In recent years, yoga has gained much popularity and become a part of mainstream culture in the United States with an estimated 18 million Americans practicing yoga on a weekly basis. Largely, yoga instruction has been in the practice of Hatha yoga which teaches asana (postures) and pranayama (breath techniques). While many have come to experience increased vitality and peace of mind through yoga, many are left unaware of yoga’s spiritual purpose. If we look at some of the ancient texts on yoga we find that almost the opposite situation, that the spiritual aspects were made very clear and the practice of asanas had little attention.
The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” and means the act of joining, attaching or harnessing. The joining refers to the union of the individual soul (jeevatma) with the Universal Soul (Paramatma) by which one can attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Sri Krishna tells this to Arjuna in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. “The yogi who has completely calmed the mind and controlled the passions and freed from all impurities, and who is one with Spirit—- verily, he has attained supreme blessedness. The yogi, free from all impurities, ceaselessly engaging the Self thus in the activity of yoga, readily attains the blessedness of continuous mergence in Spirit” [i] The Bhagavad Gita affirms yoga’s spiritual goal of union with the Divine by controlling the mind and the senses with the practice of yoga of but only mentions the word asana to refer how one should sit for meditation[ii].
Patanjali compiled the philosophy of Raja Yoga from the Upanishads in his classic 2nd century text called the Yoga Sutras which consists of 196 terse aphorisms. Raja Yoga consists of eight sequential steps to train the mind of the yogi to attain union with the Divine through meditation (samadhi). These eights steps are yama[iii], niyama[iv], asana, pranayama[v], pratyahara, dharuna, dhyana, and samadhi. Even though Patanjali includes asana in his path to samadhi, like the Bhagavad Gita, he only writes of seated postures.[vi] He goes on to writes that once “mastering posture, one may practice control of prana (pranayama) through stopping the motions of inhalation and exhalation”[vii] indicating that the practice of posture is a preliminary step before advancing on to the more advanced steps of concentration and meditation. Swatmarama also makes this point in his 14th century text on Hatha Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. He gives detailed practical instruction in various asana, pranayama techniques and bodily cleansing techniques and writes that “ all method of Hatha are meant for gaining success in Raja Yoga for the man who is well established in Raja Yoga overcomes death.” [viii]
Yoga in the United States has come a long way since Vivekanda first stepped foot here in 1893. Many styles of yoga maintain it’s intended original spiritual purpose, like Sivananda Yoga founded by a disciple of Swmi Sivananda, Integral Yoga founded by Swami Satchitananda or Kripalu Yoga founded by a disciple of Swami Kripalvananda, just to name a few. Many other yoga methods largely emphasis a vigorous physical workout so it’s good to be informed about a particular style and see if it meets your goals before beginning a yoga practice.
[i] Bhagavad Gita 6:27,28
[ii] Bhagavad Gita 6:11-12
[iii] Yama are the 5 restaints of ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-coveting).
[iv] Niyama are the 5 observances of saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (penances), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishwara pranidhana (dedication to the Lord)
[v] pranayama: control of prana (subtle energy) through breathing techniques, pratyahara :sense withdrawal, dharana: concentration, dhyana: meditation, samadhi: experience of oneness with the Divine
[vi] Yoga Sutra 2:46
[vii] Yoga Sutras 2:49
[viii] Hatha Yoga Pradipika 4:102