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Wednesday June 29, 2022

Yoga: A Panacea for Our Times

international yoga day
Yoga ensures a healthy body and equanimity of mind

Ours is a world that tends to value people by the quality of their performance, and people’s performance depends much on the quality of their physical health and mental poise. People with a healthy body and poised mind performing well in every aspect of their life is important for a happy society. As modern life is increasingly becoming stressful, ensuring good physical health and mental poise is of utmost importance for everyone.  

yoga pose
Yoga enhances flexibility like no other workout routine.

In Yoga Sutra, III.46, Patanjali says, the practice of yoga results in “rupa-lavaṇya-bala-vajra-saṃhananatvani kaya-saṃpat,” i.e., the perfection of the body, graceful form, strength, and unyielding robustness. And in Yoga Sutra I.2, he says, “yogas chitta vritti nirodha,” i.e., yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind. Bhagavad Gita 2: 48 argues, “samatvam yoga ucyate,” i.e., equanimity is yoga. Bhagavad Gita 2: 50 goes on to say, “yogah karmasu kaushalam,” i.e., yoga is excellence in action. If yoga ensures a healthy body, equanimity of mind as well as excellence in action, couldn’t it be a viable solution to people’s many ills related to poor health and agitations of the mind? In fact, people across the world seem to think so. Hence, based on India’s proposal, supported by 177 of its member countries in 2014, the United Nations declared 21 June (the day of Guru Poornima, the day to honour one’s Guru, and the day Shiva the originator of yoga, as per the Indian tradition, began teaching yoga to humankind) as International Yoga Day to advocate the practice of yoga.      

Yoga is one of the six systems of Indian philosophy, namely, Sankhya, Nyaya, Yoga, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. The yoga system of philosophy holds that the cause of human sorrow and suffering is people’s ignorance of the true nature of and the relationship between the individual self (soul) and the Supreme Self (Soul) which is also referred to as the Universal Self (Soul), Atman, Brahman, or Ultimate Reality. While the individual self, in fact, is inseparable from the Supreme Self, owing to ignorance, humans think that their individual self is separate from and is independent of the Supreme Self. Consequently, they get caught in the realm of maya (illusion that the phenomenal world is real) and samsara (the cycle of births and deaths karma). True to its meaning, ‘union,’ yoga promises its practitioners the realisation of the nature of the relation between the individual self and the Universal Self and the underlying unity and oneness of everything. A harmonious relationship between body, mind and spirit is an essential condition for this profound realisation. Yoga offers this harmonious relationship to its practitioners. 

In his Book, The Vedanta Way to Peace and Happiness, Swami Adiswarananda says, “According to Vedanta, there are four basic types of mind[s]: emotional, active, mystical, and philosophical. And in keeping with the four types of mind[s], Vedanta prescribes the practice of four different paths known as yogas: bhati-yoga, karma-yoga, raja-yoga, and jnana-yoga.” All four paths lead to the attainment of knowledge about the individual self and the Supreme Self. To the emotional type, 

Vedanta suggests the bhakti yoga, the path of devotion; to the active type, it suggests karma yoga, the path of selfless action; to the mystical type, it suggests raja yoga, the path of concentration and meditation; to the philosophical type, it suggests jnana yoga, the path of knowledge.

Bhakti yoga tradition considers love, the basic human emotion, in its purest form as cosmo-centric as well as divinely inspired. Because of the intervention of the ego, love can become ego-centric giving rise to all forms of negative and unwanted emotions. As yoga of the heart, bhakti yoga is oriented toward the inner purification, the cleansing of the egotistic self-love by directing all thoughts and emotions from oneself to the Divine, i.e., one’s ishta devata (chosen deity). The devotion to the deity entails the eight angas (limbs) of bhakti yoga: 1) shravana  (listening to sacred scriptures),  2) kirtana (singing of devotional songs), 3) smarana (remembering the divine through meditation), 4) pada-sevana (ritual worship or ‘service at the feet of the Lord), 5) vandana (prostration before the image of God), 6) dasya (slavish devotion to the Lord), 7) sakhya (friendship with the deity), 8) atma nivedana (self-offering). This eightfold devotional practice, the actualisation of one’s absolute self-surrender to the Divine, as per the tradition of bhakti yoga, results in that ultimate realisation that every human person needs. To every theist across religions, regardless of whether they accept the Hindu theological view of the relation between the individual self and the Supreme Self, the eightfold devotional practice of bhakti yoga comes across as an easily adaptable spiritual practice.  

man practising yoga
Bhakti yoga is oriented toward the inner purification

The invitation in Bhagavad Gita 3: 19 to act solely out of a sense of duty without being attached to the fruits of actions and thereby attain or realise the Supreme Self is an invitation to follow the path of karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action. Swami Vivekananda’s rhetorical question, “If you, by being devoted to the service of others and by getting your heart purified by such work, attain to the vision of all beings as the Self, what else remains to be attained in the way of self-realization?” places karma yoga as a perfect spiritual path. Since the theory of karma holds that what one experiences in one’s present life is the result of one’s actions in the past, the selfless actions that karma yoga advocates are oriented toward creating a future free of samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, resulting in the knowledge of the self and the Supreme Self. Karma yoga is a perfect means to overcome the inexorable law of karma. The Christian trying to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” as per the instruction of Jesus in Matthew 6:33 trusting that by following his teaching all the rest will be added unto him, realises that the wisely adapted aspects of karma yoga can help him to live his Christian faith better.  Similarly, it can also help a Muslim trying to practice Itahr, selflessness, a quality valued much in Islam. In fact, it can help anyone to become selfless and altruistic. 

The Christian trying to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” as per the instruction of Jesus in Matthew 6:33 trusting that by following his teaching all the rest will be added unto him, realises that the wisely adapted aspects of karma yoga can help him to live his Christian faith better. Similarly, it can also help a Muslim trying to practice Itahr, selflessness, a quality valued much in Islam. In fact, it can help anyone to become selfless and altruistic.

As per the yogic tradition, Lord Shiva, the Adi yogi (the first yogi) is believed to have developed 7 types of yoga in ancient India. With the passage of time, different people started specializing in yoga, and in the process, about 1800 types of yoga were believed to have developed. Somewhere around 250 BEC, Patanjali, a grammarian, physician and philosopher, assimilated all these 1800 different schools of yoga into 196 Yoga Sutras and called it, raja yoga. Just the way a king remains in control over his kingdom, raja yoga enables its practitioners to remain in control over their minds which is a prerequisite for the knowledge of the self and the Supreme Self. Since this knowledge is believed to be obscured by the disturbances of the mind, only by means of meditation (an important aspect of raja yoga) alongside a righteous life, one can calm the mind resulting in this all-important knowledge.  

The practice of raja yoga entails strict adherence to its eight angas (limbs) outlined by Patanajli in his Yoga Sutras: 1) yama (social ethics), 2) niyama (personal ethics), 3) asana (postures), 4) pranayama (directing the life force), 5) pratyahara (turning the senses inward), 6) dharana (concentration), 7) dhyana (meditation), 8) samadhi (merging with the Self). Meditation being the focal point of raja yoga, it appeals more to individuals who are introspective and drawn to meditation. This form of yoga is most suited for a monastic or contemplative lifestyle, and hence, members of different religious and spiritual communities devote themselves to this yogic practice. However, becoming a member of an ashram or a monastery is not a prerequisite for practising it. Aspects of raja yoga can be adapted and practised by anyone regardless of their religious beliefs and background. 

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra II.28, through the dedicated practice of the components of yoga, impurities are eliminated; and then, the light of understanding can shine forth, illuminating the way to discriminative awareness. This discriminative awareness is the knowledge of the individual self and the Supreme Self. Jnana yoga, the yoga of the mind, knowledge and wisdom, helps its practitioner in attaining this knowledge. By hearing about the Self, reading about the Self, thinking about the Self, and meditating on the Self, the mind gradually realizes that the Supreme Self is the only reality and that all else is unreal. This realization is liberation or salvation. Jnana yoga is the suggested spiritual path of the scholar and the sage, and it requires the development of the intellect through the study of the scriptures and texts of the yogic tradition.  

The goal of all the four forms of yoga is the liberation of the human persons from maya and samsara, by making them realize their true identity as the immortal Self which is not different from the Universal Self or the Ultimate Reality. Each seeker has to adhere to the form of yoga that best suits their personality and disposition. Even though Vedanta suggests bhakti yoga to the emotional people, karma yoga to the active people, raja yoga to the strong-willed and mystical people, jnana yoga to the rational people, no one is composed entirely of one type of mental disposition. All the four types in varying degrees with the predominance of any one type are found in every person. Therefore, a combination of all the four forms of yoga with the pre-eminence of any one form depending on each one’s personality type and mental disposition is the ideal for the attainment of the knowledge of the self and the Supreme Self resulting in liberation. 

It is a fact proven beyond any doubt that the practice of yoga helps in attaining better health of both body and mind. One’s better health of body and mind results in one’s better performance in every aspect of life – a recipe for a happy life and happy society. One’s familiarity with the four forms of yoga makes one realise how each of them has the ability to help one live as a better human person, and if one is religious-minded, as a spiritual person irrespective of one’s cultural and religious background. Being a help for the body, the mind and the soul, yoga is a sort of panacea for our times. 

Images courtesy: Rawpixel & Pixabay

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