Inspite of yoga’s global popularity, a clear understanding of its Indian roots and the range of practices that it includes is lacking.
This article was originally published here.
Over the last five decades there has been a huge increase in the popularity of yoga worldwide.
The United Nations’ declaration of an International Day of Yoga (June 21) is symbolic of yoga’s truly globalised status today. Inspite of yoga’s global popularity, a clear understanding of its Indian roots and the range of practices that it includes is lacking.
This is mainly due to the limited access to authentic textual material. Experts recommend a study of Bhagavadgita, Sage Patanjali’s Yogasutra and Hathapradipika as a starting point. Furthermore, there are innumerable texts including some Upanishads that can be referenced for deeper study. In this blog, we will discuss the meaning of yoga and the methods to reach the state of Samadhi. My humble pranams to scholars such as TKV Desikachar, James Mallison, Mark Singleton and Marshal Govindan whose commentaries/translations on sacred texts have been used extensively here.
Yoga is Samadhi. It is the quality of the mind in all its states. The states of the mind are distracted, confused, agitated, focused and restrained. Among these states, when the mind is agitated, Samadhi is overpowered by agitation. This is not part of yoga. But that which, when the mind is single pointed, causes an object to shine forth as it really is and cuts off afflictions, loosens the bondage of karma and orients one towards suppression of the activities of the mind is called yoga with cognition (Samprajnata Samadhi). And this is accompanied by reasoning, reflection, bliss and egoism. But when all activities of the mind are suppressed that is Samadhi without cognition (Asamprajnata Samadhi).
Classical Yoga, as expounded by Sage Patanjali around the second century A.D., describes a path to Samadhi, and calls it Kriya Yoga (Yoga of Action with Awareness). Components of Kriya Yoga are Abhyasa and Vairagya. Abhyasa includes intense practice, self-study and devotion to the Lord. Vairagya includes preliminary and superior forms of detachment.
Intense practice consists of various techniques such as Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Meditation and Mantras. This practice should be appropriate, constant and practiced over a long period of time. Self-study includes repetition of the syllable Om and other purificatory formulas, study of treatises on Liberation and observation of one’s own behaviour which brings discrimination and self mastery. Devotion to the Lord includes the cultivation of unconditional love for the Lord as well as letting go of what disturbs us. As we develop our practice along the right path, we will find that our ability to discipline ourselves and to reject intrusive influences grows.
Detachment (Vairagya) involves letting go, not of the objects which inhabit our world, but the desire or craving to possess them, of the attachment or need for them. In the preliminary stage of detachment, one reminds oneself to release, to let go of this craving. Superior form of detachment is that freedom from desire activated by the constituent forces of nature which arises due to an individual’s Self realisation. The ordinary person is involved in desires, activated by the forces of nature, with little or no control and only fleeting experiences of happiness. However, realising the Self, the joy and peace is so fulfilling that automatically one gains discrimination between the Self and non-Self. Thus by constant practice and with detachment arises the cessation of fluctuations and mind becomes single pointed.
Here Sage Patanjali lists methods to remove the impurities and increase knowledge leading to discriminative discernment. The auxiliaries of yoga are eight, and popularly known as Ashtanga Yoga. By performing them, misapprehension, which is of five parts and takes the form of impurity, is lessened and disappears. When it is lessened correct knowledge manifests. The more the methods are performed, the more the impurities are attenuated. And the more impurity is lessened, the more the light of knowledge increases, in tandem with impurities gradual destruction. It is this increase which experiences transcendence, until discerning cognition arises, i.e, until there is knowledge of the individual natures of the qualities (gunas) and the Self.
Performance of auxiliaries of yoga is the cause of the severance of impurity. It is what causes one to reach samadhi, just as observance of Dharma alone is the cause of happiness.
The eight auxiliaries are the the rules (yama), the observances (niyama), posture (asana), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal (pratyahara), fixation (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and samadhi. I will explain these in order, their practice and individual natures in my next blog.
Simply put, yoga is the ability to direct the mind towards an object and sustain that direction without any distractions. By constantly practicing methods such as Kriya Yoga one may attain this state of Samadhi.