What is Yoga and the Purpose of Yoga?

April 2009

First published in Swadharma: Harvard’s Hinduism Journal: Volume III

“Does anyone have the right to define the meaning of yoga? Who gives yoga masters the right to make this judgment for anyone when they don’t seem to agree themselves?” exclaimed a newly certified yoga teacher attending my class.

This outburst illustrates the state of confusion about yoga today, particularly in the West. Many Indians experience yoga through Western filters and interpretations, mainly through gyms and yoga teachers who are trained in 200 hours. This yoga, or what goes for yoga, is reduced to a physical fitness regimen like kick boxing, calisthenics, and aerobics. It is far from the traditional learning and teaching through a guru-disciple relationship that extends over a number of years. The lineage, the guru parampara, is a collective experience that goes back centuries and is handed down through generations.

The irony is that the more yoga proliferates, the less people know about what it actually means. The standard definition is the “union of the mind and body”. What does the union of the mind and body mean? According to Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, just as “religions seek to define what we should believe…yoga defines itself as a science: that is, as a practical, methodical, and systematic discipline, or set of techniques, which has the lofty goal of helping human beings become aware of their true nature”. No matter what yoga means to us at a personal level, there are many scholarly or technical definitions of yoga. They are all means or techniques to reach a particular state of being—realizing our true nature and purpose, enlightenment, communion with the Self. Do this and over time this will be the result, do that and that will be the result.

One of the reasons for so many techniques is that we all have five bodies or sheaths simultaneously: the physical body is annamaya kosha, the energy or life force body is pranamaya kosha, the mental body is manomaya kosha, the astral body of wisdom is vigyanamaya kosha, and finally the most subtle core of our being, our true nature, is the body of bliss called anandamaya kosha. Each is a manifestation of the other just as ice, water, and vapor are all manifestations of the molecule H2O. There are no clear demarcations between the manifestations within us. The discipline used will be different for each kosha as the body is different. Some of us have developed or become more aware of one body than the other bodies. We refer to this in our everyday speech as we describe someone as “intellectual”, or “emotional”, or “physical”. No one is just one or the other. We are all some combination of all these and the combination changes as we move through life. Raja yoga recognizes this. As we evolve and become more deeply aware of the various spheres of existence within us, our personal meaning of yoga also evolves. Just as a complex book can be read at many levels, the meaning perceived in yoga will be determined by the personal level of evolution and insight.

We will restrict ourselves to the most commonly referred to yoga shastras (set of instructions), Svatmarama”s Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali”s Yoga Sutras. They are really technical manuals. Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a very detailed manual of techniques of asana (physical position that is comfortable), pranayama, (science of the breath or energy forces), mudra (gestures of the hand), and bandha (locks) for the physical body. The Yoga Sutras is a manual of techniques for the mind and is very sophisticated in its understanding of human psychology. Even though it lists eight limbs, or ashtanga, there is not much detail on asana and pranayama. The sutras predate Hatha Yoga Pradipika by several hundred years. The sutras do expound on the importance of yama (code of social conduct) and niyama (code of personal conduct). The techniques are mainly of pratyahara (sense withdrawal from the external world), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (cosmic awareness / enlightenment / awareness of true Self). Even though we all say meditation, most of the time we really mean pratyahara and dharana as meditation cannot be taught—it is something that just happens. Meditation technically is sustained focus and concentration on a single point for extended periods of time.

According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika, yoga is the balance of ida and pingala nadis. Nadis are the 72,000 energy currents or channels traversing the body. Ida and pingala are two of the ten major nadis and generally correspond to the parasympathetic and sympathetic nerves. The seed sounds, or bija mantras, for the two are ham and tham, hence hatha yoga.

Delve further and the ida nadi corresponds to the activity of the right hemisphere of the brain, and the pingala nadi to the left hemisphere. In this context, yoga is the balance between the activity of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The human body is a microcosm that reflects the macrocosm. Ida is the moon in the human body and pingala is the sun. The analogies of the female and male aspects, and the negative and positive charges are also common. The moon is the inner world, the sun the outer world. Again, yoga is the balance or union of two opposing forces, the equilibrium of constant dualities. Similar parallels can be found in Greek philosophy. The common definition of yoga, union of the mind and body, is the one in hatha yoga.

In hatha yoga, this state of equilibrium within the physical body is achieved through asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha. This is what everyone knows as yoga in the West. All the different brand names—Power yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Viniyasa yoga, Bikram yoga, etc.—are all brand names of hatha yoga. There are so many different ways to experience this: as athletics, gymnastics, with power, with grace, as a prayer, mechanically as in aerobics, with awareness and understanding. A person’s own tendencies and goals will dictate the style.

Awareness, mindfulness, also known as sakshi bhav, or the process of witnessing the self throughout the practice and beyond, is critical for the mind-body connection. Know yourself. Done mechanically, yoga is really gymnastics or calisthenics, and the benefit is limited. It is perfectly fine to limit the practice to this level. However, only through constant self-awareness, through witnessing with a non-judgmental attitude of non-attachment, is the purpose (or end result) of yoga (or the technique) experienced.

Svatmarama says that an aspirant climbs the ladder of hatha yoga to reach raja yoga, also referred to as royal yoga, Patanjali”s yoga, or classical yoga. If the aspirant matures, the physical realm leads to the more subtle emotional and mental bodies of manomaya and vigyanamaya kosha. The analysis of these bodies and the techniques relating to them are in the Yoga Sutras.

The second aphorism of the Yoga Sutras defines yoga from the mental perspective yogaschitta vritti nirodha: yoga is the elimination of mental fluctuations. Patanjali then goes on to explain what this means, why it is important, and how to achieve this state. The late Mircea Eliade, who headed the department of religion at the University of Chicago, wrote in his classic book Yoga: Immortality and Freedom: “Instead of knowing through forms and mental states, as formerly, the yogin now contemplates the essence of all objects directly.” Yogic techniques of pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana, are developed to give a direct experience of Consciousness, the true nature of the individual self. This is not mediated or interpreted through anyone. It is a very direct, personal, individual experience.

When the mental fluctuations are removed from the mind, they no longer cloud the mind. The mind becomes completely still and clear. It sees its true Self. This state of the mind is exceptionally aware and perceptive. It is incredibly focused, relaxed, balanced, and capable of great achievements. Research being done here at Harvard, MIT, and various other universities on many different meditation techniques is showing a clear effect on the human brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex. That area of the brain is more developed in advanced meditation practitioners. Swami Satyananda, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga, says that yoga is the transformation and tremendous evolution of the human mind.

Clearly, most people are body-centered and the body is an obvious, the most tangible starting point. Hatha yoga is the physical path. For some, who are more mind-centered, raja yoga is more appealing. Yoga philosophy tells us that the physical body is a manifestation of the mental and emotional bodies. Matter and energy are interchangeable. We perceive the world through the filter of our mental faculties. If mental energies shape the physical forms and energy, the mental aspect becomes very important. It has the power to change our lives. It is thoughts that shape our speech and actions. The physical world, the macrocosm, is the projection of the mental dimension of the microcosm.

Generally, the younger groups of people are given more physical practices of asana. Some basic pranayama, pratyahara, and dharana can be introduced at this stage. After the age of 20 to 25 years, more of these techniques are added to the asana routines. In the 40s and 50s and beyond, asana practice is modified and reduced for the changing physical body and there is greater emphasis on developing pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana. The techniques must evolve and reflect the changes in the physical body, the mental and emotional needs, and the changing roles over the course of a lifetime. The term “yoga’ is then simply a set of instructions, or techniques, or paths to return to our true Self or the infinite. They have been organized and coded. Confusion arises as the means have mistakenly become the end goal.

Anything done with mindfulness, engaging the body and the mind as the portals to be in communion with the Self, is yoga. This includes karma yoga (instructions for the path of selfless work without strings attached), bhakti yoga (instructions for the path of devotion), jnana yoga (instructions for path of wisdom), and all the other yogas. All the various branches of yoga encompass all human activity. Life itself is yoga and constant communion with the Self, if we are truly aware. Yoga is not just asana and pranayama. The means or the paths can vary and be numerous or even infinite; the end remains the one and the same.

Does it really matter whether we get to Manhattan from New Jersey via the George Washington Bridge, the Lincoln Tunnel, the Holland Tunnel, or by some other way? Does it matter if we get there by bus, train, taxi, car, plane, boat, or some combination? Yes, it can matter, depending on where we are travelling from, how much time and what resources are available, our physical condition, and what is readily accessible. What makes sense for one person may make no sense for another. When we get to Manhattan, how we got there will not be really relevant. The point was to somehow get there. But many just spend time trying out different routes and modes of transportation, keep trying all the ways without ever getting there. The routes and modes of transportation become the goal and getting to Manhattan is totally out of the awareness. Where are they trying to go? They don”t know. There is just frustration, confusion, disillusion going around in circles, not getting anywhere.

Swami Satyananda in his book Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali writes:

Samadhi is the goal of yoga…We may define samadhi by saying that in that state, the aspirant arrives at the pointless point of consciousness beyond which there does not remain any consciousness. It is to reach the deepest level of consciousness where even the sense of individuality does not function. The ancient authors described samadhi as a state of higher awareness where the mental bodies do not function. There is no need for a content of basis or knowledge.

This state transcends the limitations of the mind as it is beyond the mind. Beyond thought, form, mind, sound, time and space, it is the presence of Being the stillness of infinite Silence.

8 thoughts on “What is Yoga and the Purpose of Yoga?

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    1. Given your interest in the blog, I do want to point out the post Happy Circle Jan 23. It is what we did this morning in Happy Circle and has audio links for people to practice at home. You can certainly be part of the group through this blog and your comments are always welcomed.


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