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Guest Article

What is Yoga?

Swami Satyamayananda*

When a yogi or yogini looks outside, towards the world and cosmos, or inside, within their own mind and inner world, they find answers filling every inch of space and time. People, most of them, non-yogis or yoginis, have a different perception; they find only questions and mystery all around, and no answers. This is the difference between Yoga and those who do not practice Yoga. Swami Vivekananda explains it from a different angle but if the explanation is perfect: “Why can’t we know this secret of the universe?” And the answer given was very significant: “Because we talk in vain, and because we are satisfied with the things of the senses, and because we are running after desires; therefore, we, as it were, cover the Reality with a mist.” Here the word Maya is not used at all, but we get the idea that the cause of our ignorance is a kind of mist that has come between us and the Truth.’ How do we get rid of the mist? Yoga is one of the best means to find the answers to all the searching questions that teem in our minds.
Concentration Brings Knowledge
The English word ‘yoke’ and its meaning is the correct meaning of the word ‘yoga’, to join. But there is another meaning to the word ‘yoga’ and that is: concentration, samadhau. Patanjali and many Yoga treatises use ‘Yoga’ in the sense of concentration. Swami Vivekananda says: ‘This is the one call, the one knock, which opens the gates of nature, and lets out floods of light. This, the power of concentration, is the only key to the treasure-house of knowledge. The system of Raja-Yoga deals almost exclusively with this. In the present state of our body we are so much distracted, and the mind is frittering away its energies upon a hundred sorts of things. As soon as I try to calm my thoughts and concentrate my mind upon any one object of knowledge, thousands of undesired impulses rush into the brain, thousands of thoughts rush into the mind and disturb it. How to check it and bring the mind under control is the whole subject of study in Raja-Yoga.’ who begins to control and suppress the chittta-vrittis, the activities in the chitta or mind-stuff, succeeds in ending attachment to gross or subtle material objects, will experience samadhi, state of deep concentration. This is the road to the ecstatic experience of the ultimate Reality.
Yoga Traditions Rooted in the Vedas
The history of Yoga is clear. It arose from the early Vedic yajnas, sacrifices, that were internalized, as is found in the Upanishads. There are opponents to this idea; they put forward ancient Buddhism and Jainism, are the origin of the Yoga practices. These religions were shramanic, mainly practised by renunciates, who besides being parivrajya, itinerant or mendicants, also sat down and practised meditation, as that being the core of their religion. However, in the earliest Upanishads we find a mantra: ‘One should reflect on the saman (mantras) with which one should eulogize; on the rik on which the saman rests; on the rishi who saw the rik verse; and one should reflect on the Deity which one would eulogize.’ (Chandogya Upanishad 1.3.8-9). Then we have the pancha-agni-vidya, meditation of the five fires. The whole sentient and insentient universe is thought of as a group of factors in a cosmic sacrifice involving five fires according to their subtle nature and they are all knit together. In conclusion, we find also in the Chandogya Upanishad (III.16-17) the declaration: ‘Man himself is a sacrifice’ and shows in detail how this can be so. Thus the roots of modern meditation methods can be traced to the Vedic or Upanishadic upasanas, meditations. When we come to the recent Upanishadic literature as in the Shevtashvatra and Katha, the references to Yoga are clear and coherent. For instance in the Katha Upanishad (2.3.11) we have: ‘They consider that keeping of the senses steady as yoga. One becomes vigilant at that time for yoga is subject to growth and decay.’ In the last mantra of the same Upanishad we have the word ‘yoga viddhim’, the process of yoga, that was acquired by Nachiketa from his teacher ‘Death’. Then also we have the concepts of nadis, currents in the body, and pranas, life forces, and centres of consciousness clearly delineated in the Vedic literature.
Vedic Upasanas
The rishis of the Upanishads gave the various upasanas, which were not separate from life, but through which life was progressively spiritualised. As these upasanas gradually became more and more prevalent and diverse, and as the basis of spiritual life, it took two forms: objective direction—as in the form of bhakti, devotion, and karma, duty; subjective withdrawal—as is done in Yoga. Then the great Acharyas starting from Gaudapadacharya, Shankaracharya and so on, who formed and formulated the Advaita Darshana, combined the two processes and reaped the highest fruit in the form of aparoksha-anubhuti, immediate realization. Apart from the Advaita Vedanta traditions, both the objective and subjective streams of upasanas became in time the mighty bhakti and yoga movements that changed India’s cultural and social structures and brought India to the pinnacle of its glory. As various types of yogis practised the Yoga disciplines for centuries they modified the basic structure according to their separate Schools, personalities, and cultural differences, and thus we find a variety of Yoga methods today. Yoga practices also streamed forth from India, especially through Buddhism and its bhikshus, towards the East and far East and changed their culture and religions. We also find tell-tale remnants of Yoga practices in the far West Asia. The whole of Asia was thus impacted through Yoga. Alexandria with its great library was the intellectual centre of the world for centuries and one find traces of merchants and also wise men from India intermingling in its cosmopolitan ambience. It is possible that they carried with them, or were acquainted with, the Yoga philosophy.
Yoga Leads to Super-consciousness
In simple layman’s terms: the mechanisms through which Nature functions internally as mind, senses, intellect etc., and externally as the forces of Nature is ours to conquer if we can deeply understand and use these mechanisms. This is delineated in the Vibhuti Pada, Chapter on Supernatural powers, in the Yoga Sutras. And this then makes sense when it is placed after the Sadhana Pada, Chapter on Practice. This is the science of the Super-consciousness, and, as mentioned in the opening lines, reveals all knowledge. A yogi or yogini not only has control over his or her body and mind and all the life forces within, but also obtains the powers over Nature. This is well understood in Yoga literature and in the other sacred, semi-sacred, cultural and folk tales of India. Thus the goal of Yoga is absolute freedom through Super-consciousness.
Illustration of Chitta-vritttis
Some people have survived the experienced of being in a small boat, in the middle of an ocean, that was tossed about by high and rough waves during a storm. These survivors still shudder when they remember that experience. But this is exactly the same thing that everybody experiences during our waking state and less in the dream state. The mind of almost all people is like an ocean in a storm that is tossing us and our good intentions up and down and almost drowning us. In contrast the mind of a yogi or yogini is like an ocean after a storm in which the boat sits placidly. Everything is silent and beautiful. This is called chitta-vritti nirodha, control of the chitta-vrittis. This is the highest stage a person can reach through abhyasa, practice, and vairagya, renunciation, which has got another name: samadhi. This is the state of Yoga and the Bhagavad Gita likens it to a un-flickering flame of a lamp kept in a windless place. Vrittti is a movement of the mind-stuff, and Swami Vivekananda translates the word as ‘whirlpool’. A whirlpool occurs with every movement in the chitta. This has to gradually lessen and lessen become more and more internalized till all movements in the chitta stop. This is what Yoga is all about. When the water in a pond is muddy and rough we do not see the bottom of the pond. Let the water stay undisturbed for a time for the mud to settle and then the water becomes crystal clear and we can see the bottom of the pond. Likewise, we see the Purusha or the soul when all the chitta-vrittis are stilled.
Different Methods and the Internal Instrument
There are many upayas, methods of practice, which are given by the Yoga teachers and one has to take up that is suitable to one’s tattwas, materials formed in a particular way. This will enable one to practice effectively. Many people rush in to control the mind and in a few days become disillusioned and turn away from Yoga saying it is impossible in this age. As we can see from the illustration of a boat in the storm, one has to be very intelligent, diligent, and patient in the sadhana stage. A little explanation of chitta-vritti is necessary to understand before one practices because that is what is known as Yoga. One can take up any method but one has to modify it to suit one’s practice, personality, and quality of the anthakarana, internal instrument. The anthakarana comprises of chittamanas, mind, buddhi, intellect, and ahamkara, egoism. The material of which it is formed, like everything in Nature, is the three gunas of Prakriti—sattwarajas, and tamas. This is the hardware; the software is the samskaras, mental impressions or memory. These samskaras when mixed with desire form vasanas, which are not easily destroyed. The impressions come in two categories: jnanashaya, receptacle of knowledge impressions, and karmashaya, receptacle of karma impressions.

Internal Means to Knowledge and Power
As one begins to practise in stages one can concentrate for longer and longer periods of time. When a yogi can direct the internal energies on one object and keep it fixed there it is called dharana. The next stage comes when an unbroken flow of knowledge arises from that knowledge it is called dhyana. Then when giving up all external forms of the object, only the knowledge of the object internally flashes it is samadhi. These three stages are called Samyama. They are the internal means to knowledge. It may sound simple but it is not. If one can keep the internal energies focussed on one object for twelve matras, seconds, it is one dharana; twelve such dharanas (twelve x twelve seconds =144 seconds) it becomes a dhyana; twelve such dhyanas (a little less than twenty-nine minutes) makes a samadhi. When this Samyama is perfected ‘Comes the Light of Knowledge’ (Yoga Sutras 3.5). As this lower samadhi is repeatedly practised in stages, it is constantly purified and then ‘Knowledge in that is called ritambhara prajna, “filled with Truth”.’ (Yoga Sutras, 1.48). This is a tremendous stage. Here the yogi or yogini sees knowledge everywhere, internally and externally. All powers of Prakriti come also to this person as he or she has meditated on the different stages of the evolution of matter in its gross and fine forms, by employing Samyana. This jnana, knowledge, comes also in stages; as our internal instrument become more and more purified, the knowledge comes in seven stages finally (Yoga Sutras 2.27) ending in perfection.
It is here that the paths of Vedanta and Yoga converge. Here the yogi or yogini becomes free. In these final stages perfection, it did not matter if one traversed the path of Upanishadic meditations or the various paths or traditions of Yoga. Swami Vivekananda echoing the Upanishadic rishis, declares: ‘The goal of mankind is knowledge; pleasure is not the goal.’ He further goes to also to say that the search for Truth in the external world is science; and the search Truth in the internal world is religion. Ultimately both science and religion converge for the distinction of internal and external is a mere fiction. Thus humankind progresses from lower truth to higher truth and never from error to truth. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (4.33) declares: ‘Sarvam-karma-akhilam partha, jnane parisampyate; all karma culminates in knowledge.’ Yoga is the best means to hasten the process. The yogi or yogini does not only attain knowledge but becomes knowledge, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: ‘In that state the man himself becomes the light’.

*Swami Satyamayananda is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and is presently stationed at the Ramakrishna Mission Ashrama, Kanpur, as its Secretary.

Email: rkmissionkanpur@gmail.com


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