By Swami Sankarananda
Dedicated to Swami Ramaswarupananda
What is actual Yoga?
“Yoga does not consist in sitting cross-legged for six hours or taking asana pose after pose without rest. It is not about stopping the beatings of the heart, or getting oneself buried underneath the ground for a week or a month. These are physical feats only. Yoga is the science that teaches you the method of uniting the individual will with the Cosmic Will. Yoga transmutes the unregenerate nature and increases energy, vitality, vigor, and bestows longevity and a high standard of health.” H.H. Swami Sivananda Ji Maharaj
The common view of Yoga around the world is that it is a physical exercise and that the practice of Yoga is all about the physical culture, specifically about having a strong and lithe body.
As the practice of Yoga Asanas has exploded across the world scene this same view has come with it, even coming back to many in Bharata Mata, its mother country. Of course indeed this is a benefit of the practice but this view of Yoga in toto is far off the mark, for the benefits of Yogic practice extend deeply to the core of our existence. The actual Yoga spoken of above is at the same time both far simpler and far more involved than this common view.
The word Yoga itself has several meanings; as it pertains to the ancient science and teaching we can speak of two.
First, Yoga is the end goal of life, often translated as “union” in English, and secondly Yoga is the applied science for attaining the end goal of life.
Yoga is one of the most ancient sciences of Mother India.
The ancient seers (as in “see-ers of the Truth”) had a deep understanding of the governing laws of nature and of the human psyche, through which they developed this most wondrous science.
Many branches of Yoga have been developed over millennia, and accordingly, many accepted shastras have been composed. The milk, the very essence of these shastras is the Bhagavad Gita. In order to illuminate our discussion we will refer to two slokas here.
First, in discourse 2, verse 48, Lord Krishna says:
yoga-stah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
siddhy-asiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga-ucyate
“Perform action, O Arjuna, being steadfast in Yoga, abandoning attachment and balanced in success and failure. Evenness of mind is called Yoga.”
In discourse 6, verse 23, the Lord further says:
tam vidyat duhka-samyoga-viyogam yoga-sanjnitam
sa nishchayena yoktavyo yogo ‘nirvannachetasa
“Let that be known by the name of Yoga, the severance from union with pain.
This Yoga should be practiced with determination and steady open mindedness.”
With these two discourses the Lord has first defined Yoga the goal (evenness or equanimity of mind) and secondly told us of the practices (that free us from our union with pain and suffering).
What is our suffering and the cause of it?
Each person is constantly being tortured by tapatraya, the three types of afflictions—adhyatmika, adhibautika and adhidaivika. Adhyatmika tapa means self-affliction; our own body and mind cause us so much pain and sorrow. Most of our sufferings come from our own mind! We worry, get stressed, angry, frustrated, etc.
Adhibautika tapa are afflictions from the natural world. It may be very hot in the summer, and one may suffer from a heat stroke. The recent earthquake in Nepal is an example of adhibautika tapa. Adidaivika tapa are afflictions that come from sources beyond that our rational capacity, such as astrological effects.
Lord Krishna tells us that we may transcend these so-called afflictions, that we need to, and how to do so (practice of Yoga). As long as our focus is on our suffering we have bound ourselves to a limited identity created by our own mind and we are not allowing ourselves to connect to our higher Self.
One must learn to be in the World but not of the World by dealing with what life presents to us, but not taking it too seriously. We must see it as a passing show, as a play full of characters and drama but without independent reality.
We must deal with and let it go, not giving things too much importance. Hence this is not running away from life, but dealing with it fully. We should see ourselves as custodians, not owners; this makes our task much easier.
This, ultimately, is what the practice of Yoga is all about. It is a science, not a religion or a theory, which when practiced with determination releases us from our suffering.
It is not just a science in fact, it is a lifestyle, and if taken as a lifestyle it provides one the benefits of both optimal physical and mental health while bringing alignment with the soul and leading one home to union with the divine Truth.
Any of the various practices of Yoga put one on the path to finding their ultimate Truth, to the equanimity of mind of which Lord Krishna has spoken.
Anyone who has experienced even Asana practice alone in the hands of a gifted Yoga teacher has felt this magic of Yoga begin to penetrate their soul. Unlike other physical exercise such a practice leaves one not tired and sore as after a trip to the gym or a long run, but rather feeling alive, energized, and refreshed. Likewise a person who has experienced even a ten-minute “time out” or “quiet time” practice has observed some of the benefit of Meditation practice, another of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga.
Not one of these practices comprise the totality of Yoga, however, and not one of them on their own will take one to the final goal.
Each of these practices are as a puzzle piece in a wondrous puzzle, a puzzle that is unique for each individual soul until the attainment of the final goal of Yoga itself. This is a key point for the Yoga practitioner to understand. Yoga is not limited and within the greater scope of this science of Yoga each individual is able to find exactly what they need in order to know satisfaction, happiness and the true life eternal.
The shastras speak of four paths of Yoga practice leading to emancipation. In no particular order these are Bhakti Yoga; the path of devotion, Karma Yoga; the path of selflessness through service, Jnana Yoga; the path of Self Knowledge through introspection and study, and Raja Yoga; the “royal” path or the mystical path of Meditation and samadhi. Within these four primary paths are untold numbers of individual paths and practices.
Yoga Asanas and Meditation are but three limbs—“angas,” as in Ashtanga, or eight-limbed—of Raja Yoga, and each of these limbs provide great benefit through their practice. Yamas (restraints or controls) and Niyamas (observances) constitute the first two limbs and through their observance the power one has inside begins to be unleashed. Only through the practice of these may one gain the full benefit of Asana or of seated Meditation practice.
Yoga is not limited in practice and application.
There is Yogic diet, Yogic relaxation techniques, Yogic exercise, Yogic culture, all of which support each other to bring us to our goal. To name just a few of the practices that are not well understood in society there is Nada Yoga; the Yoga of sound (meditation on sound), Yoga Nidra or the Yoga of sleep, the more well know Kriya Yoga of Babaji, Kundalini Yoga, in fact Swami Sivananda authored a wonderful book on the “Yoga of Music.”
With the understanding of the interrelationship and support that each practice provides to the other and the overall benefit provided to the Yoga practitioner, Swami Sivananda taught not one specific doctrine of his own as the “cure for all.”
Rather he propounded what he called “Integral Yoga;” this is what he sent his disciples around the world to expound.
To help to promote this approach he composed a rather simple but beautiful little song, which he himself sang in the Mahamantra tune at every meeting he addressed, especially during his All-India-Ceylon Tour in 1950.
hare rama, hare rama, rama rama, hare hare
hare krishna, hare krishna, krishna krishna, hare hare
Eat a little, drink a little;
talk a little, sleep a little.
Mix a little, move a little;
serve a little, give a little;
Work a little, rest a little;
study a little, worship a little.
Do asana a little, pranayama a little;
reflect a little, meditate a little,
Do japa a little, do kirtan a little,
write mantra a little, have satsanga a little.
Do all these, little, little. You will have time for all
So, the subject is broad, but as mentioned it is also simple.
Yoga is not competitive, it is co-operative.
Yoga is not tiring, it is stimulating. Yoga is not about learning much new, it is about forgetting what we must in order to find happiness in simplicity. Yoga is not about suffering pain, it is about freedom from suffering.
Finally Yoga is about being, not doing. It is about knowing and being your own Self, simply this. It is the great science, the great tool, to help you to be you. You, without limits. You, in all of your glory.
What is important to know about Yoga? Four points here will suffice:
- Yoga is a science that exists in order to free you from suffering.
- The proper Yogic practices, if taken seriously and practiced with determination and a desire to know Truth, will indeed open up life’s true potential for you.
- Anyone can practice and will gain benefit if practiced properly. There is something for everyone.
- In order to practice Yoga properly you need a good teacher to help you. Only with a good teacher are you able to learn how and what to practice.
The fourth point is key for anyone intending to either start a Yogic practice or to go deeper in their practice. As is the case for anything in the world there are those (people and practices) that will help us to get to our goal and there are those that will impede us.
Ideally one should keep in mind the potential of Yoga to bring complete alignment between spirit, soul, mind and body and begin or deepen their practice with this as their goal.
Even if only one benefit is desired, such as physical exercise, it is still beneficial to keep the potential in mind when selecting a studio, a practice, a teacher, a lineage, etc.
Here are six points to consider when looking for a Yoga teacher:
1. Yoga is holistic, integral.
Your teacher should understand this and be able to provide you with access to not just Asana and Pranayama practice but also share the Yamas and Niyamas and philosophy. The teacher should have a good understanding of and share the practices of Bhakti, Karma and Jnana
Yoga in addition to Raja Yoga. Diet also is important. A vegetarian diet, though not absolutely essential to start a Yogic practice, is highly beneficial and it is best to select a center and teacher that understand this. Be patient, take one step at a time, but this is a goal that one should strive for as it becomes key as you go in deeper.
2. Stay away from fast Yoga.
There must be relaxation between the postures in order to allow the muscles and subtle body to recover. Greater benefit, even purely physical benefit, is obtained through an Asana program that incorporates Savasana (prone relaxation posture) versus all “power” movements.
Even if you are just starting at a minimum you should select a center and teacher which includes the teaching of Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Meditation. These are required partners of the Asana practice; full benefit of Asanas is only known with them, at a minimum.
4. Select a studio that has regular Satsang (readings from Yogic shastras or meetings with senior teachers).
Ideally one that invites guest teachers and lecturers as this variety of exposure will be quite beneficial for you.
5. Your teacher should be certified and you should confirm this.
The Sivananda Yoga Vedanta International organization has trained and certified many thousands of teachers worldwide and the holistic approach is part and parcel of their core teachings.
There are other organizations that do so as well, and many of the Yoga teacher training courses in India are structured in much the same way. Talk with the teacher about Yoga and their understanding; more importantly attend a class or two.
6. Know that the best Yoga teacher is selfless.
The best is the one who teaches in order to help others, and who surrenders to his or her master prior to teaching, inviting the master to teach through him or her. This is not rare but it is a very important point.
If the teacher you have met is puffed up and proud, move on. Watch, listen, practice, and if you do not find the teacher or studio to offer what we have spoken of here, keep looking. Seek, and ye shall find.
When a basic foundation has been achieved then the real practice of Yoga starts.
Yoga has become famous around the globe due to Swami Vivekananda and many others, such as H.H. Swami Sivananda Ji’s disciples who have propagated Yoga worldwide. Due to the universal applicability of these teachings, as all humans have to deal with these same three afflictions regardless of which country they live in or in which period, the seeds scattered by these pioneers have taken root around the globe.
Various organizations, such as Kaivalya Dham, the Bihar School of Yoga, SVYASA and Aayush have done research that proves this point. The scientific validity of Yoga is not just in the physiological effects of the practices, but also the mental, emotional and spiritual. Learning to be still, balancing our energies and mind, naturally makes one gravitate towards higher ideals and goals in life.
Find the actual Yoga and be free.
It is inside you, find it. You have the potential for greatness in you, the science of Yoga exists to help you to unlock all of the barriers, all of which are internal and therefore ultimately under your control.
These barriers have until now prevented this greatness from flowing and from you being satisfied, happy, in Love with life and with all.
Yoga provides you with the key.
Swami Sankarananda came only recently to Yoga after what most would call a successful life, having found that satisfaction is not a byproduct of success. He shared a lifestyle with many in the world, experiencing all of the stress and strain of striving 24/7 for “the American Dream.” Rewarded for this hard work with continual promotions, he eventually became President of a high technology company which he led to nearly one billion dollars in annual revenue and yet he found himself unfulfilled, without balance or any real happiness, and no visible path that might provide either of these except for a burgeoning practice of Yoga. Choosing to turn inward, through learning and serving of others, he took his vows as a monastic of the Swami Sivananda lineage. He has given up all possessions and walks on a pilgrimage for Peace serving through meditation/prayer and in simple ways presented along the path. His first U.S. coast to coast pilgrimage started in Pasadena, California on January 1, 2014 and completed in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey at the September 21st celebration of Peace Pilgrim’s works. He continues to walk, to serve and to share.
Photo by Brad Coy/Flickr
Editoer: Sherrin Fitzer