The State of Yoga
Yoga is the system by which the human organism seeks to regain its true stature. — Rohit Arya
There’s a lot of interest in yoga these days. But also a lot of confusion about what it is. A majority of Westerners think that it’s choreographed stretching in special clothes, and sometimes the state of relaxation that results from all that stretching. That’s what I thought it was when I started fourteen years ago. But, this postural yoga that has become synonymous with yoga in the West is just a tiny portion of yoga, and is actually a fairly recent development (primarily developed in the last hundred years or so).
So what is yoga?
As I’ve written elsewhere, yoga is both scientific and spiritual. It’s scientific because yogis developed yoga through observation of nature and experimentation in a way that was focused on achieving consistent results. But, instead of studying the natural world outside using instruments and “objective” observations, yogis studied the natural world inside through diligent experimentation and observation. In other words, yoga is a system of practices that were developed empirically through trial and error and consistent practice over thousands of years in order to cultivate a certain state of being. It is a very pragmatic, empirical spirituality: keep what works, discard what doesn’t. In fact, you can verify that it works by trying it yourself! It’s spiritual because it addresses things like cosmology and the nature of existence. But yoga is not a religion; there’s no central organization, no dogma, no activities partaken mindlessly because of stale tradition.
Yoga’s spiritual side is a turnoff for some people. If you’re one of those people, I feel you. But think about how deeply spiritual our human existence is. If you’ve ever thought about your soul or wondered what it all means, you might be spiritual. And if there’s one thing our planet could use more of right now it’s greater awareness, an expanded sense of awe at the wonder of existence, and an orientation of reverence for the innate intelligence of life.
In short, yoga goes as deep as you want it to. It is designed to work on every layer of your being: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
If you’re content with your asana practice then skip the rest of this post. But, just keep in mind, according to the Yoga Sutras (discussed below), if you’re not changing and growing then you’re not really practicing yoga.
The most common and simple definition you'll hear for ‘yoga’ is that the Sanskrit word itself means ‘union’ or ‘to yoke.’ But what are we joining with or yoking to? One answer is ourselves. Another answer is the Universe, or ”Cosmic Consciousness,” with all of creation in other words. The Tantrikas would say those are the same answer, because they believed that the self and the Universe are one and the same: all this stuff we’ll call Consciousness (more on this below). After all, we are all just stardust, quantum squiggles with boundaries that only exist as a result of sensory perceptions taking place in our consciousness. So yoga is the removal of the illusion that we are disconnected, separate, small. It’s moving from identifying with our mind to identifying with our consciousness.
As we’ll see, there are real-world benefits to removing that illusion, such as a deeper feeling of being at home in the world. And bliss. You can’t go wrong with bliss.
So, yoga is both a state and a series of practices designed to cultivate that state. In this post we’ll take a closer look at the nature of that state of yoga. I’ll explore the various practices of yoga in subsequent posts.
How Ancient Yogis Described Yoga
As you may have heard, yoga comes from ancient India, where it has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. The Rigveda is the oldest yogic text, and the oldest extant text in any Indo-European language, dating from somewhere between 1700 to 1100 BCE. Although many Indians and yoga practitioners do chant mantras from the Vedas, most contemporary yogis study yoga texts that came after the Vedas. Some of the texts that heavily influence my own (and many others’) practice include: The Upanishads (circa 800–300 BCE), The Bhagavad Gita (c. 500–200 BCE), Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (c. 400 CE, perhaps earlier), and various Tantric texts such as Light on Tantra and The Recognition Sutras (both c. 600–1100 CE).
Let’s briefly visit each of these texts to see how they define the state of yoga.
The Upanishads (circa 800–300 BCE)
The Upanishads (whose authors are all anonymous) states that:
Yoga is cultivating a state of fulfillment without having to have or do something. Then cravings naturally dissipate. — The Isha Upanishad
Simple. It’s a state of fulfillment that has something to do with non-attachment. But how do we get there? The authors of the Upanishads were part of a longstanding tradition that practiced various forms of meditation, mental discrimination, and the recitation of mantras. But there are more recent texts to help us with specific practices, and more refined definitions.
The Bhagavad Gita (c. 500–200 BCE)
In the Bhagavad Gita, Vyasa continues the theme of non-attachment in this famous dialog between Krishna and a warrior named Arjuna, who is conflicted about going into battle. Krishna tells Arjuna to act purposefully and mindfully but to do so without any attachment to the fruits (outcome) of his actions. This way of being in the world, says Krishna, is yoga.
Of course the Gita says far more than that in its beautifully rendered eighteen chapters of verse, including a discussion of dharma and a breakdown of the four types of yoga popular at that time (knowledge, devotion, action, and meditation). I won’t explain the different types of yoga in this post—that’s a meaty topic worthy of a series of separate posts. But this state of non-attachment is a crucial part of yoga.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (c. 400 CE, perhaps earlier)
Probably the most translated, read, and cited yoga text today, the Yoga Sutras contain an almost endless depth of meaning and interpretation. The Sutras were assembled and written down a century and a half ago by a great sage named Patanjali. These 196 short aphorisms, divided into four chapters, help us understand what yoga was within Patanjali’s tradition, and what it still is today to a large extent.
Sutra I.2 defines yoga as such:
Yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ.
‘Citta’ is the form that Consciousness takes in an individual person. ‘Vrtti’ is a modification. And ‘nirodhah’ is restraint or removal. So one interpretation of the Sanskrit here is that yoga is the removal of the false notion in your mind (or your consciousness) of smallness and separation. And, as we’ll see in a later post, it’s a set of practices that help you achieve that state.
Tantric Yoga (c. 600–1100 CE)
‘Tantra’ means both ‘theory’ or ‘book’ as well as ‘a tool for expansion.’ (In Sanskrit, many words have a constellation of meanings.) Note: The Tantra we’re talking about here has nothing to do with the neo-tantra sacred sexual practices taught in the West today (mostly in California). I have nothing against these practices but it’s unfortunate that Pierre Bernard used the word to describe practices he was teaching in San Francisco a hundred years ago that had nothing to do with Tantra.
A thousand ago in the western Himalayas, Tantrikas practiced a form of yoga that was focused extensively on the subtle body (chakras, koshas, vayus, nadis, etc.), and on channeling kundalini energy in order to experience bliss and liberation. By using yogic meditation, mantra, mudras, kriya, aesthetic cultivation of the senses, and other esoteric practices, they cultivated worldly success and spiritual liberation. This was a radical innovation for its time.
One of the most profound Tantric texts to have been translated or studied in modern times is Light on Tantra, written by Abhinava Gupta, the most prominent and prolific ancient tantric scholar, circa 1000 CE. Gupta tells us in Light on Tantra, that the state of yoga is a state in which “your perception fully encompasses the reality of a universe dancing ecstatically in the animation of its completely perfect divinity.” That sounds like a state worth cultivating.
In fact, the Tantrikas believed that anything can be yoga when practiced with the right attitude, by keeping what they called “The View” in mind at all times. Here is the Tantric View, as translated by Christopher Wallis, a Tantric scholar and practitioner:
All that exists, throughout all time and beyond, is one infinite divine Consciousness, free and blissful, which projects within the field of its awareness a vast multiplicity of apparently differentiated subjects and objects: each object an actualization of a timeless potentiality inherent in the Light of Consciousness, and each subject, you and I, the same plus a contracted locus of self-awareness. This creation, a divine play, is the result of the natural impulse within Consciousness to express the totality of its self-knowledge in action, an impulse arising from love. The unbounded Light of Consciousness contracts into finite embodied loci of awareness out of its own free will. When those finite subjects then identify with the limited and circumscribed cognitions and circumstances that make up this phase of their existence, instead of identifying with the transindividual overarching pulsation of pure Awareness that is their true nature, they experience what they call “suffering.” To rectify this, some feel an inner urge to take up the path of spiritual wisdom and yogic practice, the purpose of which is to undermine their misidentification and directly reveal within the immediacy of awareness the fact that the divine powers of Consciousness, Bliss, Willing, Knowing, and Acting comprise the totality of individual experience as well—thereby triggering a recognition that one’s real identity is that of the highest Divinity, the Whole in every part. This experiential insight is repeated and reinforced through various means until it becomes the nonconceptual ground of every moment of experience, and one’s contracted sense of self and separation from the Whole is finally annihilated in the incandescent radiance of the complete expansion into perfect wholeness. Then one’s perception fully encompasses the reality of a universe dancing ecstatically in the animation of its completely perfect divinity.
There’s a lot to unpack here. I won’t go into a lengthy discussion of the implications of this here. Wallis does a great job doing that in his book Tantra Illuminated. But it’s one of the most beautiful encapsulations of yoga I’ve seen. And it was written over a thousand years ago.
The Tantrikas knew that the state of yoga was understanding that nothing can be added to, or subtracted from, any given moment to make it more perfect. If you practice fully accepting the way things are in this moment, I think you’ll find that that simple practice alone will begin to shift your experience of life in profound ways.
In short, the Tantrikas were all about creating a profound state of union, a deep feeling of pure Awareness.
Notice that Gupta offers an important reminder in his View: The state of yoga is not a conceptual knowing but rather the direct experience of the unity resulting from yogic practices. So, again, the yogic practices are essential.
As you may have realized by now, the state of yoga is a state that is only diminished by trying to describe it. You have to experience it.
Now that we’ve reviewed a few definitions of the state of yoga, and encountered the Tantric View, a brief word about enlightenment: Many hold a common misconception that enlightenment is some sort of end goal, an ideal state in which one is completely ensconced in bliss and never experiences suffering again. On the contrary, enlightenment is just the beginning. You still have to practice. The Buddha continued to practice after his experience under the Bodhi Tree. For example, you may adopt the Tantric View but this is no guarantee of eternal bliss. There are no shortcuts. Most of us are not sufficiently evolved to simply will ourselves into a transcendental state. We must work through the layers of our resistances to get there. The state of yoga is something you must actively cultivate. This is why we practice.
I've hardly scratched the surface here. But hopefully this helps at least convey how much more there is to yoga than a bit of stretching.
Without yoga, you remain identified with your mind. Thinking you are your mind maintains a contracted, agitated state where you feel disconnected from life, and from yourself. And this creates a state in which you can’t trust in the natural unfolding of life, a very narrow, egoic state.
In yoga we cultivate a state in which we directly experience unity with all of creation. Then we relax into a natural state of being and spontaneous right action arises. As you expand your awareness, you shift from a relative state of victimhood, where life is happening to you, to a state of initiation, of being the creator of your life.
If the self is like a tarnished or smudged up mirror, yoga is the set of practices that clean and polish the mirror so that you can see things reflected more clearly.
If you adopt the Tantric View, yoga is less about what specific activity you're engaged in and more about your attitude as you're doing it. It can be down dog. Or it can be riding the subway. In this sense, yoga is life, as long as awareness predominates over contraction. But, again, for most of us, we can’t short circuit the practices designed to realize this experience of deep, existential knowing. It’s not a mere concept, not an intellectual idea. It's not enough to say to yourself, “Okay, I am totality.” If it was, there would be a lot more conscious people walking around.
This is why we practice. And this is why I teach yoga.
In my next post, I take a look at some of the practices recommended by the various schools and traditions of yoga.