Personal Transformation through Yoga

Dr Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati (Brian Thomson), Australia

What do people need nowadays? What has happened to our peace of mind? There is an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” The word ‘interesting’, of course, means that there is a lot going on, that life is very complicated because of the turmoil around us. That certainly applies to this era we are going through. There is political and environmental turmoil all around the world, many people have lost their spiritual roots, and our minds cannot keep up with the rapid change. Our emotions also are corrupted by the intake of mental impressions, food and drink; the food we are taking into our bodies is far too high in fat, sugar and impurities. Just when everyone is wondering how we can solve the accelerating human dilemma, the ancient science of yoga comes to the rescue. What is yoga? What benefits can we expect from it? How can we define it?

Defining yoga

Swami Niranjan has given a definition of yoga that is a combination of the descriptive and functional. He said the following: “Yoga is the ancient system of evolving the whole person, the physical, the vital, the mind and emotions, the psychic quality and the spiritual. According to the yogic tradition, evolution is a systematic process through which we learn to harmonize ourselves. It is a process through which we develop the ability to express our qualities optimally and creatively. In this context, evolution is not self-realization, it is perfection in life, and once we reach that state of perfection, realization is a natural outcome.”

This definition emphasizes the way in which yoga is useful in the world, and how it prepares us to take our place in life for the betterment of ourselves, of other people, for the environment around us, and for planet earth itself. He further extends this principle in another very short definition: “Yoga is the evolution of head, heart and hands.”

This definition emphasizes the ability of yoga to develop our mental and emotional functioning, and our love and compassion, so that we can function in the world in a more effective way. Swami Niranjan went on to describe the five dimensions of human experience, the koshas or sheaths.

He said: “Yoga views the process of evolution from five different angles: evolution of the body, evolution of energy, evolution of mind and emotions, evolution of consciousness, and evolution of spirit. In Sanskrit, these five dimensions of human experience are called annamaya kosha (body), pranamaya kosha (energy, vitality), manomaya kosha (mind and emotions), vijnanamaya kosha (wisdom and psychic qualities) and anandamaya kosha (the individual spirit). In addition to this, as we evolve and optimize these dimensions of ourselves, our health and life in general improve in these five ways. Nowadays people speak of ‘yoga therapy’. Yoga was not developed as a therapy, but when we practise it, our health improves. In addition, we are reminded that illness frequently involves all dimensions of the individual, including the spiritual, and that the reach of yoga exceeds the scope of conventional treatment by a long way.”

Four dimensions of yoga

The four dimensions of yoga are:

  1. Yoga philosophy: the overview of the place of individuals in the large picture of their spiritual essence, our place in society and on planet earth, and our relationship with the ultimate consciousness.
  2. Yoga lifestyle: the sum-total of the way we can live our day-to-day life in such a way as to facilitate our process of evolution on the spiritual path.
  3. Yoga practices: the vast system of yoga activities that optimize our physical, vital, mental and emotional functioning in such a way that we eliminate the blockages to realizing the spiritual reality of our being.
  4. The availability of initiation, guidance and grace from a spiritual master, to facilitate all of the above. In terms of my own spiritual progress – this has been my main path. The unfoldment of my life has been an indescribable blessing, it has continued ever since I met Swami Satyananda in 1969, and accelerated since he gave me poorna sannyasa in 1976.

The beauty of yoga is that we can avail ourselves of any or all of these, and discover our rightful place as spiritual beings who can make a contribution to the welfare of all.

Obstacles on the path

For thousands of years, the spiritual adepts have told us that each of us is already at the highest level of consciousness. But we are caught in a lower level of awareness due to ignorance of who we really are. We need to get out of the lower ‘dramas’, and become our real potential. However, this is difficult for many reasons, some of which are:

  1. We are identified with our bodies, so we are preoccupied with all the actions required to protect the body, many of them at odds with our spiritual direction. For instance, the fear inherent in the protective mechanism of the body so often cancels out our love. Yoga gives us tools to neutralize the inappropriate protective emotions.
  2. We are identified with our ego and with our roles in life. This blinds us to our spiritual reality, and even to our oneness with all others.
  3. We are also identified so much with our mental processes that we come to believe that this internal monologue of thought is the real me. Some meditation practices allow us to witness this flow of thought and to realize that it is not ‘me’, it is just a process.
  4. We worship intellect so much that we ignore the higher sources of knowledge and decision making such as intuition and wisdom. Yoga opens us up to those so that they become second nature to us.
  5. Our desire to pursue the feelings and emotions that give us pleasure, and to avoid the ones we consider unpleasant, keeps us from being aware of our true goal to pursue. Yoga helps us to become aware of these desires and to be able to choose the best direction.
  6. Often the people around us and our society in general have a completely different conceptual system of belief about life that excludes a spiritual viewpoint, and there is a lot of pressure on us to comply. Yoga at least allows us to see this pressure for what it is, and decide what to do about it.
  7. In many societies the lifestyle, with its materialism, aggression, craving for pleasure (which of course can never be satisfied), pollution and ‘junk food’ diet, among other things, destroys our attempts to find ourselves. We need yoga to help us remain aware of these diversions, and to stay in a ‘witness’ position, so that we can choose what we do.
  8. Most societies are heavily focused on the millions of events that are occurring all around, and they persistently attract our attention. People are never encouraged to look within. Yoga gives us the gifts of meditation to do just that.
  9. The habits we have developed keep us pursuing the material life. Habits are the outcome of repeated thoughts. Yoga can help us become objectively aware of our thought patterns, to break old bad habits and avoid new ones.
  10. Due to all of the above, people have developed such inertia that they find it difficult to get up out of that morass, and start the path. This is a state in yoga called tamas, and it is difficult to escape.

However, from time to time, someone shakes themselves out of it and becomes ready. Then, in the words of the yogis, “When the disciple is ready the guru appears.” It may be in the form of the actual guru himself, or just a beginning in the form of having yoga available. Then the progress on the path to personal transformation accelerates in a beautiful way.