Yoga: The Science of Life

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Recently I met two people who started asking me questions. In order to understand what they were trying to say, I asked them a question, “Describe what is in my hand.” One person said, “You have a glass of water which is half empty in your hand.” The other person said, “You have a glass of water which is half full in your hand.” I knew that the one who said that the glass was half full was an optimist, and the other one who said that the glass was half empty was a pessimist.

The questions that people ask never change. It is the answers that change according to our situation, circumstances, state of mind and ability to understand the answer. But the questions always remains the same. This is a human trait. As human beings we live a linear existence. When we move forward in this linear existence, that movement is known as evolution. Evolution is experienced on a day to day basis, on a life to life basis and also at the cosmic dimension where infinity is the ruling factor, not the finite level of existence.

Yoga comes into one's life at a certain point in time to provide answers to the question regarding the purpose of one's existence. Please do not understand this in a philosophical, abstract way because yoga is not a philosophy or an abstract way of thinking; rather it is a very direct, precise and clear way of thinking. The whole system of yoga deals with attaining realization in relation to our nature, mind, life and existence. Therefore, yoga is known as the science of life. However, in order to understand the broad aspect of yoga we have to divide the subject into three parts: (i) yoga philosophy (ii) yoga psychology and (iii) applied yoga.

Yoga philosophy

Yoga philosophy says that we are in a constant process of evolution. Our consciousness is continuously changing and evolving, and this evolution can be seen now at the level of intellect. We may not realize something until our intellect comes in between. We think about it, analyze it, rationalize it, then we accept it. After acceptance of a situation has taken place there is no conflict, but as long as we do not accept a situation, as long as we are not sure about something, there is confusion and conflict.

In our present condition the concept of linear evolution is very much linked to the aspect of intellect, or buddhi in yogic terminology. It is intellect which says, “All right, I understand this and because I understand I can appreciate and accept it”, or “I do not understand that, therefore, I reject it”. This is how we continue through our journey of life. Things that have happened in the past remain with us in the form of memory, in the form of experience. Yoga says that these memories and experiences can be pleasurable as well as painful. The human mind constantly revolves around these memories and experiences. However, an effort has to be made to come out of this worldly conditioning.

Why do we need to move away from the conditioning of the world? Because of evolution. There are infinite possibilities which are dormant within us and we are not aware of them. There is the possibility of obtaining total awareness in our life, but we are not aware of it. Attaining total awareness is the aim of yoga. In order to get to that level, which is the result of an integrated consciousness, an effort has to be made to change certain conditionings which inhibit and restrict the expressions of our mind and consciousness. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali states that yoga is the cessation of mental activities known as chitta vrittis.

This is a very important statement of yoga. The mental activities which are the result of external, manifest, social, emotional, personal and cultural conditioning have to be transcended. The moment we are able to go beyond the normal range of perception, we find that another level of existence and experience exists. The entire yogic philosophy is based on the realization that we need to change ourselves. Nobody has been able to define consciousness. Freud and Jung spoke about the unconscious but their statement is not the final one in modern psychology.

When Ford created the first car it was a very basic design. Supposing he had started to talk about installing air conditioning which did not exist in those days. In the same way, when the concept of human consciousness was being discussed in the earlier part of the century, psychologists came up with ideas about another consciousness which they called the unconscious. However, they were simply conjecturing about a little known activity of total consciousness, whereas yoga has always maintained that there is a great potential within us which has been given a specific name – kundalini.

The awakening of kundalini, the latent cosmic force within the deepest layers of our consciousness, is the aim of life. If we compare this concept of yoga with the modern understanding, we see that many of the ideas are similar. Right now, for example, modern science tells us that we are using only one tenth of our brain's faculties, about ten percent, and that the remaining centres are dormant. This means that at present our understanding of human nature is very limited. We are able to function now at the conscious level through the rational mind, but even then the concept and the vision of our awareness is very limited. We are not able to fully harmonize, understand and activate the potential of the conscious mind.

In this way we function within a very limited area of creative expression. Yogis have maintained that there is a state of complete fulfilment, but in order to reach that level of existence there has to be continuity in the evolution and experience of consciousness. With this vision in mind the science of yoga evolved. The yogis and seers also realized that it is difficult to discover one's own nature, it is difficult to understand, observe and harmonize one's own expressions. Why is it difficult?

Yogic psychology

We tend to experience four factors in life. First is the factor of strength. Each of us has certain strengths within ourselves. Our strength can be clarity of mind or willpower, but at the same time we also suffer from our inherent weaknesses. These weaknesses may be inferiority complexes, different inhibitions or lack of willpower. Many times we can see that our strengths are overshadowed by our weaknesses. If we look objectively at our own lives, on a day to day basis, we will see that we are very influenced by our weaknesses and, as a result, we suffer from anxiety, depression, insomnia, anger, frustration and so forth. We are not able to manage the limiting factors of our life which manifest in the form of weaknesses. Therefore, psychological, mental and emotional problems come up.

Ambition and need are two more factors which strongly influence our psychological makeup. We all have certain ambitions and these are the motivating factors which move us through life. What we aspire for, such as social status and a happy, comfortable life, and what we wish to become are ambitions. Apart from ambition there are certain needs which may be physical, mental, emotional, psychic or spiritual. Due to the intensity of the limiting factor in the form of weakness we often confuse ambition and need. We feel that our ambitions are our needs and we tend to ignore the actual needs of the body, mind and emotions.

So there is a struggle between strength and weakness, and between ambition and need in our lives. We are not able to manage such situations with a clear mind. In order to help us yoga again comes in between and says, “Become aware”. That is the basic rule of yoga: develop awareness so that you can observe yourself, your qualities and your strengths. This is where yogic psychology actually begins, by making us confront and then come to terms with the mind. There is no fighting with ourselves or with our lives. When we come to terms with ourselves there is acceptance based upon the realization of human nature and personality.

Harmonizing the emotions

This is how we have to deal with what goes on in our heads. We must see how strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs can be complemented, balanced and harmonized. We must see how the creative potential of our head (intellect) and heart (feelings and emotions) can be channelled in the right direction. Paramahamsa Satyananda says that emotions are the most powerful factor in one's life. We feel an emotion and we relate to others according to that emotion. If we see a stranger, a friend, an enemy, our son or daughter, an emotion, a feeling arises. If we have a religious belief, there is an emotion related with it. If we see somebody whom we love and respect, there is a feeling, an emotion.

We live in a world full of emotion. The main conflict in human life is due to disharmony in the realm of emotion, not in the intellect. This disharmony sometimes manifests in the form of anger, hatred, jealousy, frustration, love, affection, happiness or sorrow. So what we are actually interacting with in our lives is nothing but emotion. When rationality comes in and we are able to understand the situation properly, then a step is taken and progress is made. In order to understand what is happening in our heart there has to be some form of self-observation. If you were to ask me what yoga means, I would say 'self-observation'.

Yoga is not only a group of physical postures which we perform. Of course we have been trained in asanas, but that is only one aspect of yoga. What do we hope to gain from practising postures, breathing techniques, meditation and relaxation? Just temporary relief from stress and anxiety? Yoga is definitely used to reduce the level of stress and tension in our lives. Yoga is also used to reform the destructive mentality which manifests externally due to disharmony of the emotions.

Just to give you an example, our swamis have travelled to twenty-four state and central prisons in Bihar as part of a three month project to teach yoga to life term prisoners. The aim is to reform their negative mentality and help them to develop a positive attitude and outlook towards life so that they can experience harmony and tranquility. This major project was undertaken because the government has recognized that yoga can help such people. Yoga has something concrete to contribute whether it is in the realm of therapy, in the treatment of arthritis, cancer, AIDS, or in the management of psychological problems.

Need of today

More than this symptomatic relief, however, yoga has something unique to offer, which is the means to become aware of oneself in order to evolve in life. This is the most important message of yoga. Of course, this kind of understanding takes time to develop because we have to go through certain experiences in life. Until we go through these experiences we cannot appreciate the beauty of yoga. There are many courses available in different ashrams and yoga centres where we can learn the physical aspect or the meditative aspect of yoga, but our actual need is different today.

Our need is to realize the imbalance in the emotional structure and to harmonize it. Once we are able to harmonize that imbalance, the quality of mind changes. We may live in the world but our vision changes. If we put on rose coloured glasses, we will see the world as rosy. If we put on black glasses, we will see the world as black. If we put on clear glasses, we will see the world in its actual colour. Therefore, yoga says: first of all observe yourself. Every action should be performed with awareness, whether it is positive or negative. Make sure that whatever you do is for the development of your creative nature and that it also uplifts others. If the actions which you perform are not constructive and they create conflict, confusion, pain and suffering, that is not the yogic way.

The actions which you perform should be uplifting for your own mind and consciousness as well as for others. When you are able to bring about a different level of awareness by your action, then that is a yogic action. However, this awareness has to be combined with certain disciplines in life which have to be seen from a different perspective. Discipline is not an imposed routine where there are fixed times to wake up, to sleep and to eat. The yogic concept of discipline is to be in control of the faculties which you express in your life and to direct those faculties towards creativity and positivity. This is the concept of yogic education.

Complete picture of yoga

Yoga has been understood in different ways at different times. For many of us yoga was just a series of physical exercises, a method of attaining relaxation after passing through stressful situations, or a method of learning meditation in order to come to the core of our innermost being. However, we have failed in all these objectives because we have never fully developed a complete picture of yoga in our lives or even in our own understanding. In order to aid this process of developing a complete understanding of yoga we have established Bihar Yoga Bharati, which we hope will become the first yoga university in the world. This institute offers certificate courses, diploma courses and post-graduate degree courses in yoga philosophy, yoga psychology and applied yoga at present, and in the future will there will be courses in yoga ecology and environmental sciences and various other subjects dealing with the integration and harmonization of life with nature and with cosmic consciousness.

This is a big step. We have to change our view and our understanding. The moment we are able to do that, yoga actually takes root in our lives. Sannyasa is a lifestyle which I and others have chosen. Yoga has nothing to do with lifestyle. It offers alternate thoughts and ideas in order to understand the completeness of life, but it is a system of realization, of mind management, body management, emotion management and self-management. That is all. This is the understanding of yoga which we need so that we can make our actions a creative expression of our consciousness.

Our guru says that in the life of every human being, three faculties or qualities are most important: head, heart and hands – intellect, emotion and performance. The moment we are able to integrate these three qualities we become a complete human being. This is the concept of a complete human being which Aurobindo called the 'superman' and which the yogis call one who is realized. Realization is a very practical event in every person's life; it is not a philosophical or a religious event. Realization of the nature that governs our individual personality and also the cosmic personality is yoga. So we have to be very clear what we want from yoga. If we want physical practices in order to feel good, they are available. If we want relaxation techniques in order to release stress and tension, they are also available. Do we need to stop there or can we continue? We can continue and this should be our aim.

Australia 1995