What’s the Point of Yoga Anyway?

by on February 29, 2012 · 2 comments

in Thoughts on Philosophy

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There’s a lot of subterfuge in the media lately involving yoga, and retaliation coming from the other side of the battlefield in yoga’s defense.  When the principles of an organization are attacked, things can get heated in an instant and authority is questioned and leadership goes awry when people can’t get the answers they are looking for. Lets take a moment and get grounded again in the premise of our practice

The one thing that is most concerning about so much controversy surrounding the yoga subculture is foremost, a dynamic which yoga aims to dissolve – Us vs. Them. I’m seeing a lot of that lately.  As I explained to a friend earlier today, we practice to remember, and we learn through recollecting and through this process, we realize that we are all waves of the same ocean. There’s nothing that yoga gives us that we don’t already have.

I do realize, as do numerous others, that some of the controversy surrounding the health of yoga is in relation to injury and whether or not it actually benefits the body.  Also there are actions that led to the desire to do away with the  ideals of the ”guru dynamic”  that have left many people heartbroken and disappointed this year. This has given many people something to write about and provided many wounds to rub salt into.  If you’ve traced the history of your practice back to it’s infancy as many have, you will see that the human condition has always interjected itself to the test of the moral framework that the system of yoga has set forth. We must remember that human beings will never be perfect regardless of how perfect their standards to achieve can be.

There are two ways to view yoga: The transcendental view and the empirical view. When one views the empirical perspective of yoga, all the truths in the practice hold themselves to be self evident.  Generally Hatha yoga is the first that comes to mind in the West as it has the most visual value. And since it has the most visual value, its’ potential for popularity rises among the other lesser known yogic practices, (or paths, or limbs). It’s obvious that if you do things that require strength, over time, you  will get stronger. If you put your body in postures that stretch the muscles, over time you will become flexible. If your practice involves processes that involve standing on one foot or on your hands, then over time you will gain balance. Hatha Yogis are identified with their practice because of the mastery over their bodies, and yes are also identified by the side effects such as a toned body,  a strong core, a perky backside (and now this week, a healthy libido).  So the contrast of a hatha yogi against the backdrop of his or her non-yogi peers has already set the stage for a difference to be noticed. This is where the Us and Them dynamic comes into play, and the stage is set for all kinds of salacious gossip and controversial media. Then the tongue in cheek jokes, and gossip around the water cooler sets in and we can all see where this is going because we have all been on one side of this fence at some point in our life.

The transcendental view of yoga contrasts greatly from the empirical view. I often hear a common theme when discussing the matter of discovering yoga and find that a great number of yogis delved into hatha yoga because of it’s visual value.  I hear things like:

“I saw a picture of someone in Scorpion pose, and I  thought it was so beautiful and it was something I Wanted to achieve.”

Or

“I saw some kids doing handstands at a park and it looked like so much fun”.

And yes even:

“I wanted to fit into the jeans I wore when I was in high school”.

Though many of these people signed up for a yoga class for different reasons, they all happened upon a very similar and interesting discovery of self.  And this is the beauty of hatha yoga, and any yoga for that matter.  All the practices, if practiced diligently in all earnestness seem to lead to a form of self discovery. And that is what happened with every person I have just mentioned. They were attracted to yoga for the visual value and found something more. Whether it was through association with other yogis, workshops, classes or through experiencing the division of prakriti and purusha, or shiva and shakti, yin and yang, pleasure and pain or experiencing any duality with a focused mind of pure awareness. In every experience that others have shared with me,  a deeper more mysterious sense of self was found. Like most people that encounter this moment, it’s generally interrupted with,

“Whats this?”

then later revisited with;

“what was that?”

Then followed with another attempt to glimpse at the true nature of humankind.

And here we are, Yogis practicing. Once again on the mat looking to remember what we are.  But this doesn’t just happen with hatha yogis. Bhakti yogis experience the same bliss and realization of true self through devotional singing or chanting. Jnana yogis seek similar experience by bringing the activities of the mind to a tranquil stillness through meditation. Karma yogis really have the right idea by self discovery simply by doing what they love, giving it their full dedication, devotion and attention. These are parallels with other cultural methods throughout the world that attempt to change consciousness. Though different philosophically, the goals are often similar, to transcend human nature.  And from this perspective we can begin lumping into the same category, any method that has the aim to change the human consciousness.

This is where it gets tricky. When one seeks to change something about his or herself that they do not like, the thought process generally starts with “There’s something about me that’s missing.” Or “there’s something I need to get”.  This is a very dangerous attitude to have, because so long as you believe that there is more that you can be than you already are, any guru can sell you on a path. It’s like Alan Watts puts it,

“It’s like someone picking your pockets and then selling you your own watch”.

It seems to be a common human desire to achieve, overcome and transcend, and one may feel that they need a guru, whether it be a counselor, a spiritual leader or teacher, and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s appropriate for you. You may find yourself at a point in your path  where you must have a ferry carry you across the river, but when you’re to the other side, ensure that you get off. Else, what purpose has it served?

The whole point of a spiritual path such as yoga, is to attain “moksha”, which means liberation from the wheel of suffering. Some are accustomed to the term “nirvana “which simply means “the out breath”. But, the irony of these desires, is that the Western viewpoint is that it is something that demands rigorous training, years of dedication, then maybe, if you’re lucky enough, you can attain enlightenment in this lifetime, or another if you believe the wheel of samskara.  The Irony is that enlightenment, moksha, liberation, nirvana, etc are always one breath away. We’re all born enlightened, liberated and full of bliss. Enlightenment is not a state of levitation where you simply float away to the heavens. Moksha is not being above the basic human natures. Nirvana is not a state of endless ecstasy. Nor are are the conditions to over come, problems to be solved or the states of being something to be grasped; they are transitive ideas to work towards to become better than the animal bodies we inhabit. The problem lies within the process of our identification turning to our bodies and to our ego and sense of who we are and the symbols of who we are through our possessions, associations, achievements and even our own flawed self perspective. Then we forget not only what we truly are, but we forget how to recognize it if we put in front of us.

Yoga was designed to help us remember. It was designed as a system to address the natural human state of avidya or “congenital ignorance”.  The system was created to help humankind learn to stop ignoring how great we really are. Suffering does exist in life, and it can be difficult to remain blissful in times of suffering. Life is full of calamities today, so it’s easy to imagine the kinds of suffering that existed during the dawn of man. Most of us have never witnessed famine, plague, war and pestilence. We’ve seen images of it and have read books on the subject, but at the time that yoga was invented, such suffering was very common. In the realization of one’s true nature, there is a calm abiding center that can ease a life of suffering. Even through knowledge some suffering can be avoided.

Upon realizing consciousness was the true nature of humanity and that it required transcending the animalistic nature to reside in that state of being, practices were developed to deal with the human condition and to lessen suffering. Though the technique and imagery associated with yoga vary by era and culture, the core philosophies behind the practices are very similar.

The goal of yoga is to turn identification of one’s self from the body, which is impure and impermanent and turn it back towards consciousness (awareness) which is pure and eternal. This is accomplished by separating matter and consciousness and creating union with the true self.

When I asked one of my teachers, what is this process by which union with the true self can be experienced, his response was rather surprising. He stated,

“By achieving mastery over your body, you can attain moksha”.

Since the context of our talk was at a hatha workshop, he knew I would be satisfied with this answer, but he continued;

“By chanting, you can come to realize truth and attain moksha. By realizing the microcosm and macrocosm are the same, one can attain moksha. By realizing the same forces that makeup the constellations of the sky, also make up the human body and mind, moksha can be attained.  Just by gaining knowledge, one can be liberated. Your way of life and your set of practices will provide you the potential to lead you to becoming  free from your own ignorance. ”

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Here’s how  Patanjali laid it down for us….

Yama

  • Nonviolence
  • Truth and honesty
  • Non-stealing
  • Non-lusting
  • Non-possessiveness

Niyama

  • Purity – Treat your body like a temple.
  • Contentment – Seek happiness in what you have and in the moment.
  • Austerity – Show discipline and be the master of your speech, mind and body.
  • Study – Inform yourself on that which inspires you and what you deem sacred.
  • Live with Divine Awareness – Be devoted the supreme being (who you call home to)

Asana – Posture. Free the body and mind of tension and restlessness so you can meditate/contemplate/pray/chant/dance/sing/etc.

Pranayama – Breathwork. Learn to breathe. Get acquainted with that which gives you life every minute of the day.

Dharana – Focus, Still the mind. Concentrate.

Dhyana – Meditation. Simply disengage from your thoughts and sit by your stream of consciousness as if it were a fast flowing stream.

Samadhi – Absolute bliss through Pure contemplation and union with the supreme being.

  • Christopher Stephen Nawoichik

    Good article. I agree that yoga brings us to a collective enlightened sense of being ‘one’ with all of creation, which leads us to the place of dropping the ‘them vs. us’ mentality. However, I am also inwardly convicted that spiritual principles do exist in this life, having to do with light vs. dark, or good vs. evil. That said, I feel it’s both natural and innate to react to unconscious aggression, in the sense that defense mechanisms are a healthy part of who we are. Otherwise, we would get stomped-out by the ruthless. Even Gandhi upheld the notion of self defense: “I do believe that where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence I would advise violence.” Nevertheless, physical violence is only the last resort; nonviolence and peaceful resistance are definitely superior!

  • Pingback: Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) Agency of Massachusetts | Yoga Raises Our Consciousness to a Place of Oneness With Creation; However Physical Defense is Never Nonessential()

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