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441The Meaning and Purpose of Yoga

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  • Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati
    Feb 19, 2006
      By Bhole Prabhu

      Like many arts and sciences that are profound, beautiful, and
      powerful, yoga has suffered from the spiritual poverty of the modern
      world--it has been trivialized, watered down, or reduced to cliches.
      The deep and eternal essence of yoga has been misrepresented and
      packaged for personal profit by clever people. At the hands of some,
      yoga has been reduced to the status of just another exercise program
      available on videotape. In other contexts, yoga has been presented as
      a cult religion, aimed at attracting "devotees." Such a haze of
      confusion has been created around the clear and pure concept of yoga
      that it is now necessary to redefine yoga and clarify its meaning and

      Yoga defines itself as a science--that is, as a practical,
      methodical, and systematic discipline or set of techniques that have
      the lofty goal of helping human beings to become aware of their
      deepest nature. The goal of seeking to experience this deepest
      potential is not part of a religious process, but an experiential
      science of self-study. Religions seek to define what we should
      believe, while a practical science such as meditation is based on the
      concrete experience of those teachers and yogis who have previously
      used these techniques to experience the deepest Self. Yoga does not
      contradict or interfere with any religion, and may be practiced by
      everyone, whether they regard themselves as agnostics or members of a
      particular faith.

      Throughout history, yogic techniques have been practiced in both the
      East and West, so it would be an error to consider yoga an "Eastern
      import." In fact, yoga, with its powerful techniques for creating a
      sense of inner peace, harmony, and clarity of mind, is absolutely
      relevant to the modern world--both East and West. Given the
      increasing pace and conflict present in modern life, with all its
      resulting stress, one could say that yoga has become an essential
      tool for survival, as well as for expanding the creativity and joy of
      our lives.


      Although yoga does not "belong" to the East, it is easiest to trace
      its roots there, because cultural change has not obscured the origins
      of the science, and an ongoing tradition of yoga has continued to the
      present day. No one person "invented" yoga--yoga is a living
      tradition, a set of practices that dates back for centuries. These
      practices were codified by a scholar and teacher named Patanjali in
      The Yoga Sutras, written about the second century B.C.

      The most important teaching of yoga has to do with our nature as
      human beings. It states that our "true nature" goes far beyond the
      limits of the human mind and personality--that instead, our human
      potential is infinite and transcends our individual minds and our
      sense of self. The very word "yoga" makes reference to this. The
      root, "yuj" (meaning "unity" or "yoke"), indicates that the purpose
      of yoga is to unite ourselves with our highest nature. This re-
      integration is accomplished through the practices of the various yoga
      disciplines. Until this re-integration takes place, we identify
      ourselves with our limitations--the limitations of the body, mind,
      and senses. Thus we feel incomplete and limited, and are subject to
      feelings of sorrow, insecurity, fear, and separation, because we have
      separated ourselves from the experience of the whole.

      In the modern world we have become quite successful in our external
      achievements--we have created powerful technologies and a variety of
      products, we are obsessed with accumulating power, wealth, property
      and objects--and yet we have not been able to create either
      individual or social peace, wisdom, or happiness. We have only to
      look around and see the destructiveness of our weapons, the emptiness
      of our pleasures and entertainments, the misuse of our material and
      personal resources, the disparities between rich and poor, and above
      all, the loneliness and violence of our modern world. We see that
      amid all our success in the external world, we have accomplished
      little of lasting value. These problems will not be solved through
      new technological developments. Instead, the resolution to these
      human problems will come only when we discover within ourselves that
      for which all of mankind is searching--inner peace, tranquility, and
      wisdom. This attainment is the goal of yoga, for yoga is the
      practical science intended to help human beings become aware of their
      ultimate nature.


      The process of yoga is an ascent into the purity of the absolute
      perfection that is the essential state of all human beings. This goal
      requires the removal of our enveloping personal impurities, the
      stilling of our lower feelings and thoughts, and the establishment of
      a state of inner balance and harmony. All the methods of yoga are
      based on the perfection of our personalities and may help to create a
      new world order.

      In the beginning of our work, the greatest problem we experience is
      our inherent restlessness of mind. Mind, by its very nature, is
      outgoing and unsteady. The highest state of meditation, however,
      requires a calm, serene, one-pointed mind, free from negative
      emotions and the distractions created by cravings, obsessions, and
      desires. To reach the subtler levels of consciousness and awareness,
      we need willpower, clarity of mind, and the ability to consciously
      direct the mind towards our goal. This is possible only when we turn
      away from preoccupation with external acquisition and seek to stop
      all inharmonious or negative mental processes. To achieve this, we do
      not need to give up our homes and society and retire to a monastery.
      Instead, we can achieve a state of peace, harmony, and contentment in
      our daily meditation, and thus, go on carrying out our life's duties
      and activities with the love and devotion that emerges from our
      meditative experience.

      For those who want to follow the path of yoga towards peace and
      evolution, there are a few prerequisites. We need good health, a calm
      mind, sincerity, and a burning desire to rise above our human
      imperfections. Our health is maintained by a simple and well-
      regulated diet, adequate sleep, some physical exercise, and
      relaxation. Imbalance or excesses in food, exercise, sleep, or our
      personal relationships produce physical and emotional disruptions
      that disturb the practice of yoga and meditation.

      If the aspects of our daily lives are well balanced, then certainly
      we can make progress in yoga in the modern world. Regardless of where
      we live or what we do, we can create a life conducive to yoga.


      As we indicated earlier, there is much confusion about exactly what
      yoga is, especially since there seem to be so many approaches, all
      described by the name "yoga." A mountain climber may take a variety
      of routes to reach the top of a mountain. From the plain at the base
      of the mountain, all these paths seem distinct and different, but
      from the mountain summit, the view is always the same! The same is
      true of the seeming diversity of the yogic paths. These different
      paths are not mutually exclusive or conflicting, but are intended to
      accommodate the various inclinations, personalities, and temperaments
      of individual students, and yet they all have the same goal. These
      various paths of yoga include:

      1) Hatha yoga, which deals mostly with body and breathing exercises
      that help the student to become aware of his or her internal states.
      Hatha yoga exercises help to make the body a healthy and strong
      resource for the student.

      2) Karma yoga, which means "the yoga of action." This path teaches us
      to do our own duties in life skillfully and selflessly, dedicating
      the results of our actions to humanity. Practicing this aspect of
      yoga helps us to live unselfishly and successfully in the world
      without being burdened or distressed.

      3) Jnana yoga is the path of knowledge and wisdom. This path involves
      intense mental discipline. Knowledge dawns as we learn to
      discriminate between the real and the unreal, between the transient
      and the everlasting, between the finite and the infinite. This path
      is meant for only a fortunate few, who are aware of the higher and
      subtler realities of life.

      4) Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. This path is the way of love
      and devotion. It is the path of self-surrender, of devoting and
      dedicating all human resources to attaining the ultimate reality.

      5) Kundalini yoga is a highly technical science. The guidance of a
      competent teacher is required to learn methods for awakening the
      serpent-like vital force that remains dormant and asleep in every
      human body.

      6) Mantra yoga, which involves meditation and the use of certain
      sounds called "mantras," which are traditionally transmitted to the
      student, and are used as objects of concentration. Mantras help the
      student in self-purification, concentration, and meditation. These
      mantras were discovered in deep meditation by highly advanced sages
      and teachers.

      Finally, there is raja yoga, the "royal path" which is very
      scientific and thorough. By following this path methodically, we
      learn to refine our desires, emotions, and thoughts, as well as the
      subtle impressions and thoughts that lie dormant in the unconscious
      mind. Raja yoga helps us to experience the inner reality by using an
      eight-runged ladder. The ultimate goal is for the aspirant to attain
      the eighth rung, samadhi.


      Raja yoga encompasses teachings from all the different paths. Because
      of its variety it can be practiced by people of many backgrounds and
      temperaments. It involves all three dimensions of human interaction--
      physical, mental, and spiritual. Through this path, we achieve
      balance and harmony of all three levels and then attain full
      realization of the Self.

      Raja yoga is a scientific discipline that does not impose
      unquestioning faith, but encourages healthy examination. Certain
      practices are prescribed and the benefits derived from them are
      described so that this path can be scientifically verified by anyone
      who experiments with the methods. Because of this, raja yoga is
      ideally suited to the modern world, in which scientific skepticism is
      so prominent.

      Raja yoga is also called astanga yoga, or "the eight-fold path,"
      because its eight steps create an orderly process of self-
      transformation beginning on the level of the physical body, and
      eventually involving the subtler levels of life. The eight steps are
      yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and


      The first four rungs or steps--yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama,
      comprise the path of hatha yoga, which is preparatory to the last
      four stages of raja yoga.

      Yama and niyama are ten commitments of attitude and behavior. One set
      of disciplines (niyama) is meant to improve the human personality and
      the other (yama) is meant to guide our relationships and interactions
      with other beings in the world. Thus yoga is an education for both
      internal and external growth. The five yamas, or restraints, are
      nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, sensual moderation, and non-
      possessiveness. Their practice leads to changes in behavior and
      emotions, in which all negative emotions are replaced by positive

      The five niyamas, or observances, are cleanliness (both external and
      internal), contentment, practices which bring about perfection of
      body and senses (tapas), study of the scriptures, and surrender to
      the ultimate reality. The niyamas lead to the control of our behavior
      and eventually are extremely positive factors in developing the

      In the beginning we should not be discouraged by the challenge of
      these first two steps. For example, even before we have succeeded in
      developing the trait of nonviolence completely, we will see
      increasing peace in our lives and meditation as a result of
      attempting to practice this yama.

      Usually, when hatha yoga is taught in the modern world, only asanas
      (physical postures) and certain breathing practices are taught. Yama
      and niyama often are ignored. Because of this, hatha yoga has become
      somewhat superficial, sometimes emphasizing only physical beauty or
      egoism about skill and strength in postures. Certainly asanas and
      breathing exercises create physical health and harmony, but only when
      our minds are free from violent emotions can we achieve a calm,
      creative, and tranquil mental state.

      Actually, there are two types of asanas--meditative postures and
      postures that ensure physical well-being. A stable meditative posture
      helps us create a serene breath and calm mind. A good meditative
      posture should be comfortable and stable, ensuring that the head,
      neck, and trunk are erect and in a straight line. If the body is
      uncomfortable, it makes the mind agitated and distracted. The second
      kind of postures are practiced to perfect the body, making it limber
      and free from disease. These postures stimulate specific muscles and
      nerves and have very beneficial effects.

      The fourth step of raja yoga is pranayama. Prana is the vital energy
      that sustains body and mind. The grossest manifestation of prana is
      the breath, so pranayama is also called the "science of breath."
      These exercises lead to calming and concentration.


      The four steps of hatha yoga prepare the student for the four
      internal practices of raja yoga. These internal practices are
      pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.

      The fifth step of raja yoga is pratyahara or withdrawal and control
      of the senses. While we are awake, the mind becomes involved with the
      events, experiences, and objects of the external world through the
      five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The mind
      constantly gathers sensations from the external world through these
      senses and our mind reacts to them. To attain inner calmness, the
      student of yoga will want to develop the ability to voluntarily
      remove the distractions of the world outside. This is not a physical
      process but a voluntary, mental process of letting go of our
      involvement with external sensations.

      Our sensory impressions distract the mind when we want it to become
      aware of serenity within. Thus, it is useful to learn dharana, or
      concentration, the sixth step in raja yoga. In concentration, the
      scattered power of the mind is coordinated and focused on an object
      of concentration through continued voluntary attention. This
      voluntary attention uses a conscious effort of the will, and it is
      developed through consistent practice. Through concentration, a
      scattered, weak mind is focused and made more powerful.

      The seventh step in raja yoga is dhyana, or meditation. Meditation is
      the result of continued, unbroken concentration. Concentration makes
      the mind one-pointed, calm, and serene. Meditation then expands the
      one-pointed mind to the superconscious state. Meditation is the
      uninterrupted flow of the mind toward one object or concept. When the
      mind expands beyond conscious and subconscious levels and assumes
      this superconscious flow, then intuitive knowledge dawns. All the
      methods of yoga prepare us to eventually reach this stage of
      meditation and thus attain peace, perfection, and tranquility.

      In our daily lives, meditation can be very helpful in eliminating
      many physical and psychological problems. A significant amount of the
      disease we experience is actually either directly or indirectly the
      result of conflicts, repression, or emotional distress arising in the
      conscious or unconscious mind. Meditation helps us to become aware of
      these conflicts and to resolve them, establishing tranquility and
      peace. In this way, meditation becomes a powerful resource for facing
      the challenges of daily life.

      If we really consider how we learn in the modern world, we realize
      that despite all our emphasis on education, our education is one-
      sided and shallow. We may learn to memorize equations and facts, but
      we do not really learn to understand and develop our own inner life.
      Our minds remain scattered and our emotions persist as negative,
      conflicting forces. We are able to use only a small portion of our
      mental abilities, because we are preoccupied with confusion, fear,
      and inner conflict. Meditation helps us to overcome these
      limitations; it helps us to become aware of the subtler and more
      positive powers within. In gaining this awareness, we become creative
      and dynamic. Abilities such as intuition, which many consider unusual
      or rare, are actually within the potential of all human beings who
      meditate. Such gifts are available to those who make contact with the
      deeper aspects within themselves.

      Prolonged and intense meditation leads to the last step of raja yoga--
      the state of samadhi, the superconscious state. In this state we
      become one with the higher Self and transcend all imperfections and
      limitations. The state of samadhi is the fourth state of
      consciousness, which transcends the three normal states of waking,
      dreaming, and dreamless sleep.

      A person who attains samadhi becomes a gift to his or her society. If
      humanity is ever to achieve a more evolved civilization, it will be
      possible only because of our growth and evolution as human beings. A
      person who is established in samadhi lives his or her whole life as a
      spontaneous expression of the unhindered flow of supreme
      consciousness. This superconscious level is our human essence; it is
      universal and transcends all the divisions of culture, creed, gender
      or age. When we become aware of this state within, our whole life is
      transformed. When we transform ourselves and experience serenity,
      peace, and freedom, we also transform our societies and all of human
      civilization. This awareness of the infinite consciousness is the
      practical and real goal of yoga.


      Bhole Prabhu lived in the Himalayas, and was a yogi, poet, and
      philosopher renowned as an original thinker.
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