Yoga has commonly become a set of Asanas (Yogic postures), which formed a part of the Hatha Yoga system of India. It is sad however, that Yoga itself has hence been reduced in the West to these sets of rules, and people have become so obsessed with this.
The meaning of Yoga is “Union” or “To Unite”.
It relates to uniting one’s Self or Soul with the Supreme, by using outer applications such as posture (asana) and breath-control (pranayama) to subdue the mind and senses. However, this is mainly forgotten in the West.
Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati, a great Hindu reformer and the founder of the Arya Samaj movement in India sought to restore many inconsistencies and also incorrect statements in the tradition and texts, was perhaps amongst the first to criticise the modern-day application of breathing techniques and asana or Yogic postures.
He indicated, as per the texts and tradition, Yoga and breath-control should be done comfortably, in comfortable positions, as long as the neck, chest and spine remain straight.
Pranayama is breath-control itself has many forms and forms an integral part of the greater Yoga tradition, more important at pruifying the mind and body than Asanas or exercise regimes!
We find the same echoed in the ancient texts of India on Yoga
“Keeping the upper parts, the chest, neck and the head erect and equal to the other parts of the body, subduing within the heart the senses together with the mind, let the wise by the raft of Brahman cross over all the fearful torrents of the world.” – Swetasvaropnishad, II.8
“One should hold one's body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.” – Gita.VI.13-14
The great Yoga Seer Patanjali, one of the last Yoga Seers himself states in his Yoga Sutras (II.46) that Asana or posture should be still (sthira) and comfortable (sukham).
Asana itself means a Seat. It hence refers to sitting and relaxed poses originally, not the numerous other positions that came about later on, which were, like the science of Marmavidya or pressure point therapies, part of the exercise (vyayama) regime of Hindu Martial Arts (Dhanurveda) for warriors and the likes, as warm-up poses and striking positions. It did not form a part of the original Yoga, which was peaceful and aimed at Self-realisation.
We clearly also see this in southern India forms of martial arts today, and also aspects of it in the Martial Arts traditions of Asia, of which were influenced by these systems via Buddhist Monks. Along with these came the special sciences of Ayurveda or the healing tradition of India, which included – again especially in the south, specific massage techniques and therapies for broken bones and injuries, especially to joints and pressure-points (marma chikitsa), as formed a part of the healing aspects of these Martial Arts, as did the classical Hatha-Yoga poses or Asanas.
This is, as at this time in history, we note several invasions of India by Muslim groups, and hence many Ashrams (Hindu Monasteries) and Kingdoms required to defend themselves, which included the spread of this type of exercise for Martial Arts, as it grew in India – possibly from south Indian (Kerala, Karnataka) influences where it has always remained strong and traditional, beginning with the Vedic Rishi or Seer, Parashurama.
This suggests positions such as Sukhasana (comfortable cross-legged, Siddhasana (Siddha seated position), Padmasana (Lotus position), Vajrasana (Diamond pose) and Shavasana (Corpse pose, relaxed on the back).
We must remember that Yoga was never about exercise. The older forms of Yoga include Jnana Yoga (Yoga of Wisdom), Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action or Service, as in Vedic rituals or fire sacrifices and offerings), Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion), of which Mantra Yoga (Yoga of Chanting, as in the Vedic era) were an integral part of.
The great master of Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Wisdom, the highest Yoga by negating all of the world and body and realising the Self, Ramana Maharishi, himself speaks on Asanas in this regard:
“Many asanas with their effects are mentioned in the yoga sastras. The seats are the tiger-skin, grass, etc. The postures are the `lotus posture', the `easy posture' and so on. Why all these only to know oneself ? The truth is that from the Self the ego rises up, confuses itself with the body, mistakes the world to be real, and then, covered with egotistic conceit, it thinks wildly and looks for asanas [seats]. Such a person does not understand that he himself is the centre of all and thus forms the basis for all.
The asana [seat] is meant to make him sit firm. Where and how can he remain firm except in his own real state? This is the real asana. Attaining the steadiness of not swerving from the knowledge that the base [asana] upon which the whole universe rests is only Self, which is the space of true knowledge, the illustrious ground, alone is the firm and motionless posture [asana] for excellent samadhi.”
–Shree Ramana Maharishi
He has stated that the Sukhasana (Cross-legged easy pose) is best for Meditation, but the TRUE Asana position should be nididhyasana (one-pointedness). Once again, the references to the more martial type of Asana practise is herein dismissed.
Likewise the modern or New-Age science of "Chakra-balancing" is itself a rather physical and materialistic view of the chakras, which are subtle energy-centres and take many years of pure living and practices to awaken. It is also not the point of Yoga to awaken these and gain Yogic powers, as these lead to bondage.
“Of the 84 asanas one should always practice siddhasana [above all], it purifies the 72,000 nadis.”
– Hatha Yoga Pradipika, I.41
Great Bhakti-Yogis or Devotional Yogis are also hardly heard about. They also didn’t do great postures and were most famous for this at all either. But were still Yogis!
The great saint Sri Ramakrishna, the devotee of goddess Kali and Guru of Swami Vivekananda was himself a great Bhakti-Yogi as well. His entire emphasis was on devotion to the goddess, although he touched the path of Jnana Yoga for his realisation as well. Still, we do not see him as a master of Asana either!
This is because REAL Yoga, as mentioned before is really Atma-Yoga – Yoga of the Self or Soul, uniting the Soul with the Supreme and it’s original nature as Godhead.
It is the essence of all Yoga and Hindu paths and sects. We find the emphasis on this in the Upanishads, the Gita and other older texts, which stressed this path of Yoga, which is specifically Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of Wisdom.
Ramana Maharishi again stresses this to a devotee:
“Srimad Bhagavad Gita says that a Jnani is the true yogi and also a true bhakta. (devotee) Yoga is only a sadhana (spiritual practise)and jnana is the siddhi (Yogic power).”
Real Yogis are Philosophers and Gurus, not spine-twisting contortionists!
They include great devotees such as Maharishi Narada, a great devotee of Vishnu, as well as the Vaishnava Saints devoted to Vishnu and Krishna, such as Ramanujacharya, Nimbarkacharya, Madhavacharya, Sri Chaitanya, Vallabhacharya etc. The Hare-Krishna Movement stresses this form of Yoga, which also includes Natya Yoga or the Yoga of Dance and Mantra-Yoga, the Yoga of Mantras.
The more complicated Natya Yoga or Yoga of Dance itself relates to the science of dance (Natya shastra) and the Gandharva Veda arts or fine-arts science. It also includes special mudras (hand symbols) and poses (asanas) as part of it’s dance routine, such as we see in Bharat Natyam and other forms of classical Indian dance. Much of this science has also contributed to the modern Hatha Yoga regimes of Asana also, and once again fall outside the true nature of the proper “Yoga”, as in spiritual tradition of India itself.
It is also possible that many classical Yogis had backgrounds in the military and Bharat Natyam etc. – just as several Hindu Rishis or Seers of ancient Vedic times in India themselves came from Kshatriya or warrior backgrounds (such as Vishwamitra, for example) and were Kings – hence continued their own exercise regimes along their pursuit to Self-realisation.
Movements such as the Arya Samaj, as mentioned before stress these also – emphasis of rituals (Karma Yoga), Devotion (Bhakti Yoga), Meditation (Dhyana Yoga), Chanting of Vedic Mantras as Gayatri (Mantra Yoga).
Sikhism itself also includes mantra-yoga through japa (chanting of holy names and phrases) and is strongly a Bhakti-Yoga or devotional path. However, just as classical Yogis defined aspects of their militant exercises into Yoga paths, so also Sikhism likewise, as a militant path under the last Guru, Gobind Singh, devised them wearing the five “K’s” including turban, sword etc. – for protecting themselves against invaders and protecting the dharma or faith.
Hence, just as these have become an integral part of modern Sikhism, that is quite removed from the original path of it’s founder, Guru Nanak, so also modern Hatha-Yoga has included these long lists of Asanas or Yoga postures, that define it, just as a Turban and Long beard signifies the modern-day Sikh!
All practices that lead to the Supreme are hence “Yogas” in their own right. It nowhere constitutes that one requires the ability to flex their body in various positions, which Yoga itself would stress to be an obsession with the outer illusory material world of appearance and the body. It would see it as clinging to the ego (ahankara), which Yoga seeks to negate or destroy.
The question is “why has the West taken this vyayama (exercise) aspect of Yoga and Hatha Yoga alone?”.
Quite simple. As just as it has taken a small speck of dust and made it “Yoga”, so also they took a small part – one of only the eight limbs of Ayurveda – Shalya Tantra or surgery alone and developed it, independant of the greater body and tradition of Ayurveda science!
Just as they have forgotten about and ignore the spiritual side and purpose of Yoga, so also with Shalya Tantra (Surgery) alone, they are obsessed with the body. Yoga, Ayurveda etc. were all aimed at the Supreme Goal of self-realisation, not preservation of the physical body, just as in the West there is a concept of a physical god, heaven and no concept of liberation.
Just as many western religions become dogmatic and miss the greater teachings, so does their Yoga, of which was based on India’s in the first place, as their surgical practices, the concept of zero, numerals etc., as gifts from India now forgotten!
In closing, again we recount some words of advice from the greatest Yogi, Sri Ramana Maharishi:
“All the sadhanas (spiritual practices) are called yogas, e.g., Karma yoga; Bhakti yoga; Jnana yoga; Ashtanga yoga. What is yoga? Yoga means ‘union’. Yoga is possible only when there is ‘viyoga’ (separation). The person is now under the delusion of viyoga. This delusion must be removed. The method of removing it is called yoga.”
OM NAMAH SHIVAAYA!