What is Yoga?
By Tristan Dorling
Transcript from a podcast
So, the question we’re looking at today is “what is yoga?”. So, this is a question that often comes up, especially today when you see many different kinds of practice being used by people around the world, and all of them being called “yoga”.
So, people begin to ask the question, “well, what is yoga?”, “what is it really?”. One of the first things to mention on this subject, is that in the West we have, or we tend to have, a particular view of yoga. Many people think of yoga as being asana practice, so that’s all the postures that you see, famously appearing on social media. I would say that most people in the world who practice yoga don’t practice asanas, or they don’t have a dedicated asana practice, especially in India. You can spend years travelling around India and never see anyone doing asana practice, as part of their yoga. You’ll see many people meditating, you’ll see many people performing puja, you’ll see many people chanting, and doing all sorts of yogic practices, but seeing asana practice in yoga, is quite rare.
But, in the West of course, it’s very common, and so common that many people think that asana practice is yoga, even to the point where you’ll see adverts for a class that says “yoga and meditation”, as if meditation is something different from yoga.
So, meditation is actually part of yoga, it’s called “dhyana yoga”, and it’s actually the most common form of yoga practiced in the world. So, if we have all these different kinds of yoga being practised, then that raises the question: “what is yoga?”. Is it all of these things, and if it is all these different things then what do they have in common? What do they have in common that makes them all yoga?
Now you could say; well, it’s a Sanskrit word so we could just get the dictionary out and look it up. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well in this case. The reason it doesn’t work very well, is that like with many Sanskrit words, the word yoga has many different meanings, many different definitions. And so, this happens in English as well. If you look at the word “bark” on a tree, or “bark” as in a dog barking, both those words are spelt the same and pronounce the same, but they have two very different meanings. Or, if you look at the English sentence: “I go to the shop to buy two oranges too” where the last word means “as well”, then you’ve got the word “to/ two/ too” used four times, each time with a different meaning. Three of them are spelt differently, but two of them are spelt the same. So, this happens a lot in Sanskrit. A lot of words are spelt the same, pronounced the same, with multiple meanings. So, to understand what a word actually means, you have to look at it in its context. You have to look at it in the sentence, in the phrase, in the discussion, and then you can see what the meaning of the word is.
So, that is one way that we can begin to get a sense of what “yoga” means. There is actually another way that we can get a sense of what “yoga” means. And, this is actually a more important method, and that’s through practising, that’s through the practice of yoga. Because the original [spiritual] meaning of the word yoga is a particular state of being, or a state of existence, or a state of liberation, or realisation, or enlightenment, and that’s something that the yogic practices lead to. That is something that the yogic practices bring us into the direct experience of. So, we can actually come to know what yoga is by experiencing it, through the practices of yoga. So, that method of understanding the meaning of the word “yoga”, is actually the most important one. And, even in the Sanskrit texts, there are many places where it says “knowledge gained through direct experience is much more valuable than knowledge gained through reading books”.
So, if we start by looking at the Sanskrit texts from yoga to get a sense of what the word means, one of the earliest places we find the use of the word “yoga” is in the Bhagavad Gita, and the word is used more than 100 times to talk about yoga practice. One of the forms of yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita is Dhyana Yoga or meditation. The practice is described as sitting down, closing your eyes, bringing your gaze to the peak of the nose, the point between the eyebrows (shambhavi mudra), and then simply focusing your awareness on the Divine. This leads to the calming of the mind, the mind becomes still and quiet, and we begin to enter higher states of consciousness. So, this is one form of yoga described in the Gita. Another form of Yoga is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. And so, this is a form of yoga that can be practised at any time, in any moment, and it’s actually just simply acting in a way where you’re conscious of the Divine. You’re, kind of, surrendering your actions to the divine, you’re remembering the Divine in every moment. And so, you could be doing anything, you could be doing any action. You could be tending to your garden, you could be out cycling, you could be singing praise, or you could be, you know, anything at all… looking after your children, you could be cooking a meal, but you’re doing it in a particular way. You’re doing it with devotion, with love, and with remembrance, with remembrance of the Divine. And so again, this elevates the consciousness and takes us towards liberation.
Another form of yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita is Karma Yoga, or the yoga of action. And so again, this can be any action, you can be doing anything. Actually, even sitting down and closing your eyes and doing nothing, is considered an action. So, this is literally… sleeping, sleeping is considered an action, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, anything at all; taking care of your elderly mother, taking care of your children, going to work. All of these things are actions. But, with Karma Yoga, it’s action done in a particular way. You can’t just do anything, anyway you like, because that’ll just lead to the same results happening, as usually happen. So, Karma Yoga involves action, basically where we’re surrendering the fruits of our actions, so not holding onto anything that is gained through the actions that we perform. So, when we perform an action, and there’s some benefit from that, we don’t hold onto it. It’s surrendered. The word “Yajna” is used in the Gita. So, we surrender the fruits of our actions, and again, through doing this, it gradually dissolves the ego, leading towards liberation.
And there’s one more yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita, and that’s the yoga of self-inquiry, or Jnana Yoga. This is where we inquire into the true nature of the Self, and, you know, asking questions, such as “who am I?”. And we basically go back, and back, further and further inwards, into our own true nature. And again, this gradually leads to liberation. Now, I’ve described these for yogas as, you know, they are on the outside quite different. Maybe not Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga so much, because that’s to do with various attitudes that we have towards action in the world, actions that we are doing. But, meditation is quite different from that, and Self Inquiry, or Jnana Yoga, can seem quite different from that, especially at first. But, I’ve said that all these things lead to liberation, but, why are they called “yoga”? Why do they lead to yoga? Why not liberation? So, the word for liberation in Sanskrit is “moksha”, why not describe them as practices that lead to moksha? So, the word yoga comes from the verb root “Yuj”, meaning to join, or to bring two things together. And, this actually is where we get the English word “yoke” from. The, the piece of wood that joins two oxen together, in English is called a “yoke”. So, if the word yoga comes from the verb “Yuj”, “to join”, then what are the two things that are being joined? Now, the Bhagavad Gita is described as being the summary of Vedanta, the summary of the teachings of the Vedas, and the spiritual texts of the Vedas are called the Upanishads. And in the Upanishads, this is described. The two things that are joined are “atman” and “Brahman”. And so, what is “atman”? this is the individual Self. What is “Brahman”? Brahman is “All and everything”. In the language of the Upanishads, prakriti plus purusha. Prakriti is all the things in the universe that move, and don’t move, and purusha is pure consciousness. So, prakriti plus purusha, means all and everything. So, if yoga is the union of atman and Brahman, this means that Yoga is the dissolution of the sense of individual self, coming into a state of Divine realisation. This is actually summarised by the Sanskrit phrase, “ayam atman Brahman”. “This atman is Brahman”. So, we end up in a state of unity, or union. And so, this is why these practices described in the Gita are said to achieve yoga, or union with the Divine, and we become a “knower of Brahman”.
O.K. so, that’s a description of the way that the word Yoga is used in the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is dated possibly to around 2500 years ago, so, about 500 BC, around the time of the Buddha. Then around 1000 years later, you find another Sanskrit text, called, either called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, or the Yoga Shastras of Patanjali. If you include the commentary, then often the term “Yoga Shastras” is used. And, in this text first of all, we find a definition of yoga given. Yoga is the stilling of the turning about or the whirlpool of the mind. So, again, that comes back to the meditation practice, Dhyana Yoga, where the stilling of the mind leads to transcendence. But, one thing we also find in this text is a description of a practice of separation. There is a point in the text where it says that union is the problem, where things being joined together is the problem, and these things have to be separated. And so this is sometimes confusing for people. So, what is this separation and how can this be part of yoga if yoga means union? Now the practice of yoga, especially the practice of meditation, involves stages. And there are different stages, and different things happen, in different stages. And one of the first stages in the practice of meditation, is the cultivation of the witness. The witness is simply the ability to observe things, without getting caught up in them. So, the ability to see things arising, either objects of the senses, or objects of the mind, things like thoughts, memories, but, being able to let them arise and let them pass away, without believing them, or getting caught up in them, and identifying with them. In other words, we separate ourselves from the objects of the senses, and the objects of the mind, and we come to know ourselves as the observer, and not the observed. So, this is an important stage in the practice of meditation, because it allows the mind to develop tranquillity. Before this, if we are just always believing our thoughts, getting caught up in them, identifying with them, then there’s no tranquillity, there’s no calm, there’s no peace. It’s just constant turmoil. So, in this stage we are actually separating, separating from identification with these objects. But then, there is a further stage beyond this, once we come to rest in the true nature of our own Being, the true nature of our own Self. Everything becomes very peaceful, very still. This is a state called vairagya. And then, there is a gradual process of seeing that everything is within us, we’re not separate from anything, and so we experience yoga or union. And at the end of the Yoga Shastras of Patanjali, he actually says: “And then only the purusha remains”. Purusha is the Self, so only the Self remains, everywhere. So, there are not two things, there is only one thing, or unity, or union.
O.K. so, we have looked at a number of practices so far, but we haven’t talked about any of the practices that are common in the West at the moment. We haven’t talked about asana practice or breathing practices, which are also quite common, also called “breath work” or “pranayama”. So, these also start to be mentioned in the Yoga Shastras of Patanjali. Patanjali describes yoga as having eight limbs, and one of the limbs is asana practice and another of the limbs is pranayama practice. And in the commentary, there’s actually a number of asanas listed, and we start to see non-meditation asanas being introduced for the first time. So this is 1500 years ago, so, 500 A.D., 500 CE. And we start seeing poses like the staff pose, where you’re sitting on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. Camel is mentioned. Curlew pose is mentioned. Elephant pose is mentioned. So, these are not poses for meditation, these are poses for something else, for bringing about a different kind of process. And we actually see this starting to be mentioned 100 years earlier, in the Sanskrit texts. One of the Upanishads lists a number of yoga asanas, and one of them is Lion pose. The one where you are either seated, with your hands on the floor in front of you, or on all-fours, with your hands on the floor in front of you. You have your mouth open, your tongue out, and you’re exhaling sharply, usually making a sound. So, obviously this doesn’t have anything to do with meditation. So, we are starting to see, from 400 AD onwards, we start seeing asanas being used in their own right, as yogic practice.
And then in the Yogic Shastras [of Patanjali] we have pranayama being introduced. So, these are particular breathing practices, the breath is being altered in particular ways. Now, to understand how this could be yoga? how can asana practice be yoga? how can pranayama be yoga?; we have to understand something about the human body, something about the way the human body is made. So, the human body has energy channels within it, these are called “nadis” in Sanskrit. And particular energy centres in it called “chakras”, and generally the chakras are at points where the energy channels cross. Now this is all happening on a subtle level. This isn’t something that you will be able to see inside a body. If you cut a body open, you wouldn’t see these things. So, they are existing on a subtle level. These are flows of what’s called “prana”. In China it’s called “chi”, in Japan, it’s called “ki”. This is a particular kind of spiritual energy, and part of the process of spiritual awakening, in order to realise the state of yoga, involves purifying these energetic channels, and these chakra, these energetic centres. And the breathing practices of pranayama are practices that purify these energetic channels in certain ways. So, the breath is related to the flow of prana. If we change the flow of the breath, it changes the flows of prana in the body, and when the pranic flows change, they change the way these energy channels purify and become clear. And the chakras become clear as a result of that. So, that’s how pranayama is a yogic practice, why it leads ultimately to the experience of yoga, to the experience of divine realisation or unity with the divine.
But, what about asanas? So, one of the things about the human body is that when we stretch the human body, we don’t just stretch the physical muscles, we actually also stretch these energetic channels. And when you stretch the energetic channels, it causes more prana to flow through them. And when more prana flows through them, the channels become purified. So, this is something that can be directly experienced by people who are engaged in these practices. There’s a certain point at which we begin to develop the ability to feel flows of prana in the body, we begin to be able to see flows of prana in the body, and we even begin to be able to hear flows of prana in the body. So, we can see, feel, and hear, what is happening. And so, as we perform these various yogic postures, each posture will purify different energetic channels, and different chakras, and gradually that leads to the purification of the whole system, and to the whole body becoming fully ecstatic. And that ecstasy is one of the factors of enlightenment, or one of the factors of liberation. Ecstasy actually merges with bliss, at a certain point, leading to the experience of unity, or the experience of yoga.
And then we gradually see more asanas being brought into the practice of yoga, overtime. By about 500 years ago there is a text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and in there we start seeing sitting toe touch, Paschimottanasana, we start seeing butterfly, Baddha Konasana, we start seeing Peacock, so asanas being added to the list of asanas that are used in the practice of yoga. And then in the 16th century, we start seeing headstand being included, and so on. And there are various text that mention 84 asanas [from the 17th century]. So, gradually, overtime, this practice of using asanas to purify the subtle nervous system, or the system of nadis and chakras, is built up. And we even see in the text, so, in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we see one line which says: “This asana (it’s referring to Paschimottanasana, or Sitting Toe Touch) (it actually says) this asana purifies the central nervous channel, the sushumna nadi”. So, the yogis knew what they were doing, they knew what the asanas did, how they worked. And in that text, it even goes on to say that when the prana, or the spiritual energy is brought into the central channel, into the sushumna nadi, the yogi will experience samadhi. So, samadhi is a state of consciousness where we transcend the mind, where we are experiencing transcendence, which leads to moksha, and to the experience of yoga, or unity. And then of course in the 20th century we saw the massive expansion of asana practice beyond just the 84 that are mentioned in the earlier Hatha Yoga Sanskrit texts.
So, one thing that I haven’t mentioned so far, is the dvaita schools, the dvaita schools of Bhakti Yoga. And, this is actually one of the most common forms of yoga practice in the world. So what is a “dvaita” school? You might of heard of a term “advaita”, which is very common in the West nowadays. “Advaita” means “non-duality”. So, this is the experience of everything as one, everything as Brahman. And so non-duality in the sense of not two, not two things. But, “dvaita” means “two”, or “dual”, two things that are separate. So, many schools of yoga are dvaita schools, which means that there is the Divine, and then the self. They are schools were people worship the Divine. And the Divine could be in any kind of form: It might be as Krishna, it might be as the Buddha, it might be a Shiva, it might be as Laxmi, or Kali, or it might be simply devotion towards truth, or to love, or to peace, or to Divine realisation. So, the actual object of desire can take any form. The object of devotion can take any form. But, essentially these schools of yoga, (these are schools of Bhakti Yoga, this is one form of Bhakti Yoga), they are essentially schools were there are two separate things. There is you, and then is the object of your devotion, or the object of your love, you might say. So, if these schools involve two separate things, how can they be Yoga? How can the practices they do be called Yoga? Or, the state of realization that is attained, be called yoga, when there is this fundamental separation?
So, this is where we go back to those two ways of understanding what the word “yoga” means. One way was to look at the texts, to look at context, to look at how the word is used. The other way is through direct experience, what happens when we actually do the practices? What happens when we experience the fruits of our practice? And, the actual experience, as we engage in these practices, these practices of surrendering to the Divine, gradually, the self, the individual self that is separate, becomes less, it becomes kind of cleansed, or, washed away. And it becomes so washed away, that in the end, all that has experienced everywhere, is the Divine, is The Beloved. So, that’s how these dvaita schools of yoga actually lead to yoga, actually lead to liberation and to unity and oneness.
So, we’ve looked at quite a number of different practices. As you can see, the practices in yoga are vast, there are many. But, they all have this one common thing. This one common element. They all ultimately lead to the experience of unity, the experience of oneness, and to the experience of Divine realisation, or seeing everything, everywhere, as the Divine, and everyone as the Divine.
Note: The podcast that this commentary has been taken from, can be found on YouTube here. It is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify in the channel: “Tristan Dorling – Commentaries on Yoga”.