Yoga: Classical and Contemporary Perspective

by Dr. B. R. Sharma Principal,
G. S. College of Yoga and Cultural Synthesis, Kaivalyadhama, Lonavla.

Introduction and statement of the problem

Yoga bases its origin upon the necessity felt by the ancient seers to rid themselves of all sorrows permanently and to attain a direct realization of the Self. These unknown ancient ones, while minutely observing the life phenomenon, have observed that so long we do not become aware of the lost link of oneness between ourselves and the Infinite, we cannot escape from suffering. To regain a true awareness of oneness and to realize our divine nature is the highest purpose of yoga.

This Yogavidya is said to be as old as the human existence handed down to us from one generation to other in the form of Living Tradition, systematized around 200 BC by the Sage Patanjali in the form of Yoga Sutras commonly known as ASHTANGA YOGA. This Sutra treatise of Patanjali is considered to be the representative of Classical Yoga.

However, in contemporary times, the perspective of Yoga has been shifted significantly wherein the deep and eternal patanjali ji kaivalyadhama lonavala1essence of yoga has been misconceived/misinterpreted and reduced to a few exercises undermining its spiritual dimension. The relative position of the postures (asanas), has been elevated, so as to lead people to believe that the term ‘Yoga’ refers to physical postures only, as well as, a few breathing exercises on the name of pranayama and that the goal of these is nothing but physical fitness. The term meditation and meditation workshops on the name of yogic dhyana is also prevalent and considered to be very powerful technique which increases all-round performance level of people in their own field. The whole and the part have been reversed, terribly misleading and confusing people about the true nature of Classical Yoga. Such groups of people claim that they give more importance to Hathayoga, as well as, to ashtangayoga but in my opinion this exclusive one sided emphasis on a few hathayogic practices (like asana & pranayama) need be re-thought because if hathayogic practices are not leading to Rajayoga then they will be considered merely a series of gymnastic exercises.

Therefore, there is a need to re-define the meaning of Yoga and to clarify its purpose so that the pure and pristine message of classical yoga may be understood in its true perspective. In doing so, with the help of the etymological meaning of the term yoga, as well as, its various forms/dimensions as

understood in classical literature, here an effort has been made to understand the true import of ashtangayoga in its classical perspective simultaneously drawing the attention towards its missing part in contemporary understanding and practice of yoga.

Meaning and Definition

Generally the term yoga is understood as means, methods, and techniques. However, when we go through the great commentary of Sage Vyasa on Patanjala Yoga Sutras, it says “Yogena yogo jnatavya..” yoga- aiva- upaadhiyaya” i.e. Yoga should be known through yoga as yoga itself is a teacher. This statement of Sage Vyasa indicates two aspects of yoga i. Yoga as Sadhya ( i. e. End aspect to be achieved) and ii. as sadhana (i.e. Means, methods etc.). Let us examine the statement on the basis of etymological meaning of the term Yoga and different definitions thereof available in classical literature. The term Yoga has derived from the Sanskrit root “YUJ” which stands for:

a. Yuj samyoge = to unite.
b. Yuj Samadhau = put together or to integrate.
c. Yuj Samyamane = to restrain.

a. Definitions of Yoga representing the import of a. (i.e. samyoge)

Samyoga yoga ityukto jivatmana parmatmanoh” i. e. unification of individual self with the Higher Self is Yoga. Here the term yoga indicates the ultimate union and thus stands for the END aspect of Yoga. (Applicable to Hatha Yoga, VasishthaSamhita. Yogi Yajnavalkya., Yoga Vasistha, Astanga Yoga of Charandas etc.)

b. Definitions of Yoga representing the import of b. (i.e. Samadhau)

i. Yogah samadhih” (Vyasa on P.Y.S. I/1) i.e. total Integration. Patanjali, seems to accept this meaning as he does not subscribe to the other meaning i.e. union. This is mainly because Patanjali accepts Samkhyan metaphysics wherein the purpose is separation of Purusha from that of Prakriti. Similarly Patanjali also conveys the same connotation by saying that drashta (witnessing principle) to be separated from drishya (observable principle) as the association of the both is the cause of pain and hence the meaning of yoga according to sankhya-yoga stands as separation and not as union. Bhagavad Gita makes it clear “tam vidyadduhkhasamyoga viyoga yoga samjnitam” (Gita 6.23) i.e. separation from the association of pain or suffering is yoga. It is again based on Samkhyan

philosophy that declares that all sorts’ of pain and miseries arise because of misidentification of purusha with that of prakriti. Thus separation from pain means separation from prakriti wherein purusha abides in his original nature technically called svarupaavasthaa .

ii.“Samatvam yoga ucyate” (Gita II/48). According to Bhagwadgita, Yoga is the state of equanimity in which a person remains unaffected by different situations such as success and failure, attachment and aversion in life. This equanimity of mind makes the person free from the imbalances of mind and helps to make him/her stable and relaxed.

On the basis of the definitions discussed above under a. & b. it becomes clear that both are representing the END aspect of Yoga either in terms of union or integration.

c. Definitions of Yoga representing the import of c. (i.e. Samyamane)
i. Tam yogamiti manyate sthiramindriyadharanam ( Katha.Upa 2.6. 11). i. e. Stability of senses is

considered to be Yoga.
ii. By controlling the senses concentrating the mind is Yoga ( Shveta. Upa. 2.8) iii. Yogascittavrtti Nirodhah (PYS I/2) re-channalization of afflicted modifications

of chitta to non-afflicted (i.e. towards integration & harmony) is Yoga. iv.“Yoga is integration and harmony between thoughts, words and deeds or

Integration between head, heart and hands” – Swami Satyananda .

v. Manah prashamanopayah yoga ityabhidhiyate (Yoga Vasistha).Yoga is a mean for quietening the mind.

vii. Yogah karmasu kaushalam (Gita 2.50) Perfection in action is Yoga. In other words when work is done like a worship without expecting any result (non-attachment) is Yoga. It is a technique of getting success in life. Here, the principle of non-attachment helps in the attainment of relaxation. Bhagavad-Gita emphasizes ‘awareness in action’ and relaxed action is the process; and efficiency and skillfulness in action is an outcome.

ix. Yogah bhavati duhkhaha (Gita 6.17) Yoga is a method through which one overcomes all suffering permanently.

Above mentioned definitions of Yoga (under “c”) highlight the MEANS aspect of Yoga which consists of Practical and Methodical aspect of Yoga in the form of various techniques/methods/procedures etc. leading towards the accomplishment of either a. Unification or b. Integration i.e. the END aspect of Yoga. The value of yoga as a method mentioned under “c” above (here in the form of definitions) have been practiced in some form or the other by the yogis according to their own temperament throughout the history on the name of various forms/dimensions of Yoga.

A broad classification of all classical approaches/dimensions of Yoga can be divided into two-

  1. Bhavana Yoga consists in developing a particular attitude in one-self and towards world. The Yoga schools coming under this group are – a. Jnana Yoga, b. Bhakti Yoga and c. Karma Yoga.
  2. Prana samyaman Yoga – consists in attainment of highest realization through control over Prana. The Yoga schools coming under this group are –a. Mantra Yoga, b. Hatha Yoga, c. Laya Yoga and d. Raja Yoga.

i. Bhavana Yoga-

  1. Jnana Yoga – is the path of knowledge and wisdom. This involves intense mental discipline. The sadhaka learns to discriminate between the real and the unreal, between finite and the infinite. Bhavana Yoga is found in Bhagavadgita with all its varieties.
  2. Bhakti Yoga – Bhakti Yoga is Yoga of devotion. This path is the way of love and devotion. It is a path of self surrender, of devoting dedicating all resources, in attaining the ultimate reality. We find this bhakti elaborated in Bhagavadgita. However, Bhakti as an independent and important method is available in Narada Bhakti Sutra and Shandilya Bhakti Sutra. Bhagavat Purana discusses about navadha ( 9 stages of) Bhakti.
  3. Karma Yoga – The path teaches us to do our own duties in life selflessly, dedicating the fruits of our action to mankind. Practicing this aspect of yoga helps us to live in the world without being distressed. The germs of Karma Yoga are available in one of the important systems of Indian philosophy known as Mimamsa Philosophy. This Karma Yoga is known as Nishkama Karma Yoga in Bhagavadgita.

In Patanjala Yoga Sutras, we get a profound combination of jnana-bhakti-karma-yogas in the practice of Kriyayoga wherein karmayoga can be counted under tapas, jnanayoga under the svadhyaya,

and bhaktiyoga under Isvarapranidhana. Tapas, svadhyaya and isvarapranidhana have been a part and parcel of one’s life right from the ancient times. But the objectives or motivations differed from one individual to another, often conditioned by the passage of time. So, when these practices are directed with the sole objective of attaining Samadhibhavana (i.e. to develop an inner ambience of Samadhi) by weakening the powerful grip of kleshas i.e. afflictions it becomes Kriyayoga. According to Patanjali the three components of kriyayoga have got equal importance emphasizing that these three have to be mutually supportive and well-integrated to get the desired end. Patanjali makes this fact clear by using the term ‘kriyayogah’ in singular form.

ii. Prana Samyaman Yoga

a. Mantra Yoga Mantra yoga involves meditation and the use of certain sounds called mantras which are traditionally transmitted to the students and are used as an object of concentration. Mananat trayate it Mantra – as a result of repeated recitation, mantra makes one free from evil thought, ensues good thoughts leading to no thoughts. Shiva Samhita, while explaining the eligibility says tha Mridu i.e.weak type of sadhaka should take up Mantra Yoga. Mantras are based on the theory of esoteric sounds and have esoteric relationship with the various energy centers in human body. Sharada Tilaka Tantra associates all the vowels with ida and semi vowels and consonants with that of Sushumna. For spiritual purpose it is necessary to work on Ida and Sushumna. According to Mantra Mahodadhi and Mantra Yoga Shastra- there are fifteen limbs of Mantra Yoga.

b. Hatha YogaMost important Sadhana system and directly related with control over respiration therefore, a balance between Ha and Tha is called Hatha Yoga. It recognizes fundamentally asana, Kumbhaka, Mudra and Nadanusandhana as limbs of Hatha Yoga. Ha and tha balance is facilitated when one undergoes various practices such as cleansing practices and nadishodhana. Traditionally the Hatha School recognizes eight varieties of Kumbhakas. Some traditions apply recitation of Pranava or Bija Mantra in the course of controlled inhalation, retention and exhalation.

c. Laya YogaEtymologically it means complete absorption. It includes the essence of Mantra Yoga, practice of Pranayama and attention of mind on one point inside the body. It can be Charkas or even Bhrumadhya, Nasagra or jihvagra. Laya proceeds with control over five sense organs – which is usually known as Pratyahara. Concentration on various Chakras result into arousal of Kundalini which passes through the seven Chakras and reaches to Sahasrara and unites with Shiva. This is called Maha laya.

d. Raja YogaFinally there is a state of Yogic attainment. Rajayoga is also known as synonym of Samadhi. Patanjali’s Yoga has been identified as Raja Yoga. It is interesting that Patanjali’s Yoga contains the germ of almost every variety of Yoga and can be practiced by a person of any faith and thus seems very much relevant to the modern society. With a view to illustrate the statement of problem let us briefly understand the classical eight-fold path of Patanjali along with the missing aspect of yoga in contemporary times.

The Eight-fold Path of Patanjali

The Sutra Treatise of Patanjali, divided into four chapters, is a psychological exposition of Yoga. Its field of action is to refine the activities of chitta (the whole psyche of man) and thereby getting absolute mastery over it. The whole treatise deals with the means and ways to achieve this end. Thus, keeping this theme in mind, Patanjali defines Yoga as-“chitta – vritti – nirodha”. It does not mean that a sadhaka becomes ‘mindless’ being, rather he is left ‘conscious-full’ with a transformed mind which due to its transparent (sattvika) nature can function to actualize the Self, as well as, the not-self. This state can be achieved in and through dedicated and determined practice (abhyasa) and dispassionate objectivity (vairagya). Patanjali, as well as, all above mentioned schools of yoga develop a process of self- transformation wherein moral (yamas) and ethical (niyamas) purity is the foundation and considered to be indispensable for this journey. One can’t allow himself to be impure, insincere, untruthful and harmful to others and at the same time try to practice yoga. Thus one has to be rooted in goodness, purity, truthfulness, self- reliance, patience and preservation, sincerity and honesty, contentment and in selfless services. Unfortunately these virtues are ignored in the contemporary times.

Asana– Patanjali defines it as ‘sthirasukhamasanam’ (PYS II/46) ‘to sit steadily and comfortably‘ came to be accepted (by the commentators) as the characteristics, as well as, the technique of ‘asana’ and as a consequence of this interpretation, it seems the next sutra (P.Y.S.II/47), which really provides the technique of ‘asana’, has lost its real significance in its practice i. e. effortlessness (prayatnashaithilya) and engrossment with infinite (anantasamapatti). Due to which ‘asana’ is generally taken to be related solely to the physical body or body positioning. This could be the reason that in contemporary times, we have lost the purpose of asana as yoganaga in which we even transcend the body and therefore, person is not overpowered by the pairs of opposites.(P.Y.S.II/48). This part is missing today in the practice of asana and asana is limited to the physiological aspects and being practiced in the health clubs as it contributes towards endurance and flexibility of the body and has become superficial only for physical

beauty . In fact, the term ‘sthira‘ should directly qualify the term ‘sukham‘ (as ‘sthira‘ seems an adjective of the term ‘sukham’) so as to get the meaning of ‘sukha-sthirata’ i.e. ‘continuous flow of comfort’, if we accept this then the meaning of ‘sthirasukhamasanam‘ would be ‘a state (of mind) wherein the continuous flow of comfort is maintained’ which could automatically lead to the manifestation of ‘asana‘ as yoganga..

Pranayama (expansion of breath) Patanjali has given emphasis on silencing the activities of chitta by way of prolonging and silencing the process of breathing activities to stand still. ‘tasminsati shvasaprashvasayor gati-vicchedah pranayamah (PYS II/49) – it shows that intense practice of ‘asana‘ automatically leads to ‘pranayama‘. The ‘shvasa-prashvasa’ which is one of the indicatives of ‘cittavikshepas’ (PYS I/31) gets ‘broken off’ ‘vicchedah’ in a specific manner in ‘pranayama. That, in turns, helps in removing all coverings of consciousness ( P.Y.S. II/52 ) and mind becomes fit instrument to enter into the field of dharana i.e. concentration ( P.Y.S. II/53 ) This aspect of pranayama, in contemporary times, is neglected and used only for overcoming a few disorders.

In Hatha yoga, when nadis are purified by the regular practices of Pranayama, Prana is made to enter into the mouth of Sushmana with the help of various practices of Hathayoga (like bandhas and mudras etc.) and moves upward leading to the state of Manonmani, the highest level of Yogic Consciousness. ( H. P. II/41-42 ). Unfortunately, this aspect of pranayama ( kumbhaka) is not given any importance in contemporary times.

Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses). In Kathopanishad it is said that our senses are meant extrovert (“Pranchikhani vyatrinat..”) so whenever we interact in the outer world our mind constantly go on gathering sensations of external world through senses and mind reacts to them. If one wants to remove such distractions of mind then one should develop a mental ability to let go its involvement with external sensations leading to internalized consciousness. This classical practice of making the consciousness introvert stands totally neglected in present scenario.

Dharana (Concentration) in this stage, mind develops an ability to cultivate its scattered focusing power on an object of concentration through willful consistent practice. When this unbroken concentration process is continued then this concentration culminates into dhyana (yogic meditation). Dhyana is an uninterrupted flow of consciousness towards a chosen object. When consciousness expands to its still higher stages it is termed as samapatti-a complete fusion into the chosen object and then it goes beyond conscious and subconscious levels and assumes the super conscious flow and there arises a

prajna known as rtambhara (intuitive wisdom). All classical approaches/dimensions of yoga prepare the sadhaka to eventually reach to this higher stage of dhyana. In this state of dhyana, Triputi ( meditator, meditation and object to be meditated) is still maintained however, prolonged and intense dhyana ultimately leads to the state of Samadhi wherein object only shines as if meditator and the process of meditation have been dropped. Thus the sadhaka regain the true awareness of that oneness with the infinite and attains peace, perfection and tranquility. A person who has achieved this stage of Samadhi lives his life as spontaneous expression of the unhindered flow of supreme consciousness and transcends all divisions of culture, caste, creed and color. When one becomes aware of the infinite consciousness then the whole life is transformed that is what the purpose of classical yoga understood in both senses- Unification or Integration. The true import of meditation in classical terms is unfortunately, missing in contemporary times in so called meditational workshops.

What we need today is to incorporate a few practices of classical yoga which can help us in re- channelizing our nature from passion to purity, from untruth to truth from hardness to kindness and shedding of our ego etc. These are the primary acts which are missing today in our practice but these virtues can be cultivated through various disciplinary methods and systematic recourse of the yogic way of life- consisting of wholesome food habits, wholesome activities, purity in thought etc. (Gita VI/17).We can achieve contentment and a serene state of mind that can help us to perform our life’s duties with utmost love and dedication.

In short, the group of people who has reduced yoga to physical exercises should know that Yoga deals with body, breath and mind but is aimed at that beyond mind. Be it borne in mind that Asana, pranayama are just the part of the whole (Yoga) and that whole is considered to be science of achieving the true purpose of life and realizing our Divine nature.

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