What is Yoga?

‘Is there anything higher than thought?
Yes; meditation is, in truth, higher than thought.’

Ch.7 V.6 Chandogya Upanishad.

Yoga is an extraordinarily vast subject – modern, ancient, practical and esoteric, mystical, contradictory and pragmatic. Just as the History and Practise of any art or science, from music to painting, to cricket or jazz, could not possibly be summarised in a small space, much less even in great swathes of encyclopaedias, just so mere paragraphs, as hereafter ensue, cannot hope to do justice to what is an ancient and expansive branch of our shared human culture. Nonetheless, I feel I should explain a little of where this system of philosophy and practise comes from, and what is its underlying purpose.

Yoga is not the same as Hinduism, as many believe, though their histories cannot be separated. Hinduism, or Brahminism as it was first known back when it adhered to the teachings of the Vedas, is a pantheistic religion, which is more a culture than a set of creeds. Brahmanism came into being as the Aryan invaders of the Indian subcontinent imported their system of beliefs, and it absorbed the various Dravidian fertility and animistic religions it met along the way. Prior to this, a type of freethinking religious life called Sramanism had coexisted peacefully with the native fertility credos that were common all over the world at the time. The practitioners of this loose, independent tradition of Sramanism were called yogis, munis, rishis, and forest ascetics, who in general abhorred the laws and rituals and sacrifice of the incoming Aryan religion, particularly the wholesale slaughter of animals. The Sramanas were either benignly tolerated by the new-come Aryan priests, or they were hunted down and killed because they challenged the power of those priests.

As Brahminism evolved into Hinduism it also became known as Vedanta, which means the end of the Vedas, and this signified a time when the scriptural authority of the Upanishads became more important. The Upanishads, especially the earliest ones, consist largely of philosophical debates that had taken place among the rishis and yogis, or between them and local rulers. The Sramanas did not subscribe to identical doctrines, ranging among themselves from atheistic to agnostic to theistic.

‘The unifying feature of all of them was the practice of austerity, meditation, non-violence, and yogic breathing and physical exercises.’
(pg. 15. A History of yoga. Vivian Worthington.)
Their streams of thought and philosophy imprinted gradually on the practices of the ordinary villagers around them, because public debate between believers-at-odds was very common, or these beliefs were approved and adopted by local kings and thus, over time, Hinduism became a very broad canopy. Hindus can easily accept the creeds of Christians and Buddhists for example, because they recognise, quite rightly, that there are individual paths to the ultimate realisation. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, it is said that

‘…By whatever statement knowledge of the inner self can be imparted to man, that is the right one: there is no dogma fixed for all.’

However most Hindus do not practise what we in the west know as Yoga. This is the preserve of the rishis and yogis who continue generally to be eccentrics and holy persons who have stepped outside of the boundaries of caste and convention, who have taken to an ascetic life on the road or in caves, or who have retreated into monasteries and ashrams. Having said that there have always been householder Yogis who have had families and businesses and ordinary lives, but who strive to understand their place in the scheme of things at a deeper level. In many ways some of the common yoga practices we find so intriguing are second nature to people born in India, having been instilled in their personalities from the cradle. To this extent Yoga overlaps the Hindu culture, and Hindus are naturally proud of the Sanatam Dharma or Perennial Philosophy, which has so intrigued serious thinkers throughout the ages. To another extent, however, orthodox Hindus view some of the practices of Yoga and Tantra with distrust and disapproval.

Yoga, as I have said, predates Hinduism, and was in fact a universal culture for self-evolution, traces of which have been found all across the globe from South America to Norway to excavated sites in Mohendojaro and Harappa (Pakistan). It is merely by chance and good fortune that this ancient knowledge happened to be preserved last in the unassailable roof of the world, protected from the ravages of war and pestilence in the nooks and crannies of the mighty Himalayas.
The Vedas, which are the oldest texts in existence, dated to between 3000 and 5000 years ago, make reference to Yoga practices. These scriptures, as is the case with all written words, take account of far more ancient oral traditions. (The Vedas are a large hotchpotch covering subjects that range widely from astrology, science and health practices to magic rituals, amongst other things.) Here you can find mention of the subtle energy in the body that is known as Prana, and also references to Mantras, Chakras and Meditation practices. Later on, the Upanishads, which date from between the 6th century B.C. and the 15th century A.D., clarify such theories on prana, and begin to mention such yogic practices as Japa (meditation using prayer beads and the repetition of mantra), Mouna (another meditative practice centred around the conscious observance of silence, and thus the observance of the nature of the mind), the science of Kundalini, Aum (the fundamental mother-root mantra, or sound vibration), and the study of Pranayama or breathing practises. For example in the Swetasvatara Upanishad, verse 8 chapter 2, it is said;

’With the body, neck and head held upright,
direct your awareness to the heart region,
and then (the mantra)AUM will be your boat
to cross the river of fear.’

There are said to be ten Major Upanishads, but there are also many Minor Upanishads that deal with areas such as the practise of asana and other practical aspects of Yoga. In fact Upanishads continue to be written to this day, though these modern texts do not have the qualifying authority of antiquity.
Other elder scriptures include the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata, which tell of great tribal histories, much in the same way that the Bible tells the cosmology and history of the tribes of Israel and the surrounding lands. Part of the Mahabharata is the popular poem, read daily by millions of people of any and no creeds, called the Bhagavad Gita. The name of this scripture means the Song of the Blessed Lord. In this book Yoga is described as being entirely possible for the ordinary human being, and not merely the preserve of sages who have withdrawn from the outside world. It is possible, according to the Gita, to attain liberation by wholeheartedly fulfilling one’s ordinary duties in life. Professor S. Radhakrishnan, who was President of India between 1961 and 1967, has written a wonderful commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. He attests to the fact that the Gita raises this fundamental question about how we can live in the Highest Self and yet continue to live in the world.

The Gita consists of a conversation between Arjuna, a warrior, and his charioteer Krishna, who is the Supreme Lord, though in disguise. Krishna is driving Arjuna onto the battlefield of Kurukshetra, an historical site of war but also representative of the battlefield of our daily lives, where so-called good and bad constantly fight for supremacy within us. Arjuna finds himself overwhelmed with fear and depression at the thought of the task that lies before him; that of felling his relations and engaging in bloody battle.

When I see my own people arrayed and eager for fight,
O Krishna, my limbs quail, my mouth goes dry, my body shakes and my hair stands on end….
Ch.1 vs 28-29

Krishna tells Arjuna that he must
‘cast off his petty faintheartedness and arise’( Ch. 2 v. 3).

He tells him that the nature of the true Self is imperishable and therefore he should feel no fear for what cannot be destroyed.
Treating alike pleasure and pain, gain and loss,
Victory and defeat, then get ready for battle.
Ch. 2 v. 38

Krishna outlines what aught to be Arjuna’s approach to the testing nature of life, particularly in the face of fear. He describes different forms of Yoga discipline, and says….
In this path (of Yoga) no effort is ever lost, and no obstacle
prevails; even a little of this righteousness(Dharma) saves
from great fear Ch. 2 v. 40

…A (person) of disciplined mind, who moves among the objects of sense, with the senses under control and free
from attachment and aversion, s/he attains purity of spirit.
Ch. 2 v 64

For the person who is temperate in food and recreation,
who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensues discipline (Yoga) which destroys all sorrow.
Ch. 6 v. 17

As a lamp in a windless place flickers not, to such is likened the yogi of subdued thought, who practises union with the Self (through the disciplines of Yoga).
Ch. 6 v.19
Let him/her gain, little by little, tranquillity by means of reason controlled by steadiness…..
Ch. 6 v. 25
Without doubt….. the mind is difficult to curb, and restless, but it can be controlled by constant practise and non-attachment.
Ch. 6 v. 35.

Thus, as we can see from these extracts from the Bhagavad Gita, the fundamental issue we all deal with is the runaway mind. Misapprehension in the mind, for example, produces the snake we see in the rope. This is the classical yogic allegory whereby the fearful human mistakes the coiled form of a rope for a poisonous snake in the darkened room, and is thus consumed with confusion.
The path of Yoga seeks, albeit among other esoteric pursuits, to come to some settlement with this formidable unknowable entity – that is, it seeks to befriend the monkey of the mind.

Aldous Huxley described the Bhagavad Gita as the clearest and most comprehensive summary of the Perennial Philosophy available. Professor Radhakrishnan emphasises that the Gita ‘gives utterance to the aspirations of the pilgrims of all sects who seek to tread the inner way to the city of God.’

‘The entire world…is not real in itself, and seems to be real only for those who live in ignorance…To be caught in it is the bondage in which we are all implicated…Only the wisdom that the universal reality and the individual self are identical can bring us redemption…the ego is dissolved, the wandering ceases and we have perfect joy…’
S. Radhakrishnan pg. 16

It is interesting to note that Shankaracharya, the famous and first commentator on the Bhagavad Gita, holds that the universal reality or Brahman, while one without a second, is not a personal God. Shankaracharya’s Brahman is without attributes or form, is indefinable, and therefore cannot be considered as personal. It cannot be loved or revered. After this first commentary on the Gita there have been hundreds of years worth of writers and commentators who have either agreed or disagreed, partially agreed or disagreed, violently agreed or disagreed, and so on and so forth, with Shankaracharya’s definition of universal reality, positing their own personal definitions of the universal reality, which makes Yogic thought and philosophy particularly fluid among metaphysical systems. For ‘fluid’ some could justifiably substitute the word ‘confusing’, but it is a question of finding the path that accords best with your own heart, and best assists your own spiritual evolution.

About 2400 years ago a sage named Patanjali systemised existing yoga practices in his book known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This book outlines the practices of Raja Yoga and this is the Yoga most commonly known in the West.
Patanjali outlines the eight-fold path, consisting of
Yamas or self-restraints, such as restraint from harming other creatures, falsehood, theft, and greed;
Niyamas or self-observances, such as cleanliness, contentment, simplicity, study and devotion;
Asana or physical postures;
Pranayama or breathing practices which induce the control of the flow of prana;
Pratyahara or abstraction of the mind from the world of the senses,;
Dharana which means concentration, on an object or on an idea;
Dhyana which means meditation;
and Samadhi which is liberation, or identification of the self with pure consciousness.

In his second ‘sutra’ or verse, Patanjali affirms that the purpose of Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind, or even the cessation of our attachment to the modifications of the mind (though naturally the interpretation of the purport of this simple four-word Sanskrit verse is subject to reams of debate). The modifications of the mind are many and varied, as we are all witness to on a daily basis. They are said to consist of right knowledge, wrong knowledge, fancy, sleep and memory, and each of these in turn can either be pleasant or painful. The mind wheels and oscillates, veering wildly between this and the other obsession or attachment, pleasure or fear, each thought seeking to be supreme ruler for a time. Some of this undoubtedly bestows us with happiness and inspiration. Some of it causes us misery and suffering. Either way we experience a degree of enslavement so long as we remain unconscious of the minds whimsical power. Calm observation of how the nature of the mind affects all aspects of our lives and personalities and destinies, insofar as we have a strong tendency to emotionally ‘anchor’ or invest in the passing and ever-changing phenomena of the mind, is a cornerstone of the practise of Yoga. Patanjali’s third sutra states that the culmination of yoga is when the ‘seer’ abides in his own essential nature.

There is a huge body of literature on the subject of Yoga. The above-mentioned sources are merely among the most well known texts. It is also worth noting, at this point, that the practise of Yoga does not require you to read any literature at all. An ounce of practise, as the old adage goes, is worth tonnes of theory.

The practise of Yoga generally starts with the outermost aspect of our lives, viz. the physical body. We are hardly going to be able to attain peace of mind if we are troubled by discomfort on the physical level, though this does not mean that people who are incapacitated in any way may not venture forward on the journey. Indeed their suffering may better equip them in many ways that those more blithe may never know. From the physical level the practices of Yoga take us deeper into emotional and mental levels, where deep-set neuroses, preoccupations, fantasies and stresses may be limiting the fullest expression of our true selves.

‘Yoga is the integration and harmony between thought, word and deed, or integration between head, heart and hand.’
Swami Sivananda Saraswati.

There are many branches of Yoga – Hatha, Raja, Laya, Bhakti, Kundalini, Swara, Karma, Jnana(Gyana), and Mantra-Yoga, to name but a few. These are designed to accommodate the different personalities of seekers. Usually people combine and integrate aspects from the different branches. Yoga springs from a wider branch of knowledge known as Tantra. The word Tantra is an amalgamation of the two words tanoti and trayati. Tanoti means expansion and trayati means liberation. This expansion and liberation refers to our consciousness.

The word yoga itself comes from the root ‘yuj’, which means to yoke or unite. Some argue that Yoga thus describes a journey towards the union of our individual consciousness (atman) with the universal consciousness (Brahman), or union of the inner sun and moon, right and left hemispheres of brain, etc. etc. though others would say that this union already exists, and that Yoga merely uncovers what is already an actuality. Yoga can also be taken to mean practices aimed at balancing and harmonisation of the body, mind and emotions, which would be a prerequisite to any union with a higher reality, if such a union was indeed what you ultimately desired. It is a hands-on, pragmatic, self-help system designed to maximise the potential for good health of body and mind. All you need to practise is a mat or blanket and a quiet space.

The practise of Yoga does not require one to learn a new intangible system of philosophies and language. It is best that you accept yourself just as you are, and add Yoga in on top. Do not start with some niggardly approach of depriving yourself of this and that and the other, creating for yourself some new moral prison. Begin with the quiet practise of some asana, pranayama and meditation techniques; a few minutes of your busy life is all that is required. Fifteen minutes daily, or a few times a week will stand you in good stead. You can increase the time spent practising as and when you desire, but balance is essential.

Yoga is a way of approaching the whole of life. Yoga does not only happen on the practise mat. Washing the dishes, raising your children, weeding the garden, holding a business meeting – all can be done in the spirit of higher consciousness. Awareness of all aspects of body, mind, breath, feeling, and intent will lead to expansion of consciousness no matter how mundane the task. Karma Yoga is the Yoga of action, whereby you do what you have to do in your ordinary everyday life but you become gradually detached from the ‘fruit’ of your actions – every activity is realised as being a beautiful and meaningful end in itself. The Path itself becomes the Goal, Yeat’s perfection of the life and the work. No need to choose…..

What needs to fall away will fall away in time, and you will learn, as you become more conscious and self-accepting, the magical power of being able to stand on your own two feet. The underlying purpose of uniting the individual self with the Absolute is not intimidating in the least. Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore has written beautifully of this spiritual merger, when we will feel freed of the sense of separation, and the illusion of time and space.

‘The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and death, in ebb and in flow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.’

Yoga practices, regardless of what one is hoping for, be it spiritual enlightenment, freedom from the tyranny of the mind, or to shape up your body for a bikini, will give direct and tangible benefits, though life’s ups and downs will continue in their normal way. Having said that, it is to be hoped that as one practises Yoga with some sincerity an attachment to an admirable bikini body will fall somewhat down ones list of priorities, (though it not need fall completely into the void). A widespread practise of Yoga in the population, including its ethical precepts, would obviously lead to a more stable wider society. This is why Yoga has a role to play in education, in hospitals and clinics, in prisons and institutions. As Bo Lozoff, founder of the hugely successful Prison Ashram Project says, however,
Do not make Yoga your new prison.
Practise with a light heart, and drop ambition. Don’t anticipate all or any of the answers. Silence is sometimes the only response to the most important questions. That which can be described is truly not the Tao. (Lao Tzu).

Eat a little, drink a little,
Talk a little, sleep a little,
Mix a little, move a little,
Serve a little, rest a little,
Work a little, relax a little,
Study a little, worship a little,
Do asanas a little, pranayama a little,
Reflect a little, meditate a little,
Do japa a little, chant a little,
Write mantra a little, have satsang a little.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rishikesh.


Generally just Being. Nothing in particular, no claims to fame. I like gardening and the sea, nature, art in all forms from poetry to films and everything in between, and being in the company of my family.

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