Seeing Yoga in Context


A few years ago I offered a series of six weekend seminars called “Living Tantra.” Our literature clearly explained that we would be teaching authentic, scripture-based tantra, so we assumed that for the most part only people with a solid, fundamental understanding of yoga would attend. That turned out not to be the case. The first seminar in the series attracted many participants who assumed I would be teaching tantric sexual techniques. In talking with them, I discovered how widespread misguided notions about yoga have become. One conversation in particular stands out in my mind. A man in his mid-thirties asked for a private appointment. After a few pleasantries, he got right to the point.

One conversation in particular stands out in my mind.

“I’ve been practicing yoga for a long time,” he announced. “I’m getting tired of it—it’s too much work and it’s not very satisfying. I know tantra is more spiritual and more powerful than yoga, but I’m disappointed in your lectures. You aren’t getting to the crux of the subject.”

I asked, “Do you meditate?”

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t have any interest in becoming a Buddhist. Besides, I’m not stressed out. I don’t want to waste time in meditation. I’ve already wasted too many hours of my life going to yoga classes.”

He was obviously under the impression that yoga was a set of physical exercises and that meditation was a combination of Buddhist religious practices and stress-reduction techniques. But what did he mean by saying tantra is more spiritual than yoga?

When I asked, he replied, “See, I want to enjoy everything the world has to offer but I don’t want to be trapped by a lifelong relationship. Celibacy is not for me, but neither is marriage. I want to learn tantra because it offers spiritual bliss in sensual pleasure. Yoga demands too much work, and meditation strikes me as boring. I’m looking for something more exciting—something more personally engaging and satisfying. I want quick results, so I came to your seminar. Why aren’t you teaching real tantra?”

I was startled. I saw that this gentleman not only had no idea of what tantra, yoga, or meditation was, he also had no interest in spiritual pursuits. And so, not wanting to hurt his feelings, I told him my knowledge of tantra was limited to what I had read in the scriptures, and that after years of study and practice I had concluded that yoga, tantra, and meditation are part of one interwoven spiritual continuum. Of course this man was not satisfied with my answer and announced that he would look elsewhere for someone who could teach him real tantra.

This conversation was the most explicit of many similar talks I have had with students during my 35 years in the West; such conversations have become more frequent of late, as the practice of yoga postures becomes ever more popular. It seems to me that these misunderstandings happen because yoga practices are taken out of context and taught piecemeal. It is no wonder confusion is spreading. After all, people formulate ideas about yoga that are based on what they see and hear. I know, because I did the same thing.

As a child I thought that yoga was the belief system of a vaguely menacing group of wanderers known as jogis.

I was born and raised in India. My father was a Sanskrit scholar who possessed copies of a large number of ancient texts, many of which were directly related to yoga. I grew up in an atmosphere of study and practice. Even so, I formulated opinions about yoga that seem comical in retrospect. As a child I thought that yoga was the belief system of a vaguely menacing group of wanderers known as jogis. (In the north, as elsewhere in India, the distinction between “j” and “y” is often blurred.) Jogis are householders whose male members go from door to door singing devotional songs and begging for alms. The village women frighten their children by telling them that if they cry, the jogis will stuff them in their bags and carry them off. I assumed that yoga was based on singing and begging and was laced with an aura of menace.

But I also saw an entirely different kind of yogi. My father had a friend, Fular Das, who was the head of a monastery situated midway between my home and my elementary school. Many yogis lived there, and they too passed through our village asking for alms (although without the music). They were regarded as saints and were said to possess extraordinary powers. I had often heard, for example, that one of these yogis pulled out his intestines on the day of the full moon and washed them in a bucket of water. I didn’t know whether to believe that or not, but because the head of the monastery was my father’s friend I got a chance to see it with my own eyes. Once I happened to enter the monastery’s courtyard on the day of the full moon, and saw a yogi sitting on a boulder with a bucket in front of him. Sure enough, he was pulling a slimy, wiggly-looking rope-like substance out of his mouth and letting it fall into a bucket. It was a frightening sight, and I fled shouting at the top of my voice, “He’s pulling out his intestines!”

For several years I fueled the rumors about this yogi with my own eyewitness account. It was only when I was studying biology in ninth grade that I realized it was impossible to pull your intestines out of your mouth. I began to doubt my own observation and felt the need to get to the bottom of this business. So I went to my father’s friend, who laughed and told me that the man was practicing a yoga cleansing technique called dhauti to clean his throat and stomach. This is done by swallowing a long strip of cloth and pulling it out again. That day I got a good lesson in how false notions shape both perception and belief.

Then, during my teens, I often heard my Sanskrit teachers mock yogis, saying they were ignorant, trapped in bodybuilding, and lacking devotion to God. This attitude is still prevalent; the majority of the swamis in India have little or no respect for yoga. If you knew nothing about yoga except what you heard in their discourses you would think that it is a waste of time and that it would certainly not help you attain enlightenment—which according to the swamis depends solely on the unconditional grace of God.

So you can see that confusion about yoga is not a recent development, nor is it unique to the West. This should not surprise us. A path of complete knowledge as subtle, profound, and comprehensive as yoga is bound to be misunderstood, misused, and subject to general confusion when the teachings are taken out of context and presented piecemeal. We will never be able to completely overcome this problem, but if we trace yoga back to its roots we can glimpse its meaning and purpose, its strengths, and its scope.

In the Beginning

As a system of philosophy and spiritual discipline, yoga evolved from a body of literature known as the Veda. “Veda” means “knowledge,” and in the Indian mind and heart the Veda holds the same sacred place that the Bible holds in the West. Indian tradition asserts that the source of the Veda is divine; it is not authored by any individual or group. The Veda is eternal—the knowledge it contains cannot be destroyed. Devout Hindus believe that all knowledge is contained in the Veda, and it is from here that spiritual revelation and scientific discovery descend into the realm of human life. In spiritual matters, the Veda is the highest authority: it is an expression of what has always been, is now, and ever will be. All systems of philosophy, spirituality, astrology, prosody, ayurveda, and even more mundane matters—such as archery and horticulture—have their source in the Veda. This includes the knowledge of yoga.

As a system of philosophy and spiritual discipline, yoga evolved from a body of literature known as the Veda.

We have no definitive dates for the origin of the Veda, but historians from both East and West agree that the beginning of the Vedic period predates the birth of Buddha in the sixth century B.C. Indian history holds that the sage Vyasa collected revealed knowledge that had been preserved and passed down by the oral tradition and compiled it into four different samhitas (collections): the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda, and the Atharva Veda. The texts have many elements in common—some verses are even exactly the same—but each collection has its own distinct flavor.

These texts are simple, yet profound. There are no stories in the Veda delineating genealogy, glorifying kings, or setting forth commandments and codes of conduct. The four collections are composed of thousands of verses, all of which have their source in divine revelation—they flow from the direct experiences of the sages or rishis (seers), who “saw” the luminous reality behind the veil of the manifest world. And because this revelation is embodied in the verses of the Veda, tradition prohibits the slightest change. Every accent, syllable, word, phrase, and sentence is the locus of the Divine, and the resulting verses, or mantras, emit an extraordinary energy that protects, heals, and nourishes every aspect of creation. When repeated and contemplated properly, these sacred sounds evoke the original revelation, awakening both the dormant potential within us and the benevolent forces in nature.

Sharing this experience with others, helping others to gain the same experience, and creating an atmosphere in which people can understand life in the light of this experience was the highest form of service.

In the Rig Veda, for example, the mantras are organized into suktas (hymns of prayer dedicated to the Divine). These vary in both form and content and reflect the unique experiences of the various rishis to whom they were revealed. Yet all rest on a common epiphany: the direct perception of the Divinity that pervades the entire manifest and unmanifest world. Each seer realized that this Divinity alone exists and that the universe, with its endless variety of forms, is but a manifestation of this being. They saw that everything—from the tiniest speck of dust to the mightiest star—is pervaded by the Divine, and they realized that the apparent diversity spilling forth in the universe is in reality created and maintained by one unchangeable, divine consciousness. For the sages, gaining direct experience of this divine consciousness was the highest achievement. Bringing this experience into daily life was the highest spiritual practice. Sharing this experience with others, helping others to gain the same experience, and creating an atmosphere in which people can understand life in the light of this experience was the highest form of service.

And so, in language that is both compact and symbolic, the mantras preserved in the Veda describe how to achieve these goals. They tell us how to gain the direct experience of divine consciousness, how to bring it into daily life, how to share this experience with others, and how to externalize this inner experience in order to bring about a transformation in the outside world. Further elaboration of these experiences and specific techniques for engendering them eventually came to be known as yoga. But it was not until the second century B.C., when the great master Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutra, that yoga emerged as a formal system of philosophy and practice.

Along the Way

The journey of yoga from the four Veda samhitas to the Yoga Sutra has three main stations along the way: Brahmana, Aranyaka, and the Upanishads. These are commentaries and treatises that accompany the samhitas and are an integral part of Vedic literature. They present three different approaches to the Vedic experience and apply to three different stages of life: when we are actively involved in the world; when we are semi-retired; and when we are no longer engaged in worldly duties.

The first level of commentary, Brahmana, describes the way to conduct ourselves while we are fully active in the world. The practices appropriate to this phase of life help us become energetic and productive. They enable us to gather and enjoy the means for a comfortable life and at the same time contemplate on its higher purpose. The Brahmana texts are the source of the most accessible forms of yoga (those that involve disciplining the body, breath, and mind) as well as the principles of holistic health, including dietary practices.

In addition, the Brahmana texts are the most ancient and authentic sources of karma yoga, the yoga of selfless action. Here we learn to perform our duties selflessly, lovingly, and skillfully. And thus we pay off our karmic debts, live a joyful and productive life, and attain freedom while we are fully involved in the world.

The Brahmana texts also stress the value of rituals and ceremonies and explain the Vedic mantras in that context. But their inner implication is that life itself is a ceremony; even the most insignificant actions we perform in the course of daily living can be transformed into potent spiritual practices provided we cultivate the proper attitude.

Their inner implication is that life itself is a ceremony.

The next level of Vedic commentary, known as Aranyaka (“forest teachings”), elaborates on some of the practices mentioned only briefly in the four samhitas, and it does so from a somewhat different perspective than Brahmana literature. These teachings are for those who have experienced the rush and roar of life and concluded that the value of worldly objects and experiences is fleeting. At this stage worldly pleasures have lost most of their luster—partly because we have experienced them repeatedly, and partly because our body and senses have lost their youthful vigor. So instead of searching for purpose and meaning in the outside world, our attention turns inward. In Vedic times people retired to the forest (aranya) at this stage of development. In the modern world, we create an environment at this time of life in which we can hear and heed the voice of the soul. We are involved in worldly affairs to some degree, but we are increasingly drawn to contemplate on the purpose of our life and to reflect on what we have accomplished and how fulfilling these accomplishments are. We focus on the study of spiritual texts; meeting the needs of body, mind, and soul with the practices of hatha yoga, pranayama, relaxation, meditation, and contemplation; and committing ourselves to serving our community and society. The Aranyaka literature shows us how to live an ideal life at this stage.

The third stage of life dawns when we begin to experience ourselves as instruments in the hands of an invisible force. We realize that much of our success and failure is dependent on divine will—that assisted by an invisible force we enter this world, and assisted by the same invisible force, we leave. This is the dawning of mumuksha, or spiritual yearning; it sparks a burning desire to know the true nature of that invisible force, and when it wells up, all obstacles to our spiritual journey vanish. The lack of worldly resources, a limited knowledge of philosophy, the absence of a living guide, even old age pose no barrier to our inner growth.

The Upanishads are the manuals that guide us at this stage of our development. Like the Brahmana and Aranyaka texts, they embody the realization that our innermost nature is divine consciousness itself. Contemplating and meditating on the eternal, indivisible Divinity as our own true nature enables us to live in this world successfully and yet remain above it.

Classical Yoga

The great master Patanjali churned the pool of Vedic experiences, collected the cream, and presented it in what we know today as the Yoga Sutra, a systematic treatise codifying the most important elements of yoga philosophy and practice. This is the most comprehensive text ever written on the subject. It includes a range of practices that are beneficial to seekers of varying physical, mental, intellectual, and spiritual capacities, and holds that the mind creates a barrier to the direct experience of divine consciousness so cherished by the Vedic seers. This experience dawns only in one whose mind is pure and well controlled; the Yoga Sutra is a practical manual for making the mind clear, one-pointed, and introspective.

Patanjali tells us that once the mind has become one-pointed, all the mysteries of life are unveiled. In making such a claim he draws on Vedic sources like the “Shiva Sankalpa Sukta,” a group of six mantras from the Rig Veda that heralds the mind as the center of all mysteries:

“The light of the mind is the fastest and most brilliant among all lights,” it tells us. “It travels far and wide during the waking state, returning to its abode during sleep. May my mind—the one light of all lights—be filled with thoughts, aspirations, and resolve which are auspicious and uplifting to the soul.... [Through self-discipline and self-training] the mind leads as a good charioteer leads horses, as rays of light lead the dawn; it is seated in the heart, it is ageless and endowed with inner strength and insight. Such is my mind. May it be filled with thoughts, aspirations, and resolve which are auspicious and uplifting to the soul.”

The Yoga Sutra

Patanjali places the discipline of mind at the core of yoga. Because the mind stands between the body and the soul, and because body, mind, and soul function in complete coordination, he outlines a series of techniques for creating a harmonious balance among them. Patanjali mentions hundreds of techniques for quieting the mind, making it clear, one-pointed, and introspective. Some of these aim at cultivating extraordinary powers, which normally remain dormant. Others focus on gaining experiences of an esoteric nature (such as clairvoyance, understanding the language of other species, or the knowledge of past and future). Still others focus on cultivating our intuitive capacity, to unveil unknown mysteries of our inner world and the mysteries of the vast universe that lies beyond our ken.

In the Yoga Sutra the practice of asana (posture) is one of the thinnest slices in the entirety of yoga. Yet it is a key preparatory practice, for without it no other practice can be safely and successfully undertaken. Asana involves learning to sit, stand, lie down, and relax in a manner that provides maximum comfort while consuming minimum energy. The postures train our nervous system and senses so that the body doesn’t pose an obstacle to the clear functioning of the mind. They also help awaken the body’s dormant potentials, which the mind can then use to explore the inner dimensions of life. Yet when we take yoga postures out of context and practice them in isolation from the other aspects of yoga, their efficacy is lost and they are reduced to being a means for increasing flexibility, toning muscles, and making us more energetic. As desirable as these benefits are, they are a pale reflection of a richer and much more powerful body of teaching. When our understanding and practice of asana is infused with knowledge of the Vedic tradition, we are drawn to discover the full range of yoga, one that addresses our entire being.

Our meditation is similarly enriched if we are familiar with the Vedic tradition. Today many people assume that meditation is either a Buddhist practice or a stress-management technique to quiet the mind and relax the body. When we understand that meditation flows from the timeless lake of Vedic wisdom, those benefits will seem paltry and we will aspire to the direct experience of divine consciousness that dawned on the sages. We will be satisfied with nothing less than a firsthand revelation of the Divinity that pervades everything. And this will guide us to the forms of meditation that engender that experience.

Furthermore, in the light of our Vedic heritage we will no longer be misled by those who present tantra as a form of sensual indulgence. We will know that authentic tantra is grounded in the Vedic conviction that beneath all diversities is one underlying truth: pure consciousness. We will come to understand that the endless diversity apparent in the universe is embraced when the feminine and masculine forces are fully integrated, and that reducing this process to the sexual act is a mockery of tantric practice. Drawing on a basic understanding of the Yoga Sutra and the Vedic literature from which it is derived, we will come to understand how these two forces function in every aspect of nature, and why tantra employs yantra, mantra, astrology, alchemy, asana, pranayama, bandha, and mudra in order to bring the masculine and feminine forces within us to a state of balance.

In the light of our Vedic heritage we will no longer be misled by those who present tantra as a form of sensual indulgence.

If your goal in practicing yoga is simply to make your body strong and flexible, then there is no need to delve into the context out of which hatha yoga has evolved. If your purpose in meditating is to help you better cope with stress, then there is no need to know how the masters practiced different meditative techniques to unveil the subtle mysteries of the mind. But in truth, anyone who is attracted to any aspect of yoga practice is really hoping for a deep and long-lasting transformation. The more limited forms of yoga and meditation practice cannot deliver this. Ultimately, they will leave us disappointed and a bit confused. Steeping ourselves in a broad understanding of yoga—where it came from and how it addresses the issues that engage us at all levels of our being—will dispel this confusion and show us how to claim our rightful place as the heirs of the sages.

About the Teacher

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Pandit Rajmani Tigunait
Spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, Pandit Tigunait is the successor of Swami Rama of the Himalayas.... Read more