Yoga has become an immensely popular form of physical activity and relaxation in recent years. Those who practice it on a regular basis are constantly raving about its physical and mental benefits, and rightfully so. Regular practice can lead to increased strength, flexibility, and focus, and decrease one’s proneness to injury. It also enhances one’s ability to concentrate, among many other benefits.
What we don’t often consider, however, are the spiritual teachings which underpin this ancient practice. Yoga is much more than just physical exercise, though this rather reductive understanding makes up the dominant perception of Western society. There is nothing wrong with only engaging in the physical side of yoga, but it’s important to understand its roots and origins in order to not only reap its full benefits, but afford it the respect it deserves. Indeed, many would argue that one cannot claim to ‘do yoga’ if they are only practicing one aspect of it. This article will discuss a couple of topics that are closely associated with yoga, but have been largely forgotten today by the Western world.
The Western Perception of Yoga
The Western perception of yoga is not wrong by any means. As mentioned above, it mainly considers one component of yoga — the physical act of ‘doing yoga’ — without acknowledging the other, equally important aspects of this practice. The Western world was introduced to yoga in the late 1800s, when Swami Vivekananda, an Indian guru and yogic scholar, sparked a wave of Eastern Yogi’s setting up teaching centres in the West. Some of these gurus, like Vivekananda himself, attracted a lot of attention from prominent authors, scientists, and socialites.
For example, Nikola Tesla was well aware of ancient concepts and the correlation it had with the science he was working on, using sanskrit worlds like “akasha” and “prana” to describe the force and matter that exists all around us; these words come from the Upanishads (a collection of Vedic texts). Not many people know that Tesla had correlations with Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who was one of the most famous and influential spiritual leaders of the philosophies of Vedanta (one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, the term originally referred to the Upanishads, a collection of philosophical texts in Hinduism) and yoga. He was the chief disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the founder of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission. He is a giant figure in the history of the Hindu reform movements.
Vivekananda wrote a letter to Tesla in the late 1800s, remarking:
Mr. Tesla thinks he can demonstrate mathematically that force and matter are reducible to potential energy. I am to go and see him next week to get this new mathematical demonstration. In that case the Vedantic cosmology will be placed on the surest of foundations. I am working a good deal now upon the cosmology and eschatology of the Vedanta. I clearly see their perfect union with modern science, and the elucidation of the one will be followed by that of the other.
(From the Complete Works, VOL. V, Fifth Edition, 1347, p. 77.)
There was even a scholarly review of Vivekananda’s published lectures, which appeared in the American Journal of Theology in 1895.
Since the introduction of yoga to the Western world, its use has grown exponentially each year. In spite of this growth, however, is still mostly regarded as a physical practice, with its spiritual roots largely ignored or forgotten. Nevertheless, the true purpose of yoga is to achieve states of insightfulness. As I mentioned before, there is nothing wrong with focusing on the physical side of yoga, but it is important to be aware that you are choosing to do so. Actually engaging in yoga in the traditional sense is a much different enterprise.
The True Nature Of Yoga
As mentioned above, the true nature of yoga is to achieve states of insightfulness, and this does not necessarily have to be done during the exercise part of it, although it helps and is part of the routine. There is some major energy work going on when practicing these poses, often comprising an opening up of major energy centres in your body, which improves energy flow. One who does not engage in the physical side of yoga can still be said to be practicing it and enjoy these energetic benefits.
For example, in the second book of the Yoga Sutras, written by the Indian sage Patanjali about two thousands years ago, 8 paths are described:
- Path 1 is Yama: Restraining from harmful behaviour, or cautions on what behaviour to avoid. This includes violence, injury, telling falsehoods, stealing, lasciviousness, greed. It means, in general, adopting ethical and virtuous behaviour.
- Path 2 is Niyama: Developing beneficial behaviour, or guidelines on what behaviours to encourage. This includes cleanliness and austerity, along with cultivating an attitude of gratitude and contentment, and being engaged in a disciplined practice of focus, devotion, and self-study.
- Path 3 is Asana: Developing of physical postures. These are designed to assist the mind and body in relaxing, through development of strength, steadiness, and flexibility. The purpose of the asanas is to prepare the body to comfortably withstand the rigors of long-term meditation.
- Path 4 is Pranayama: Conscious breathing techniques. These further the mind’s ability to focus, and they energize the body
- Path 5 is Pratyhara: Withdrawing from ordinary sensory perceptions and limiting focus to a single object of attention. Restricting one’s attention frees the mind to concentrate on internal objects of attention, fostering even more tranquility of mind.
- Path 6 is Dharana: Developing a steady, sustained concentration. The root word for dhri in dharana means “to hold”; one holds attention on a single object of thought. This type of concentration is similar to that experienced during highly focused intellectual work.
- Path 7 is Dhyana: Developing prolonged levels of concentration on an object, with deeper absorption and greater sustained alertness. This is sometimes referred to as meditation.
- Path 8 is Samadhi: Unity or mystical absorption with an object of attention. In this state, distinctions between subject and object dissolve and one “becomes” the object of meditation. This awareness is frequently described as ecstatic. That is, it is a super-aware state accompanied by intense, nonsensual pleasure.
As you can see from the above list, ‘doing yoga’ involves many things, and only some of these paths are achieved through exercise. It’s also important to keep in mind that these are just a few points out of many taken from the second Book of The Yoga Sutras. There is much more involved here, but in writing this article, I wished only to introduce readers to the complexity of yoga, and to highlight the fact that it involves much more than simply taking an exercise class. Just as one, today, practices an aspect of yoga through exercise and stretching, others may do the same by practicing mediation, or detachment from certain physical pleasures. The list of applications is no doubt long.
Radin, Dean. Supernormal: Science, Yoga and the Evidence For Exraordinary Psychic Abilities. New York, Deepak Chopra Books, 2013.