What is Yoga?

Anybody interested in yoga should read Swami Satyananda Saraswati's "Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha" or BKS Iyengar's "Light on Yoga" or Swami Vishnu Devananda's "The Complete Book of Yoga" (to name but 3 excellent authoritative books)

I didn't want to simply repeat what others have explained brilliantly elsewhere, so my "What is Yoga" focuses on its ancient roots and universal appeal and I include ideas that may be lacking in other books. I therefore don't go into the traditional subjects of hatha yoga namely asana, pranayama, meditation, bandha, etc (all of these are taught in our yoga teacher training program).

Yoga means union; often seen as the union of body and mind or the union of the individual human spirit with the universal, great spirit.

Techniques and methods to harness and liberate the body, to educate the individual and expand consciousness were important aspects of all ancient civilisations from Egypt to China. It's the process of becoming a fully functional adult with responsibilities towards family and / or society as well as liberating the individual from his own negative habits and so to fully develop his potential.

Part of this knowledge was generally diffused but higher levels of practice were only taught in special schools or organisations such as religious groupings or the ancient Mystery Schools.

Access to information depended on the various levels of initiation through which disciples had to pass to merit accessing further knowledge.

Knowledge included health, hygiene and medicine but was not limited to the physical body, breathing techniques and meditation but included mathematics and numerology, astronomy, music and dance. This approach to personal evolution through knowledge existed in all parts of the world right at the dawn of civilisation and is part of the inheritance received from the lost civilisations of the pre-flood era, the catastrophic events which wiped out the previous cycle of civilisation between 20.000 to 10.000 BCE, when the ice melted, sea levels rose by over 100 metres and other climatic changes plunged the globe from ice age into the current condition.

Certainly Yoga and Tantra, the Indian names associated with these practices date from at least the Indus Valley cultures which already existed by 8000 BCE. Excavations at Harappa have pushed back our sense of time regarding the origin of our civilisation and yet even these well documented facts are mostly ignored in school books and universities.

Yoga is discussed in detail in the Baghavad Gita which is part of the Indian epic The Mahabharata, further in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. These make up the classic texts.

The Baghavad Gita focuses on right action, fulfilling one's duty and mission; how through discernment and right conduct spiritual evolution and transcendence may be achieved.

The Yoga Sutras focus on moral precepts before any other techniques should be practised, it's only through mastering these moral commandments that a disciple can truly transcend his spiritual limitations.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika focuses on asanas (postures) to strengthen and purify the body, working also on concentration and co-ordination together with breath control in order to provide the disciple with a firm grounding and healthy body. It's only by developing both body and mind that the disciple is made ready to receive further instruction and can comprehend the importance of the moral commandments.

Various approaches have always existed and the difference in approach made for a different school or tradition. The pedagogical approach chosen depends on the history and experience of the instructor and the level at which he is teaching.

Students of yoga come with their own history and experience and need to find the type of teacher most suited.

Yoga has the great advantage of being a profound and coherent system of physical exercise, breathing techniques, meditation and philosophy as well as knowledge of the human energy system, psychology and nutrition. Nothing less than a total program for health, well-being and spiritual advancement.

Oriental teachers and most western teachers of oriental systems of philosophy are often ignorant of the western traditions which are all fundamentally based on Platonism and Neo-Platonism. For westerners any real spiritual and cultural grounding must involve an understanding of the occidental traditions and the specific meaning and mission these developed. Ignoring them means not looking at the big picture. Ignorance of their own culture cuts people off from the flow of energy to which they are heirs. A vibrational resonance to which they should be naturally attuned.

Westerners who believe that all wisdom is to be found in the east are deluding themselves. However it may be necessary to go east before returning to the west.

There has been a great need in the west to re-vitalise spirituality and religion by studying the great eastern spiritual traditions. The strength of yoga is it's coherence on all levels, providing grounding and a logical step by step approach to understanding spiritual philosophy without any need for just believing. (similar to Zen or Platonism)

Physical disciplines like Yoga or others that have great therapeutic value coupled with profound life enhancing philosophies are obviously very attractive, especially in a materialist culture that has lost it's way. The spiritual re-fertilisation and fusion of ideas in the west is a great hope for the future of mankind because it produces a wave of consciousness which is building up a critical mass helping more and more people to tune in and get the message. It may still be on a simple level but the broader the base the broader also the platform at the top of the pyramid with ever more beacons to light up the path.

Europe's particular history started with the Greeks who synthesized oriental wisdom and infused it with their own genius. Man was still bound by loyalty to clans and city states but fundamentally he was an individual with a personal mission to accomplish. The fetters binding his individual consciousness to that of the group were broken. In tales, myths, tragedies and comedies the Greeks constantly emphasised the importance of individuals in shaping their destinies and in free communication with divine principles. It was this freedom of consciousness which produced such a liberating effect that it could generate such amazing creativity in every field.

The idea of personal freedom is the running theme throughout western history and culture. It has not yet reached it's full potential and has often only reared its ugly head in blatant egotistical strife but its underlying value and importance for the development of mankind cannot be denied.

Freedom means the right to use one's own free will. However one must then suffer the effects of all the causes one has set in motion. Given too much rope many people will hang themselves. The Greeks themselves emphasised discipline and harmony, starting with a healthy body and healthy mind, the grounding and self confidence necessary for improvements in other fields.

Denying personal freedom means moving back in history. It is through the development of personal consciousness, that means exercising free will and understanding the nature of impermanence and cause and effect that new spiritual group awareness can be developed.

The oriental systems are here to stay. Yoga has proved its great benefits and has adapted brilliantly to the needs of modern man. Fusion with the western spiritual traditions is now necessary to turn the page of the century.

Platonism, Neo-Platonism and Christianity (which literally and philosophically built its churches on the old temples) are not a spent force. But their esoteric meaning and mystical nature have to be born out, understood and taught. Not just in an intellectual way; reason and logic lead to cognition but experiencing the learning process through the body, through meditation and the process of initiation opens our centres of consciousness which are fundamentally energetic and informational but include also the irrational..

Religious bigotry, arrogance and fanaticism have always existed but are of course irreligious, ignorant and vile. It has nothing to do with the great souls and their timeless teachings.

Yoga is a science of life on all levels which is why good health is a must, but it includes a spiritual dimension because spiritual growth is our mission. Otherwise life is meaningless. Only by advancing ourselves along with others are we contributing to the illumination of all and aligning ourselves with the source of consciousness and light.

This then is our path, not all duty and hard work but experiencing also great joy deep in our hearts through our chosen practice. Alignment with the source lifts the burden, shows that life's lessons are symbolic rather than personal and helps us stay grounded while contemplating the stars.

By © Gerry Rixen

written on 2013