What is Yoga?

Sannyasi Govind Das, Dhanbad

With our birth in the human body, natural evolution comes to an end, and spiritual evolution begins. We reach a threshold, the end of the biological evolution from animals and the start of spiritual evolution in human beings. To carry out this evolution, nature provides us with a special tool, called awareness. The awareness of one’s own self in relation to time and space. When we are thinking, we know that we are thinking, and we know that we know that we are thinking. This ability is not there in animals.

This evolution takes a different curve, it continues on the level of the senses, mind, intellect, emotions and the self. Instead of nature controlling our evolution, we can take charge of our own evolution. Yoga helps to make the spiritual evolution much faster by developing these mental faculties with the help of a special tool of awareness.

What we understand by yoga

With our limited knowledge, we perceive yoga as constituting asana, pranayama and some meditation practices for gaining health and mental peace. It is impossible to understand yoga in totality. Without personal experience, it is not possible to really appreciate the higher aims of yoga. Yoga is usually defined as a union: the union between the limited self, jiva, and the cosmic self, atman. Actually, the union is already there, it is just that we are feeling separated, we have not realized that we are atman.

Origin of yoga

It is said that Devi Parvati poses a question to Lord Shiva: There is a lot of suffering in the world, can we control the suffering? The instructions that Shiva gave to Parvati about overcoming suffering in life are the instructions of yoga. In ancient times, yoga was used to remove physical, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual sufferings so that the sannyasins could achieve higher goals in life. It was limited to those who devoted their entire life to yogic sadhana practising several hours to transcend the limited mind and access higher consciousness, with the objective of self-realization. As such the yogic practices were limited to sannyasins. The knowledge was kept secret and not exposed to public view.

Yoga has evolved over thousands of years by contributions from various rishis and munis based on their personal experience. The Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana and Mahabharata have all references to yoga but they do not deal with the methods because the yogic technique was passed from the Guru to their disciples by word of mouth.

It is only in this era that yoga has been brought to house holders. Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of Bihar School of Yoga, has been the pioneer in bringing yogic knowledge and practices in a structured, scientific way to the common person. The purpose was to give a yogic experience to a worldly person. A common person could start yoga to cure physical and mental ailments, and then aim for higher yogic goals.

Aims of yoga

Yoga starts with the removal of suffering of all kinds and culminates in making us realize our identity with the greater self. It is difficult to relate to the end result of yoga which is realizing our identity with the greater self or also called the union of the self with the greater self. It is better to focus on the goal of removing the suffering from life, which automatically leads to the final goal of yoga. Different sadhanas suit different people depending on the stage of our evolution. We are born again and again to develop spiritually. The eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita are based on different roles of yoga.

Physical level

At the physical level, most of us have a body that is continually in a state of disruption. The functions of different organs, muscles and nerves are not harmonized, the endocrine system is irregular, and the efficiency of the nervous system decreases with the outcome of disease. Yoga aims at bringing all these different functions into perfect coordination so that that they work for our overall well-being. This objective is covered by hatha yoga. By balancing ida and pingala, the mental and physical energies, it makes the physical and pranic body healthy and prepares for higher sadhana requiring a focused, undissipated mind.

Mental level

Many of us suffer mental disturbances in the form of conflicts, neuroses, phobias which make us unhappy and depressed. Yoga aims to smoothen and eliminate mental problems, large and small, obvious and subtle. For them, yoga is coordination between mind and body. Swami Sivananda used to say that yoga is integration between head, heart and hands. This objective is covered by raja yoga, which overcomes the limitations of the mind and develops higher consciousness.

Kriya Yoga aims at raising the dormant shakti called kundalini so that one can connect with the higher cosmic consciousness One transcends the body, the senses and the mind and gradually establishes oneself at higher levels of mind and consciousness.

Components of yoga

There are many branches of yoga, mantra yoga, kundalini yoga, laya yoga, hatha yoga, raja yoga, bhakti yoga, dhyana yoga, swara yoga, karma yoga, kriya yoga, japa yoga, jnana yoga. Swami Satyananda classified yoga in the Yoga Chakra, the wheel of yoga, having six spokes.
Bahiranga yoga – consists of hatha yoga, raja yoga and kriya yoga. One has to progress and perfect each yoga and move forward synchronizing and perfecting and fine tuning the body, prana, mind and emotions. This is a sadhana of self-practice, self-evolution and self-perfection. The gain is personal, for you do not necessarily contribute to society.

Antaranga yoga – is concerned with how you express yourself in daily life and consists of karma yoga, bhakti yoga and jnana yoga. The internal expressions and attitudes are perfected and the purpose is to contribute more towards society rather than the self. This leads to the integration of the hands, heart and head, the elimination of the ego, and the realization of the Self.

Towards permanent change

Yogic goals are different in different branches of yoga. A sequence of yogic practice is required to uplift and improve the quality of the body, the mind, emotions, behaviour, consciousness and energy level. Then our lifestyle changes will be a permanent change. It is important to do yoga as a regular sadhana and not only as a practice in a yoga class once a week. Our yogic objectives are small, short-sighted and related to the cure of ailments, the yogic practices are irregular and inconsistent, and their benefits small and temporary.

The danger with such limited knowledge is that this great knowledge developed by our munis and rishis over thousands of years will become distorted and may die in due course of time. Therefore, let us resolve to change ourselves and society by applying this great yogic science first in our life and then for others in society.