Yoga - A Way of Life

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Although yoga has undergone changes in understanding, the tradition of yoga itself has not changed. Today we are still doing the same practices as Patanjali, without any modifications. We are still doing the same hatha yoga practices that sages Gorakhnath, Matsyendranath, Swatmarama and the literature talk about, as they were practised thousands of years ago. The only change that has taken place is in our way of living, our way of knowing and perceiving things. If yoga practitioners used to live in mud huts thousands of years ago, today the yoga practitioner lives in a house or apartment in Manhattan, Sydney, London, Rome or Moscow.

So, yoga has not changed, the tradition is the same, but the way of understanding it has changed. What in the past was known subjectively through experience, we can know today through scientific means. If a person was ill, practised an asana, felt better and found that eventually the illness disappeared, it was a subjective experience, and the person said, "For this illness, this asana is beneficial." If you do the same thing today, the result will be the same because the condition of the human body is the same and the asana is the same. But today we can also verify the results using scientific methodology. So our appreciation has changed.

Levels of knowing yoga

There are different levels of knowing yoga. The first is the ordinary yoga practitioner who learns from any yoga teacher, in any centre, school or ashram, returns home and is satisfied with practising yoga for limbering and toning up the body.

The second level is developing some affinity with yoga, wanting to go deeper into the practices, so you become known as a novice or sadhaka. If kundalini yoga attracts you, you may decide to try all the practices to awaken your kundalini, go and live in an ashram, develop some form of affinity with yoga. Or you may take a book, go to a farm or a community and do your practices there, in retreat, in seclusion. That is the novice yoga sadhaka.

The third level of yoga is experimentation. You experiment with the changes that you feel and experience through yoga. When you practise yoga you find you relax, you feel better, more optimism or pessimism comes, or more awareness comes, or more depression or more anxiety comes. These are the experiences that can guide one further into the investigative process of yoga. Either you investigate it subjectively, alone or in a group, or you investigate in it a laboratory with instruments, with knowledgeable people whose expertise you can rely on. So, another step is experimenting with the change and trying to understand the change that is happening when you do a practice.

Another level beyond that is going into a tradition and seeing the relevance of yoga from the beginning until the present, and seeing yourself as a part of that stream of thought. There have been many such household yoga teachers. B.K.S. Iyengar is not a sannyasin yet his total life is devoted to the propagation of yoga. Dr. Nagendra from Vivekananda Kendra is not a sannyasin but his total life is devoted to yoga. I am talking here of the yogic traditions not of the sannyasa traditions. Deshikacharya, T. Krishnamacharya and Iyengar represent a tradition of yoga. People such as Swami Abhedananda and Swami Vivekananda represent another tradition of yoga. The tradition of Babaji, Sri Yukteshwara, Lahiri Mahasaya and Paramahamsa Yogananda is another tradition of yoga. There is the tradition that emanates from Swami Sivananda through Swami Satchidananda, Swami Vishnudevananda, Swami Satyananda, Swami Venkateshananda, Swami Chidananda and others of the Sivananda lineage. So, there are many traditions of yoga and many people have made such traditions or paths a part of their lifestyle, profession and expression in life.

Yoga as a sadhana

Then there have been some who have made yoga into a sadhana. There are many people who live alone and practise yoga, who describe the whole process, who are exponents of yoga. Yoga is not only the practice of asana, pranayama, kriya and kundalini techniques, hatha yoga and shatkarma, it is also imbibing a way of life, improving the quality of life as indicated in the yamas and niyamas.

What are the yamas and niyamas? Awareness and adherence to certain qualities and ideas which can uplift the human mind, emotions, character, psyche and personality. You become and are recognized as being a good person. If you develop the quality of ahimsa, you will emanate compassion. If you develop the quality of satya, you will emanate love. If you imbibe the quality of aparigraha, you will express simplicity and innocence. Each yama and each niyama will highlight a character of the human personality. When that character is highlighted then it becomes part of your expression, understanding, actions, behaviour, attitude and life. Therefore, yoga is not only techniques, it is also a lifestyle, known as the yogic lifestyle.

Yoga is not only a lifestyle but also a philosophy of life that gives strength to your mental character. A hope to hold on to and a motivation to experience something better than you have experienced until now. So, it becomes a philosophy as well. Therefore, yoga is a technique, a way of life and a philosophy. The underlying current of all these three aspects of yoga is the personal effort that one puts into the sadhana. The sadhana is a willingness to act. What is action? When you do an asana, it is an action. When you wake up in the morning, it is an action. When you meditate, it is an action. When you are silent, it is an action. When you are engaged in any activity, you are in action. Passivity is also action.

This has been the statement of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna tells Arjuna that action and inaction are two sides of the same coin. There is no such thing as inaction. When you are sitting silently, you are making an effort to sit silently. When you are enjoying nature and beauty, your perceptions are actively appreciating the beauty. You can't say you are not doing anything; your senses and mind are involved. Even when you are in a state of depression you are still active, your thoughts are active, you are aware of the process that is taking place in the mind. Even when you sleep it is karma. It is an action that is being performed by the body, by you as a person. There is no inactivity. So, if you think of karma as activity and inactivity, then there is no such thing as inactivity. Life is nothing but one continuous karma. The underlying, connecting thread is the sadhana, the motivation to act.

Clarity of mind

If one follows the sadhana of yoga, there are great possibilities as long as one does not measure everything in terms of money and power. It seems that today, due to the environment, everybody thinks in terms of money and power. Yoga is not anti money and power. Yoga is pro you. It is not against materialism, because why renounce materialism? You can say it diverts the mind, but who allows the mind to be diverted? If the mind is diverted, it means there is no mental clarity. If there is mental clarity, the mind won't be diverted. If you know where you have to go, then no matter how many stops you make on the way, you will be aware at every stop that you still have to go further.

You have to set a goal. You have to travel from this city to that city. You have looked at the map, you know where the good spots to stop are, but eventually you have to reach the city. So no matter where you stop, you will still want to continue moving forward. You do it because there is clarity in your life. If there is clarity, how can even materialism distract anybody? To obtain that clarity, sadhana is a must.

—Ganga Darshan, January 27, 2000