a series of nesting dolls: each step contains elements of all the others. An asana may look like a physical posture, but if the practitioner is also drawing her senses inwards, attending to her breath, and living in truth and simplicity, she is practicing the asana with pratyahara, pranayama, yama and niyama. If she is concentrating her mind on her breath and body, she is in dharana; if she is suffused with awareness of herself within her surroundings, she is in dhyana. If she is in enlightened bliss, then she is in samadhi (and when she is finished with that, I’d like a phone call to hear what it was like.) So the practice of the postures does not exclude the practice of meditation, just as the practice of meditation can be found in any movement. One does not have to be on a mat listening to cues to meditate; one can be in yoga at any time, in any place, so long as as there is skill in action and the mind rests in stillness, contemplation, and wisdom.

 

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So how did we go from an ancient path of meditation to a modern world of group-fitness yoga classes and luxury yoga accessories? Come back next week for the answers!

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