Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: What Is Yoga?
the West, Yoga is widely practiced as a form of calisthenics or fitness
training. The headstand, which many newcomers eagerly aspire to master, has
become a symbol of this approach. For the outsider, this posture
intriguing and difficult to do. In fact, it is reasonably easy to learn, and
there are far more difficult postures that require many months, or even years,
of daily practice before they are fully mastered.
importantly, the postures are only the "skin" of Yoga. Hidden behind
them are the "flesh and blood" of breath control and mental
techniques that are still more difficult to learn, as well as moral practices
that require a lifetime of consistent application and that correspond to the
skeletal structure of the body. The higher practices of concentration,
meditation, and unitive ecstasy
analogous to the circulatory and nervous system.
the core of Yoga is the realization of the transcendental Reality itself,
however it may be conceived. This aspect of the yogic work is not at all
obvious when we watch someone perform complicated postures with great
flexibility and elegance. To be sure, many Western (and Eastern) practitioners
are themselves not particularly aware of the spiritual dimension of Yoga.
Without it, however, Yoga remains on the level of a pastime. The traditional
purpose of Yoga, however, has always been to bring about a profound
transformation in the person through the transcendence of the ego. It is
therefore good to remind ourselves of the purpose of authentic Yoga.
is not easy to define. In most general terms, the Sanskrit word
for "spiritual discipline" in Hinduism, Jainism, and certain schools
of Buddhism. Even when the term is not explicitly used, these three great
traditions are essentially Yoga. Thus Yoga is the equivalent of Christian
spiritual practitioner is known as a
male) or a
female). Viewed more narrowly, Yoga is a
on the huge tree of Hindu spirituality, withVedanta and Samkhya forming the two
most prominent other branches. The word
derived from the verbal root
yoke" or "to harness"). What must be yoked or harnessed is
attention, which ordinarily flits from object to object.
I have shown in my book
roots of Yoga reach back into the distant past.
arising from archaic Shamanism, Yoga developed into an immensely complex
tradition with rather fuzzy edges, which makes it difficult at times to
demarcate it from the other branches of Hindu spirituality.
its earliest identifiable form, Yoga was connected with the sacrificial
ritualism of the Vedic peoples, who created the world's oldest extant
literature—the Vedas—and apparently also were the authors of the so-called
Indus-Sarasvati (or Harappan) civilization. Vedic Yoga consisted primarily in
techniques of mental concentration, breath control, chanting, and ritual
worship. It served the purpose of invoking, envisioning, and even merging with
various deities. The Vedic male and female deities
considered great allies in the invisible realm without whose benediction life
could not run smoothly. Only by focusing attention, by turning it into a laser
beam, could the barrier between the visible and the invisible be melted and the
is widely held that the early Vedic worldview was plainly polytheistic,
gradually giving way to religious monotheism and metaphysical nondualism. But
this opinion has been called into question by some researchers, who see
monotheistic and even nondualist notions already in the archaic hymns of the
Some think that the early hymns reflect polytheism while the later hymns
(especially those in books 1 and 10) express non-dualist ideas. The idea that
the invisible realm is populated with beings (deities = angels) who are somehow
relevant to human beings in the visible realm does not necessarily exclude a
felt sense that behind all manifestation is just One Being. In monotheism, that
Singularity is given a personal face (usually that of the "Creator").
In philosophical nondualism, the same Singularity is understood in abstract
terms as an impersonal "It." Both orientations have coexisted in
India since time immemorial.
operates with both a personalist conception of a Supreme Person (be it God or
Goddess) and an impersonalist notion of an Absolute (often called
as in the
Song), an attempt is made to integrate both ideas. Thus some forms of Yoga are
more religiously oriented, while others tend to be more philosophical. For
example, there are numerous religious elements connected with Bhakti-Yoga, the
path of devotional self-surrender to the Higher Reality, whereas Jnana-Yoga,
the path of self-transcending wisdom, tends to be more philosophical or
Yoga's growing technology of physical and mental practices came to be
associated with a nondualist
According to the earliest teachings of Hindu nondualism, as contained in the
the multifaceted world is an emanation from the singular transcendental Reality
("that which thrives"). Yoga was introduced as a way back to that
sages experienced that unitary Reality, which is supraconscious and utterly
blissful, as being the core not only of the whole universe but also of the
human personality. As the core of the personality it was called
accordingly redefined as the "union" between the lower or embodied
self and the transcendental Self
this is still the prevalent understanding of the word inside and outside India.
However, even Yoga as union includes an element of yoking, for the lower self
cannot merge into the higher Self without proper focusing of attention.
the exception of a single but influential school—that of Classical Yoga—all
Hindu schools of Yoga are based on the metaphysical idea of nonduality.
same is essentially true of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. Classical Yoga,
also called "Royal Yoga" (raja-yoga), was formulated by Patanjali
some time in the second century CE,
in dialogue with Mahayana Buddhism. As is obvious from the
work consisting of 195 short aphorisms
taught a dualistic metaphysics. He pitched the Spirit or Self
both as irreconcilable ultimate principles.
to Patanjali, there are many (perhaps even innumerable) transcendental Selves,
just as Nature comprises countless individual forms. However, only the Selves
are conscious. Nature is insentient, and this includes the mind! The seemingly
independent consciousness of the mind
thought to be entirely due to the "proximity" of the Self's
and its products can never evolve to become the Self, and the Self does not
emanate the different categories of Nature. Creation is a process whereby the
Nature gives rise to lower levels and forms of existence.
Self, or Spirit, is merely a witness of this cosmic process, which runs its
course automatically, just as the ultimate destruction of the visible and
invisible universe is preprogrammed. The Self is neither born nor dies. It is
indestructible because it does not consist of any parts. Only from the
viewpoint of the unenlightened mind does the Self, or transcendental
Consciousness, appear to be implicated in the various realms of Nature.
Patanjali, the purpose of Yoga was to extricate the Spirit from its involvement
in the processes of Nature. That involvement is a case of mistaken identity:
the Self falsely identifies with the body-mind, thus causing the phenomenon of
individuated consciousness, which suffers its presumed limitations.
dualist philosophy is unconvincing but it does have a certain practical merit,
because from our finite viewpoint, the conscious subject, or Self, does indeed
appear to be an "other" that must be carefully distinguished from the
objective world and matter. Through progressive discrimination
cease to identify with what we are not in truth. Finally, the Self awakens to
its true status as an eternally free and independent Consciousness. This
condition is not merely an altered state of consciousness, because even high
ecstatic states still occur within the orbit of Nature. Rather,
Self-realization is an utterly transcendental "nonevent." It is a
nonevent because the Self is never actually in bondage to Nature but is
essentially and perpetually free. It only
attached to a body-mind and therefore seemingly suffers all the limitations of
embodiment. The whole drama of bondage followed by liberation is enacted on the
stage of the mind alone.
Classical Yoga, Self-realization is called
means literally "aloneness." That which is "alone"
separate from Nature, is the transcendental Self. But the Self is not a
windowless monad, which would be a dreary prospect and hardly worthy of the
kind of sustained spiritual aspiration that marks all authentic Yoga. Although
Patanjali says nothing about this, we must assume that the many eternal Selves
are all copresent and thus intersecting in infinity. In Patanjali's
understanding, Self-realization presupposes the demise of the body-mind. This
is the ideal of
"disembodied liberation." Not surprisingly, one of the traditional
commentators on his
"disunion" or "disjunction," that is, the separation from
contrast, most nondualist schools of Yoga teach the ideal of
"living liberation." According to this teaching, we do not need to
die before we can realize our true identity, the Self. Rather, liberation is a
matter of recovering the Self in the midst of the hustle and bustle of life and
then transforming life in the light of that realization. This is the ideal
celebrated in the nondualist tradition of Vedanta, which has long been closely
associated with Yoga.
whether dualist or nondualist, is concerned with the elimination
suffering does not mean the pain resulting from a cut or the emotional torment
experienced through political oppression. These are simply manifestations of a
deeper existential suffering. That suffering is the direct outcome of our
habitual sense of being locked into a body-mind that is separate from all
others. Yoga seeks to prevent future suffering of this kind by pointing the way
to the unitary consciousness that is disclosed in ego-transcending ecstatic
the viewpoint of traditional Yoga, even the pleasure or well-being
as a result of the regular performance of yogic postures, breath control, or
meditation is suffused with suffering. First of all, the pleasure is bound to
be only temporary, whereas the innate bliss
the Self is permanent. Second, pleasure is relative: We can compare our present
sense of enjoyment with similar experiences at different times or by different
people. Thus, our experience contains an element of envy. Third, there is
always the hidden fear that a pleasurable state will come to an end, which is a
is a systematic attempt to step out of this whole cycle of gain and loss. When
in touch with the Reality beyond the body-mind, and when he or she has a taste
of the unalloyed delight of the Self, all possible pleasures that derive from
objects (rather than the Self) come to lose their fascination. The mind begins
to be more equanimous. As the
the most popular Hindu Yoga scripture, puts it: "Yoga is balance
notion of balance is intrinsic to Yoga and occurs on many levels of the yogic
work. Its culmination is in the "vision of sameness
is the graceful state in which we see everything in the same light. Everything
stands revealed as the great Reality, and nothing excites us as being more
valuable than anything else. We regard a piece of gold and a clump of clay or a
beautiful person and an unattractive individual with the same
even-temperedness. Nor are we puffed up by praise or deflated by blame.
condition, which is one of utter lucidity and serenity, must not be confused
with one of the many types of ecstasy
visions, and psychic (paranormal) phenomena are not at all the point of
spiritual life. They can and do occur when we earnestly devote ourselves to
higher values, but they are by-products rather than the goal of authentic
spirituality. They should certainly not be made the focus of our aspiration.
Yoga is a comprehensive way of life in which the ultimate Reality, or Spirit,
is given precedence over other concerns. It is a sacred path that conducts us,
in the words of an ancient
from the unreal to the Real, from falsehood to Truth, from the temporal to the