Chapter 1: The Yoga of Breathing
life is yoga.—Sri Aurobindo,
Synthesis of Yoga
classical or literary language of India is Sanskrit. The word itself means
"well or completely formed, perfected." Sanskrit is indeed a
beautiful and highly evocative language. Many of its words remind me of a
Russian doll, which opens up to reveal a smaller doll inside, and which in its
turn opens to reveal an even smaller doll, and so on and on until the littlest
doll is exposed. Even though I don't know the language well, 1 can find my way
around in a Sanskrit-English dictionary. I like to look up words in the yoga
lexicon and pull them apart to see what's inside. This often gives me new
insights into my practice. We'll be unraveling Sanskrit words as we go through
this guide. Your practice will be enriched by the hidden meanings in this
start with a word that may already be familiar to you—the Sanskrit verb
means to "yoke" or "harness." It's a relic of an age, many
thousands of years ago, when Indian warriors rode into battle in chariots.
These wagons typically carried an archer and his driver or charioteer and were
drawn by two horses, which had the reputation of being rather ferocious.
"At his deep neigh," sings one old hymn about the cry of a warhorse,
"like the thunder of heaven / the foemen tremble in fear." It was the
charioteer's task to hitch these barely tamed beasts to the chariot, no small
feat in the days before the invention of the yoke. He needed both extraordinary
bravery and skill, and as a consequence, his position was highly esteemed.
the everyday language, yuj assumed the sense of "unite, connect, add,
bring together," as well as—since the occupation of yoking or harnessing
implied that the charioteer had learned a particular technique that got the
chariot up and running—"make ready, prepare, set to work, employ,
apply." Two notions, then, of a desired end and its means are conveyed by
the verb yuj and its several derivatives, including the masculine noun yoga.
practice of yoga is very old. There were surely contemporaries of our
charioteer who were engaged in some form of yoga, though it probably didn't
exactly resemble what we call yoga today. In general, yoga has four goals:
or health, and the end of suffering
much of the sacred literature of India, liberation (moksha) is explained as the
yoking or joining of the embodied soul (jiva-atman) to the Great Self
(parama-atman). Both yoke and join, by the way, are cognate with yuj and yoga.
This is a pointed allusion to the charioteer, his horses, and the chariot. One
of the most famous parables in the Upanishads recalls and plays upon this root
thou the soul (atman, self) as riding in a chariot,
body as the chariot.
thou the intellect (buddhi) as the chariot-driver,
the mind (manas) as the reins.
senses (indriya), they say, are the horses;
objects of sense, what they range over.
who has not understanding,
mind is not constantly held firm—
senses are uncontrolled, Like the vicious horses of a chariot-driver.
however, who has the understanding of a chariot-driver,
man who reins in his mind—He reaches the end of his journey,
highest place of Vishnu.
is accomplished in a wide variety of ways, depending on which school of yoga
you follow. In
Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga,
scholar Georg Feuerstein catalogues nearly forty different schools of yoga
suitable for different personalities or temperaments. Six schools are generally
considered principal: classical or raja (royal), hatha (forceful), mantra
(hymn), jnana (wisdom), bhakti (devotion), and karma (selfless action). It
seems fitting that a word so closely associated with the meaning of union can
embrace so many disparate schools.
this union of the embodied self and the Great Self (paramaatman or brahman) is
usually the stated goal of yoga practice, it's not always the case. The most
prominent exception is the classical school of Patanjali, known as Raja-Yoga.
Patanjali doesn't recognize a Great Self, though he does acknowledge a deity
called the Lord (Ishvara), considered a special self (purusha-vishesha) among
an infinite number regular selves (purusha). Patanjali defines classical yoga
as the "restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness (Yoga-Sutra
1.2)," which suggests the strenuous and risky job of harnessing itself, of
bringing the skittish thoughts and rearing emotions under control.
the supreme attainment is imagined, whether as a blissful merging with the
Great Self or the quelling of the vicious horses of consciousness and nature,
yogis emphasize both practice and study, especially study of sacred texts and
self-study (svadhyaya, literally "going into one's own self").
Practice has two poles—an active pole that entails intense and persistent
exertion (abhyasa) and a passive one that encourages what yoga tradition calls
samatva, an attitude of evenness or equanimity toward the world. Yoga practice
is a balancing act between doing and not-doing: we must somehow exhibit all the
prowess of the charioteer in mastering his horses and yet remain the same
whether in success or failure.