Yoga Definition

Sivananda’s Definition of Yoga

What yoga is and is not…

[In 1961, when Swami Sivanandaji sent me to the West, he asked me to write an article on what yoga is and is not, according to him, as I had learnt over the years. After editing The Divine Life magazine from January 1949 onward, in my last August 1961 issue, I published the following article under his name.]

Possibly no other word is more misunderstood than the simple Sanskrit word yoga. Recently (in 1961) a former Indian ambassador to Belgium said that in Europe he generally found yoga did not mean very much more than asana and pranayama, and sometimes some Indians even tried to pass on a few ordinary magical tricks as a demonstration of yogic power.

The West is not to be blamed for this, because of the paucity of good literature available on this subject, and even most of these deal with asana and pranayama, which are at best auxiliaries to yoga

Popular Misconception

Quite a few Indians who visit or stay in western countries as yoga teachers are very often ill-equipped for their role, and what is generally regrettable is that they lack the necessary spiritual evolution and true yogic idealism, the twin characteristics of which are detachment and the spirit of renunciation.

In India too yoga is not rightly understood. It is thought to be something out of the way. A yogi is supposed to be a queer being, with matted locks and unkempt beard, untidy in appearance and preferably smeared with ashes, someone who lives on herbs and roots in some remote forest or in a dark cave in the fastness of a distant mountain-range.

The yogi might even be expected to chew glass-pieces and digest them, drink nitric acid and draw nutrition from it, levitate from the ground while he meditates, indulge in predictions, or be a soothsayer or a palmist or an astrologer, or even speculate on share scrips.

None of these has anything to do with yoga. Magical performances such as the rope trick, mesmerism, acrobatics, maybe somewhat altered from what one usually finds in the circus, feats of endurance like prolonged retention of breath, doing so-called sajiva samadhi or remaining buried underground for several days, which is done by mastery over kevala kumbhaka — all these are not the purpose of yoga.

Flying in the air without the aid of wings, if that were possible at all, is not the goal of a yogi. Sitting on a bed of nails or doing anything odd is not yoga. Essentially an inner process, yoga is a means of self-culture to begin with.

Asana and Pranayama

The West has a special fascination for asanas. The more difficult the contortion the greater the glamour. After all, the good Lord did not intend the human body to be twisted and stretched to the utmost in order to attain spiritual integration, the goal of yoga.

Asana and pranayama have their own place and importance, but they alone do not constitute the main paths of yoga. Asanas can make the spine supple and keep the body healthy to a certain extent. It is said that you are as old as your spine, but in fact youthfulness depends on one’s mental equipoise, optimism, interest, and freedom from grief and boredom. A healthy body alone cannot make you free from worries.

Even in Raja Yoga, the goal of asana, the third aspect, is to have mastery over some of the main postures for meditation, that is, to remain steady and at ease for a sufficient length of time, so that one might practise undisturbed the abstraction of the mind (pratyahara) for concentrating it (dharana) on the ideal of meditation (dhyana).

Asana as a means of physical culture forms a part of Hatha Yoga. Adapted to modern techniques, especially through controlled movements, the postures are useful for keeping healthy, if practised regularly, and some of them can also alleviate certain types of diseases. However, by themselves they do not ensure spiritual progress. Giving too much importance to them will only make one more body-conscious.

Pranayama, likewise, has a significant bearing on the mind, especially the ones mentioned in the fourth aspect of Raja Yoga. They are practised to steady the mind, harmonise the prana or the flow of energy and generally to maintain good health. Notwithstanding the claims made in some yogic literature, their purpose is not to gain control over the laws of prakriti (physical nature).

A well-known story (probably mythical) attributed to the Buddha speaks of a student of yoga practising various disciplines for a dozen years in order to overcome the gravitational pull at will, so that he could cross a river without wetting his feet. When he came back to his original teacher and proudly spoke of his feat, the guru reproached the disciple for having wasted so many years of his life for doing what could be done by paying a few coins to a boatman.

An Inner Process

Standing on the head by itself does not make one a yogi. Yoga is basically concerned with spiritual development through the sublimation of the mind. If you learn to control your mind, your temper, passions, desires, resentment, negative thinking, taking recourse to dishonest and unfair means for personal advantage, then you are practising yoga, using meditation as a means to strengthen resolve and acquire clarity of understanding to act prudently.

Yoga should not be confused as a Hindu dogma. Yoga is anything but a dogma. It is a philosophy of life that originated in Hinduism some three thousand years ago to give spiritual inspiration to religion without dogmatism. The existence of matter and spirit is accepted as an interacting process to make evolution possible. Matter is not denied, but the validity of its existence is dependent on the spirit which permeates it — as energy to give it a cohesive form, as a means of evaluation or the mind in the brain, as spiritual aspiration in a higher level of consciousness, or soul.

The content of that higher consciousness is a spark of the infinite spirit waiting to be awakened in the mind. The goal is union or integration of the different aspects of human nature with the spiritual content of one’s being. While not being a particular religion, yoga has the same goal of all religions, without being dogmatic, or exclusive of an only way.

Yoga is defined in various ways. The Bhagavat Gita says “efficiency in action is yoga”. The Vedanta speaks of an enlightened state of mind, or clarity of perception of spiritual values, being yoga. The Bhakti literature extols purity of heart to cultivate divine love as yoga. Raja Yoga enjoins control of mind to experience a state of spiritual union in deep meditation as the goal of yoga.

Yoga does not consist in the physical aspect of renunciation or running away from the world. One could be a yogi while yet leading an active life, but it would be foolish for a worldly-minded person to consider himself or herself a yogi. The world is not a place of bondage by itself, but the selfish possessiveness which negates real love that conduces bondage.

To maintain constantly the spirit of yoga, while being subject to worldly influence and impelled by negative samskaras or cumulative impressions acquired in the past, is not easy. To cultivate a rational and healthy perspective, seek an insight into the nature of things, to love spiritual ideals in order to be a better human being, is the goal of a yogi.

The Spirit of Yoga

The world of the senses which we feel and see, enjoy and suffer from, is not the only reality. There is something beyond all that is apparent. Life is not entirely matter-bound. There is something higher than the call of mundane duties, something greater than temporal values. To seek the inner truth, to rise above selfishness, to be balanced in pleasure and pain, in success and failure, to be conscientious in one’s conduct and action, and, above all, not to be a hypocrite, is the goal of yoga. A twinge of conscience is, indeed, a glimpse of God.

Detachment, control of the senses, non-expectation, devotion to the ideal behind action, efficiency, initiative, perseverance and learning from experience, should be the guiding factors in the active life of a yogi. In this way, maintaining an inner calm while being active, as the Bhagavat Gita says, one practises the process of meditation, whereas, in the act of meditation, sitting still but having no control over the mind, with the thoughts wandering here and there, one remains active.

Emotional integration is yoga — having deep, mature emotions. Shedding tears for the vision of a deity is not yoga, nor seeing the appearance of a divine image, which can be a projection from the psyche. Devotional acts such as recitation of prayers or saying the rosary are meaningful only when they inspire you to live a life of integrity and compassion, improve your relationship with others, find a greater meaning in being alive, not waiting for salvation, or liberation.

Yoga does not attempt to divide people as believers and non-believers. God is not confined to a concept or an image, but is in all images and spiritual ideals, and yet beyond all that the mind is capable of conceiving. One can be a yogi while not believing in any particular deity but in the transcendental ideals of truth and love.

Having psychic visions does not indicate one’s spiritual evolution. Being psychically prone to a state of trance does not make one a yogi, but humility of spirit and purity of character. The truth of samadhi, which is not to be confused with an opaque state of trance, but is actually the highest level of meditation, is reflected in the conduct and living ideals of the person who has experienced it.

Indifference to material things or other-worldliness does not itself define the yogic attitude but kind-heartedness and sharing the suffering of others in the process of helping to alleviate it. Love of God in a yogi means unselfish love for others. The heart of a yogi is free from passion and prejudice. It is not filled with fanciful thinking about God but concern for others. It is not impulsive but sober. It is detached but full of love. It may adore the deity of its choice but respects the right of others to worship any other deity or not at all.

Yoga has no boundaries. Although having originated in India, it is still in the process of evolution, like the understanding of truth, among those who have grasped its real meaning. It is ridiculous to claim those who practise asana and pranayama as yogis, who are but students of the two branches of Hatha Yoga, for a yogi is one who has attained a high degree of spiritual evolution.

Swami Shivapremananda