Yoga: The Legacy of the Sages
Find out how a comprehensive yoga practice draws you into an ever-deepening realm of clarity and joy.
Yoga comes from a rich tradition, one whose origins are lost in the mists of time. It is at once a philosophy and a practice. As a philosophy, yoga is the voice of the sages telling us clearly who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. As a practice, yoga is a technique developed by the sages to help us awaken our dormant abilities, to strengthen our body, to focus our mind, and to unlock our limitless potential to become anything we wish to become.
Yoga is the embodiment of the collective experiences of thousands of adepts and aspirants.
Yoga is the embodiment of the collective experiences of thousands of adepts and aspirants over a span of centuries. Born in the East, it made its way to the New World in increments, taking almost a century to fully manifest here in the West. Yoga made its official entrance into the New World in 1893, when a great Indian yogi, Swami Vivekananda, addressed the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago.
Although Swami Vivekananda made no explicit mention of yoga in his address, what he taught is now popularly known as jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge. The next major figure to appear on these shores was Swami Rama Tirtha, who taught a purely Vedantic approach to jnana yoga, an approach which affords no room for anything other than inner freedom. Next, Yogananda Paramahansa introduced his own unique form of yoga—a combination of hatha yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, and karma yoga, with a moderate dash of Christianity. Then Yogi Ramacharaka emphasized pranayama, the yogic breathing exercises, while Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced yoga as meditation, with an emphasis on levitation. Later, Swami Prabhupada introduced bhakti yoga, emphasizing an exclusive love for Lord Krishna.
By the late 1960s, a “yoga rush” was under way. Some of the newly arrived teachers branded their approaches, giving us Integral Yoga, Siddha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Dhyana Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, and so on. Some emphasized the transmission of spiritual energy from guru to student, which led to the idea that yoga is a guru-centered mystical path. Others downplayed the spiritual component of yoga, which led to the perception that yoga is a system of asana practice. Still others taught yoga as a religion.
At the same time these various approaches to yoga were making their way to the United States, Eastern spiritual and philosophical texts were being translated into English. The Harvard Oriental Series, Oxford University’s 50-volume Sacred Books of the East, and the work of illustrious scholars such as W. Norman Brown, A.K. Coomaraswamy, Surendranath Dasgupta, Mircea Eliade, Stella Kramrish, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, and Sir John Woodroffe kindled a growing awareness of the richness of Eastern philosophy and spiritual practices. People were drawing their own conclusions: yoga developed in a predominately Hindu country, but is not a Hindu religious sect; yoga includes asana, but encompasses much more than physical postures. By the time the 1960s were drawing to a close, interest was growing in the deeper dimensions of yoga—the philosophy, psychology, metaphysics, and the physical, spiritual, and esoteric practices. At this juncture, Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute, arrived in the United States.
Swami Rama is a unique blend of all the teachers and scholars mentioned above—and much more. Raised in the cave monasteries of the Himalayas, mostly by wandering sadhus, he assimilated both Eastern and Western views and values in the course of his studies at Indian and British Universities. At the age of 24, he was anointed Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham, the highest religious position in Hinduism, giving him a firsthand view of the influence—both positive and negative—that religion exerts on society. Later, as a married man, he was involved in worldly affairs. Soon after renouncing his worldly life, Swami Rama came to the United States.
In his best-known book, Living with the Himalayan Masters, Swami Rama writes that, before coming to the West, he told his master that the lifestyle, habits, and cultural values of the people in the East and the West are quite different and asked, “How can I deliver the message of the sages of ancient India to the people of the West?”
His master replied, “Though these cultures live in the same world with the same purpose of life, they are each extreme. Both East and West are still doing experiments on the right way of living. Extremes will not help humanity to attain the higher step of civilization for which we are striving. Inner strength, cheerfulness, and selfless service are the basic principles of life. A human being should be a human being first. A real human being is a member of the cosmos. Freedom from all fears is the first message of the Himalayan sages. The second message is to be aware of the reality within. All spiritual practices should be verified scientifically, if science has the capacity to do so.”
Science and Beyond
In the beginning, Swami Rama worked as a yogi grounded in science. While living at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, he conducted a series of evidence-based scientific experiments to show the direct relationship between the mind and body and between the heart and brain. For example, he demonstrated his yogic ability to exert voluntary control over what are usually perceived to be involuntary functions of the body and nervous system: he stopped his heart from pumping blood for 17 seconds; he produced alpha, theta, and delta brain waves at will, remaining fully aware of what was going on in the room around him, even during periods of sleep; and he fixed his gaze (trataka) on a metal knitting needle placed five feet away from him, causing it to rotate through 10 degrees of arc.
Swami Rama also demonstrated yogic abilities of an even more subtle nature during his stay at Menninger. In the presence of a group of scientists and researchers, he created and dissolved a tumor in his body. He caused blisters on his assistant’s hands to heal within a matter of seconds. Through these and other feats, he demonstrated there is a higher reality, a higher power, present in human experience. Science has the capacity to verify only a portion of that power—the rest remains a mystery. Although a large proportion of this higher power lies dormant, it can be awakened through systematic practice. Swami Rama participated in the experiments at Menninger to help people realize there is a higher reality within all of us and, further, that this higher reality is us. Upon realizing this reality, all fears vanish. The crux of the message of the Himalayan sages, which Swami Rama brought to the West, is that freedom from all fear is the birthright of every individual, as well as of humanity as a whole.
Despite its numerous approaches to practice, yoga has one underlying purpose: to remove suffering and infuse life with joy and fearlessness.
Swami Rama established the Himalayan Institute to deliver the wisdom of the sages to the modern world. In the process, he made it clear that yoga does not constitute the total body of this ancient wisdom. Similarly, neither an approach to yoga that promotes guru worship nor one that completely eliminates the function of a guru reflects the essence of yoga. Jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, hatha yoga, kundalini yoga, tantra yoga, swara yoga, nada yoga, laya yoga, and mantra yoga do not in themselves represent the total tradition of yoga. The yoga so popular today and the brand names associated with it are centered around asana practice and represent an even smaller slice of the yoga tradition.
Despite its numerous approaches to practice, yoga has one underlying purpose: removing suffering and infusing life with joy and fearlessness. Yoga’s fundamental premise is that to be born as a human is a blessing. Human birth is an opportunity to attain the freedom and fulfillment that our soul inherently seeks. The door to freedom and fulfillment opens when we come to know who we are; where we come from; what our intrinsic qualities, attributes, strengths, and weaknesses are; and where the road we have chosen will lead.
Mastering the Mind
Twenty-two hundred years ago, a great master, Patanjali, made a conclusive discovery: a confused mind is not fit to follow any path. His great work, the Yoga Sutra, tells us that the practice of yoga entails attaining mastery over the mind. The mind is often run by uncontrolled and aimless thoughts, feelings, and desires. It is influenced by preconceived notions, prejudices, and preoccupations, and is driven by the demands of our ego and the cravings of the senses. As a result, the mind continually drifts from one state to another—from disturbance to distraction to stupefaction and back again, becoming depleted in the process. The mind’s clarity and sharpness become veiled. Its capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy, is compromised, and it loses its ability to rule over matter. Consequently, the body’s natural wisdom, flowing as it does from the domain of the mind, declines. As this happens, we become more and more dependent on outside sources to guide us, and on outside forces to heal and nourish us. According to Patanjali, therefore, inner healing and positive change, both within and without, are dependent on having mastery over our mind. The essence of yoga lies in gaining this mastery.
Patanjali's great work, the Yoga Sutra, tells us that the practice of yoga entails attaining mastery over the mind.
Patanjali is the founder of the yoga taught by the Himalayan Institute. Thus, attaining mastery over the mind is our goal. The mind has the ability to achieve anything it wishes. Its power is limitless, yet it has fallen victim to its own ignorance regarding its powers and privileges. It is full of fear and doubt. Anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, attachment, and desire have made it restless. It is caught between wanting and not wanting. It has split itself in two and is warring from both sides. It is confused. Such a mind is its own worst enemy. Freeing the mind from this enemy is the first and foremost step in the practice of yoga.
Connecting Body and Mind
The body is the gateway to experiencing the fulfillment inherent in worldly objects and in our senses. It is also a gateway to attaining freedom from all cravings. The body and mind work together. They nurture each other and support each other’s functions. Unity of body and mind and their collaborative effort to achieve a common goal—fulfillment and freedom (bhoga and moksha)—is the foundation of life. Our problems begin when we lose sight of this fundamental unity. This is the beginning of all suffering and the root of all disease. A vast range of physical distress, mental anguish, and spiritual affliction has its source in the disjointed functions of the body and mind. Restoring this fundamental unity is the essence of yoga practice.
Yoga means “union.” The practices that connect our body with our mind and vice versa are yoga. Asana that ignores the mental component is not yoga. Meditation that ignores the physical component is not yoga. Just as we die when the body and mind are separated, yoga dies when asana and meditation are separated. To bring about balance and harmony in our body and mind, the yoga we practice has to be a perfect blend of asana and meditation.
Breath plays a key role in yoga as practiced at the Himalayan Institute. According to the yoga tradition, breath is the link between body and mind. The quality of our mental and physical functions is heavily influenced by the quality of our breathing. Similarly, breath is the link between asana and meditation. It is through pranayama (the breathing practices) that asana and meditation lead us to the goal of yoga: the experience of fulfillment and freedom.
The quality of our practice of asana and meditation is heavily dependent on how we breathe. The subtle force that manifests as breathing is called prana. Another name for prana is prachara, “that which moves and upon its movement makes everything (in this context, body and mind) move.” This force is present in every cell of our body, manifesting as cellular respiration. It is present in our heart muscles, manifesting as our heartbeat. It is present in our hypothalamus and pituitary glands, manifesting as the body’s innate ability to regulate our endocrine system. It is present in our mind, manifesting as thoughts, feelings, and discernment. It is as pervasive as our consciousness itself. That is why it is called sutra atma, the thread of the soul connecting every nook and cranny of our body, mind, and consciousness. Through its presence, this force brings the body and mind to life, just as the practice of pranayama brings yoga to life.
Finally, through our yoga practice we aim at experiencing our essential union with the divinity within us. In yogic literature, this is known as samadhi. The systematic process of yoga in our school is divided into eight steps, culminating in samadhi.
The first two steps, known as yama and niyama, help us connect ourselves with the world we live in and the people we interact with. These two components of yoga help us emerge as fully mature humans—kind, loving, unselfish. The practice of yama and niyama helps us create a peaceful environment that is the ground for healthy and happy living. This practice also helps us adjust to others, and others to adjust to us.
The practice of asana is the third component of yoga. Asana allows us to discover the unique gifts of our body—its agility, beauty, vitality, strength, stamina. It helps boost our immune system and infuses our body with a unique ability to withstand the pair of opposites—pleasure and pain. We become strong and remain unperturbed during internal and external turmoil.
The practice of pranayama, the fourth step, lifts the veil that covers the brilliance of the body and mind. As we become more sensitive to the pranic force, we begin to see what is happening in our body and mind and why. We develop the capacity for intuitive diagnosis, as well as the ability to repair and heal the damage that has already occurred in our body and mind. Pranayama also enables us to selectively withdraw our mind from thoughts, feelings, and concerns that drain our vitality. Thus, the practice of pranayama naturally takes us to the fifth rung of yoga practice, pratyahara (sense withdrawal).
Pratyahara trains the mind to let go of what does not need to be in the forefront and to pay attention to itself—its essential nature and its relationship with prana. In the practice of pratyahara, the mind is employed to explore the pools of nourishment within the body. Because it is free from troubling thoughts, it regains its natural ability to relax the body, allowing the nourishing and healing power to flow freely. As this healing and nurturing power awakens, the senses lose their cravings. They begin to taste a greater joy within, and thus find no reason to run after sense objects. An environment of contentment arises spontaneously. This creates the ground for the remaining three components of yoga: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Dharana is loosely translated as “concentration.” But dharana is more than concentration on an object. According to Patanjali, dharana means training the mind to stay in one place. The longer it stays in one place, the greater the opportunity it has to attend to details. If the place where it is guided to stay is infused with the healing and illuminating power of prana, the mind begins to comprehend the true nature of healing and enlightenment. Then the natural process of inner healing unfolds. The key to the practice of dharana lies in bringing the mind to the space within our body that is naturally filled with the pranic force. This makes the mind healthy, strong, clear, and energetic. It becomes filled with courage and enthusiasm.
Dharana matures into dhyana, loosely translated as “meditation.” In meditation, the mind is crystal clear. It has the ability to see both itself and everything in its proximity. Figuratively speaking, the mind stands between body and soul, between matter and consciousness. In the state of meditation, the mind is fully aware of both physical and spiritual realities, and yet remains undisturbed. It is still. This is what Swami Rama demonstrated when he produced delta brain waves while his mind was registering the events in the room around him. This is what yogis mean when they speak of living in the world and yet remaining above it.
Dhyana matures into samadhi. This is a state of such deep meditation that the object of awareness and the mind have blended into each other. In the state of samadhi, the mind becomes the soul and the soul becomes the mind. The sense of duality is swallowed by a state of unity. This state is pervaded by the experience of oneness. For the sake of simplicity, therefore, samadhi is translated as “the state of spiritual absorption.”
Unveiling the Mystery of Life
Yoga is about connecting, healing, and becoming aware of the higher reality within all of us. It reinforces the body’s connection with the mind. It balances the relationship between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. It reestablishes and strengthens the relationship between the physical and emotional parts of ourselves. It creates an internal environment in which the body and mind begin to love, care for, and support each other. This body-mind integration engendered by the practice of yoga enables us to discover and awaken our dormant potentials.
As we become aware of deeper dimensions of reality, we realize life is truly a mystery. Unveiling this mystery is the reason we are born.
As we become aware of deeper dimensions of reality, we realize life is truly a mystery. Unveiling this mystery is the reason we are born. The layers of this mystery are numerous. Our fulfillment and freedom depend on how many layers of this mystery we unveil. Yoga’s higher practices are the means of unveiling these deeper layers. The yoga system of Patanjali lays the groundwork for the higher practices in our tradition. These higher practices, including Sri Vidya, bindu bhedana, and shaktipata, constitute the esoteric—or purely spiritual—part of our tradition.
In our tradition, yoga as a spiritual path begins with a formal initiation. This always takes place in a private setting. Only a lamp that is already lit can light another lamp. Therefore, the tradition demands that the initiator undergo strict discipline and training.
There are several levels of initiations. The first level is mantra initiation. Asana practice, breath awareness, and meditation on a mantra are part of this initiation.
The second level of initiation, shakti sadhana, consists of meditation on the inner light, our own core being. In our tradition, the inner light is known as the Divine Mother, Sri Vidya. Depending on the student’s physical capacity, emotional maturity, and intellectual comprehension, he or she will begin with meditation either at the navel center or at the center between the eyebrows. This level of practice matures into meditation at the lotus of the heart. Bindu bhedana (“piercing the pearl of wisdom”) is an important step in this second level of initiation and is done through the combined effort of teacher and student.
The third level of initiation is shaktipata, the transmission of spiritual energy. Shaktipata enables kundalini shakti, the dormant energy within us, to awaken, and causes it to rise to the thousand-petaled lotus, known as the sahasrara chakra. This level of initiation is a spontaneous inner awakening propelled by divine grace; human effort plays an insignificant role. The inner teacher confers this third initiation spontaneously only after the student has successfully completed the practice associated with the second level of initiation.
In the light of this spontaneous experience we know the truth in its fullness. The darkness of duality disappears. Avidya (ignorance regarding our true nature), asmita (distorted sense of self-identity), raga (attachment), dvesha (hatred), and abhinivesha (fear of loss) lose their grip on our mind and consciousness. This leads us to experience ourselves as we are in our very essence (tat tvam asi—Thou are That). The veil of duality that separates us from inner divinity is lifted. The individual soul and the Supreme Being merge into one another.
These three levels of initiation and the practices that accompany them lead us to the highest level of realization, which culminates in the experience of nondual truth (advaita). From this experience, the values that guide and govern our thought, speech, and action evolve: loving all and hating none, embracing all and excluding none. This is the ground for inner healing and lasting change.