Yoga has become a popular, even a fashionable, activity in recent years. Many people who see it on television or videos, or participate in some of its popular forms, associate it with such physical exercises as standing on one's head or twisting the body into various postures or practicing breath control. That is like supposing that theoretical physics is just a manipulation of the information in the periodic table of the elements or that performing a Mozart concerto is just a variation of playing scales.
Yoga may also seem to be a strange import from the East with no practical value for the Westerner. But in some ways yoga is similar to traditional Western spiritual practices. It is a technique of self-discovery that is neither Eastern nor Western, but universal.
Western popularizations of yoga have tended to center on one system of this great science. That system, which uses various physical exercises, including controlled breathing, is known as hatha yoga, but this system—like all the other systems of yoga—involves also the practice of meditation. Although hatha yoga emphasizes the training of the physical body, that training is for the purpose of mastering the body to make it subservient to the spiritual Self within. It is not unlike the traditional Western positions of worshippers in liturgical churches, which include standing, kneeling, prostrations, and sitting.
Some of the physical disciplines of hatha yoga are good exercise, but without an understanding of the essential purpose of yoga itself, they are only the outer husk. Used without proper preparation and guidance, they may also put a strain on the body. For this reason, other methods of yoga may be more suitable for many Westerners.
Another system of yoga that has been popularized in the West is mantra yoga, which involves the repetition or chanting of sacred phrases or words with concentrated attention. This system therefore involves a knowledge of the esoteric potency of sound, for its aim is to tune the personal nature to a subtler keynote than the ordinary waking consciousness, so that ultimately the individual may hear the inner Divine Voice.
Mantra yoga is similar to a number of Western practices: plainsong or Gregorian chant, the saying of the rosary, the recitation of a litany, or in Eastern Christianity, the "Jesus prayer," which is the repetition of the name of Jesus. All of these are techniques for focusing the mind and concentrating spiritual awareness.
Even from this brief reference to two systems of yoga that have claimed some attention among Western students, it is apparent that the goal of yoga is to change the personal nature, to make it more responsive to an inner Self. The word itself gives us a clue to what yoga is really about. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that comes from the same ancient root as English yoke and Latin jungere (which we have in words like junction, juncture, and join). That root meant "union."
The union that is yoga's aim may be experienced at various levels. The forces of our body and mind, which are often tugging at each other in different directions, need to be united--to be brought into harmony, into a state of oneness. The united body and mind in turn need to be connected with something still deeper, which we may call Spirit, or the immortal Self, our real identity behind the fluctuating personality. And, finally, there is the ultimate union of our individual Spirit with the Universal or Supreme Spirit, which is both within and beyond everything, being inside each one of us and all around us.
Union with the infinite is the highest goal of yoga, and the various systems of this ancient science are designed to lead eventually to that supreme union. Because of this identity of aim in all the systems, the word yoga is used to designate all the methods by which union is achieved. Each method is a technique of self-exploration, involving a system of self-training that leads toward the goal.
Many methods of yoga overlap in their use of certain techniques, and all of them recognize the validity of certain basic disciplines. The latter include right physical discipline, right breathing, right moral behavior with respect to others and with respect to oneself, and the practice of meditation. The attunement and integration of every aspect of one's nature--physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual--is both the goal of yoga and the foundation of all the disciplines taught by the various systems.
The practice of real yoga is no easy task, for it involves a harmonization of one's whole being. It also requires that one's motive for self-realization must be selfless, without thought of self-aggrandizement or the achievement of power over others. Yoga is a means of altruism or agape, a Christian term for divine love expressed in our lives.
Among the various systems of yoga, four are especially valuable for Western students. They are appropriate because their successful use requires less guidance and direction than some of the other methods. These four systems are all interconnected and are by no means exclusive of each other. Each focuses on one aspect of our total being and therefore supplements the others.
One system is called karma yoga. It is the path of action and is especially the way for those who are moved by a passionate sympathy for suffering to do something about it. Those who follow this path of action purify their motives, removing all taint of self-interest. It is the path of those like Mother Teresa who devote their lives to service.
To practice karma yoga, however, we do not need to join a religious order or move to India. Every helpful act, every unselfish thought or word, is a practice of karma yoga. Through simple concern for the welfare of others, we can all be followers of karma yoga and come to a deeper understanding of life, an ever closer union with the Life Divine which is in all things and in all beings.
Another system is called bhakti yoga or the way of devotion. In it the emphasis is on love, not just as an emotion, but as a dedication and self-surrender to the Supreme Reality, conceived of in some form. The form may be an incarnation of the Godhead, such as Christ or Krishna. Or it may be a great sage, a God-realized or enlightened person whom the devotee follows. Or it may be a mental image of the divine, such as the Divine Mother.
This is the yoga on which Christianity and some other great religions are based. It is a path that helps many people to begin their climb to the mountain peak of spiritual union--the way for those with devotional natures, whose joy is to lose themselves in adoration of the Divine. But we can all follow it by honoring the sources of wisdom and compassion, wherever they appear.
A third system is called jnana yoga. It puts emphasis on knowledge—not just ordinary factual knowledge, but insight into the eternal truths that lie beneath the surface facts of life. The word jnana yoga is related to the English know and the Greek gnosis. It refers to knowledge resulting from a direct experience of reality.
H. P. Blavatsky said that jnana yoga is especially the yoga of the West. One who follows it continually strives for a fuller and deeper understanding of the meaning of life. Like a good scientist, the follower of jnana yoga is not afraid to discard outworn theories or views of reality, but ever seeks an undistorted vision of the whole. We can each practice this yoga by viewing with critical discrimination all ideas around us and reserving judgment on what we do not understand.
The fourth system of yoga incorporates the main features of all the others. It is called raja yoga—the kingly science. This royal road includes disciplines to order one's life, purify the emotions, expand the intellect, and unify all the constituent parts of one's being with a single intention. It aims at disentangling one's self-identification from the fluctuating personality and realizing oneself as something more, a divine immortal being identical with the universal Divine Life.
Those who follow the system of raja yoga often turn to the sayings (Yoga Sutras) of the great Indian sage, Patanjali, who lived in the second or third century B.C. They set forth the preparatory steps for the practice of yoga and then describe the actual practice itself. The preparation involves right action in thought, word, and deed--living by the ethical principles found in every religion--and the physical discipline preliminary to yoga proper.
The actual practice is regular introspection by which the Self within may be realized. It begins with finding a quiet place, relaxing the body, and closing the windows of the senses, shutting oneself off for a time from the distractions of the world and preparing oneself to take the transitional step of consciousness from external to internal states of awareness. It is not a practice to be undertaken occasionally but needs to be followed day after day, year after year, if it is to be done properly and to achieve results.
Patanjali laid great stress on the control and stilling of the mind. He even defined yoga as "the restraint of the modifications of the mind," and for that purpose he prescribed three steps--concentration, meditation, and contemplation. Each merges into the other in practice, but they are described separately for the purpose of study.
It is necessary to begin with concentration because the mind does not want to settle down--it becomes filled with memories, desires, and all kinds of inconsequential reveries; it is disturbed by worries and details. The purpose of concentration is to help this restless mind to focus on an object or idea and thus shut out all irrelevant and distracting thoughts. It is helpful to begin with some simple object of attention, physical or mental, and become completely intent on and absorbed in it.
From that state of concentration comes the next step, meditation, which is a regular flow of thought with regard to the object--whether it be a flower, an intangible quality, a great teacher, or an abstract idea. Meditation is a deeper process than concentration and leads to a state in which one enters into and realizes and becomes that upon which one is thinking. In this way one goes beyond mere images and forms and identifies with the life within.
Then comes the climactic state of contemplation, when one is no longer concerned with an object or idea or being, but passes beyond it to a state of utter stillness (a dynamic, not a passive state). Then there can flash from the spiritual Self into the mortal mind an illumination and insight, a sense of unity and oneness.
The experience of contemplation is one of positive awareness and therefore is much more than an emotive feeling or perception of the sort that can be artificially induced. In it a stillness brings the realization of wholeness and dynamic peace. It does not bypass consciousness or self-control, but transforms the person and brings an illumination and inner certainty that can be of great practical help in daily life.
The ultimate goal of yoga—union with the Supreme Spirit—is called samadhi or (in Zen Buddhism) satori or (in Christian mysticism) "God-consciousness." Regardless of the term used, it means the liberation of the individual spirit from the prison house of earthly limited consciousness. The experience of that state of unified bliss has been described by the phrase, "The dewdrop slips into the shining sea." Paradoxically, it might also be described as the sea slipping into the dewdrop.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- An Introduction to Yoga , by Annie Besant.
- The Science of Yoga , by I. K. Taimni.
- Yoga: The Discovery of Wholeness (audio CD) by Radha Burnier
All are available from The Theosophical Publishing House.