Yoga is an ancient art that goes way beyond the practice of asanas – postures. It is a philosophy that goes back to the times before the religions existed more than 2,000 years ago. It is a philosophy that talks about union. It talks about union between all human beings and also about union with a greater energy that itself connects us all.
What is Yoga?
Yoga is an ancient art that has the aim of bringing the practitioner back to the true self. The ancient scriptures tell us that the true self is the state of bliss. It is a state of inner happiness. The sage Patanjali who wrote the ‘Yoga Sutra’ – an ancient recorded text on yoga codifying the system to date – gave the definition of yoga as ‘Yoga chiti vriti nirodha’. This translates from the original Sanskrit into English to meaning that yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the psyche. Historically there have been two main paths of yoga — raja yoga and hatha yoga – and these both ultimately aim for control over the mind. Asana practice – the practice of yoga postures – was created in order to stabilise us for sitting during meditation. Yoga was created ultimately to bring us into meditation and hence deeper states of awareness.
Now the next question arises what is meditation or dhyana in Sanskrit? Meditation is the stilling of the mind by the stilling of the body.
Also pranayama – the breathing techniques of yoga – aim to still the breath and hence still the mind.
Our meditational practices in yoga help us to overcome the ego. The ego is individuality. But in reality we are all connected and with yoga we realise this connection. The definition of yoga is union. Through the practice of yoga one realises the union between the you who you think you are, that is your individual consciousness, and the you who you really are – that is you are a part of a supreme consciousness. In order to transcend between the individual consciousness and the supreme consciousness one needs to overcome the ego. And in order to overcome the ego we need what the Upanishad texts describe as Vivek Chudamani. This is the crown jewel of the power of discrimination over what is real and what is not. Hence we need to be able to see that really there is no I but that we are all connected.
We need to establish what it means to come back to the true self – or what is self realisation. Self realisation is in essence identifying yourself as peace and happiness. Once you have made this true identification you will just radiate peace and happiness.
One way of looking at yoga is in terms of the chakras (energy points within us). Now yoga aims for the ultimate functioning of all the chakras within us. This lifts us from individual consciousness to supreme consciousness.
Now the Vedas – the scriptures which talk about knowledge – say that there are three defects in the mind. These are mala which is dirt, waste, excessive thoughts and emotions. Then there is vikshep which is instability and then there is avaran which means cover. The presence of avaran means that it is very hard for us to see the truth.
The ancient philosophy of India was named Sanathana Dharma which can be translated as meaning the eternal law. It saw everything in the universe as being connected, as having a spiritual union – that is man, animals, nature, the whole universe. In Vedic times – the times in which the Vedas were written – the world was called Vasudevakudambakam which means one world family. When we consider the world as one family, we experience true spirituality. The world at that time was seen as being beyond the differences brought about by race, country or religion. Spirituality is about seeing the unity in all things.
The Paths of Yoga
Moving on from this knowledge, it is important for us to understand that there are several different paths of yoga all of which lead us back to self realisation or inner happiness.
Karma yoga is the yoga of action. It is about removing mala. There are two different types of action or karma. Sakam involves looking for the fruit of one’s actions whereas nishkam is purer. It involves not looking for the fruit’s of one’s actions but acting through a pure heart and pure mind with no thought for expectation. Living a life of nishkam karma leads to a happier, more well balanced and peaceful life.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. There exists conditional devotion, however unconditional devotion is what is needed to remove vikshep or instability.
Gyana yoga is the yoga of knowledge. It exists in order to remove avaran or cover. Gyana yoga talks a lot about the nature of consciousness. Now the nature of consciousness can be described as ‘sat chit anand’. ‘Sat’ is existence or truth. We are all immortal in the sense that we are all souls and the soul itself is immortal. This is our true nature. We are all in search of our true immortal selves – our souls. This is why we constantly aim to live a longer life – we are trying to connect with our true selves – our immortal souls. ‘Chit’ is wisdom – hence we are all looking for wisdom, we are looking for the wisdom that inherently is inside every one of us. ‘Anand’ is bliss. Happiness is that which we have all always looked for and in the deepest core of our beings we are all essentially happiness or bliss. On the basis of sat chit anand we are all looking for self realisation or inner happiness through knowledge.