Most of the people, even those who attend yoga classes regularly have quite a limited understanding of Yoga. They associate it primarily with asanas, specific postures and pranayamas commonly referred to as breathing techniques. Some understand that meditation is also closely linked to Yoga but they’d usually speak of yoga AND meditation as if they were two separate entities. True yoga aficionados might have heard of subtle energy, energy channels or at least chakras. Yet smaller percentage of yoga practitioners have come across yamas and niyamas – yogic moral code.
Asana (posture) is often first and last thing people associate with yoga
But what if I told you that Hare Krishna movement followers are also yogis? Or that giving up everything to work with slum dwellers could be a form of Yoga? You’d probably be very surprised so let me explain how can that possibly be.
ISHKON followers right in the middle of their yoga practice
What constitutes contemporary postural yoga is a curious jumble of various branches of Yoga philosophy and lifestyle which evolved over millennia with quite a few 20th century Western additions. It was the early 20th century gurus such as Swami Sivananda who mixed together much older Raja Yoga (codified in 2nd century BC by sage Patanjali) with Hatha Yoga- a mystical branch of Yoga developed in 12th century CE.
Swami Sivananda is one of the gurus who created modern yoga
Roughly speaking, what we practice today is Raja Yoga, a royal path of Yoga, where an adept is supposed to follow gradually 7 steps leading to the last, 8th step- enlightenment. Labeling modern yoga as Raja Yoga is not 100% accurate and you’d clearly see why when I name those steps. Yama and niyama -guidelines on how to live life, including such universal moral rules as non-violence or chastity- are at the very base of this 8-step ladder, followed by asana, pranayama, and 3 mental stages of sensory withdrawal, concentration and meditation.
Now, show me one yoga teacher who will tell you not to even bother with stepping on a yoga mat until you’re a non-violent, non-coveting, honest, clean, self-disciplined, self-inquiring and content individual? Surely not many people would be attracted to Yoga after such an introduction and so yama and niyama are usually only fleetingly mentioned as something that is worth to incorporate but definitely not essential.
Let’s be very clear on this: Patanjali’s Yoga had nothing to do with performing acrobatic poses. Patanjali considered asana essential only in so far as it kept the body steady and comfortable throughout long periods of meditation. Raja Yoga revolved all around taming the mind and ego through meditation- it certainly wasn’t a body-focused practice.
Asana is a steady, comfortable pose, ideal for long meditation
So where the asanas come from? Well, some of them are the exact or almost exact copies of practices belonging to Hatha Yoga tradition. However, the fact that we mimic the centuries old yoga poses doesn’t mean we actually follow the footsteps of those mystics who practiced Hatha Yoga in mediaeval India. What sets us apart from them is the lack of the intention which was behind those practices. Hatha Yoga, literally the forceful Yoga, was using human body as a vehicle, a tool to reach liberation (term I’d be using interchangeably with enlightenment).
Hatha Yogis presumed that we have not only a physical, gross body but also a parallel, subtle body. A man is a bit like matryoshka, a Russian doll with many layers, consisting of physical body, subtle energy body, mind body, wisdom body and blissful body. The idea that there is a special kind of energy, a life force which circulates through the channels in the subtle body isn’t unique to Yoga. Indian prana is nothing else than Chinese chi/qi and the nadi channels are the mirror reflection of meridians of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
and Chinese meridians
The sole purpose of Hatha Yoga was to use particular asanas and pranayamas to control the flow of energy in the subtle body. We still find the remnants of that idea in modern postural yoga where each asana has both physical and ‘subtle’ or ‘energetic’ benefits. Teachers of some contemporary yoga styles would be able to explain that we stimulate particular chakras (energy vortexes) with particular poses. What is omitted in those teachings though is that the purification of the channels is just the first stage of a long process. The actual aim of controlling the life force, or prana through Hatha Yoga is the hope of waking up another, more potent energy called Kundalini.
Kundalini rests in the lowest chakra
Kundalini shakti (power) is a primordial, omnipotent energy resting dormant in our subtle body, to be more precise, in our root chakra corresponding to physical location of the base of the spine. Through a dedicated practice of asana and pranayama, combined with special cleansing practices and gestures, Kundalini force can be awaken, directed through the main energy channel and released, causing the state of liberation. Before that happens, though, yogi gains some super-powers called sidhis, including levitation, travel in time and space, clairvoyance and immortal body. People in India feared yogis, considering them magicians, often dangerous ones.
Understandably, the contemporary, New Age version of Kundalini Yoga (developed last century by Yogi Bhajan) advocates awakening Kundalini in order to live more fulfilled life here and now, rather than achieve the state of enlightenment.
Modern kundalini yoga claims to harness kundalini for improving daily life
It’s worth mentioning that out of hundreds of existing yoga postures, only a small proportion are original Hatha Yoga poses. The majority has been invented by first modern yoga gurus such as Krishnamacharya. Those gurus were strongly influenced by… Western gymnastics which came to India via colonial channels roughly the same time they developed their teachings. The idea of yoga flow (vinyasa)- dynamically moving from one posture to another- is also an invention of Krishnamacharya. He came up with this vigorous, cardio practice because it was more suitable for a military drill for the soldiers of maharaja of Mysore who he was assigned to train.
Krishnamacharya with his
disciples: Pattabhi Jois
and B.K.S. Iyengar
The first modern gurus combined those two rather incompatible branches of Yoga and started for the first time in history teaching it to the general public. Before that, Yoga was a secret knowledge passed over decades from a guru directly to his disciple. A yogi was a man who had become a sannyasin– a renunciate, giving up all the links with society in the hope of gaining liberation. Once Yoga has become main-stream, the emphasis on enlightenment started gradually fading away, replaced by goals such as health and peace of mind.
Let’s come back now to Yoga which has nothing to do with either asana or meditation. Traditionally, there have been various paths leading to the same goal: realizing the ‘higher’ Reality (transcendental Self or God) and thus uniting with it. This realization and unification leads to the state of existence, knowledge and bliss absolute. The prerequisite of achieving the liberation is to let go of the ego, the sense of self, the idea of body and mind belonging to you. And what easier way to lose it than to devote yourself fully to something bigger than yourself?
Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga of devotion is a path in which one loses his self completely by serving God with his every breath.It’s an ultimate surrender of the ego. By this point, you probably started to wonder whether Yoga is a religion after all? Rest assured. It is not. You can choose any given deity of any religion to become the focus of your devotion. It doesn’t matter if it’s Krishna, Shiva, Jesus, Buddha or even your guru. It works as long as you can truly and wholeheartedly give your chosen deity all your love and sacrifice the ‘I’. Bhakti yoga usually involves practices such as dancing, chants and meditation all leading to ecstatic states of merging with the Divine. The point in Bhakti Yoga isn’t that you literally believe particular stories about the god you have chosen. Devotion, rituals are just props towards liberation, when the individual self will merge with the Divine into one.
Rituals such as this belong to Bhakti Yoga tradition
The other way to annihilate the ego is to dedicate all your actions to the well-being of others. That is the idea behind Karma Yoga, the Yoga of action. Nowadays reduced in certain yoga schools to voluntary service to help with running of the yoga centres, it was actually meant to be a selfless service. So long as you expect nothing in return, including the feeling of pride or righteousness, it is not Karma Yoga and it will not help you in your spiritual development. Karma Yoga means doing your job, whatever it is, without expecting any results.
Bhakti Yoga (yoga of devotion) and Karma Yoga (yoga of action) are closely interlinked. I mentioned before that ISHKON (Hare Krishna) followers are bhakti yogis. It’s certainly so. But also, their holy scripture – Bhagavadgita- a philosophical treaty coming from an Indian epic Mahabharata, expounds the principles of Karma Yoga. In Bhagavadgita, god Krishna explains his disciple, a prince and an excellent archer Arjuna what constitutes his dharma, his duty which he should fulfill with complete engagement yet detaching himself completely from the fruits of his actions.
Krishna explains Arjuna principles of Karma Yoga
Another yoga path open for those who could not find the previously described ones suitable is Jnana Yoga, or yoga of knowledge. If it was just about studying and absorbing knowledge, this could have been the most appropriate to scientifically-inclined Westerners. However, Jnana Yoga is all about realizing and understanding through experience rather than studying.
According to Yoga philosophy, the world in which we live, the one we consider reality is just an illusion, maya. Interestingly enough, modern physicists and neuroscientists would by and large agree with that vision of the world first described in the Upanishads, ancient Indian scriptures. Understanding the true nature of the world (that everything is One) is done by jnana yogis through self-inquiry. Two practices of self-inquiry are viveka (discriminating between real and unreal, eternal and transient) and vairagya or dispassion. Dispassion means avoiding craving or aversion to anything, cutting of all possible attachments. Now, looking at the alternatives, being an ardent follower of a particular deity indeed sounds much easier than not experiencing aversion to cold when standing barefoot on the snow or not feeling craving for food after fasting for a week….
The list of various Yoga branches by no means finishes here, I’ve just highlighted the most significant and popular of them. What I was hoping to show is that looking at Yoga as a fitness regime or even as a relaxation technique is a reductionism which ignores the history of Yoga and the wisdom behind it. Not everybody needs or should be spiritual but the spiritual heritage of Yoga tradition cannot be denied and should not be forgotten.
*If you’d like to learn more about history and philosophy of yoga, I recommend reading ‘The Shambala Guide to Yoga’ by Georg Feuerstein*