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What is Yoga?

Adi Shankaracharya (Shankara)Shankara the great non-dual philosopher and commentator on the Major Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and Yoga Sutras, as well as author of many books on Vedanta summed up everything that was taught by these holy books in this verse (sloka):

I shall tell you in half a sloka what has been written in tens of millions of books:

Brahman is real. The world is illusory. The jiva is nothing but/other than Brahman [Brahma satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah].

The word here translated “unreal” is mithya, which can also mean something that is neither real nor unreal. The idea is that the world is real, but our perceptions of the world–and consequently our definitions and conclusions about it–are unreal in the sense of being illusory. It is like the viewing of a motion picture battle. We see, hear, and react to a terrible battle yet no battle is taking place at all–it is just a play of light and shadow. In the same way the world is real, but our experience of it is unreal. God (Brahman), on the other hand is absolutely real, and Yoga is the way to pass from experience of the unreal to experience of the Real (God), from unknowing to knowing (jnana: gnosis).

What is Yoga?

“Yoga” is a Sanskrit word that comes from the root-word yuj that means “to join.” Yoga, then, is both union and the means to union. What do we join through yoga? Two eternal beings: God, the Infinite Being, and the individual spirit that is finite being. In essence they are one, and according to yogic philosophy all spirits originally dwelt in consciousness of that oneness. But in the descent into the material world for the purpose of evolving and extending its scope of consciousness, the individual spirit has lost both its awareness of that eternal union and the capacity to manifest the union on a practical level. Through yoga, however, that lost consciousness can be regained and made manifest in the individual spirit’s practical life sphere. Regarding this, a yogi-adept of the twentieth century, Dr. I.K. Taimni, remarked in his book The Science of Yoga:

“In this respect the philosophy of yoga differs fundamentally from most of the orthodox religions of the world which offer nothing better than an uncertain and nebulous happiness in the life after death. They say in effect ‘Lead a good life to ensure happiness after death, put your faith in God and hope for the best.’ According to yogic philosophy death no more solves your spiritual problem than night solves your economic problem. If you are poor you do not expect on going to bed that your economic problem will be automatically solved next day. You will have to get up next day and begin where you left off the previous night. If you are poor economically you do not expect to get rich overnight and if you are poor spiritually, bound by illusions and limitations of all kinds, you cannot expect to become enlightened [by simply being reborn] or, if you do not believe in reincarnation, in the vague and unending life which is supposed to follow death.

“According to the yogic philosophy it is possible to rise completely above the illusions and miseries of life and to gain infinite knowledge, bliss, and power through enlightenment here and now while we are still living in the physical body. And if we do not attain this enlightenment while we are still alive we will have to come back again and again into this world until we have accomplished this appointed task. So it is not a question of choosing the path of yoga or rejecting it. It is a question of choosing it now or in some future life. It is a question of gaining enlightenment as soon as possible and avoiding the suffering in the future or postponing the effort and going through further suffering which is unnecessary and avoidable. This is the meaning of Yoga Sutra 2:16: ‘The misery which is not yet come can and is to be avoided.’ No vague promise of an uncertain postmortem happiness this, but a definite scientific assertion of a fact verified by the experience of innumerable yogis, saints, and sages who have trodden the path of yoga throughout the ages.”

So profound and so necessary is yoga to the evolving consciousness, there is no more important subject in the world than that of yoga.

Yoga philosophy

Yoga must be approached initially as a philosophy–but a philosophy which by its very nature stimulates its investigators to engage in practical applications through which they will experience (and demonstrate) for themselves its truth and worth. That which begins as theory develops into practice which culminates in realization. Yoga is thus a philosophy, a discipline, and an experience. It is a revelation of consciousness. It is also a statement of Things As They Are, Things As They Should Be, and Things As They Shall Be. These three considerations, like yoga itself, possess the dual nature of theory and objectification. Yoga, then, is both philosophy and science. And since rational thought always precedes rational action, we should begin with the philosophical side of Yoga.

Then and now

In the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna: “Truly there never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these lords of men–nor in the future will there be a time when we shall cease to be” (Bhagavad Gita 2:12). That is, we are eternal beings, without beginning and without end.

Originally we were sparks or points of conscious light in the infinite Ocean of Conscious Light that is God. We were gods with God. And so we still are, for it is not possible to be outside of Infinity Itself, however much the fever-dream of delusion may instill in us the illusion of separation. Yet we are also here in this world, a place that completely overwhelms the truth of our immortal life within God and blinds our awareness to anything but the ever-changing mode of existence within this plane of matter and mortality–the momentary projection of the divine power known as Maya, the dream-power of the Divine Dreamer. For countless life-cycles we have found ourselves embodied in material cases, little body-prisons within the greater prison of the cosmos. And that is where we are right now.

There is a law that governs the place and kind of our embodiment. That law is karma, the principle of exact and inevitable reaction to our own actions and mental states, resulting in a seemingly endless domino effect of continual birth and death within matter. Yoga offers us the possibility of ending the bewildering chain of embodiments by awakening to find ourselves outside of time and mortality and in eternity and immortality–where we have always been.

God and gods

We are gods within God, finite spirits within the Infinite Spirit. But what is “spirit”? Yoga tells us that spirit is consciousness, hence we are eternal consciousnesses, each of us eternally individual and distinct (“nor in the future will there be a time when we shall cease to be”). Yet we are more. For we do not each have an existence independent of one another or independent of God who is the Supreme Spirit. Rather, we take our being from God as the waves take their existence from the ocean. God is the eternal Root or Ground of our being, our greater Self. We are not God, but in some ineffable manner God is us: the Self of our self, the Spirit of our spirit. God is all, and we are the parts, each of us possessing an eternal and irrevocable distinction. That is why, as already quoted, Krishna told Arjuna: “Truly there never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these lords of men–nor in the future will there be a time when we shall cease to be.” This is incalculably important to realize before we can have any viable understanding or approach to ourselves, to our lives, to others, and even to God. The distinction between God, us, and one another is real and eternal. Yet so is our unity.

“The Atma and Paramatma are essentially of the same nature and represent the ‘Many’ and ‘One’ aspects of the same Reality. In Hinduism, the ‘One’ or the universal aspect is emphasized to such an extent that many people think that when Self-realization takes place the Atma disappears completely and finally into the Paramatma and its separate identity is lost for ever, an idea which has been beautifully expressed by Edwin Arnold in the sentence ‘the dewdrop slips into the shining sea.’ But…in Self-realization, the center of the Atma, which is eternal, remains, though the circumference becomes larger and larger and after union with the Paramatma has no limiting and binding power on the individual Atma.” (Taimni, The Ultimate Reality and Realization, p. 95)

In God there is unity; in us there is diversity. These two seemingly contradictory states coexist in perfection. Because of this we have the term advaita which does not mean “one,” but simply “not two.” Otherwise absolute monism would be the eternal state, but it is not; and neither is absolute dualism. It is neither One nor Two. It is Not Two, a unity that possesses diversity. It is a mystery, but it can be realized by direct experience, and yoga is the means to that experience.

Since we are consciousness, authentic yoga deals directly (and only) with consciousness. Except for those things that facilitate success in yoga practice, yoga does not concern itself with any physical, psychic, or intellectual byways that by their very nature are outside spirit and therefore mutable, mortal, and fundamentally alien to us. Ideally yoga does only one thing: the development-revelation of consciousness. You will experience this for yourself by practice. And when we speak of consciousness we do not mean “consciousness of spirit,” as though spirit were an object and consciousness of spirit only a condition of awareness, but spirit itself which is consciousness, the eternal subject. Wherefore to enter into union with God and one another is simply to be in our truest state of being.

God and creation

God, the infinite Spirit, is pure consciousness, but, as we are experiencing even now, he has extended or emanated himself as the cosmos: physical, astral, and causal. This seemingly dual nature of God as Light and Power, as Consciousness and Matter, has puzzled the minds of even the wise. And this is nothing to be surprised about considering how utterly beyond human intelligence is the Divine Nature. But, as Paramhansa Yogananda often said, God cannot be understood or known, that is, in the relative sense, with the finite mind, but God can be realized. Yoga is the means of that realization.

God, the Original Being, projects Himself as the ever-changing dance of creation, as the evolving light that is the cosmos. God projects the creation, evolves it, and withdraws it back into Himself in a perpetual cycle. Thus the creation can be thought of as God’s body, that God becomes incarnate in creation again and again. And as parts or reflections of God we do exactly the same through reincarnation.

All conscious beings have existed eternally within the Being of God, living within the heart of God, one with Him, distinct though not separate. Having their being rooted in the infinity of God, the individual consciousnesses have within them a natural impulse to transcend their finitude and attain the boundlessness of their Origin. This, of course, is impossible, since the essential, eternal nature of a being cannot be altered. Being rooted in God, and therefore in a sense a part of God, all beings are as immutable as God, the only infinite Being. Yet the urge for transcendence is part of their nature.

The solution to this dilemma is actually quite simple: the individual consciousnesses cannot alter their natural state of finitude but they can come to share and participate in the infinite Consciousness of God. As Sri Ma Anandamayi said: “The soul can become godlike, but it cannot become God.” That is, they cannot become infinite themselves, but they can experience the infinity of another: their divine Source. Just as a psychically sensitive person can experience the thoughts and feelings of another by tuning in to him, yet in no way becoming that other person, so the individual consciousness can come to experience the Consciousness of God while remaining in its limited native state.

It is necessary, however, for the individual spirit to develop the capacity for such a state of awareness. And this is done by learning to fully experience the state of existence of a being completely different from oneself–to enter into an altogether alien mode of being while retaining the awareness of one’s true identity. In other words, the individual spirit must learn to put on the “costume” of a consciousness utterly different from its own and become able not just to fully experience that other mode of consciousness, but also to develop the ability to function as that other kind of being.

Evolutionary creation

To enable the spirits to enter into this process, God breathes forth or emanates His own Self as the Power from which is manifested all the realms of relative existence, from the most subtle worlds of the nearly-perfected beings to the most objective worlds of atomic matter.

Shankara, commenting on Yoga Sutra 1:25, says: “The world has been constructed by One Who knows the separate classes of living beings, of their karma and its means and its results, and He provided the world as an appropriate place for these to be experienced, as one might build a palace for people to live in. The earth is created by One Who has the knowledge of what is to be experienced by the many living beings. [The world has been created by] a single conscious master craftsman, adapted so that those who live in it can have the appropriate experiences.”

And Vyasa later comments: “The conjunction of the two powers, Seer and Seen is beginningless and purposive.”

The spirits then enter into relative existence by taking on coverings, or “bodies,”of varying grades and patterns of vibratory energies and descending into this material world. (In Sanskrit the word for body is kosha, meaning: sheath; bag; scabbard; a sheath enclosing the soul. There are five such concentric sheaths or bodies: the sheaths of bliss, intellect, mind, life-force and the physical body–the anandamaya, jnanamaya, manomaya, pranamaya and annamaya bodies respectively.) Here they begin working their way back up the ladder of ever-evolving forms, beginning with forms whose scope of consciousness is lesser than theirs and working their way upward, entering into higher and higher levels of awareness until they can surpass their original breadth of consciousness and begin to partake of a life of awareness much beyond their own.

“On attaining the highest state beyond the atmic state of consciousness, the consciousness of the yogi becomes one with and thus acquires the attributes of the Consciousness of Shiva or Paramatma.” (Shiva Sutra 3:25)

Furthermore, in the intervals between embodiments the spirit spends time in the astral regions where awakening and growth also take place. (This is best explained in the forty-third chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda.) Upward and upward they evolve until their capacity for awareness is developed to such a perfect state that they can actually experience the Being of God. Then they reenter that Being in full participation in God’s all-embracing consciousness, thenceforth to live in His infinity.

“It is only when the realization of being a pure Spirit or Atma has been attained that it is possible to achieve the final goal of union of the Atma with the Paramatma, the Supreme Spirit which exists eternally beyond the manifested universe and from which the manifested universe is derived. When this final realization has been attained and union of Atma with Paramatma has been brought about there is not only a complete sharing of consciousness between the two but also of the infinite Power which is inherent in the Universal Consciousness.…It is necessary to distinguish between the powers which are acquired on the realization that he is a pure Spirit or Atma and those which are attained when he is able to destroy the last vestige of egoism and his consciousness becomes united with that of Paramatma. The former, though tremendous in some respects, are still limited, while the latter which are really the Powers of the Supreme Spirit are infinite and can manifest through the center of consciousness of a Self-realized individual because there is fusion of the individual consciousness with the Supreme Consciousness and the channel between the two is open.” (I.K. Taimni, The Ultimate Reality and Realization, p. 35-36)

As Shakespeare wrote, “all the world’s a stage” with the individual spirits wearing their costumes and playing their parts. Just as actors begin with small parts and progress to bigger roles by demonstrating their skill in those smaller parts, so also do the spirits advance to higher and more complex forms of existence and consciousness, at last returning home to God. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote:

A stone I died and rose again a plant.
A plant I died and rose an animal;
I died an animal and was born a man.
Why should I fear? What have I lost by death?

As man, death sweeps me from this world of men
That I may wear an angel’s wings in heaven;
Yet e’en as angel may I not abide,
For nought abideth save the face of God.

Thus o’er the angels’ world I wing my way
Onwards and upwards, unto boundless lights;
Then let me be as nought, for in my heart
Rings as a harp-song that we must return to Him.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, one of many great Americans whose belief in reincarnation is overlooked, wrote in his poem, “The Chambered Nautilus”:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul!
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

And that is the purpose of this creation and our place in it through a seemingly endless chain of births in this and the higher worlds. Our purpose in all this is to evolve beyond this and all other worlds, expanding our consciousness through form after form, eventually reuniting ourselves consciously with God, leaving many “outgrown shells by life’s unresting sea.”

“In considering the release of consciousness from this complex mechanism of the mind and vehicles on the different planes it is necessary to remember that when human consciousness gets involved in so-called matter on the lowest planes and builds vehicles for its expression on these planes the device for freeing itself from this psycho-material mechanism and regaining the awareness of its divine nature is built into the vehicle as a matter of course. This is to enable the Monad to free himself from bondage and association with matter when the purpose of involution and evolution has been accomplished and he is free to return to his true home in the world of Reality with all the fruits of experiences, faculties and powers which he has developed during the long course of his human evolution.” (I.K. Taimni, The Secret of Self Realization)

For long ages beyond calculation this growth has occurred automatically, spontaneously, with no thought or intention on our part. This means that our will is either atrophied by being carried along unintentionally through life or it is frittered away on short-term goals or attempts at self-transcendence that are doomed by their very lack of comprehension or capacity on our part. But a time comes in our evolutionary scenario when real comprehension dawns and we understand that we must take our own evolution in hand from that time forth; this is necessary for the development of our higher potential.

“By repeated attempts to attain the highest possible state of consciousness in the world of Reality, that State which was previously lost by reversion into lower states is permanently attained.” (Shiva Sutra 3:24)

As God controls and directs the macrocosm, we must now begin doing the same with the microcosm that is “us.” And yoga is the means of our self-evolution that leads to our self-mastery and perfect union with the Supreme Self: God.

Suppose some people who have always lived in tents entered a house and came upon a locked door. Knowing nothing of doors, locks, and keys, how would they open it? They might throw themselves against it, beat on it with their fists or heavy objects such as sledgehammers or even some kind of battering ram. If someone approached them with a tiny key they could easily snap in two and told them it would open the door, they would laugh and mock him. But he would effortlessly insert the key, turn it, and enter. His knowledge would make the difference. Yoga is both the knowledge of human makeup and the key to unlock it and ascend to freedom in spirit. Yoga is the means by which we answer for ourselves the prayer:

Lead me from the unreal to the Real.
Lead me from darkness to the Light.
Lead me from death to Immortality.

Further reading on a yoga introduction, yoga history and concepts of yoga:

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