Yoga is one of six fundamental schools of Indian thought, together known as darsana (sight, point of view). Yoga is derived from and practiced within the Hindu culture, traditionally known as Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Truth). Among many other translations of the word “Yoga” (which we’ll discuss later this month), the one that is closest to my heart was described by T.K.V. Desikachar: to tie the strands of the mind together.
One of the oldest Indian scriptures to mentioned yoga, the Rig Veda, dates back 5,000 – 7,000 years ago. “This text, a collection of hymns or mantras, defines yoga as “yoking” or “discipline,” but offers no accompanying systematic practice” (Sangeetha Rajah, Hindupedia.com). It’s important to note that though the systematic practice was not mentioned in this Veda, this does not mean an absence of a practice.
Though yoga is a spiritual practice, one does not need to practice a specific religion, or any religion, to practice yoga. We’ll get to that in another post, on another day.
Another remarkable ancient text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, describes the path of yoga in great detail, and is well known for outlining the eightfold path or ashtanga (eight limbs). The text contains 196 sutras (threads, strings), as Swami Satchidananda describes “each sutra being the barest thread of meaning.” The very first sutra, atha yoganusasanam, can be translated as, “Here begins the authoritative instruction on yoga.”
This principle is ever present throughout the text, and is powerful in and of itself. Similar to much of Yogic philosophy, there are different interpretations of this sutra, and the video I have linked below discusses one, along with practical applications to ones’ life.
One of the reasons I want to begin with this sutra, is to make clear that Patanjali did not mean, “Here begins your asana lesson of the week.” Patanjali was a learner of this knowledge, and created this text to pass down wisdom as simply as possible; wisdom that extends far beyond our skin and bones; wisdom that can hold truth and be carried through thousands of years; wisdom to help one tie the strands of the mind together. Don’t be fooled, though. Simple does not mean easy.
I spent my first 4 years practicing only asana and pranayama, and really only have about 6 years of studying the other limbs and philosophies under my belt. Though I am what the Western part of the world would consider a “Yoga Teacher,” I feel more like an individual who shares the teachings of Yoga while also deeply immersed in the teachings myself.
Truthfully, I’ve lacked confidence in sharing my off-the mat practices. I had worried that people won’t gravitate toward the teachings, as we live in a society obsessed with asana. I was also unsure if I’d be able to pass on the teachings in a dignified way. Yoga contains a vast array of knowledge that has scholars still debating to this day, and I’d be lying if I said I have swam in the depths of it.
But, it’s time to loosen the grip on that fear. In a country where yoga is victim to cultural appropriation, I refuse to be a part of it anymore. I stopped over-valuing asana several years ago, and it’s time that you did too. I want you to experience the fullness of yoga, and not the watered down version that’s been spilled into the West.
I come back to this sutra, time and time again, as an inquiry into why I began this practice, why I teach, and a reminder that I am forever a student. It’s also a reminder that if one is going to say they teach yoga, they should be trusted to teach it in its entirety. If you’re not sharing the other aspects of yoga beyond one limb, I urge you to reconsider, or at least reconsider what you’re calling your classes. It’s imperative to honor yoga for everything that it is, and not just pick and choose what we want to pass on.
We don’t reach or attain the ripened fruit of yoga in 200 hours, or even 1,000. Heck, I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve it in this lifetime. But the best part of that is, I have let go of that expectation. Instead, I walk on this planet as a vehicle for acquiring knowledge, yet knowing I know less than what I do know. And as I contemplated how I would share this all with you in the most organized way, I came back to 1.1 and realized I needed to approach it from a beginner’s mind.
Because that’s the beauty of this practice. You can revisit any part of the teachings several times and learn something new. And with that, I thought it was fitting to start from the beginning. We’re never too deep into the journey to go back to where we started. And as I am not an expert in the deeper teachings of yoga, I will be supplementing my writing with other resources and videos for you to access. I’m still learning too, ya’ll.
So here we go. Time to practice. Grab a journal, if you’re ready.
Reflection: What does this sutra mean to you and your understanding of yoga? Why do you practice? What does it mean to truly practice, beyond asana?
Research: Of all the styles of asana you have practiced, which are you most drawn to? Research the origins of whichever you have chosen. We’ll discuss what I connect to most on another day.
References and Resources:
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda
A Quick Note
My writings are based off of my own research and education, and I am almost certain that at some point within this learning experience, I will misquote or misinterpret some part of the teachings. Please feel free to call me in with any post, either through comments or e-mail. It’s vital to pass this knowledge down correctly, and I am very open to correcting any past or present misinterpretations.
We now all know my favorite interpretation of the word, Yoga, but it’s equally important to know the rough translation, as well as bigger-picture interpretation. To put it simply, the word Yoga is derived from the root word, yuj, meaning, “to yoke,” “concentrate on,” or “join.” As mentioned above, the first known use of the word was found in the Rig Veda, more specifically, I.51.10.
The meaning of yoga has been discussed at length by many, many amazing authors, scholars, and teachers. In an attempt to not reinvent the wheel, I’ll provide some resources that contain lovely explanations.
The first is from Parmarth Niketan, an ashram located in the Himalayas. It’s a quick read, but contains definitions as written by the author, as well as from the The Bhagwad Gita. We can begin this week here.
Next, I’d like to quote T.K.V. Desikachar, right from his book, The Heart of Yoga. You’ll notice I reference him and his father, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, A LOT in my writing and in my classes. Out of all of the teachers I’ve learned about or practiced with, I most connect to those who were taught by this duo. In fact, Krishnamacharya taught many of the teachers who were considered influential for their time, including Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois, and B. K. S. Iyengar.
But, I digress. Back to our lesson.
I recommend buying The Heart of Yoga if you enjoy these excerpts I provide. The book has changed my practice dramatically, and I come back to it time and time again, much like a guide.
Many different interpretations of the word yoga have been handed down over the centuries. One of these is “to come together,” “to unite.” Another meaning of the word yoga is “to tie the strands of the mind together.” these two definitions may at first glance seem very different, but really they are speaking about the same thing. While “coming together” gives us a physical interpretation of the word yoga, an example of tying the strands of the mind together is the directing of our thoughts toward the yoga session before we take on an actual practice. once those mental strands come together to form an intention, we are ready to begin the physical work.
…to attain what was previously attainable.
…to be one with the divine.
…Yoga has its roots in Indian thought, but its content is universal because it is about the means by which we can make changes we desire in our lives.
The above italicized quotations are from Chapter 1 of The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar.
Lastly for this week, I wanted to share this wonderful video of a talk by Srivatsa Ramaswami on what yoga is. He discusses the meaning of the word itself toward the end, but I highly recommend watching this in its entirety (along with Parts II – IV, which you can find on YouTube as well). This is the most well explained, high level overview of yoga I have found in video format. And yes, this is a student of Krishnamacharya. I might be a little biased 🙂
Reflection: Knowing what yoga is on a very high level, where can you see the application in your own life? How can you fit both the formal (setting time aside for asana, pranayama, etc.) and informal (through interactions with yourself and others throughout your day) practices into your day to day?
The knowledge of yoga is older than language, and truly understanding it in its entirety would take more than one lifetime. The information is vast and heavy on the mind, but important to learn about nonetheless. If we’re to practice yoga; or better yet, to live yoga (as heard from my current philosophy teacher, Madhura), it’s vital to honor the very first words spoken of it.
We can start with a simple question. Where did this knowledge come from?
Remember, simple does not mean easy.
The short answer? From the Divine, God, Awareness, or whatever other name you may give it.
The long answer extends far beyond anything I could write in a single sitting. This week is dedicated to a high level overview of some of the most notable Hindu scriptures, in an effort to paint a picture of how far out this knowledge extends. We’ll revisit some of these scriptures in better detail down the road. As we navigate through this week, please remember that yoga is only one of six schools of Indian thought (Week 1), and therefore is not the only focal point within the teachings.
It’s a lot. I know. Take a deep breath, and understand that you can revisit this page or these resources at any time. Remember, we cannot consume all of this knowledge in one lifetime. Today’s list isn’t even an exhaustive one. It’s meant to enter your consciousness again and again.
I’m really into learning with more than one sense, so let’s start with listening. This is a short, four-ish minute video that contains an overview on Hindu scriptures. I like the way the Vlogger touches on some major bodies of text in such a short period of time.
Before language and scripture, Seers received this Divine knowledge during time spent meditation, deep within the vastness of and beyond their consciousness. Thousands of years later, scriptures were written and this knowledge was compiled into the Vedas. Scriptures, such as the Vedas, are referred to as shruti (that which is heard) because they are written based on knowledge directly from the Divine source; a revelation. Scriptures such as Puranas (briefly touched upon in the video), are referred to as smriti (recollection) because they are written based on what was remembered, and thus can change over time, and are meant to elaborate upon shruti.
Next, let’s take a look at this educational resource from The Vedic Foundation. This page provides a great overview of the scriptures, with an interactive chart for both visual learning, as well as links that direct you to brief descriptions of each. You can read this information here. Again, take a deep breath. You do not need to remember all of this today. Just absorb, acknowledge and honor, and revisit/expand when you’ve had time to digest.
Finally, this resource from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), linked here, gives us a connection between yoga and the scriptures. HAF provides excerpts of texts such as Svetasvatara Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (which we briefly learned about in week 1). I love this resource because you are given an added bonus for reading the page in full, including a short discussion on the over-value of asana in the Western part of the world, and the issue of the commercialization of yoga.
We must continue to be reminded of what yoga has become, in an effort to preserve its roots and honor this way of life for exactly what it is. One of my hopes for Off the Mat, is for you to decide if yoga is truly for you. There is nothing wrong with only being drawn to an asana practice, but there is a problem with calling that practice, purely yoga. I think it’s clear by now that yoga comes from a very sacred lineage. As practitioners (and teachers), we need to examine how we behave, both on and off the mat, to ensure we are honoring (and not appropriating) yoga.
I have been working on holding myself accountable to the above plea. Hear me when I say that I am not perfect, and I have a lot of work to do, too.
With all of that said, it’s time for some reflection.
Reflection: What are your thoughts about the deeper meanings of yoga? From what you’ve learned thus far, do you feel drawn to the true essence of a life of yoga? What, so far, might not be resonating with you?
Please remember from week 1, that you do not need to practice a particular religion, or any religion, to practice yoga. We’ll get there. I promise. 🙂
References and Other Resources
Shruti and Smriti: Some Issues in the Re-emergence of Indian Traditional Knowledge, written by P. K. Gautam
I’m ending this month’s post where yoga began: with OM, but more appropriately, AUM.
AUM, among many other meanings, is said to be the first human sound. Before language and scripture, the sound of AUM came from the voices of the Indian peoples during time spent in higher states of consciousness. AUM is considered the very first primordial sound; a mantra with tone, and others followed thereafter as a way of both connecting to and passing on wisdom and knowledge.
The first time I learned about the meaning of AUM was while reading Sri Swami Satchidananda’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. His interpretation was so powerful and still buzzes through my bones today. I’ll share a small excerpt here:
“The name OM can be split into three letters: A, U, and M. Every language begins with the letter A or “ah.” A is pronounced by simply opening the mouth and making a sound. That sound is produced in the throat where the tongue is rooted. So audible sound begins with A. Then, as the sound comes forward between the tongue and the palate up to the lips, U or ‘oo’ is produced. Then, closing the lips produces the M. So the creation is A, the preservation is U, and the culmination is M. A-U-M includes the entire process of sound, and all other sounds are contained in it. After the verbal sound ends there is still a vibration. That is the unspoken, or anahata sound, which is always in you even before saying the A and after finishing M. It is heard only when all other sounds cease. Even thinking creates a sound, because thought itself is a form of speaking. By thinking, you distort the original sound that transcends the beginning, continuation, and end of the OM sound. To listen to that sound, you have to keep your mind quiet, stop the thinking process, and dive within” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda).
AUM connects us to the three energies of life: Brahma, the creator, connects with the “ahh”; Vishnu, the sustainter or preserver, connects with the “oo”; and Mahesh, the destroyer or transformer, connects with the “mm.” If you pay attention to where you feel these three sounds coming from in the body, you’ll notice they coincide with these energies: “ahh” within the stomach, “oo” within the chest, and “mm” throughout the head.
To really grasp this idea, I recommend listening to and practicing with the below video. It’s worth EVERY minute. Khurshed Batliwala guides you through each sound, and provides incredible correlations, not just to the sound of AUM, but to the way the Indian culture was far ahead of their time, thousands of years ago.
AUM’s connection to the beginning of the universe is one of the most common interpretations I have heard of the mantra. AUM is said to be the sound of the Big Bang, and some past discoveries have confirmed the Big Bang did, in fact, make very distinct vibrational sounds. I couldn’t find any reputable resources truly connecting the two, but I did find a video released by the LISA mission that contains a recreation of that sound. And though it doesn’t contain any reference to the beginning sound of AUM, the vibrational sound itself gives me reason to pause and appreciate the ancient Sages of India for making such a remarkable connection.
For all of my science enthusiasts, I wanted to provide a resource that speaks of the research done on the chanting of AUM, in an effort to connect the Eastern and Western sciences. There’s an incredible amount of research that supports the many practices of yoga, including chanting, with effects ranging from decreased heart rate to mental alertness. You can read up on some of the research here.
The mention of science brings me to my final point this month: You do not need to practice a particular religion, or any religion for that matter, in order to practice yoga. Yoga is derived from the Hindu culture, or Sanatan Dharma, and is not an organized religion; there is no single prophet, text, or organization from which it operates from. “Hinduism is a collection of many religions, schools of thoughts/philosophies and belief systems that may seem contradictory but are somehow held together as a mysterious whole” (Understanding Hinduism – A Misunderstood Worldview Part 1). In fact, there’s a notable percentage of Hindu atheists, who denounce the existence of a God.
There’s a lot of information on the web regarding the above mentions, and I’ll leave it up to you to do more of your own research on the topic. Instead, I’ll give a little bit of my point of view. Please understand that what follows is my own opinion and should not be misinterpreted as my preaching of facts.
The word God, itself, has so many meanings tied to and wrapped around it. Some people picture God as a form: an old man with a white beard (confirmed by my 11 year old niece); a strong feminine deity; many deities and incarnations, etc. God has gotten a heavy reputation throughout history, and it’s taken me a long time to form my own interpretation. As someone who doesn’t belong to an organized religion, yet feels a sense of spirituality within my existence, I have cringed at using the term God because I associate that word with form. Instead, I’ve adopted an effortless devotion to energy.
Because in the end, that’s what God is. When you boil God down to the most basic elements of the meaning, you’re left with a formless expression of energy. Bringing it back to yoga, even the ancient peoples of India were devoted to three energies. The deities and stories associated with those energies came later.
Whether that energy is intelligent or Divine, is entirely up to you or your faith.
And that could also depend on what your definition of ‘intelligent’ is. The energy that sparked the Big Bang seems pretty intelligent to me.
Are you looking for energy that is really good at math and science? Capable of intellectual thought? Well, we could make a case for that. Technically, the first humans who discovered math and science could be linked to the same energy as the Big Bang. And so could we. Energy cannot be created, nor destroyed, right?
We, as humans, will never truly understand our existence. Our brains can not possibly comprehend something so profound and put it into words. We try time and time again, but we’re always missing several pieces to the puzzle. Language, though extraordinarily helpful for survival and sharing knowledge, has its limitations.
When it comes to religion, faith, and even atheism, the most important thing is your devotion to something greater than yourself. Humans all throughout time and all over the world have taken this formless energy and created their unique interpretations of it. Even some of the most well known atheists have spiritual practices.
History and science tell us very matter-of-factly that attachment to the external world creates the suffering we experience throughout our lives. Happiness, contentment, and insight come from within, and it’s up to us to discover that within ourselves. Some will find it through prayer or meditation; others through mindful living; and some even combine faith and science.
You don’t have to devote yourself to every yogic principle. There very well may be some aspects that don’t resonate with you; and that’s completely okay. Yoga has the capacity to bring you closer to your religion, whatever it may be. And if you do not practice one, it can bring you closer to yourself; your purpose. Even Maslow argued our highest need is one of self-actualization. Most of us want to achieve something greater than us.
If yoga has taught me anything, it begs me to ask the question, ‘who am I to judge?’ with every interaction I have. We are all on this Earth, on the same journey through life to death, but walking different paths. I can only foster growth within myself, aim to inspire others, and live with love and compassion for all beings, including myself.
Reflection: Write about your experience chanting, AUM, via the video within this post. Could you feel the vibrations moving from low to high? What aspects of yoga are you able to take with you throughout your journey, as relating to your religion or lack thereof?