What really is “Yoga”?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which commonly is used by Yoga teachers of all types, describes Yoga as follows:
“Yoga is the cessation of the outgoing activities of the mind” (Yoga Sutras, Samadhi Pada, I)
Similarly, the Bhagavad Gita of Lord Krishna states:
“Sitting in a clean place, holding himself in a steady Yogic-posture (Asana) in a place not too high nor low, There, making his mind one-pointed (ekagra), controlling his mind and the actions of the senses, sitting down on the seat, he should practise Yoga for Self-purification” (Bhagavad Gita, VI.12)
This pretty much goes over what we have established in the previous section about Asana – that suitable Asanas for Yoga are sitting positions for meditation (siddhasana, sukhasana, vajrasana, padmasana). One can find the detail of these in books specific on Yoga Asanas or Yoga postures, which are numerous. I personally recommend those of Swami Ramdev (as “Yog, It’s Philosophy and Practise”).
Krishna describes Yoga practise as keeping the mind, body and senses stilled and hence mind one-pointed like Patanjali does in his introduction on what Yoga actually is.
Modern Asana and Yoga classes and practices however do thye opposite. They disturb the mind, create movements in excess and aggravate the mind and body, causing an excess of movements of the senses or indriyas – exactly opposite what Yoga is about!
Even in the first steps to Yoga, it is should control of the mind and senses, not practising hundreds of postures in the gain that becoming some kind of gymnast will make one Self-realised or somehow “holier than thou”, as is the view of most Yoga teachers and groups today, especially in the West.
The great Hindu monist, Adi Shankaracharya (c.500bce), on which the non-dualistic Vedanta or school of theology in Hinduism – the most popular in India today is based, describes this proper practise and importance on controlling the mind in Yoga, in his work, Vivekamudamani (Crest-jewel of discrimination), in which he discusses the philosophy of non-dualism at great-length.
Here we shall discuss a few passages from his work, with regards to Yoga as the science of mind-control for Self-realisation, as Krishna and Patanjali have given the definition of Yoga of, as mentioned above:
“The first steps to Yoga are control over the speech, not receiving gifts, not entertaining expectations, freedom from activity and always living in a retired place” (Vivekachudamani, 367).
Here we see that Yoga was first meant to be towards Jnana Yoga, that is, the Yoga of Wisdom, considered the highest Yoga. It was practised by Vedic Rishis or Seers for Self-realisation, as well as the path on which Adi Shankaracharya (c.500bce), author of Vivekachudamani and restorer of Advaita Vedanta or Non-Dualismin Hinduism, as well as Sri Ramana Maharishi and Sri Ramakrishna followed.
Here, Shankaracharya describes the first step of Yoga, not as listening exercises or performing simple Hatha Yoga postures (asanas), as thought of in the modern day, but rather, renouncing the world and dwelling within, shutting off all senses.
This also includes living in secluded places, not in high-tech ashrams or teaching in a suburban Yoga studio!
“Living in a retired place serves to control the sensory-organs; control of the senses helps to control the mind – through control of the mind, egoism is destroyed; and this again gives the Yogi an unbroken realisation of the Bliss of the Supreme. Therefore, the man of reflection should always strive to control the mind” (Vivekachudamani, 368)
Here, Shankaracharya describes the control of the mind and senses as really the true “Yoga”. It is also related to the term “yukta”, which in Sanskrit means “govern / control”, which is what Yoga is all about.
The Vedic Yogi-God is Indra. Indriyas are “powers of Indra”, and indriya means “sensory organs”. Indra is thus “Master of the Senses”, the great-Yogi is one who has controlled his mind and senses, not one proficient in Yogic postures, which can be harmful to one’s health!
“Restrain speech in the mind and restrain mind (manas) in the intellect (buddhi); this again restrain in the witness of the intellect, and merging that also in the complete Supreme Self, to attain supreme peace” (Vivekachudamani, 369).
Once again, when we restrain the mind and calm all thoughts, and develop the buddhi or intellect, we begin to contemplate the Self. The mind or emotional mind (manas) itself must be dissolved in the intellect (buddhi) or “mental metabolic fire” as it were.
It is much like dissolving unwanted food-stuffs in the digestive system. Once it is burnt up, it cannot cause harm. Excesses however, like wonderings of the mind or thoughts of the mind cause us unsteadiness in meditation, just as unwanted food in our digestive system causes toxins and digestive issues, causing us physical discomfort.
When the intellect is itself merged in the Supreme Self, we attain the state of the supreme calm or peace (param shanti), as even the intellect itself can cause us from over-analysing things. Hence, when that is itself merged, it calms the mental metabolism and merges it into the supreme void, if we like. Here, we attain to the state of Atmajnana (Self-wisdom) over external thoughts of the mind, from which higher wisdoms are borne.
“The body, vital breaths (pranas), sensory-organs, mind, intellect and the rest – with whatsoever of these supervening adjuncts the mind is associated, the Yogi is transformed, as it were, into that.
“When this is stopped, the man of reflection is found to be easily detached from everything, and to get the experience of an abundance of everlasting Bliss”
Here, the goal of Yoga itself is described – when the mind is stilled, one becomes stilled. But when the mind is restless, one becomes restless.
Many modern-days Yogis are performing harmful practices as Pranayamas or breathing techniques, Asanas or postures, and aggravating the mind. They are not stilling the mind.
As we have already discussed, the ancient Yoga texts such as Hatha-Yoga Pradapika aim also at calming the mind, and such postures such as Siddhasana as best, as they help block off the sensory-wonderings and help still the mind for meditation. This is the True Goal of Yoga.
Here it also states the Supreme Bliss, which is Self-realisation, is gained only via calming these senses and the mind, not by vyayama (exercises) – which either of the body, or mind, create movement and wonderings, not control and stillness, which is the goal of Yoga for realisation.
This stillness creates detachment of the body, which is the greatest boon of the Yogi, by which he can then contemplate the Supreme Self.
This is also reflected in the treatment of Psychological disorders, as mentioned in the Ayurvedic text, Ashtanga Hridayam:
“Purity of the indriyas (sensory organs), their objects, the buddhi (intellect), soul and mind and natural state of the bodily tissues (dhatus) are the features of a person cured of insanity” (Ashtanga Hridayam, Uttara Sthana, VI.60)
The importance here of another Yoga – Mantra Yoga (chanting of hymns) is curiously also mentioned here also (Uttarasthana, V.50) for curing all psychological disorders.
As we have mentioned in our article on "Yoga and Asanas" also, the ancient text the Rig Veda, the oldest text of the Hindus is primarily a Mantra-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga, that is, a text representing the chanting of sacred mantras or hymns (Mantra-Yoga) and also devotion (Bhakti Yoga) by the nature of it’s hymns and their devotional tone.