Yoga: A Way of Life

From On the Wings of the Swan, Volume VI, Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Whilst 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 thousands of years ago used to live in mud huts, today the yoga practitioner lives in a house or apartment in Manhattan, Sydney, London, Rome or Moscow.

Yoga has not changed, the tradition is the same; only the way of understanding it has changed. What in the past was known subjectively through experience, we can know today through scientificmeans. 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, as the condition of the human body is the same and the asana is the same. However, today we can also verify the results using scientificmethodology, therefore our appreciation has changed.

Levels of knowing yoga

There are different levels of knowing yoga. The firstis 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 affinitywith 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, and develop some form of affinitywith 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 findyou relax, you feel better, more optimism or pessimism is experienced, or more awareness comes, or more depression, or more anxiety. 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. In this way, 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. BKS Iyengar is not a sannyasin, yet his entire life is devoted to the propagation of yoga. Dr Nagendra from Vivekananda Kendra is not a sannyasin, yet his whole life is devoted to yoga. I am talking here of the yogic traditions, not of the sannyasa traditions. Desikacharya, 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 Mahashaya and Paramahamsa Yogananda is yet 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. 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; and then there have been some who have made yoga into a sadhana.

Yoga as 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? They are the awareness of and adherence to certain qualities and ideas that 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, non-violence, you will emanate compassion. If you develop the quality of satya, truthfulness, you will emanate love. If you imbibe the quality of aparigraha, non-possessiveness, 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.

Beyond being a lifestyle, yoga is 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 what you have experienced until now. In this way, 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 cannot 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. Therefore, 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, provided 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, for why renounce materialism? You can say it diverts the mind, yet 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 will not 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. Therefore, no matter where you stop, you will still want to continue moving forward. You do it as there is clarity in your life. If there is clarity, how can even materialism distract anybody? To obtain that clarity, sadhana is a must.

27 January 2000