Lots has been written about Yoga – from its physical benefits to magical, extra normal strengths. Shiva is called the Adi Yogi, the foremost practitioner of Yoga. Krishna speaks about 4 types of Yoga in Bhagvad Gita. Research shows that since the early Vedic civilizations (Indus valley, Harappa), people practiced yoga.
Some books which serve as the prime guides to Yoga as we know it today are
- Yog Sutras by Rishi Patanjali
- Hathyog Pradipika by Swami Svatmarama
- Shiv Samhita: Teachings of Yoga to Parvati by Shiva
- Grehanda Samhita: Teachings of Swami Grehanda to his disciple King Chandkapali
I’ll briefly write about the first 2 books, rather about my understanding of the two. Indian knowledge systems are rarely instructional. There is always space to infer it per one’s maturity and context. And this understanding may also evolve overtime for the same person. The stress is on self-experience and realization through practice. Krishna says in Gita “To a man surrounded with fresh water, a well is of little use, likewise to a man who has experienced true knowledge, what is the use of all the Vedas and Shrutis”. Our shastras have stressed that we all are capable of finding this true knowledge of life in ourselves, our experiences may differ – there is no one size that fits all, but capable we are. Yoga is that process of finding the size that fits us!
I do humbly confess that I am a beginner on this path, my learning has just begun, so please dear reader do not hesitate to add or comment where appropriate.
Patanjali’s Yog Sutras
The foremost detailed exposition on Yoga available to us, is Yog Sutras by Rishi Patanjali. It is believed that Patanjali obtained this knowledge from Adi Yogi Shiva. The more imaginative, talk of Patanjali as being the snake around Shiva’s neck and hence was able to grasp the knowledge in its entirety. Interestingly, Patanjali’s Yog Sutras is not about Asanas. What Patanjali talks about is “Raj Yoga”, the ultimate state of being. Asana is just one of the 8th aspects of Raj Yoga or “Unity of being”.
The very first (technically second) sutra in the book explains Yoga: “Yogah chitta vritti nirodh”. He says Yoga is about restraining the never ending activities going on in the mind and cleaning it of all its vrittis or mental conditionings. Every thought that passes through our brain, every experience we go through, every view we see, every sound we hear, leaves an impression in our mental database (chitta). These impressions further shape our view of ourselves and the world around, thus conditioning our mind (manas + buddhi).
But why should the mind be cleared of the vrittis? Patanjali says – “tada drashtuh svaroope avasthanam” – So that we can see our real self. In these 2 lines, lies the whole philosophy of life.
Most of us have had such experience; we want something really badly, we lose our sleep, we lose our composure and strive to obtain the object of our desire. But when we get it, suddenly there is a void within, the happiness we were expecting to feel by getting that thing is only short lived. Then we desire another such object and the process repeats. We keep running after one bone to another like a dog, we assume “happiness” is in that bone, that new car or a new LV bag. Yes, we do experience joy and pleasure in that moment but the very next moment, the joy is gone and we have to find yet another externality to feel happy again albeit momentarily. Why does that happen? Why aren’t we always happy? Even the richest of the world can’t buy perennial happiness. Then there are these other people who make only a modest living but never complain, only cherish the moment. What is this source of their happiness?
Patanjali says, we always strive to seek gratification and identification outside ourselves, amongst the material things around us. We see ourselves in our car, our house, our social status, our bank balance. This identification arises out of our mental conditioning. This is what we are taught as kids – that success is about money and degrees. Patanjali explains, that we are not these externalities, we are not even this body that we are so proud of. Beyond this body is the soul (or Purusha or Saakshi), the witness of our emotions, our pleasure and pain. That which is awake when we are asleep (that which witnesses our sleep, how else would we ever know that were asleep). That which realizes the futility and ephemerality of material pleasures. The soul that dwells within you and I and the trees and the animals and makes the world go around. It knows that happiness is not outside us, but deep within and is a result of our approach to life; that happiness is after all a sound, content sleep and a guilt free heart; that happiness is achieved not by running after worldly desires but by detaching the mind from those desires. It is this soul that is our true self. To see this true self, or even understand the concept of true self we need to cleanse our mental conditionings and prepare the mind to be open to newer experiences.
(In more practical terms, the way I understand “real self” is developing discretion and fearlessness, understanding what really matters and what not, what is lasting and what is delusional)
Swami Vivekanda gives a very good example his commentary on Yog Sutras – he says when there are waves on the surface of a pond, we can never see the beauty that lies within. To see underneath, the waves have to stop. Vrittis are these waves that blur our vision.
Yog Sutras is a not a book of abstract elite philosophy. It reads like a structured computer program that deals with science of mind. Patanjali structures the topic as below
- Sets a goal – Achieving clarity of vision and mind
- Lists obstructions in the path of that goal – existing mental conditionings
- Lays out approach to remove obstructions and achieve the goal – the 8 limbs of Yoga (Ashtang Yoga).
- Explains Supporting conditions– Empathetic attitude, discretion of right and wrong, composure, detachment, constant practice
- Mentions Non-supporting conditions – Diseases, mental laziness, too much doubt, lack of focus, ego, non-retention
- Illustrates physical and mental indications of success – above average intuition and sense perception, deep concentration of mind, clear memory, feeling of joy & fullness
He says – there are 5 types (or causes) of mental conditioning (mental impressions) – what we are taught, what we experience, what we remember, what we read or speak and what we dream – this is the knowledge that ultimately guides our actions and determines how we see ourselves in the world. Patanjali says, these impressions keep us from truly knowing and understanding our real self. Hence the first step towards self-realization is clearing our mind of these impressions and not letting it waver as per its conditioning.
A lot of us have heard this before, in leadership trainings, by our mentors, guardians etc. “If you want to be a good decision maker, don’t react, don’t get emotional about a problem, don’t cloud your vision with biases. Take a step back and get a holistic view, understand the real issue, go through both the pros and the cons and then make a decision.” My experience has been that if we get attached to a problem or what we deem is the problem, the focus of our decision making shifts on Us – on making our ownself/our ego happy (again short terms) instead of finding the most optimum solution.
I remember having a chat with one of my MBA professors about why were the initial 3 months of the MBA course made excruciatingly tough for the students. His answer was profound!. He said “To learn something new, you have to first unlearn what you think you know. We first have to break you to make you; to undo the past learnings so that you are ready to grasp what we teach you”
This is what, Patanjali is actually telling us – Don’t let emotions and biases arising out of past mental impressions cloud your understanding of the situation at hand, become a detached observer to comprehend reality – Just that, he raises the bar of this “reality” to something more profound, the very existence of ours, the realization that happiness is within us. It always has been, we just need to see it with a clear vision.
He then illustrates the approach to mind-body unity – the 8 limbs of Yoga – Ashtang Yoga (anga = limbs)
- Yam : Principles for social interaction (Non-violence, Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Chastity, Non-hoarding)
- Niyam: Norms of personal conduct (cleanliness, contentment, control of body and mind, regular study, faith in almighty)
- Asana: Postures to gain physical and mental stability
- Pranayam: Deep breathing for internal cleanliness and mental calm
- Pratyaahar: Withdrawing all senses and focusing inward
- Dharana: Concentration all mental faculties on any one object (external or internal) and eliminating all other thoughts
- Dhyan: Maintaining Dharana over an extended period of time is Dhyan; also called Meditation
- Samadhi: Experiencing the ultimate bliss, when our soul becomes one with the cosmic soul and our identification expands beyond our ego, that is called Samadhi
The first 5 limbs are also categorized as Bahirang Yoga or Outer Yoga – the one which deals with physical aspects.The latter 3 are called Antarang Yoga or Inner Yoga – the one that deals with subtle, mental, spiritual body. A point to note here, achieving perfection in Bahirang Yoga makes attaining Anatarang Yoga easier and more probable, however individual limbs produce benefits standalone too. We already know, Asanas & Pranayams by themselves give physical benefits irrespective of the other 6 limbs, so also for Yam, Niyam – which are essential qualities for living responsibly in the society.
While concept of Antarang Yoga seems abstract, it is really not so rare. When Sachin Tendulkar plays cricket, all he is aware of is the bat and the ball and the world stops to exist. Most sports legends and artists are so engrossed in their game or art, that in the moment, they become one with the game. That oneness (or Dhyan, if you may) is what makes them successful. Practice of Yoga helps us achieve such oneness among our mind, body and soul, our thoughts, words and actions
Hath Yog Pradipika
It is said that when Shiva was teaching Hath Yoga to Parvati, a fish called Mina swam nearby. The fish had just swallowed a man who was alive in her stomach. The man was so engrossed in the discourse of Shiva, that when Shiva asked Parvati, if she was listening, the man answered “Yes”. On realizing that there was a committed disciple around, Shiva was so please that he taught Yoga to the man as well. This man was called Swami Matsyendranath and was ordained by to take the teachings of Yoga to the world. Through Matsyendranathji the knowledge of Yoga was passes down to his disciples, one of them being Swami Gorakshanath, from whom it eventually came down to Swami Svatmarama who compiled it in Hath Yoga Pradipika
Hath Yoga Pradipika is a detailed treatise on Hath Yoga. Simply explained, Hath Yoga deals with techniques of Asanas, Pranayams and Mudra. And Hath Yoga Pradipika is manual illustrating those techniques. After paying respect to Adi Yogi Shiva and his Gurus, Swami Svatmarama declares upfront that Raj Yoga is the ultimate goal of Yogis and Hath Yoga is a means to achieve it. Thus clearly establishing that there is no dichotomy between Yog Sutras and Hath Yoga Pradipika. In fact, Svatmaramaji says that due to multiple opinions and lack of maturity, people rarely understand the concept of Raj Yoga. Hath Yoga, on the other hand, is a tool to experience Raj Yoga (and once experience happens, understanding comes naturally)
Swami Svatmarama goes on to set the stage for practice of Hath Yoga. Having stated dos and don’ts for the preparatory phase and explaining Yam-Niyam (in here, we find 10 yam and 10 niyams; 5 more that those propounded in Yog Sutras); Swamiji describes various asanas (15 in all) including how to perform them and benefits that one can gain by regular practice.
Then comes descriptions of various Pranayam and Kumbhakas (Breathing techniques), Mudras and Bandhas (including techniques of Kundalini awakening) and techniques of meditation (Samadhi). Regular practice of these, says Swamiji, will lead to attainment of ultimate bliss – Raj Yog. But the key is practice, nothing can ever be achieved by merely reading about it.
I must say, even a brief reading of the book will convince the reader to get up and practice, so powerful are the benefits mentioned – healthy body, acute awareness, physical strength and freedom from al diseases, almost making the body indestructible (post kundalini awakening). Even if 10% of the benefits can be truly achieved, it will ensure we lead a healthy and content life, totally worth the effort!
ॐ शान्ति |