Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice
“The essence of yoga is to reach oneness with God.” - Pattabhi Jois1
Hinduism: The Basics
“[T]he soul is the same for all individuals and nations, but our conditioning and culture determines our predisposition and outlook.” - B.K.S Iygenar2
Hinduism contains within it six major schools of thought, or darshanas: Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, and Vedanta. The underlying thread between these six darshanas is the acceptance of the Vedas as revealed scripture containing the highest Truths. Thus, Hindu philosophy is often described as Vedic or the Vedic tradition. Hindus commonly refer to Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma, or the Eternal Truth.
Also uniting the darshanas is the concept of pluralism, the belief that multiple paths exist to reach liberation, or moksha, or unity with God and escape from the cyle of birth and death. In Hindu thought, the Supreme Being or the Divine resides within all that exists. And any one, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender, has the ability to achieve moksha. No one person is born saved or condemned, but rather earns the fruit of their actions, words, and thoughts, or karma, and advances spiritually by acting in accordance with dharma, or righteousness.
It is with this very basic understanding in mind that yoga should be examined.
References to and Definitions of Yoga
"Yoga is from the Vedas." - T.K.V. Desikachar2
At its broadest, yoga, from the root word “yuj” in Sanskrit, means to unite. Most Hindu texts discuss yoga as a practice to control the senses and ultimately, the mind. The most famous is the Bhagavad Gita (dating back to 6th-3rd Century BCE3), in which Krishna speaks of four types of yoga - bhakti, or devotion; jnana, or knowledge; karma, or action; and dhyana, or concentration (often referred to as raja yoga, though not all sources agree on the term) - as paths to achieve moksha, the ultimate goal according to Hindu understanding.
Of the four, the description of dhyana yoga has the most in common with yoga as it is largely understood today.
Yet, while the yogas are described as four distinct paths, they are all ultimately interdependent, and with the full practice of one, comes the inclusion of the remaining three.
“Each student may take in one or the other of them as his main path, according to his subjective mental temperament. However, each intelligent student shall discover for himself that whatever be his main path, the other[s] cannot be totally eliminated from his program of self-evolution” - Swami Chinmayananda
Most importantly, the Bhagavad Gita makes clears that regardless of which path one embarks upon, yoga is an individual journey that requires lifelong dedication, consistent practice, and devotion to God.
Of course, references to yoga are found throughout Hindu scripture. The Katha Upanishad, dating back to 800 - 600 BCE4, states:
And the Svetasvatara Upanishad, 600 - 500 BCE, explains the results or outcomes for one who is steeped in the practice of yoga:
The slightly more recent Dhyanabindu Upanishad explains yoga as having six limbs - asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi - and goes on to provide postural detail:
There are as many postures as there are living creatures; and Maheśvara (the great Lord) knows their distinguishing features. Siḍḍha, bhaḍra, simha and paḍma are the four (chief) postures.
Today, the most commonly referenced text on yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, dating between 200 BCE - 200 CE, which lays out the definition of yoga in the second sutra:
While Patanjali codified the many existing teachings on yoga at his time, some of which are seen in Buddhism and Jainism, it cannot be ignored that yoga and references to its practice existed within Hindu scripture long before the Yoga Sutras.
“Now comes Asana, posture. Until you can get a firm seat you cannot practise the breathing and other exercises. Firmness of seat means that you do not feel the body at all. In the ordinary way, you will find that as soon as you sit for a few minutes all sorts of disturbances come into the body; but when you have got beyond the idea of a concrete body, you will lose all sense of the body...When you have succeeded in conquering the body and keeping it firm, your practice will remain firm, but while you are disturbed by the body, your nerves become disturbed, and you cannot concentrate the mind.” - Swami Vivekananda
Today, yoga is largely misunderstood to be and is practiced primarily as asana, or physical posture. Asana practice alone is shown to have a myriad of health benefits from lowering blood pressure, relief of back pain and arthritis, and boosting of the immune system5. Increasingly, many believe asana practice to reduce Attention Deficit Disorder (AD/HD)6 in children, and recent studies have shown it improves general behavior and grades7.
And while practicing asana for improved health is perfectly acceptable, it is not the goal or purpose of yoga.
Perhaps the two most influential yoga gurus of our time, BKS Iygenar and Pattabhi Jois were clear about the intended purpose of asana. In interviews from 2004, re-published by Namarupa magazine in Fall 2014 issue, the two masters are quoted as follows:
“Asanas are not meant for physical fitness, but for conquering the elements, energy, and so on. So, how to balance the energy in the body, how to control the five elements, how to balance the various aspect of the mind without mixing them all together, and how to be able to perceive the difference between the gunas, and to experience that there is something behind them, operating in the world of man - that is what asanas are for. The process is slow and painstaking, but a steady inquiry facilitates a growing awareness.” - Iyengar
“But using it [yoga] for physical practice is no good, of no use - just a lot of sweating, pushing, and heavy breathing for nothing. The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical is the purpose of yoga. When the nervous system is purified, when your mind rests in the atman [the Self], then you can experience the true greatness of yoga.” - Jois
Still, both yoga masters recognized the importance of asana as vital and necessary to the practice of yoga. Asana is the limb through which most people enter the world of yoga, and its importance should not be diminished. Higher levels of yoga cannot be achieved if the physical body is weak, sick, or injured. Asana, when practiced under the guidance of a guru or an experienced and properly trained teacher, is integral to yoga.
“To practice asana and pranayama is to learn to control the body and the senses, so that the inner light can be experienced. That light is the same for the whole world.” - Jois8
Unfortunately, the likes of Iygenar and Jois are difficult to come by, especially in much of today’s yoga culture which is driven by a Western-mentality of commercialization and commodification. Without such insight, wisdom, and proper guidance, modern day “yoga” is asana without understanding, faith, or intention, and therefore, merely remains at the level of physical exercise.
In a 2005 interview published in Namarupa magazine, Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S. Iyengar, shared a similar view when he said, “We cannot expect that millions are practicing real yoga just because millions of people claim to be doing yoga all over the globe. What has spread all over the world is not yoga. It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.”
Importance of the Guru
“If they [teachers] teach whatever like, it is usually their ego. It should be what you have learned from your guru - that is the real method that you should teach. The parampara (lineage) should go as it is - as it was - from your guru and his guru’s guru. It needs to be rooted in something real and not just fancies that are created in the moment.” - Sharath Jois9
The ubiquitous use of the word “guru” in the West is far different from its traditional and sacred meaning in the Hindu tradition. Literally translate, guru is one who dispels darkness. A guru is not just a mere teacher or expert, but rather one who can impart wisdom which he or she has personally experienced. The Hindu tradition places great importance on self-unfoldment, and only one who has experienced levels of inner awakening is qualified and able to impart that knowledge to a student. Hindu scripture extols the guru.
Furthermore, the relationship between a guru and his student (shishya) is highly revered in Hindu culture. Examples of its sacredness abound in Hindu epics like the Mahabharata, in which respect, love, and devotion to the guru is demonstrated, not only by the virtuous Arjun, but also by the misguided Duryodhan.
To truly progress in yoga, a guru in this traditional sense is necessary. Texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika continuously remind the reader to only practice the various yogic techniques under the guidance of a guru. But for the majority of practitioners whose yoga is in nascent stages, an experienced and learned teacher is a must. Unfortunately, in a world of 200-hour teacher trainings, even such qualified yoga teachers are difficult to find.
“People offer 15-day courses, even one week courses, to become a yoga teacher [Laughter]. How good for yoga that is, I don’t know…[You need to] be a dedicated student for many years before you even start to think about teaching.” - Jois10
In Yoga Sutra 1.12, Patanjali highlights the importance of abhyasa, or consistent practice. And in 1.14, he goes on to explain that yoga must be practiced, consistently with devotion and faith, for a very long time in order to build a stable foundation for spiritual progress.
Both Jois and Iygenar considered that a consistent practice of six to ten years essential before one even begins to thinks about teaching yoga. That tradition continues in Ashtanga Yoga and Iygenar Yoga today.
Commercialization of Yoga
“[Y]oga is also a relationship, not a mass movement. It is a one-to-one relationship between people, not commercialization.” - T.V.K Desikachar11
Most of what is billed as yoga around the world is not the yoga described in the Yoga Sutras or any of the original texts. Rather it has morphed into a form of asana without faith, devotion, or understanding underlying it, and therefore, more akin to mere exercise. Today, one can register for a myriad of “yogas”: spinning+yoga, naked yoga, doga (yoga for dogs), hot yoga, yoga on a surfboard, the list is endless. New types of “yoga” seem to appear and disappear, it seems almost daily, and they are a far cry from the yoga described in the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, or Upanishads. In today’s mass commercialization, the term “yoga” is loosely applied to the latest fitness creation that bears little to no resemblance to yoga as citta-vritti-nirodhah.
The result of this has been a decline of yoga as an inward, spiritual quest or journey into a multi-million dollar commercialized industry.
“Unfortunately, it is not good when the goal of yoga is money rather than God. Real yoga is not about money….If you want to benefit, think only of God, dedicate all your actions to God, and whatever comes your way is a gift - His gift to you.” - Jois12
This commercialization is problematic in general, but it is of particular to concern to Hindus who see yoga being delinked from its roots. And though yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers, irrespective of faith or no faith, its underlying principles are those of Hindu thought. For Hindus in America, who are often faced with “caste, cow, and karma” stereotypes in public school textbooks and mass media, the acknowledgement of yoga as a tremendous contribution of ancient Hindus to the world is important. This acknowledgement is not to imply ownership of yoga. No one owns yoga. Rather, it is an appreciation of the richness and universality of Hindu teachings.
“Indian people are used to following tradition, to having faith in the system, and to believing in moksha for liberation. But for Western people, moksha is not very important. They practice yoga primarily for their health, which is ok. But to really understand the heritage of India, one must also understand its ancient tradition. Some Westerners overlook this great heritage and have no idea what are the roots of yoga.” - Jois13
Yoga in Public Schools: An Addendum