"Yoga as a subject is as vast as an ocean." – B.K.S. Iyengar Patanjala Yoga Sutra Paricaya. pg. ix
Yoga has entered into my life in ways I had never imagined. However, the more I dig into the subject, the more confused I feel about what it is. The more I read, it seems the number of definitions increases and the variety in which Yoga is defined gets bigger. This essay follows my thought process to come to a clearer understanding of what Yoga is by sorting out numerous writings by B.K.S. and Geeta Iyengar. This process has revealed seven distinct definitions: Yoga is a philosophy; an ultimate goal; a method, a science, an art and a way of life. The following is a feeble attempt to describe them as I understand them now.
Yoga, a Philosophy
"Philosophy - The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline." - Oxford Dictionary
The earliest mention of yoga dates back to the Vedic period (1500-500BC). This tradition was systematized and codified by Patanjali (500-200 BC) in 196 terse aphorisms in his Yoga Sutras. This is the yoga that came to be known as one of the six “darsanas” or classic schools of Indian philosophy, which seek to uncover the truth of our being and our relationship to Nature. Philosophy as defined in Western terms is slightly different from the approaches of darsanas. “Darsana […] means seeing, looking and vision. It is a direct and immediate vision of reality that goes beyond the speculation that otherwise underlines philosophy.” (Guidelines, p.70)
Guruji defines philosophy as “a search for truth, an inquiry into the principles underlying all phenomena” (Art, p.16).
Yogic philosophy tells us that all existence in the universe is a result of the interactions between purusa, “the universal psychic principle,” or Pure Consciousness, which is unmanifested, formless, passive and beyond cause and effect; and prakriti “universal physical principle” or Primordial Nature, which is the creative force of action, manifestation, attributes and nature. Purusa, prakriti and three qualities or gunas (tamas, rajas, sattva) stir the material world into existence and into activity (LOP. P.7). Yoga presupposes the existence of God or Isvara. The aim of Yoga is “to seek the highest ideal embodied in the perfect Purusa or God.” (LOY, p.3)
Yoga, an Ultimate Goal
I.2. Yogah cittavritti nirodhah.
Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.
- Patanjali, Yoga Sutra (LOYSP)
According to Patanjali, Yoga is to still the movements of the mind and consciousness that are always pulled in myriad of outward directions by sense objects in our world. In this stillness, Patanjali tells us that we will “dwell in [our] own true splendor.” (LOYSP Sutra I.3). Here, Yoga also means “the knowledge of the Self. (Astadala p.72)”
The word “yoga” derives from the Sanskrit word yujir “meaning to bind, join, attach, yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply (LOY p19). Yoga is, therefore, also defined as the union of individual true Self with the Supreme Universal Spirit or God. Guruji goes on to say that “[Yoga] is the true union of our will with the will of God.” Geeta Iyengar similarly describes yoga as “the union of the soul with the eternal truth, a state of unalloyed bliss, arising from conquest of dualities.” (GEM p.9). In more digestible terms, Guruji writes that yoga is “the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul. (Tree p.3).
The word Yoga also derives from the root word yuj, which means restraint, indicating samadhi (Guidelines p. 74). Thus, Yoga is also understood as renunciation and emancipation or liberation from physical, mental and spiritual afflictions caused by our false identification with the sense objects. Quoting from the six chapter of Bhagavad Gita, Guruji writes, “This is the real meaning of Yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow. (LOY p.19)
Yoga, a Method
Method - a particular form of procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, especially a systematic or established one
- Oxford Dictionary
Yoga is an ultimate goal and means to achieve this goal at the same time. The yogic goal is quite esoteric and highly conceptual for a lot of us, but yoga also gives us a more realistic, more accessible approach or process to reach the goal.
Yoga as a methodology is laid out by Patanjali in the second chapter of Yoga Sutra, Sadhana (Practice) Pada, which he starts with a call for action:
II.1 tapah svadhyaya Isvarapranidhanani kriyayogah
Burning zeal in practice, self-study and study of scriptures and surrender to God are the act of yoga.
II.2 samadhi bhavanarthah klesa tanukaranarthasca
The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi.
- Patanjali, Yoga Sutra (LOYSP)
He, then, systematically maps out a practical method in the eight limbs of Yoga: yama (universal moral commandments; “don’ts”), niyama (individual discipline; “do’s”, asana (posture), pranayama (regulation of breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses, from the sense objects; internal observation), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadhi (absorption, the union with the Supreme Universal Soul).
Through these eight steps, B.K.S. Iyengar explains, one develops understanding of his or her own self, proceeding step by step from the known – his or her body – to the unknown – the senses, the mind, intellect, and the Self.
Yoga, a Science
Science - the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment
- Oxford Dictionary
Science is a branch of systematized knowledge of any kind which speculates, investigates, and reflects facts or principles in their most precise form. (Art p.15). It is objective, intellectual, and descriptive. These qualities of science are inherent in the Yoga as a methodology. Guruji writes, “As a science, yoga helps us to know ourselves through tests, experiments, experiences and observations. It makes us know what we are and how yoga is to be applied (Astadala p.89).” Geetaji explains, “[Yoga] is a science which deals with the body and the mind, whereby the rhythm of the mind is conquered by controlling the body.”
Yoga as a science begins with the asana practice, in which practitioners learn to observe, discriminate, experiment, regulate and experience each part of the body and its movements and interactions with other parts. Asanas are “the aspect which disciplines the body and mind to learn and understand the functioning of the intelligence. One achieves physical and mental health and a stature conducive to continue the yogic practices to stabilize and bring maturity in intelligence.” (Guidelines p.71) In particular, it develops the foundation for the next stage of yoga, pranayama, a science of breath or prana, the vital life force. Also here, practitioners learn to observe, discriminate, experiment, regulate and experience the respiratory organs and muscles in relation to the flow of air in and out of the body. Pranayama “regulates all the sadhaka’s thoughts, desires and actions, gives poise and the tremendous will-power needed to become a master of oneself.” (LOP p.14)
Yoga, an Art
Art - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power; a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.
- Oxford Dictionary
Art is subjective. Art is a process and an end product of an individual yoking his or her knowledge, imagination, emotions and skills to express the core of his/her experience. Guruji tells us that “[Art] is skillfulness in doing anything that is a result of knowledge, practice and its display (Astadala p89). Art in Yoga, Guruji explains, is “skill in action wherein all opposing forces are molded towards oneness so that each and every movement expresses grace and balance, elegance and beauty, effortlessly and in unison.” (Art p.7) As Krisna tells Arjuna, skillfulness in action also is to “live in the world without getting involved in his or her actions… [to perform] one’s actions without expecting good or bad result from them.” (Tree p.9)
B.K.S. Iyengar defines Art in a number of ways, but the one that sums up for me is “Art is unity in diversity.” (Art p.11) Having acquired objective knowledge of body and mind through asanas and pranayama, practitioners then learn to integrate layers of body (kosas) and the eight limbs into these practices. Guruji writes,” Art in its initial stage is science; science in its highest form is art.” (Art p.15)
Yoga, a Religion
Religion - the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods; a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
- Oxford Dictionary
Even though the yogic philosophy recognizes the existence of God, it does not seem to be clearly identified nor treated as a “superhuman controlling power” as described in the Western terms. Yet it is explicitly prescribed by Patanjali as one of the means to achieve the Ultimate Goal of Yoga. Guruji proclaims that we do not have to believe in God to practice Yoga, but we have to believe in ourselves (Tree p.34). Every entity in the yogic universe possesses purusa, the Pure Consciousness. Believing in ourselves is to believe in this universal divinity in each one of us. He explains further:
Religion is auspicious. Religion is realization. Religion is that which upholds, sustains and supports the one who is falling or fallen or about to fall physically, morally, mentally, intellectually or spiritually. Yoga supports and sustains by using the vehicles of the Self – the body, the organs of action, the senses of perception and the consciousness (mind, intelligence and ego) – to do right and virtuous actions. In this sense yoga is a religion. Self has no religion, but its vehicles have religion. Their religion is realization of the Self…The realization of the Self is a divine religion, where a human being goes beyond religions that are created by human beings. (Astadala p. 81)
Guruji also describes religion as dharma - ethical, social and moral obligations or duties (LOP p.4). He writes, “Religion is a set of beliefs, practices and a moral code of conduct for human affairs (Astadala vol. 1. P89), which correspond to yama. Patanjali says yamas “are the great, mighty universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and class (Sutra II.31).” Guruji writes, “I believe that this universal approach should be applied to all the other component stages of yoga, without distinction of time, place or circumstances, to lay down the precepts of a universal culture.” (LOYSP Sutra II.31)
Yoga, a Way of Life
“Yoga […] touches the life of man at every level, physical, mental and spiritual. It is a practical method for making one’s life purposeful, useful and noble.”
– B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga Sutra, Preface
“The more one penetrates, it reveals deeper understanding which is beyond individual limitation. It helps one to sharpen the intellect of the head and the intelligence of the spiritual heart. This makes the practitioner to develop creativity spontaneously. That helps him to grow with clear intellectuality to express his experiential wisdom and makes him not only commune closely within himself but also with the society, community and humanity.”
- B.K.S. Iyengar, Patanjala Yoga Sutra Paricaya. pg. ix
Looking at Yoga from different angles, categorizing its meanings into something more manageable “chunks”, has helped me have a better grasp on the subject…feeble as that maybe. However, I realize that Yoga, as a subjective subject, cannot be pinned down so as it embraces, unites, merges and transcends all categories, analogies and definitions.
Yoga unfolds a vast ocean in front of me. I am a mere drop left alone to wiggle around in the midst of this gigantic expanse. Yoga eludes any feeling of achievement as I dive deeper into the subject, increasing its complexity and depth every moment. A soon as I feel I understand the movement of the upper back, it is gone. The lower back problem I have is not really coming from the back, but from the shoulders, or ankles, or is it other way around? It tells me to control the body and mind, but “controlling” does not simply mean having control. It is said that Yoga eradicates sorrows of the soul, but it often triggers feelings of dejection and depression. It is full of gray areas, contradictions, dichotomies…and messiness. It has laid out a path that does not seem to have a clear route or a goal. I feel utterly confused and lost for the most part.
Still, the place I eventually go back to is the yoga mat.
I don’t know what Yoga really is to me but I know what it has given me, though that is elusive at best. It has provided me with a “home” to return to over and over. It has given me an integrated discipline to follow and tools to observe and examine my body and mind, their tendencies and imbalances. It has molded and shaped my body and mind in unexpected ways at unexpected timings. It has taught me about the intricate interplay between willpower and surrender. Above all, Yoga has given me a faith – a faith in the forces that have led me to yoga, a faith in the process that is yoga, and a faith in my potential in this process.
My dear friend (rather sarcastically) asked me the other day, “What ISN’T Yoga to you?” He is right! Yoga has permeated my life in ways I do not fully understand, and has become the all-encompassing guiding light as I navigate through this rather chaotic, fast-paced world. Yoga to me is less and less about “turning the left foot in and the right leg out,” though it is certainly the foundation and a gateway. Instead, it is more and more about striving to figure out how to conduct myself in this world and how to be in harmony with this world.
There is a sutra that particularly resonates in me:
II.21 tadarthah eva drsyasay atma
Nature and intelligence exist solely to serve the seer’s true purpose, emancipation.
This sutra is perhaps telling me what Yoga is (or isn’t) to me at this point in my journey. In his description of this sutra, Guruji writes, “The things of the world are essentially there to serve the seer to discover and understand his own true position.” (Paricaya p. 45) The achy right knee, release in the front neck, bubbling feeling of anger, feeling of contentment and happiness, relationship with co-workers, likes and dislikes, want of recognition, clipping episodes of anxiety… All these (and more) are here for me to learn something about myself and my place in the Universe. Everyday I struggle to take this ancient wisdom to my mat, to my life, and to my heart. Maybe Yoga is something that permeates everything that we see, touch, feel and do, and we have to do our best to let it permeate everywhere.
To be continued…
Art: The Art of Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar
Astadala: Astadala Yogamala Volume 1. B.K.S. Iyengar
GEM: Yoga a Gem for Women. Geeta Iyengar
Guidelines: Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar and Geeta S. Iyengar
LOP: Light on Pranayama. B.K.S. Iyengar
LOY: Light on Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar
LOYSP: Light on Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. B.K.S. Iyengar
Paricaya: Yoga Sutra Paricaya. B.K.S. Iyengar
Tree: The Tree of Yoga. B.K.S. Iyengar
Iyengar: His Life and Work
70 Glorious Years of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali trans. Edwin F. Bryant
The Bhagavad Gita trans. Winthrop Sargeant