Yoga – What Does it Really Mean?

This article is written by Sritvatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:

When Sri Krishnamacharya started to teach the Sutras to me for the first time, he explained the avyaya atha in the first sutra and then settled down to explain the term ‘yoga’. Usually I used to take down notes extensively at that time. But then put my pen down and listened to him. It was ‘jaw dropping’ as he went on to give a lecture on Yoga in general and then in the particular context used by Patanjali. I have written about it in my book in the chapter “What is Yoga” and also in my recent talk in Chennai. Maybe I have written about it in one of my newsletters. But repetition of these basic discussions can be pardoned.

All of us know that yoga is from the sanskrit root yuj/yunj to unite. Yujir yoge says the dhatupatha. Yoga and the English word ‘yoke’ have the same origin say some linguists. So Yoga means union. Union presupposes that there should be two principles existing for union to take place. So any yoga system should specify the duality between which the union would take place. Then the two principles should be compatible, else no union is possible, like water and oil won’t mix. Then there should be activity in them. They should move towards each other. Or at least one of the principles should move towards the other. The system also should specify how the movement could be initiated and sustained. All these factors make a yoga system of union.

Based on this interpretation of yoga, several systems have come to stay. Perhaps the most popular yoga system, especially among the contemporary yogis, is the Hathayoga system. In this, the two principles between which yoga is sought to be achieved are ‘ha’ and ‘ta’. According to Brahmanand, the commentator on Hatayogapradipika, ha would mean prana and ta apana. Are they compatible? Yes they are said to have been derived from one principle mukhya prana. Different interpretations of prana and apana are available and one interesting interpretation is this. The words, both, are derived from the root ‘ana’ to brathe. ‘Ana’ svase says the dhatupata. Ana as in the word to breathe. The prefix ‘pra ‘ would mean to take something in and apa would mean to discard something.

Since each organism, like us, is a dynamic living being, it maintain a constant intake of life maintaining objects, and life threatening waste products are expelled. These functions are performed respectively by the prana and apana. The most important thing that is to be ingested in pranavayu or oxygen and the most important waste product that is to be expelled is apanavayu or co2. So basically prana and apana complement each other by drawing in what one wants to live and expelling what one does not want to maintain life.

Harmonizing these two forces is the main goal of hatayoga or union of ha and ta. How does one bring about union between these two biological forces? Either by lifting the apana upwards towards prana or lowering the prana towards apana or both. Then how to lift apana or lower prana? By pranayama both are achieved. During inhalation the prana is pushed down and during recaka the apana moves upward. In pranayama this natural process is enhanced. During puraka the prana is pushed down to the limit while in deep exhalation along with the bandhas, the apana is pulled way up. So in Hatayoga this union of prana and apana is sought to be attained by deep puraka and complete recaka with a judicious use of the bandhas—all the time sitting in a proper yogasana to facilitate this process. So all the three aspects of hatayoga, the asana, pranayama and the bandhas become essential. A Hatayogi is one who practices not only asanas but also pranayama aided by appropriate bandhas.

Usually the word yoga is used for union with a higher principle—maybe an equal but never with something considered inferior. In this context anything divine is considered a superior principle to integrate into. Union with God is perhaps the most important use of yoga called generally as bhakti yoga, union with the Lord. When the suffering inferior individual strives towards union with the most superior Lord it is considered Yoga. So the two principles are the individual called the jivatma and the Supreme the Lord paramatma. So the union between individual and the supreme will be bhakti yoga.

Now, who moves towards the other? According to traditional bhakti yoga the bhakti yogi develops a great love/devotion towards the Lord that the individual can not stay without the thought of the Lord. Meditating on the Lord all the time all through the life the individual will achieve union with the Lord (sayujya) at the end of life. All the moves, initiatives, come from the individual. One is required to hold on to the Lord like one holds on to life or like a baby monkey clings to the belly of the mother monkey.

On the other hand, for those who consider the Lord as compassionate, the only thing the devotee has to do is to take the first step towards the Lord. Mentally surrender yourself to the Lord. The Lord will take care of you, He will traverse the distance and at the end of life will absorb you into Himself. He will take care of the devotee like a mother cat takes care of the kitten.

Another well known yoga system is the union of Sakti and Siva also known as Kundalini Yoga. It is a very popular and vibrant yoga system. Basically it is an attempt to arouse , move Kundalini at the Muladhara chakra and ultimately integrate it with the Siva tatva at Sahsrara. The method of arousing and guiding Sakti along the sushumna path forms the methodology of Kundalini yoga. The sadhaka according to Sankara experiences immense bliss in all the nadis consequent on this union.

Yoga is union with an equal or more often with some higher principle, so those who meditate want to unite with a higher or satvic principle like one’s ishtadevata. Most of the mantras are considered to be uplifting and lead to union with a higher tatva. Yoga in that sense is used to indicate achieving something extraordinary. Aprapya prapyam (prapanam) yogam. In astrology a unique and favorable combination of planets that may confer extra ordinary benefit to the individual are said to enjoy some yoga, like guru mangala or guru chandra yoga. Some combinations are said to confer Rajayoga or extraordinary lift in one’s fortunes

Yoga students are also familiar with Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, also known as Raja yoga or yoga of enlightenment. Here the term Yoga is not used in the sense of union but yoga here means peace of mind. Vyasa in his commentary makes it clear at the outset that yoga is samadhi or here nirodha samadhi or absolute peace of mind. Here the word yoga is not derived from the rood yujir but another root yuja meaning peace of mind. Patanjali makes it very clear in his second sutra by defining yoga as citta vritti nirodha or cessation of all activities of the mind like right knowledge, misunderstanding etc., and not the union with another principle. Citta vritti norodha is absolute peace of mind. Sankara uses the term samadhana another term popularly used even today in India to indicate peace of mind or a settled mind. Bhoja who has written an independent commentary on yogasutras says yoga has two meanings, union and peace of mind and Patanjali uses the term as peace of mind—yogo yuktiH samadhanam.

This article is based on something my Guru Kruishnamacharya said on the first lecture of Yoga sutras I guess in the early 60s.

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