Self-transformation and spiritual growth are important concepts in the theosophical philosophy. They are also very practical concepts, for their realisation involves the integrating and harmonising of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of our nature. One way that many have chosen to achieve this inner transformation is through the discipline of yoga.
The current interest in the various forms of yoga and the deep desire experienced by so many thoughtful people to find inner serenity or to achieve spiritual growth justifies a closer look at the subject, so that we may understand just what it is, what it means, what it does, and how it may be practised as a road by which we may come to a fuller understanding of ourselves.
What Is Yoga?
The word ‘Yoga’, like the English word ‘yoke’, comes from a Sanskrit term meaning ‘to join’, and implies a union between the personal aspect of ourselves and our divine Source. So yoga can be described as the transforming of the personal nature in order to make it responsive to the inner Self, leading to the attainment of self-conscious union or at-one-ment with the divine or spiritual essence, the One Supreme Principle in the universe. Yoga refers both to the union of the lower with the higher and also to the ways of achieving that union. Therefore, yoga is both a profound study and pragmatic discipline.
What Yoga Involves
There are a number of different systems of yoga, but every method involves self-discipline and self-exploration. All systems recognise the validity of certain basic practices: control of the body through correct posture and right breathing; control of the emotions and the mind; meditation and contemplation. In any practice of yoga, the essential elements found in all the systems should be present.
Most practitioners of yoga regard the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as the most important handbook on the subject. The ‘eight limbs’ or aspects of yoga, outlined by Patanjali, are considered the guidelines of all yogic practices. The first of these ‘limbs’ is known as the ‘yamas’ or practices of self-restraint and the first of such practices is called ‘ahimsa’ or harmlessness. It has been said that ahimsa is at the heart of all yogic disciplines.
The other ‘handbook’ on yoga which might be mentioned is the great Hindu scripture, The Bhagavad Gita. A study of that work would be invaluable for the beginning student of yoga.
A brief description of some of the better-known systems of yoga may be useful, but it should be kept in mind that each of the systems mentioned here involves far more in terms of a disciplined life and regular practice than can be indicated in a short review.
Western popularisations of yoga have mainly centred on two systems of this great science. The first is known as Hatha Yoga, the system that gives attention to various physical postures and breath control. It is generally overlooked that this system, in common with all systems as just mentioned, involves the practice of meditation. So while emphasis is given in Hatha Yoga to the training of the physical body, that training is for the purpose of enabling the body to respond to the promptings of the Divine Presence within. When the body is disciplined, it ceases to be restless and to be a source of distraction during meditation. Many practitioners emphasise the therapeutic value of Hatha Yoga, for if practised sensibly it leads to increased physical well-being. Spiritual growth is helped when the body is in good condition.
A system that has become very popular in recent years is Mantra Yoga, which involves the chanting of sacred phrases or words with devotion and concentrated attention. This system involves a knowledge of the occult potency of sound. The aim of Mantra Yoga is to tune the personal nature to a keynote much subtler and higher in vibration than the ordinary waking consciousness, so that ultimately the individual may ‘hear’ not with the physical ears or with any physical mechanism, but with the supersensuous inner Divine Voice.
Among the other systems of yoga, four in particular should be mentioned. First, Bhakti Yoga or the way of devotion. The emphasis in this system is on love, on self-surrender to the Divine or the Supreme Spirit. Often for the individual following this path, the Supreme is personified in some form. It may be a divine incarnation, such as Christ or Krishna, or a mental image of a personal God. This system has sometimes been termed a Christian yoga, but it is the way found in many religions in which surrender of the personal self and devotion to an ideal are emphasised. Bhakti yoga is the path that helps many people begin their climb to the mountain peak of spiritual union. As all the saints have demonstrated, to progress up the higher slopes, the personal life must be completely surrendered to the Divine Life. Therefore this is a path for those with devotional natures, who take great joy in losing themselves in adoration to the Supreme Being.
As the name of this yogic system implies, the discipline involves action. The aim of Karma Yoga is to attain union with the Supreme by means of right action, which means, quite simply, action undertaken for its own sake and not for the sake of reward. This is the way for those who are moved by compassionate sympathy for those who suffer, and who are therefore eager to work for the alleviation of pain and sorrow. The emphasis in this system is on pure motive, without any taint of self-interest. Through altruistic acts, the follower of Karma Yoga will inevitably come to a deeper understanding of life and an ever closer union with the Divine Life in all beings.
As Bhakti Yoga is concerned with devotion as a path to union and Karma Yoga is concerned with action, so there is a path to union through knowledge. That path is known as Jnana (sometimes spelled Gnana) Yoga; the goal on this path is to realise the truth about life. We may recognise the word, ‘jñāna’, is similar to the word ‘gnosis’. In fact the two words, jñāna and gnosis, mean the same thing, but the knowledge that is sought is not about the external world of objects, but the realm of reality.
The great teacher of Jñāna Yoga was the Indian sage, Shankarāchārya, whose work Viveka Chudāmani is available in several translations. Literally, the title of his work means ‘the crest jewel of discrimination’ but viveka can also mean ‘insight’ or even ‘wisdom’. Shankarāchārya made a distinction between people who want to have and those who want to know. Ultimately, there is only one thing to know and that is the One Self which is identical with God or the One Life, Brahman, as the one Source of all existence is known in the philosophy of Vedanta on which Jñāna Yoga is based.
Sometimes said to be the highest form of yoga, Raja Yoga—the kingly science—incorporates the main features of all the other systems. This royal road embodies disciplines and practices to purify the emotions, expand the intellect, and bring all the component parts of our nature under the control of will. It aims at reducing and eventually eliminating our identification with the personality, in order to bring about the realisation that the Immortal Self is identical with the One Divine Life.
The basis for this system is found in the aphorisms (known as ‘sutras’) of the great Indian sage, Patañjali. His work is available in a number of English translations and several commentaries have been written on the aphorisms which he gave. Those sayings or ‘sutras’ contain the steps needed in preparation for true yoga and for the actual practice itself. The preparation involves right action in thought, word and deed, the living of a moral life, and the expression of fundamental ethical principles which are found in all the great religions. The practice includes regular periods of introspection, which involves closing the windows of the senses in order to shut oneself off from the distractions of the world for a time. The aim is to prepare oneself to take the transitional step of consciousness from the external to internal states of awareness.
Yoga and Meditation
While meditation is an important part of every system of yoga, Patañjali particularly laid great stress on the control, stilling, and finally the transcending of the mind.
For this purpose, in his system of Raja Yoga, he prescribed three steps: concentration, meditation and contemplation. Each of these steps merges into the others in practice, but in the Yoga Sutras they are described separately for the purposes of study.
It is necessary to begin with concentration because the mind does not want to settle down; it is filled with all kinds of memories and desires. It is easily disturbed by worries and trivial details. So the purpose of concentration is to help this restless mind to focus on an object or idea with which it is presented and thus shut out all other irrelevancies. It is usually suggested that one begin with some simple object, becoming completely intent and absorbed in it, refusing to give attention to anything else. Whenever the mind wanders away from concentrating on the object chosen, it is gently brought back to attending to the object itself.
From the state of concentration, the next step, meditation, is taken. This is described as the regular and consistent flow of thought regarding an object, whether that object be a flower, an intangible quality, a great Teacher, an abstract idea, or some other selected subject. This is a deeper process than concentration and leads to a state where one enters into, realises and even becomes that upon which one is thinking. In this way, there is the piercing of images and forms to come to an identification with the life within the object (or subject) selected.
The third state of contemplation follows. At this stage, one is no longer concerned with an object, an idea or a being but brings the mind to a condition of utter stillness. However, this is not just a passive state but one of positive awareness; it is a stillness which brings a sense of wholeness and dynamic peace. It does not bypass consciousness, but transforms the individual, bringing true serenity and an inner certainty which can be of great practical help in daily life. In the stage of contemplation, it is possible to receive illumination and insight from the Spiritual Self and a pervading sense of the unity of life is realised.
The Goal of Yoga
All the systems of yoga, with their disciplines, are means of leading the individual to the ultimate goal of yoga—union with the Supreme Spirit. That union has been called ‘samādhi’ in yogic texts, satori in Zen Buddhism, ‘God-consciousness’ in Christian mysticism. Regardless of the term used, it means liberation of the individual spirit from everyday consciousness. It is the entering into the bliss of Oneness so beautifully epitomised in the phrase, ‘The dewdrop slips into the shining sea’.
Suggestions For Further Reading
- An Introduction to Yoga Annie Besant
- Seven Schools of Yoga Ernest Wood
- Application of Yoga to Daily Life Ianthe Hoskins
- Raja Yoga: A Simplified Course Wallace Slater
- Hatha Yoga: A Simplified Course Wallace Slater
- Integral Yoga Haridas Chaudhuri
- The Science of Yoga I.K. Taimni
- A Student’s Companion to Patanjali Roger Worthington
- Yoga: The Art of Integration Rohit Mehta
- The Universal Yoga Tradition Radha Burnier
- Initiation Into Yoga Sri Krishna Prem
- A History of Yoga Vivian Worthington
- Yoga: The Technology of Ecstasy George Feuerstein
- Viveka Chudamani translated Mohini M Chatterji
- The Pinnacle of Indian Thought Ernest Wood