Two Essays on Yoga
JAI GURU GORAKH!
(These two essays on traditional yoga were originally written for a mass audience and use a very basic, friendly writing style to convey straightforward information.)
THE EIGHT LIMBS OF YOGA
Yoga is an ancient spiritual technology, with a precise series of steps and methodologies – and it doesn’t have much to do with the yoga currently in vogue. Yoga means Union in Sanskrit – Union With God.
In one sense, a yoga is a technique. The yoga which is commonly and popularly practiced is technically called hatha yoga—the yoga of the body. It is an excellent technique for keeping the body flexible and healthy… but real yoga is the yoga of the soul, not the body. It is the technology of harnessing the mind and training it to rest steadily in the Divine. What we commonly think of as “meditation” is in fact much closer to the classical meaning of yoga.
Patanjali, who composed the Yoga Sutras during the second century BCE, laid down a scientific framework for following the essential steps and stages of Union. These are the eight limbs of yoga, and together comprise what is perhaps the most elegant and precise system of spiritual development known to man. They are a series of practices which exist outside of the framework of ideology—yoga is not a religion or belief system. Rather, it is a series of practices and techniques which can be applied within the framework of any belief system (or without one) to accelerate the soul’s progress to the Divine.
The eight limbs of yoga are as follows, and are meant to be followed successively, building upon each other, each increasingly focusing the yogi’s life and practice, and aiding the path to single-pointed focus on God:
1. Yama. Universal morality; rather, living a life free of impurities. Classically, Yama consists of having compassion for all life, truthfulness, non-stealing, proper focus of sexual energy, and getting over the need for constantly trying to get more money, wealth, stuff, status, and so on.
2. Niyama. Proper personal habits aimed at living a pure life, including keeping a clean body and mind, being content and peaceful with one’s lot in life, self-discipline in how one uses one’s time and energy, introspection into one’s own self, and a holding of the importance of the Divine as central to one’s life.
These two form the basis of the yogi’s lifestyle. They are concerned with living a balanced and non-disturbed life – keeping a clean house, as it were – in order to form a good foundation for meditation, clear from the mental disturbances that come with a chaotic, undisciplined and unfocused life. The next two form the physical requirements of spiritual practice.
3. Asana. This is the posture of the body—but doesn’t necessarily mean the pretzel-bending antics of popular yoga. At its most basic, Asana simply means finding a position which facilitates meditation, and which you can hold still in for long periods of time. If you can’t do this, the physical fitness routines of hatha yoga can help, but the goal isn’t to touch your toes to your head. The goal is to be able to sit for long periods of time in still silence, without fidgeting or otherwise allowing the body to get in the way of one’s meditation.
4. Pranayama. Pranayama means the way of breath. It is the regulation of the nervous system by using the breath. As with Asana, there are many complicated forms of Pranayama; however, at its most simple, Pranayama is simply a slow, steady regulation of the breath, through the nostrils. Breath is directly linked to the mind. Steady and still your breath, and you will steady and still your mind.
The next four form the purely internal requirements of meditation.
5. Pratyahara. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses. With a calm life and environment, a stilled body, and regulated breathing, the yogi’s (five plus) senses will slowly begin to withdraw from the environment. This is “going within,” turning the senses (and therefore the mind) away from the outside world. Instead of focusing on something “out there,” the mind begins to focus on itself.
6. Dharana. Dharana means concentration, and is what most people commonly think of as “meditation.” With the senses turned inward, and the stimulus of the outside world (the conditions of the yogi’s external life, the body, the breath, and the senses themselves) stilled, the yogi begins to focus the mind on one thing, and one thing only: the Divine. This process is called concentration, but it is not until the mind becomes single-pointedly focused that the yogi can truly be said to be in meditation.
7. Dhyana. Dhyana means devotion, and this is true meditation—when the mind comes to rest in single-pointed focus upon its beloved, the Divine itself.
8. Samadhi. The Holy Grail of Yoga, Samadhi is the erasing of the difference between the Divine and the soul which observes it, between the observer and the observed, subject and object. From meditating only on the Divine, the soul now merges with it.
This exceedingly amusing party trick can be studied in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the classical manual on Yoga – but true practice takes the commitment of one’s life to the path, daily discipline, and a qualified teacher or Guru, one who has trod the path to its completion.
May all beings in all worlds attain to happiness.
THE PATH OF DEVOTION: BHAKTI
Bhakti is the yoga of love and devotion. It is the essence of devotion to a god.
Yoga means union—union with god. A yoga is a path to god (and physical, or hatha yoga, is only one, very preliminary type of yoga). There are endless types of “yoga,” especially in our modern, yoga-commercialized world. But to go to the root, it’s good to start with the classics: Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu to bring the philosophy of classical Indian yoga to the West (at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions), defined the principle four types of Yoga thusly—karma yoga, or unity with god by work in the world (think Mother Theresa); jnana yoga, or unity with god by knowledge and study (think St. Thomas Aquinas); raja yoga (which is similar, though not completely identical, to what we commonly think of as kundalini yoga—think of the standard cave-dwelling Indian yogi); and, finally, bhakti yoga, or yoga by love and devotion.
The bhakti yogi, or bhakta, is one who fully opens their heart to the divine, and who, by constant prayer and vocalized praise, both spoken and musical, slowly achieves union with the object of their devotion. In many ways, bhakti is the easiest yoga for Western people to understand, as Christianity is essentially a bhakta path. The Christian devotee who opens their heart to the love of Christ, and through fervent prayer achieves a kind of mystic communion with their ideal—this is bhakti yoga.
In India, the classical example is devotion to Krishna, through group song, chanting, prayer. But though the object of devotion may be different, because of the cultural gloss, the effect is the same—the opening of the heart to the divine.
Modern practitioners of bhakti yoga might gather in small groups at yoga studios to sing group hymns to the divine, participating in group song and leaving with uplifted hearts, minds and souls. Or they might be performing right in plain sight. Take this popular song from the late Beatle George Harrison:
My sweet lord
Hm, my lord
Hm, my lord
I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you lord
But it takes so long, my lord
I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you lord
That it wont take long, my lord
(From “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison from 1970, composed as a hymn to the Lord Krishna.)
This is one of the best modern, Western examples of bhakti (other uplifting, powerful Western masters of bhakti include Krishna Das and Wah!)—but no matter the time period or language the bhakta sings their song in, the basic message is the same: love for and devotion to God.