The Importance of Context in Learning Yoga

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati

When we practise yoga, we often focus on technique alone. Techniques form the content of yoga; they create the body of the science and the philosophy. However, it is also important to remember the context of yoga. Yoga is contextualized by its aim, the environment in which it was originally developed, and the environment in which it is now being practised. Knowing context allows us to adapt the form of yoga with intelligence and an understanding of what we are doing. We can employ intelligent and creative flexibility to modify the practice to meet the needs of the moment while also fulfilling the aim of yoga.

Context is very important. Without context, we can never really master yoga or any other art or science. For example, an artist learns all the classic principles of their form before learning to improvise and find true creativity. Without training in the classical skills of their art as well as understanding how their art has developed, there is no ground on which artists can base their creativity. Most of the great masters have developed their mastery in this way: by first learning the context.

Practising technique with an understanding of context takes our yoga practice to higher level. One side effect of understanding context is that we develop a sense of being linked to a greater and deeper purpose. The highest aim in yoga is the awakening of consciousness, and ultimately it is this aim which contextualizes all practice. Holistic health and profound inner happiness are side effects of practising yoga with this aim in mind.

Contextualizing yoga: the six philosophies

One of the best ways to contextualize yoga is to understand the environment in which it developed. Yoga has always been thought of as one part of a process of self-development. It is one of six allied philosophical systems that support each other and create a mega-philosophical system called the shad darshan, the six philosophies.

The word for philosophy in Sanskrit is ‘darshana’, from the root drsh, which means ‘to view or look at, contemplate, comprehend, and see by divine intuition’. Darshana translates as ‘seeing, looking at, knowing, observing, noticing, becoming visible or known, doctrine, a philosophical system’. The term darshana implies that one looks at life and sees the truth; we see things as they are. Yoga teaches us to see life more clearly, to examine the body-mind and behaviours with greater awareness.

Yoga is one of the six major darshanas, or philosophical and cosmological systems, of India. These systems are:

  • Vaisheshika (scientific observation), formulated by Kanada
  • Nyaya (logic), formulated by Gotama
  • Samkhya (cosmology), formulated by Kapila
  • Yoga (introspection), formulated by Patanjali
  • Mimamsa (profound intuition), formulated by Jaimini
  • Vedanta (the end of the Vedas), formulated by Badarayana

(There is a seventh system called Kashmir Shaivism, which is a system of idealistic monism and deals with the three-fold principles of God, soul, and matter. It was discovered later and added on to the list of classical philosophical systems. It lies outside of the scope of this present article.)

Of these six philosophies, the two most important for the yogi are Samkhya and Vedanta. Samkhya provides knowledge of the components of the body-mind and was a strong influence on Patanjali. Vedanta gives us an understanding of the ultimate attainments possible through yoga practice. A good synthesis of all these philosophical systems can be found in the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna teaches Arjuna yoga and how to live his life from within the highest yogic vision.

The three pairs

These six classical darshanas can be described as forming pairs, each pair consisting of an experiential method and a method of intellectual rationalisation. Each pair feeds the two main areas of human life, knowledge (jnana) and action (karma). These philosophies are part of a progressive and systematic process in which each pair takes us to a higher and more complete vision of human existence, just as the view from an aeroplane is much more complete than the view from the ground.

Each philosophy builds on the other and expands our awareness of who we are. For example, we use Nyaya to develop a logical mind in order to be able to pursue correct method in philosophical enquiry. Vaisheshika allows us to understand the material world we live in, which is the basis for deeper enquiry. Therefore, this first pair, Vaisheshika and Nyaya, relate to the study of the visible world of matter.

Yoga and Samkhya

Yoga and Samkhya form the second pair. Yoga and Samkhya relate to the invisible world, the subtle and more permanent realms of existence. Samkhya is the theoretical aspect and Yoga is the experiential method, the application of techniques that allow us to experience the subtle. Yoga is an exploration of the microcosm, the inner realms of the living being which are a reflection of the macrocosm, all of which is described by Samkhya.

Yoga is not an ultimate philosophy in itself, but part of a larger scheme of study and practice designed to take us further and further towards an experience of truth and an understanding of how life operates. Yoga is a process of refining our awareness by disconnecting from limited sensory perception and opening to the higher and more powerful awareness beyond the senses. Yoga refines the mind into a powerful instrument, and then teaches us to absorb the little mind into the Self via exalted states of samadhi.

Yoga teaches us how to develop the dormant parts of ourselves, to develop the latent instruments of higher knowledge, and to develop various skills and abilities which lie within the brain and the subtle bodies. When these dormant areas are developed, they allow us to explore this amazing body-mind in which consciousness resides. Without conscious self-development, we are unable to see past the veil of matter, are caught in a very limited existence, and may feel trapped by life. By working on these subtle structures – for example, the third eye, ajna chakra – we are able to refine our perception and expand our awareness so as to see and experience more and more of life. We begin to develop a sense of purpose and understanding of our place in the scheme of existence.

Samkhya provides a model, a framework which describes the spectrum of human and macrocosmic existence from the most gross to the most subtle. It describes the various components of the human being from the gross elements that make up the gross body to the more subtle elements, including the organs of perception and the organs of the mind, all the way up to consciousness. Samkhya gives us a framework to organise our practice.

Therefore, yoga has always started with gross practices such as asana and then proceeded to the more subtle practices of pranayama, mantra, and meditation. We then emerge from the inner processes of meditation and come back via the breath into the physical body and externalised consciousness. As a result of this inner journey, we are somehow refreshed and better able to handle life, armed with our deepening inner experience.

Final attainments

As we continue on the path of self-development, yoga and Samkhya lead us to the third pair of Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimansa. Uttara Mimamsa is also called Vedanta. The realisation of Vedanta is equivalent to the highest samadhi of Patanjali, or the jnana of jnana yoga.

Once yoga has empowered us with a perception of the subtle dimensions of life, the object of the two Mimamsas is to describe and provide a methodology to relate to the subtle dimensions and the hierarchy of creation. We aim to develop a higher relationship between the different levels of existence and the forces and ‘beings’ which inhabit these realms.

Purva Mimamsa is the spiritual technology, the mantras, invocations and prayers, rites and rituals that allow us to make contact with higher forces in the celestial world, and to influence them. Uttara Mimamsa is the knowledge component, the descriptions of the highest reality. It includes cosmogony, theology, the study of the celestial hierarchies, the description of the invisible world of ‘spirits’ and ’gods’ and the intuition of mystics. It permits us to live life at a higher level of understanding and wisdom.

So when we practise yoga techniques – the content of yoga – we need to remember that what we are learning is part of a bigger whole, that there is much more to life than we can see or experience with a limited perception. We need to remember the context in which yoga has developed and that yoga practised in modern times is very different to the yoga practised in times gone by. At the same time, we need to remember that the ultimate aim of all practice is higher awareness and a vision of Truth.