One reads a lot about yoga these days. On one hand there is the ruckus about yoga being a religious pursuit. On the other there are ads that promise weight loss and hot butts through yoga. In between there are scholarly studies that indicate that practice of yoga can cause more harm than good. There are blogs that put out a yoga posture a day in something resembling the English language. There is a whole range of hybrid yoga that is promoted on television channels and print ads by spandex-clad and photoshopped yoga instructors. Yoga, through these attempts to label it as a physical fitness regime or a weight loss solution, seems to be on the verge of being turned into something altogether different from what it truly is.
For those not familiar with the Sanskrit root of the word "yoga," it means union, communion, binding, using, applying, and directing one’s attention to. Yoga is the entire philosophy of dedicating one’s being to seek union with one’s highest life state. Different people use terms like god, the divine, the creator, and the universe instead of “highest life state,” but at the end of the day they all mean the same thing.
First things first. What is commonly promoted as yoga and comes to mind first when one mentions yoga is yoga asanas or yogic postures. However, yoga is not just about postures, body contortions and breathing exercises. That is only one aspect of yoga, known as asanas and pranayama that make up what is commonly known as hatha yoga (the way to union through determined effort), or as Patanjali called it, ashtanga yoga (the eight limbed path to union). Hence an understanding of yoga based on the physical postures or yoga asanas is an extremely limited understanding of yoga.
Yoga is the pursuit of aligning one’s body, mind and spirit with the laws of nature in order to manifest one’s fullest potential, to find happiness and success through the dispelling of disease and ignorance. There are many aspects of the meaning of the word yoga, and each of them lead one to experience fulfillment of one’s true destiny in its own way. The sum of this can be found in Arjun’s treatise on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The yoga of faith, the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of meditation and the yoga of action are explained in detail in The Gita, essential reading for believers and non believers alike.
The yoga we know as yoga today can broadly be said to correspond to the yoga of meditation or Raja Yoga. However, according to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which is the text on which all yogic practices are based, there are eight limbs of yoga, which are further divided into three stages of practice, external, internal, and spiritual. The external pursuit are those of morality, discipline, and physical health, the internal pursuits are those of breath control, mind control and withdrawal of the senses, while the spiritual pursuits are those of concentration, meditation and super-consciousness. Hence, before one can gain true benefit from the practice of asanas, one needs to make progress in the pursuit of the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga, namely Yama and Niyama. Practitioners, teachers and students who pursue and promote only asanas and the subsequent disciplines of breath control and mind control are really endorsing trying to run before one has learned how to walk. Of course, this is my opinion, and in no way is it an invalidation of the sincerity of those who believe otherwise. Sounds pretty simple, so far, right?
Yama, Niyama and Asanas are the external pursuit that lays the foundation for preparing the individual for seeking union with one’s highest life state. Yama basically means universal ethics or morality, those values that are unaffected by culture, class, religion or time. These include non-violence, speaking the truth, refraining from taking that which does not belong to you, celibacy and self restraint, and non-coveting or contentment. Niyama means rules or discipline, and are more focused on the individual himself. Patanjali lays down the five disciplines that the student of yoga is expected to follow – purity, contentment, austerity, observation of the self, and dedication to the highest state of being.
The third limb of yoga is asanas or physical postures, which most yoga programs focus on. What is made clear throughout the text of the Yoga Sutras is that control of the body through yoga asanas is of little value in the pursuit of true yoga without harmony with universal ethics and individual discipline. Breath control practices and mind control practices come after having achieved grounding if not mastery over asanas. Yet many yoga “products and services” bundle yoga, pranayama (breath control) and a hodge-podge of meditation practices and market it as yoga.
There is definitely a lot of good that be found in pursuing physical fitness, mental concentration and stress reduction through yoga as it is promoted. However, in the process one loses out on the true benefit of yoga, which is overcoming and dispelling ignorance and gaining access to the highest potential that lies within us.
We are standing at a critical juncture of our civilization where morality and individual discipline are being corrupted by what is commonly perceived as the modern way of life. The practice of Yama and Niyama allow one to develop centeredness and integrity, with the power of which one can live a life of true meaning in a difficult age. This will allow us to make lasting contribution to building a society that respects the gifts of life, nature, and the environment, a society that pursues value creation for all its stakeholders, and a society that cherishes happiness above pleasure.
If you are a student, a practitioner, or a teacher of yoga, or just contemplating taking up yoga as a pursuit, remember to warm up with Yama and Niyama before commencing on a program of yoga asanas and pranayama. This will ensure that you get the fullest benefit from your practice and spread light to all whose paths cross yours.