With all the names and modern styles of yoga the question arises: What kind of Yoga do you do?
All the recent “inventions” just confuse matters more. The essential, authentic nature of yoga is even further confused in the public eye by the way the methods are presented and promoted. By reviewing almost any list of the best known dozen or so modern yoga "styles," it will quickly become evident that almost all of these contemporary styles have been invented in the last few decades. Very few yoga teachers today will simply teach "Hatha Yoga," the physical yoga system of the past (that actually had spiritual goals), let alone the “whole” true spiritual yoga. Remember that even Hatha Yoga (asana + pranayama) is part of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga and Raja Yoga is only one of the four traditional schools of yoga.
In addition, many, if not most of the modern "styles" of yoga have the surname of a currently living man in front of the word yoga, as if that man, himself, has invented yoga. This is not to say that these teachers aren’t competent or even superb in their physical abilities. They may do a very good job within the limited scope of their “personalized” teachings.
Oftentimes this “personalization” takes the liberty of distorting Sanskrit terms. Several modern systems have taken an ancient Sanskrit word or phrase that has a specific spiritual meaning, and then adapted that terminology to some set of postures or practices that were apart from the original intent.
Even worse, some of these modern teachers have then trademarked these ancient, traditional names, further misleading an unsuspecting public. This leaves the would-be students with the impression that the current day founder of this “brand name” system is somehow linked to the original teachings associated with that word or phrase. It may further lead people to believe that these new teachers also have some expertise or familiarity with the traditional practice or level of attainment authentically associated with that word or phrase.
Most of the modern "styles" of Yoga did not exist a few decades ago, while yoga itself is thousands of years old.
These modern styles are very suspect as they should be. If you turned back the clock a hundred years, or maybe fifty, or twenty, or even less, very few (if any at all) of these current styles, systems, or methods of yoga would have yet existed. Most of the founders of these modern, so-called yoga styles were not even born. Therefore, these modern styles are, by their very nature, suspect. Especially when, at the same time, it is claimed that yoga is thousands of years old. This is not a mere call to go back in time to some theoretically more pristine era of yoga. It really is a case of throwing away the baby with the bath water.
To repeat the question at the beginning of this article: What kind of yoga do you do?
Traditionally, there are four schools of Yoga. If asked, "What kind of Yoga do you do?" the answer would be one of these four, or a combination of them. Briefly, the four schools of Yoga are:
Karma Yoga: The yoga of action, doing the practices while fulfilling one's duties in the external world.
Jnana Yoga: The yoga of knowledge or self-enquiry, knowing oneself at all levels through a process of contemplation and introspection.
Bhakti Yoga: The yoga of devotion, of surrender to the divine force or God, practiced in ways consistent with one's own religion.
Raja Yoga: The meditative school of yoga, such as systematized by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
A true Yogi, one who sincerely practices authentic Yoga, may do just yoga, meaning some combination of Karma, Jnana, Bhakti, and Raja Yoga, in the context of the six systems of Indian philosophy and practice.
Paramahansa Yogananda, the well-known author of Autobiography of a Yogi, responds to the question "What is Yoga?" in the text The Essence of Self-Realization: "Yoga means union.” Yoga is loosely translated as the English word “yoke.” Yoga means union with God, or, union of the little, ego-self with the divine Self, the infinite Spirit. Most people in the West, and sadly many in India, confuse yoga with Hatha Yoga, the system of physical practice.
Stay tuned, this series will continue – coming up next, the final installment in this series; “Approaches to the True Goal of Yoga (Part 16).” This next blog article will include some final thoughts and tips.
The human body is a fascinating and beautiful instrument, and should be properly taken care of, however, according to traditional yoga the body is an instrument, and is not itself the goal.
This is not meant to imply some anti-body perspective. And, it is not a conflict between philosophies. Instead it should be seen as a misunderstanding of goals and tools.
Again, as has been stated before, the goal of Yoga is Yoga, period.
As a matter of fact, none of the lower levels is the goal. In authentic, traditional yoga, the student works with and trains all levels of their being, including relationships, self-exploration, senses, body, breath, and mind. However, none of these are themselves the final goal of yoga.
The aspirant following a path of authentic, traditional yoga balances their training of the following:
Relationships: The aspirant builds relationship with the world through practices such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, remembering truth, and non-possessiveness. Building better relationships with the world is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.
Senses: The aspirant trains the senses so as to be able to consciously regulate them in positive ways, although working with the senses is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.
Body: The aspirant works with the body so as to make it flexible, strong, and steady, but working with the body is not itself the goal of authentic Yoga.
Breath: The aspirant trains the breath so as to make it smooth, slow, and serene, but training the breath is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.
Mind: The aspirant deals with the mind at all of its levels, although exploring and dealing with the mind is not itself the goal of authentic Yoga.
It is important for the student to realize that the single goal of Yoga is beyond all of these, while these are to be considered obstacles or “veils” that block the realization of the Self, Truth, or Reality that is being sought. Because they are the obstacles, they are emphasized in regular practice so that they may cease to cover the eternal center of consciousness.
Swami Rama writes about the comparison of traditional Yoga and modern Yoga in his text, “Path of Fire and Light”:
"The majority of people view Yoga as a system of physical culture. Very few understand that Yoga science is complete in itself, and deals systematically with body, breath, mind, and spirit.
"When one understands that a human being is not only a physical being, but a breathing being and a thinking being too, then his research does not limit itself to the body and breath only.
"For him, gaining control over the mind and its modifications, and the feelings and emotions, become more important than practicing a few postures or breathing exercises. Meditation and contemplation alone can help the aspirant in understanding, controlling, and directing the mind."
In his opening paragraph of “Lectures on Yoga,” Swami Rama explains:
“The word Yoga is much used and much misunderstood these days, for our present age is one of faddism, and Yoga has often been reduced to the status of a fad. Many false and incomplete teachings have been propagated in its name, it has been subject to commercial exploitation, and one small aspect of Yoga is often taken to be all of Yoga. For instance, many people in the West think it is a physical and beauty cult, while others think it is a religion. All of this has obscured the real meaning of Yoga.”
In the second volume of Path of Fire and Light, Swami Rama goes even further, where he flatly declares:
"The word 'Yoga' has been vulgarized and does not mean anything now.”
So again, as an important reminder, the goal or destination of Yoga is Yoga itself, union itself, of the little (separate or egoic) self and the True Self.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati (founder of Divine Life Society of Rishikesh, India) writes of Ashtanga Yoga:
"It is said that the original propounder of classical Yoga was Hiranyagarbha Himself. It is Patanjali Maharishi who formulated this science into a definite system under the name of Ashtanga Yoga or Raja Yoga. This forms one of the Shad-Darsananas or Classical Systems of Philosophy…. Patanjali's Raja Yoga is generally termed the Ashtanga Yoga or the Yoga of Eight Limbs, through the practice of which freedom is achieved."
Many people work with diet, exercise and interpersonal relationships. This may include physical fitness classes, food or cooking seminars, or many forms of personality work, including support groups, psychotherapy, or confiding with friends. When done alone, these are not necessarily aimed towards yoga, and are therefore not yoga; however beneficial they may be.
And yet, combining work with the body, food, and relationships may very much fall under the “domain” of yoga, when yoga is ultimately the goal. The key to understanding this concept lies within that which one holds in their heart and mind, plus their degree of their conviction. Without that being directed towards the state of yoga, these methods can hardly be called yoga.
Stay tuned, this series will continue – coming up next; “Approaches to the True Goal of Yoga (Part 7).”
These 5 Kleshas (afflictions) affect (or color) each of the Koshas (sheaths). Kosha a Sanskrit word usually translated as “sheath”, of which there are also five, each one representing a covering of the Atman (“Self”, according to Vedantic philosophy). They range from gross to subtle and are often visualized like the layers of an onion. These Koshas, lie one within the other as a set of five sheaths.
This series of articles will address how each Kosha is affected (or colored) by these Kleshas. But first, for those who are unfamiliar with these 5 Kleshas, here’s a recap.
From the perspective of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras it is important to understand that emotional pain and all its varied expressions, such as depression, stem from the desire, attachment, fear and certain unconscious universal constructs (Kleshas) that exist in all un-liberated human minds. These constructs (referred to as “colorings”) form a basis on which all other more individualized neuroses are woven and re-woven through a complex association of desires, attachments, fears and other human experiences. Thus these Kleshas are basic motivational forces which underpin our ability to act, think, and feel. It is these Kleshas which are responsible for the fluctuations (modifications or agitations) of consciousness and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are primarily concerned with the elimination or stilling of these fluctuations.
If and when the Kleshas are removed through yoga practices, all of the individual neuroses which they support will crumble and fall away. These Kleshas (afflictions or colorings) are comprised of five basic constructs or crystallized thought-forms and are described by Patanjali at the beginning of Book 2 of the Yoga Sutras (1, 2, 3 & 4).
Once the Kleshas are seen in a clear light and recognized for what they are, they will disappear. The intellectual mind is not enough to bring about this recognition. Patanjali, insists the “8 limbs of yoga” are necessary to lead the mind toward the required purification and these are:
Yama (Sanskrit for "moral discipline")
Niyama (Sanskrit for "moral observance")
Asana (Sanskrit for "body posture")
Pranayama (Sanskrit for "breath control")
Prathyara (Sanskrit for "withdrawal of the senses")
Dharana (Sanskrit for "concentration")
Dhyana (Sanskrit for "meditation")
We all have heard that every journey starts with the first step. So it stands to reason that recognizing the Kleshas is a good way to quench the desire of the intellect. Here is a list of the 5 Kleshas and a brief summary of their attributes:
Avidya (Ignorance): This is the primal ignorance which pervades all of creation. This ignorance is experiential, not conceptual, in nature. This affliction results in our lack of awareness and disconnection from Truth.
Asmita (Ego): As individuals, we also have what is called ahamkara or "I-maker" (ego). It is a single vritti, (thought form), the idea of individualized existence. This single thought of a limited self is enormously convincing because it pervades the entire body-mind complex. It is the nature of this individual "I-am" sense, or ego, to identify with something and become attached to it.
Raga (Attachment): This klesha is all about desire. All of us have experienced this and we are all attached to something. Whether it’s a partner, a friend, a practice, an object, a pet, a food, even an iPhone; it’s okay to need or want things, but you know your desire has become an affliction when it creates suffering. Raga creates in us a pattern of acquisition: we began to pursue human relationships, knowledge, wealth, status, power-anything which might be capable of enlarging and protecting our fragile individualized existence.
Dvesha (Aversion): Patanjali defines aversion as: “Identification with what we don’t like.” Attachments (Raga) arise from our previous experiences of pleasure and happiness. Aversions emerge from previous experiences of pain and suffering. This is the fourth Klesha, "the hate, fear or extreme dislike which follows after experiencing pain."
Abhinivesha (Clinging to Life): Because of raga and dvesha, a tremendous, continual, and habitual outflowing of our energy and attention through our senses to the objects of external world has been created. This outflow of all our attention and energy can only increase our identification with our physical existence, resulting in a fear of death and making it even harder for us to perceive or identify with our spiritual nature.
Stay tuned, next: Further exploration of each Klesha and how it colors each Kosha (Sheath), beginning with Annamaya kosha.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (Raja Yoga) posit the Purusha and Prakritiwhich basically categorize the sutras as a dualistic philosophy, representing both the manifest (Purusha) and the un-manifest (Prakriti). Whereas the philosophy of Advaita (literally non-dualism), is the premier and oldest of the Vedanta schools of Indian philosophy and was expounded by Adi Shankara (aka, Shankaracharya) historically, the most important teacher of the Advaita school of Vedanta.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s, the nature of the problem (of Union) is that the individual is identified with his body, senses and mind which are seemingly mixed because of five klesas (aka obstacles, colorings or impurities) among which the primary one is Avidya (ignorance). The sense of ego-I established in a body/mind complex, accompanied by longing and attachment to life, are products of the klesha “Avidya.” In order to remove Avidya, one must know reality (as it is), which according to Patanjali is to separate Purusha (the individual) from Prakriti (the entirety of the cosmos, including mind, senses and elements). In other words, to reach liberation, the aspirant needs to realize (by discrimination and practice) that he is a pure and isolated spiritual entity (purusha) completely distinct from the changing (and as yet un-manifest) processes of nature (prakriti) presenting themselves in his physical body, senses and mind. According to Patanjali, Purusha and Prakriti are both real and independent, although he does say that Prakriti exists for the sake of Purusa.
So, if Purusha and Prakriti are both real and independent of each other, how can they be reconciled through the practice of yoga (union)? Normally Purusha and Prakriti are seen as one and the same, united from time immemorial. But, if through yoga the two are separated, the Purusha will recognize its original, divine glory, and on becoming liberated, reunites with the Atman, Brahman (or Self). So, the practice of yoga, especially the “Eight Limbs of Yoga,” found in chapter II of the Yoga Sutras, is a step-by-step scientific method of separating Purusha and Prakriti attaining this liberation. The Eight Limbs are commonly known as Ashtanga Yoga practice, literally defined – (ashta)-limb, (anga) practice.
Advaita is a Sanskrit word that means ‘not two.’ Advaitists insist on ‘not two’ rather than ‘only one.’ Osho explains: “The danger in saying ‘one’ is that it gives rise to the idea of two.”
Sri Shankaracharya defines the fundamental tenet of Advaita Vedanta as follows:
“Brahman is the Reality, the universe is an illusion,
The living being is Brahman alone, none else.”
His statement, although it presents the core teaching found in all the Upanishads, has evoked much criticism. Most people are naturally unable to accept the world in which they live and the things they directly perceive and experience throughout their lives as illusion.
But a spiritual aspirant may ask, “Is there a higher state to which I can wake up, so that this illusory, waking world will disappear, just like a dream world?”
The answer is a resounding “yes.” But ironically, what that higher state is no one can describe precisely. This is because non-dualism does not allow for the dichotomy of an experience and one who experiences. The experiencer is lost in the process.
The modern day teachings of Advaita Vedanta, especially as revealed by Sri Ramana Maharshi focused on the practice of Self-inquiry, called Atma-vichara in Sanskrit, which is the most important meditation practice in the Vedantic tradition. It is the main practice of the yoga of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), which itself is traditionally regarded as the highest of the yogas because it can take one most directly to liberation.
Sri Ramana seemed to teach and practice transcendence devoid of any Ashtanga Yoga overtones, except pranayama. When asked about pranayama Sri Ramana said: “This vichara brings about the desired result. For one not so advanced as to engage in it, regulation of breath is prescribed for making the mind quiescent. Quiescence lasts only so long as the breath is controlled.” And when asked; What is the need then for pranayama?
He replied: “Pranayama is meant for one who cannot directly control the thoughts. It serves as a brake to a car. But one should not stop with it but must proceed to pratyahara, dharana and dhyan. After the fruition of dhyana, the mind will come under control even in the absence of pranayama. The asanas (postures) help pranayama, which helps dhyana in its turn, and peace of mind results. Here is the purpose of Hatha Yoga.”
It is significant that there is really nothing much within the Eight Limbs of Yoga practice which is anti-thetical to Advaita Vedanta; in fact, the Yogic path actually seems to fit quite nicely with Advaitic metaphysics. In samadhi, the eighth and highest limb, the mind loses ego-awareness and becomes one with the object of meditation, but this non-dualistic experience is only “temporary” in Yoga (savikalpa Samadhi), since the ultimate goal of Patanjali’s yoga system is the discrimination of pure consciousness from all those objects it identifies with. But this experience accords very well with the Advaitic aim of “realizing the whole universe as the Self.” (nirvikalpa Samadhi).
Most students of yoga have heard of Patanjali, but if they haven’t, then it’s only a matter of time before they do. Patanjali was an Indian sage who distilled the essence of India’s spiritual/philosophical traditions, which included centuries of philosophies and practices, and condensed this knowledge into 196 “Yoga Sutras”. With these concise sutras (aka aphorisms), Patanjali codified India’s sixth philosophical system called Yoga (the other 5 being Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta) and subsequently became known as the father of Classical Yoga or as it’s commonly referred to today, Ashtanga yoga. In addition to Ashtanga Yoga, the Yoga Sutras are also sometimes referred to as Raja Yoga, or the Royal Yoga.
While Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are thought to be as old as 400 BCE, archaeological evidence and other ancient texts suggest that the methods described in the Yoga Sutras may have been practiced as early as 3000 BCE. Oral tradition asserts that the period may be even earlier.
The word ‘sutras’ is derived from the word ‘suture’, which conveys that the sentences are short, compact and stitched together. Every sutra contains a deep meaning and can stand on its own as well as be taken in context with the rest. A good analogy often used to describe the yoga sutras is a pearl necklace, where each pearl (each sutra) is complete in itself but takes its full expression when strung together with the others, like a necklace.
The condensed form of the Yoga Sutras has yet another purpose: they can be easily memorized, and that’s exactly what has happened: they’ve been memorized and chanted in Indian ashrams for well over 2000 years and that continues today.
When studied from the most basic level, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras will give us insights into the human mind, how it works and how it affects the way we perceive our circumstances, our experiences and how we feel about them. Patanjali felt our problem was our perception of the world and how it is limited to our senses and our thoughts about them. So, he suggests that in order for us to experience the enlightenment we seek and establish the freedom and liberation we desire, we need to dedicate some of our time to taking our attention away from the outside world we live in, and turn within. Most of us already know this to a certain degree; we realize that when our lives get too hectic we can get overwhelmed and our spiritual maturity is sacrificed as a result.
On a much deeper level, what Patanjali is suggesting is that when we turn our focus from the external world back to our inner selves, the path itself will slowly draw us toward the goal, increasingly unveiling the “Light of the Soul.”
Even though yoga students come from an assortment of backgrounds it is still important for each of them to know that yoga is universal and regardless of your religious orientation or whether you are a ‘believer’ or not, your practice will reflect precisely what you need at any given time. If you are inclined toward the Divine (God, the Absolute or whatever name you choose), practicing yoga will make you feel more in tune with the sanctity of life. On the other hand, if you don’t relate to such concepts, your yoga practice is likely to give you more strength and stamina to achieve what you want in life, and in all probability, you’ll slowly develop a sense of awe and an “attitude of gratitude” toward all of life.
Returning to the concept of yoga being a path toward discovering the Light of the Soul, Patanjali says that the path of yoga can help us to realize that the creative force that keeps the universe humming behind the scenes is identical to the force that keeps us going. Consciousness is what makes us aware of, and able to, express this. It can be a difficult concept to grasp but its essence is captured beautifully by Yann Martel in his novel, “Life of Pi:” “That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing.The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite.”
Yoga even goes a step further, for as we all have heard the word Yoga means literally to yoke or unite, and means that we have the inherent potential to actually unite our soul or Individual Consciousness (life force/creative power) with Universal Consciousness (universe’s life force/creative power).
Now this is a lofty goal indeed, and patience dictates we take first things first and learn how we “turn our attention inward?” The answer to this question is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’ main contribution towards the goal. His sutras give us a scientific method, a set of practices and techniques to experiment with and that will slowly sharpen our awareness of our body, mind and breath. Gradually, the subtler aspects of our being start to reveal themselves.
An Overview of the Yoga Sutras and their application for students/practitioners of Yoga
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras consist of four chapters (or books) and the most relevant to a beginning yoga practitioner today is the second chapter called Sadhana pada meaning spiritual path or spiritual practice. Central to this chapter is the description of the well known “Eightfold Path,” sometimes called “Eight Limbs of Yoga” (see link below). There are no English words that can translate perfectly these concepts which were originally written in the Sanskrit language and each word of each sutra leaves place for interpretation. The sutras need to be “decoded” so to speak, and then reviewed until they begin to make sense. Different commentaries written on the sutras must be analyzed and compared. And this can be a laborious task since in the 1980’s and 90’s, a period when yoga was rapidly gaining in popularity, many individual commentaries started to emerge and now we can find hundreds of them written by Yogis, Swamis, scholars, pandits and philosophers, all from varying perspectives and some of them more relevant than others to our contemporary life. The internet is loaded with examples of these commentaries; just do a “Google search” for Patanjali or the Yoga Sutras and explore them for yourself and see how they apply to you, your practice and your life.
If we consider Eightfold Path the core of Yoga practice, then these eight steps will indicate a logical (and scientific) pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, mental and psycho-spiritual health. Remember, Yoga does not seek to change the student or practitioner; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to evolve and become a reality.
There’s numerous ways to define yoga, but each of the definitions are ultimately all about connection. In Sanskrit, the word ‘yoga’ is literally translated as “to join” or “to unite” and is used to signify any form of connection. So yoga means “union,” and the purpose of yoga practice is to connect. We can connect in many ways. We can connect with others or with a higher power. We can also connect our minds with our hearts; with our thoughts reflecting our feelings and vice versa. In fact, we need to connect our minds with our hearts first, because before we can connect to another, whether a thing, person, sentient being or higher power, we need to connect our brains to our emotions.
In its highest philosophical sense, yoga means conscious connection of the individual self with the highest Self, where you feel “at one” with the rhythms and cycles of the cosmos, God or the Universal Divine.
Yoga is first and foremost a science, a system of consciously practiced techniques and processes that enable you to be fully present and to realize your highest Self (aka Atman) which is inherently connected to all that is. Hence there is no dogma or belief system attached to yoga. Yoga simply instructs you to do a certain practice, to feel the effects and then to discover your true Self through that practice. For example, if you practice pranayama and breathe slowly and in a relaxed manner you will notice your heart rate slows, your mind becomes calm and focused, and deep insights are the result.
Whenever you totally experience this connection you are in the state of yoga; a balanced, blissful and life affirming state of being united and no longer a separate ego-based entity.
Love can also be “Connection”
Ironically, romantic and personal love both have their agendas, but “connecting” has no agendas. In order for love to truly be “connection” it must be universal and unconditional, it cannot exclude or choose a specific object (or person) to love. Have you ever noticed that when you love something, you feel connected to it? You start to observe the things you have in common rather than the differences that would tend to separate you. This is a beginning, a starting point where practice can help that love to expand, to become more and more inclusive.
Here you may observe your ability to love goes through different stages where the feeling of connectivity happens on multiple levels. At first you may notice that you wish for your love to be reciprocated, and as that wish is gradually replaced by feelings of selfless love, a new sense of freedom (or expansion) is experienced. This is where yoga practice and the development of selfless love meet.
As you begin to consciously practice love in a broader, less selfish and more expansive way, you’ll feel unity, or connectivity is beginning to dissolve the drama of your separateness and your ego-centered activities are abandoned in favor of a more compassionate approach. So continue to practice yoga and selfless love until you feel that your heart is so big and the love so infinite that you can hold the whole universe in your heart.
The Bhagavad Gita recognizes the synchronous nature of creation and the underlying Divine/cosmic unity. The Hindu term, Brahman, refers to the fundamental connection of all things in the universe. The appearance of this Universal Oneness in the soul is called Atman.
The ancient Hindu mystics said everything in the universe was inextricably interconnected, and they used Indra’s Net to illustrate the concept. Stephen Mitchell, in his book The Enlightened Mind, wrote: “The Net of Indra is a profound and subtle metaphor for the structure of reality. Imagine a vast net; at each crossing point there is a jewel; each jewel is perfectly clear and reflects all the other jewels in the net, the way two mirrors placed opposite each other will reflect an image ad infinitum. The jewel in this metaphor stands for an individual being, or an individual consciousness, or a cell or an atom. Every jewel is intimately connected with all other jewels in the universe, and a change in one jewel means a change, however slight, in every other jewel.”
It is often quite confusing for those interested in beginning a regular yoga practice to choose from all the yoga studios online. Which style of yoga would be best suited for them, can be a major concern. Before they figure out which class they’d be most interested in taking, they need to know what the differences are. Discounting Bikrams, which is controversial (besides, all Bikrams is hot yoga, but all hot yoga is not Bikrams), the differences between the other styles aren’t so clear. Hatha and Ashtanga yoga may appear to the novice as the same style, but yet they are often found to be very different when put into actual practice.
Let’s start with Intensity
Hatha yoga is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses all styles of physical yoga practice, including Ashtanga, but yoga studios that typically promote the slower, gentler yoga classes are known as Hatha yoga. These less challenging classes are generally considered more appropriate for beginners. Even though Hatha classes are commonly taught at a relatively low intensity level, it is still best to speak with each individual instructor beforehand to decide if the class is right for you. Some yoga instructors teach Hatha yoga classes at a more strenuous level than others. Some studios assign a numerical value to the difficulty level, such as 1, 2 or 3, with level 3 being the most demanding class.
Flow (or pace)
In Sanskrit the word for flow is “Vinyasa” and this determines the difference between Hatha yoga and Ashtanga yoga in terms of the class’s structure. Whenever you see the word Vinyasa or flow added onto the end of the class or studio name, this probably means that you will be moving from Asana (posture) to asana without stopping (or in a flow). This is usually the way Ashtanga yoga is taught. Hatha yoga, on the other hand typically goes into one asana, holds the pose, and then comes out of it after a determined amount of time. With Hatha yoga there isn’t any transition between each asana as there is in Ashtanaga yoga classes.
Primary Objectives of Hatha Yoga
Hatha yoga practice focuses on perfecting the asanas and doing pranayama (breath control), to increase the flow of prana (life force) through the nadis (channels throughout the body through which the prana flows). Prana is similar to the concept of chi (or Qi). Pranayama is the scientific practice of first controlling and then directing the prana through breathing exercises. Hatha works to balance increase this flow of energy. Asana and pranayama practice are part of Ashtanga yoga as well, but they are only two of the “Eight Limbs” (aka branches or objectives) of Ashtanga.
So basically, when you join a Hatha class it means that you will get an easy, gradual introduction to the most basic yoga asanas and then strive to perfect them. It’s unlikely you’ll work up a sweat in a Hatha yoga class, but you probably will end up leaving the class feeling taller, looser, and more relaxed. Posture is also usually improved.
Primary Objective of Ashtanga Yoga
A student or practitioner of Ashtanga yoga not only works on asanas and pranayama but also all the other six limbs which are; yama (the do not’s), niyama (the do’s), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss or effortless meditatio). The Yamas & Niyamas are yoga’s ten ethical guidelines and are the foundation of skillful living. Pratyahara is a means of withdrawing all sensory perceptions. Dharana, dhyana and samadhi are connected, being successive stages which lead to enlightenment.
Today, Ashtanga yoga is based on ancient yoga teachings that were popularized and brought to the West by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s. It’s a more rigorous style of yoga that follows a specific sequence of postures similar to Vinyasa yoga (both styles links every movement to a breath). Ashtanga performs the exact same asanas in the exact same ordered sequence. This can a hot, physically demanding practice and you will break a sweat.
Hatha Yoga has become the most popular style of Yoga in the United States. It focuses on the physical well-being of a person and teaches that the body is the vehicle of the spirit. There are lot of different Yoga Styles that have their roots Hatha Yoga, but all these styles strive to balance the mind, the body, and the spirit through the asanas, although the emphasis sometimes varies. Some put the emphasis on the strict alignment of the body while others focus on the coordination of breath and asana.
Ashtanga yoga may be the perfect yoga for those who want a serious workout. Students and participants move through a series of flows, sequencing from one asana to another in order to increase strength, flexibility and stamina. This is not for beginners or anyone who taks a casual approach to fitness. Ashtanga Yoga Practice involves performing challenging sequence of poses with Ujjayi Breathing and vinyasas (a flow of postures). “Power Yoga” is based on Ashtanga.
The fifth of the five Niyamas is Ishvara Pranidhana. In its simplest form, the Sanskrit term is a combination of the words; Ishvara, meaning Lord, God, Supreme Being or Life Force, and Pranidhana, meaning attention to, love for, surrender to, faith in, or reunion with. “Attentiveness” and “Surrender” are both close English approximations.
Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana) is considered the “final” step, stage, practice or observance (Niyama) for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Patanjali says of Ishvara Pranidhana: “From an attitude of letting go into one’s source (ishvarapranidhana), the state of perfected concentration (samadhi) is attained.” (Yoga sutra 2.45 – samadhi siddhih ishvarapranidhana).
For Patanjali, Ishvara Pranidhana is a powerful “observance” for dissolving the seemingly endless fluctuations (or agitations) of the mind, and is therefore a means to the realization of the ultimate unified state of yoga, “Samadhi.” By embodying the practice of Ishvara Pranidhana we can shift our perspective from our obsession with the “ego-I” that causes so much of the mind’s distraction and creates the sense of separation from our Source. Since Ishvara Pranidhana focuses on the sacred ground of being rather than the ego, it reunites us with our true Self. As B. K. S. Iyengar states in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “Through surrender the aspirant’s ego is effaced, and…grace…pours down upon him like a torrential rain.”
A note on the meaning of Ishvara (from Swami Rama): “In the Upanishads, the word Īśvara is used to denote a state of collective consciousness. Thus, God is not a being that sits on a high pedestal beyond the sun, moon, and stars; God is actually the state of Ultimate Reality. But due to the lack of direct experience, God has been personified and given various names and forms by religions throughout the ages. When one expands one’s individual consciousness to the Universal Consciousness, it is called Self-realization, for the individual self has realized the unity of diversity, the very underlying principle, or Universal Self, beneath all forms and names. The great sages of the Upanishads avoid the confusions related to conceptions of God and encourage students to be honest and sincere in their quests for Self-realization. Upanishadic philosophy provides various methods for unfolding higher levels of truth and helps students to be able to unravel the mysteries of the individual and the universe.”
In the West we commonly view surrender as giving up; a last resort when all else has failed and we are exhausted or in a weakened state, but on the other hand, the type of surrender indicated by Isvara Pranidhana requires tremendous strength and courage. This is why the observance of the other four Niyamas precedes it.
In order to surrender the “fruits” of our actions to God we are required to give up all illusions that we know best, and instead accept and trust that the way our life unfolds is most likely part of a much larger pattern too complex and/or beautiful for us to understand. Isvara Pranidhana instructs us to make a conscious choice to love regardless of the harshness or comfort of our current circumstances.
This surrender is definitely not a passive inactivity. Isvara Pranidhana requires that we completely and whole heartedly surrender to all that “is”, while simultaneously acting with an abundance of goodness and love.
The practice of Isvara Pranidhana is relatively simple. Just let all the activities of body, mind and spirit be consciously rooted in unconditional love, the love of an open heart radiating kindness and compassion. Actively surrender to reality of Life, the Divine and Existence Itself. As we actively surrender to what “is” while we intentionally move towards the highest expression of our spiritual Self in each moment with no attachment or thought of any “attainment”, a great sense of freedom and peace arises within us and we become a healing light to all.
Isvara Pranidhana inherently requires a profound trust in the goodness of the Universal Divine which permeates all existence, both within and beyond our finite understanding.
The fourth of the five Niyamas is Svadhyaya – a compound Sanskrit word literally translated sva, meaning “one’s own”, and adhyaya, “study”; therefore Svadhyaya would mean study of one’s self. Svadhyaya also is interpreted as studying the Vedas, Yoga Sutras and other scriptures, basically the source materials of yoga practice.
Self-study is very important for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga) and it would include reflection on sacred texts. Patanjali says of Svadhyaya: “From self-study and reflection on sacred words (svadhyaya), one attains contact, communion, or concert with that underlying natural reality or force.”(Yoga sutra 2.44 – svadhyayat ishta samprayogah).
Through deep inquiry into the self, comes an acknowledgment of the oneness of that self with all that is arises naturally. In other words, when practicing Svadhyaya our boundaries begin to melt and the illusion of separateness we feel from ourselves, those around us, and our world begins to dissolve. To practice Svadhyaya is to find the Divine appearing in us (and as us) at this very moment.
Yogis throughout the ages have practiced Svadhyaya by asking the simple question, “Who am I.” Sri Ramana Maharishi often spoke of self-enquiry as the “direct path” meaning it was the fastest path to moksha (liberation from Maya [illusion] and samskara [the cycle of death and rebirth] including all of the suffering and limitation of worldly existence).
Svadhyaya is purposefully preceded by Tapas (fiery discipline) because it takes an enormous amount of discipline to move beyond the material world that defines, binds and shrouds us in Maya (ignorance). In the practice of Svadhyaya, prayers, mantras, japa, meditation, purposeful intent and other devotional practices, including ancient yogic methods are used to strip away the ego and unveil truth, layer by layer. In the study of one’s self, the student becomes the witness of their thoughts, emotions, actions and life. During this witnessing process the distance between the real and unreal is unveiled. The incessantly chattering mind, unsettled emotions and physical limitations of the body are no longer seen as the “Self”, but instead are viewed as an experience of Self. In this recognition and realization of Truth, the practice of Svadhyaya brings a resounding peace.
In yoga practice, Svadhyaya has most traditionally been concerned with the study of various scriptures. But in truth, any practice that brings us to the point of recognizing our interconnection with all that is, is Svadhyaya. Svadhyaya could be studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, practicing asana, chanting, or even reading this blog.
In the study of Svadhyaya, as with all of our sadhanas, there is a natural, organic movement towards becoming more and more present. Along with this movement, there is an automatic falling away of fear. A sense of peace emerges along with the knowledge that love (presence) permeates all that is and ever was. Through the recognition of our inherent goodness and divinity, we realize that everything occurs for both the good of the individual and the good whole. In this state there are no random events, in fact, it would appear as if from your very first breath you were meant to find that you are loved far more than you could ever possibly imagine.
Final thoughts: Incorporating the practice of Svadhyaya into your everyday life is an effective way to experience life more fully. It’s about getting to know yourself better. And as we begin to truly understand who we are, we identify with the connectedness (union) that yoga is really all about.
The next article will continue this series with: The Five Niyamas (Part 5 – Ishvara Pranidhana)
The third of the five Niyamas is Tapas – a Sanskrit term meaning “heat”. In Vedic religion and Hinduism, Tapas is also used figuratively, denoting spiritual suffering, mortification or austerity, and also the spiritual ecstasy of a yogin or tāpasa (a Vriddhi derivative meaning “a practitioner of austerities, an ascetic”).
Self training is very important for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Training the senses is a subtler training, as these are the instrument of the mind, acting through the vehicle of the body. Patanjali says of Tapas: “Through ascesis or training of the senses (tapas), there comes a destruction of mental impurities, and an ensuing mastery or perfection over the body and the mental organs of senses and actions (indriyas).”(Yoga sutra 2.43 – kaya indriya siddhih ashuddhi kshayat tapasah)
The Katha Upanishad (III.3-4) presents a metaphor of a chariot, in which the senses (indriyas) are like the horses, the reins are the mind (manas), the driver is the intelligence or intellect (buddhi), the chariot is the physical body, and the passenger is the true Self, the atman. If the senses and mind are not trained, then the horses run in random, uncontrolled directions. With self-training, the senses stay on course, under the proper control of the driver. The Katha Upanishad is also notable for first introducing the term yoga (lit. “yoking, harnessing”) for spiritual exercise: “When the five organs of perception become still, together with the mind, and the intellect ceases to be active: that is called the highest state. This firm holding back of the senses is what is known as Yoga.”(VI.10-11, trans. Paramananda).
Since it comes from the Sanskrit root “to burn,” the word tapas represents the transformational essence of fire. Just as fire transforms all that it touches, tapas is a method of personal transformation. When practicing tapas, the student or Yogi finds his own inner flame which becomes the motivation that keeps him focused on his goals and helps him to eliminate or “burn” the obstacles on his path. Temptations of the senses, laziness, negative thoughts, energy blockages in the body, etc. are gradually weakened and overcome. The power the senses have to distract us is limited by the student’s clear and disciplined focus and in this way Tapas perfects the body and senses and destroys impurities.
Tapas is often regarded as “austerity” but in today’s culture, we generally (and mistakenly) associate the term “austerity” with severe depravation. Although, according to the yoga philosophy, austerity is an opportunity to set ourselves free from distraction. When we discipline ourselves, establishing long-term goals, difficulty can definitely arise; because it is both frustrating and challenging to confront the limits of our own commitment to maintaining self-control. However, when we finally gain the strength and courage to make the commitment, the results are unbelievable. We discover that beyond the end goal of personal transformation, our self-esteem is improved and the realization of our inherent inner strength is our biggest reward. And fortunately, this is a “snowballing” effect; the more often we act in accordance with our convictions, the more we gain self-control and empower a sense of purposeful self-direction.
But beware, austerity and self-discipline can act as two-edged swords, especially if (and when) an individual can be tempted toward extremes of behavior in order to gain recognition and/or notoriety. The Bhagavad Gita specifically warns against practicing austerities “…with hypocrisy and egotism, impelled by lust, and attachment,”stating that this is tortuous for the body, and destroys any divine presence in the body. It also states that the results of such ego-driven pursuits are “unsteady and impermanent.”(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter XVII). For example, consider two individuals who have both decided to change their diets and eating habits. One of them has changed their diet because of an ego-driven desire to be skinnier, to look “better,” become more attractive, more desirable. The other has decided to change their diet in order to have a healthier and happier body, so that they can focus on their highest goals with less distraction from illness and fatigue, or they may do so by observing Ahimsa, eliminating the mental poisons of guilt and regret that comes from killing. These are truly Tapasic approaches.
A simple way to understand Tapas is to think of it in terms of consistency. All disciplines and practices are most effective when engaged with consistency; getting on the yoga mat every day, sitting in meditation every day or carefully observing the constant fluctuations of the mind on a regular basis. Giving up some negative attitude about someone and forgiving them is another effective way to practice Tapas. When Tapas is practiced in this manner, it then becomes subtle and more constant, resulting in a more positive practice that is more concerned with the quality of life and relationships; rather than just enduring some difficulty, like gritting your teeth while trying to remain for another few seconds in a difficult asana (posture).
If Yoga was practiced without goals, there would be no need for Tapas or the other Niyamas. In fact, the very existence of the Niyamas implies the existence of goals; Niyamas are the observances, the disciplines, meant to be practiced consistently to achieve a specific result. Tapas may well be considered pure discipline itself.
Final notes: Without Tapas any journey, especially one that follows a spiritual path will be chaotic and without structure or direction. Tapas essentially adds richness and meaning to the path. With regular and consistent practice, Tapas will make you stronger and more resilient. Both the enlightened Yogi and the most successful entrepreneur have one thing in common – both are infused with the spirit of Tapas.
Unleash the fiery enthusiasm of Tapas!
The next article will continue this series with: The Five Niyamas (Part 4 – Svadhyaya)