Ever since June 21 was declared as the International Day of Yoga by the United Nations (at the suggestion of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi), there has been a lot of debate in the media on the significance of the gesture and its subsequent impact.
Not that awareness about yoga, the ancient Indian system of healing and spiritual growth, was lacking before the announcement. But the fact that the PM himself has been pushing for it and that elaborate arrangements are being made by the Indian government to celebrate the day in several parts of the world on an unprecedented scale makes the whole thing a gigantic affair.
Plus, there are reports that yoga asanas (bodily exercises) are to be done compulsorily in schools. This has led to certain sections of people speaking up in rebellion. Of particular note is Surya Namaskar, an asana in which the person must bow before the Sun (god) and pronounce “Om” as part of the elaborate regimen. Some Muslim groups have objected strongly to this, saying they cannot bow before anyone except Allah. Responding to the criticism, the government has said that they can invoke Allah or any other thing sacred to them instead of the Sun or Om.
In this backdrop, a lot of stories are emerging in mainstream and social media about what yoga is, how it should be done (or not done), who should be doing it, how it originated, and how true are the health benefit claims, among others.
This blog post is an attempt to bring to light some of the most pertinent facts, legends and practices related to yoga in the hope that much confusion and darkness will be dispelled, thereby helping the saadhaks (adepts) of this oldest system of mind-body healing and of attaining the union of the individual self with the Supreme Soul.
Before I delve deeper into the very heart of yoga, let me first reflect on the state of yoga as a discipline and an industry in India and the world—and how the money-mindedness of today’s self-styled yoga gurus is warping a holistic ancient heritage into something superficial, as if it were just another of those physical routines that go by fancy names.
I’m not, of course, the first one to raise the question of the muddied waters around yoga. In fact, there was a recent movement (hashtagged #TakeBackYoga) started by the Hindu American Foundation in the US, and I would urge you to look at some of the articles on their website here (look in particular for the debate between Deepak Chopra and Aseem Shukla on acknowledging the Hindu roots of yoga, among others).
A quick look at the economics of the yoga industry worldwide, particularly in America, reveals how lucrative yoga has become—a far cry from the time when it was taught only to the very deserving adepts without any consideration for money. (If the saadhak excelled in yoga and further illumined others in the discipline, that was remuneration enough.)
According to Yoga Journal, the leading publication on yoga, over 20 million Americans practiced yoga in 2012, spending as much as $10.3 billion on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media. This is almost double the $5.7 billion they spent in 2008, when the Journal conducted its previous study. However, while the money doubled, the number of yoga practitioners grew relatively slowly (15.8 million Americans practiced yoga in 2008).
Large spends on such things as “equipment” and “clothing” for yoga would certainly have bemused, if not disgusted, the true yogis of ancient India who quietly went about their yoga business on straw mats or bare earth in modest huts or forest caves. It’s another matter that India now has its own share of self-styled yogis who run multimillion-dollar empires.
But the most amazing thing about yoga in America is how innovative people have been in pummeling it into all sorts of modern, hip or plain weird forms to suit their own interests or sex up its commercial aspects: Power Yoga (propounded in 1995 by Bender Birch who, says a Yoga Journal piece, wanted “to give a Western spin to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga”); Jivamukti Yoga; Yin Yoga (the martial arts expert-turned-yoga- founder’s eponymous website, pauliezink.com, greets you upfront: “You can learn some fundamentals of Yin Yoga from other teachers but you can only learn the complete art of Yin yoga from the founding master”); Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (yes, you read it right); Power Yoga (which is said to have brought yoga to the gyms of America) and many, many more.
The proponent of one of the hottest and most lucrative yoga forms, Bikram Yoga, is currently fighting sexual harassment lawsuits from six women. Huffington Post has even put the guy, Bikram Choudhury, on its mocking Dickipedia list (no affiliation with Wikipedia) with this description: “Bikram Choudhury is a 69-year-old yoga instructor, a multi-millionaire businessman, and a dick.”
The Bikram case may be an extreme one, where the lust for power, money and sex has allegedly taken a self-styled yoga trainer to the pits of moral bankruptcy. But increasing commercialization and trivialization of a great, holistic realm such as yoga is indeed shameful and unfortunate.
Thankfully, some Western practitioners are open to acknowledging the ancient Hindu roots of yoga and accord it the place of pride it deserves. Genny Kapuler, who teaches Iyengar yoga (more on BKS Iyengar later), says in this article on NPR.org that her understanding of yoga is indeed Hindu in origin. In her practice, she says, “every thought, every action has a ramification... there is this moral responsibility to own what you do.”
It is high time people across the world not only knew about the rich, ancient heritage of yoga but also realized that it is much, much more than the physical postures known as asanas (in Hindi as well as Sanskrit, the word asana means “sitting posture” or “a place to sit”). No doubt these postures have immense health benefits as evidenced by millions of practitioners all over the globe, and they are an integral part of yoga (we used to call them yogasanas in school), but the reach and impact of yoga is so high that an average mind would boggle at what human beings can achieve through yoga.
Just as a layperson would get completely bewildered if a quantum physicist were to explain to them the laws and working of the Large Hadron Collider, the hip-hop crowd equating yoga with gymming would be totally left agape at the grand philosophy, practice and science of yoga as envisioned by the ancient rishis who bequeathed yoga to the world. (A rishi is a Hindu sage or seer who has performed intense saadhana over the years and thus obtained humongous powers.)
There are some fascinating stories of yoga’s origin or expansion on earth, going back thousands of years in time. The Western mind, much attuned to a linear way of thinking and progression, may find the existence of multiple stories baffling or discrediting, but the all-embracing Hindu tradition—which views things from a cyclical point of view and values the richness and complexity of multiple narratives—knows how to benefit from them or take them in its giant stride (reminds you of the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu).
Before I relate a couple of stories, I would like to highlight another unfortunate aspect about India’s ancient culture, history and heritage. Which is: because of centuries of foreign rule (primarily Mughal and British periods), most of the original scripts depicting India’s past glory have been lost in the political upheavals. What survive today are but a few translations of the original texts. In my research I also discovered some English translations by British authors who seemed bent on discrediting old Hindu traditions rather than make the texts accessible to a wider audience.
Nevertheless, there are some authentic or near-authentic texts and translations as well. For the doubtful mind, there may be gaps here or cracks there, along with some inconsistencies or confusions, but for the souls who are willing to combine the surviving body of knowledge with their own experience and self-exploration, there is enough to carry on with the amazing journey of yoga.
Looking at the multiple references to yoga’s origin and development, and the current way in which it is commonly understood and practiced, Sage Patanjali is arguably the most notable figure. Even today’s maverick yoga proponent, Baba Ramdev (who is credited in India with the current resurgence of interest in yoga and ayurveda, the ancient Hindu system of healing using herbs and dietary control), has used Patanjali’s name for his firm. (Going by his strange antics in front of media and allegedly dubious intentions of profiteering from ayurvedic formulations, however, one cannot be sure if Patanjali would have approved.)
In his book, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, renowned yoga guru BKS Iyengar relates how the legendary Hindu sage perfected yoga on earth and became its perfect master. As per the tale, Patanjali was an incarnation of Sheshnag (also called Adishesha), the thousand-headed serpent upon which Lord Vishnu is often shown reclining in Hindu pictures (Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are together said to form the Hindu holy trinity).
Here is how the story goes: Once Lord Vishnu was seated on Sheshnag, watching Lord Siva dance and feeling increasingly enchanted by the movements. Gradually, his own body began to vibrate with the rhythm of Siva’s dance. As the dance went on, Vishnu’s body felt heavier and heavier, much to the discomfort of Sheshnag—who was on the verge of collapse. However, the moment Siva’s dance came to an end, Lord Vishnu’s body felt light again. The entire experience left Sheshnag amazed and he asked Lord Vishnu about it. When Vishnu attributed the experience to the grace, beauty and majesty of Lord Siva’s movements, Sheshnag professed a desire to learn to dance so as to be able to exalt his Lord the way Siva did.
As per Hindu mythology and tradition, everything happens at its own opportune time. When Vishnu told Sheshnag that Lord Siva would grace him one day, Sheshnag began to meditate on Siva and look forward to that day. One day, in his meditation, Sheshnag had the vision of a yogini (lady practitioner of yoga) called Gonika, who used to pray to the Sun god for a worthy son to whom she could impart her knowledge and wisdom. Sheshnag realized that she would be a worthy mother for him and waited for the right occasion. At one point, Gonika thought that her life on earth was about to come to an end. She took a handful of water in both her hands as a final oblation and meditated on the Sun god. Lo and behold! To her surprise, in her enfolded palm fell a little snake, which quickly turned into a male child, who requested her to accept him as her son. She agreed and the son came to be known as Patanjali (hands held together, semi-open palms upturned, for an offering are called anjali and pata means “to fall” in Hindi).
Living sometime between BCE 500 and BCE 200, Patanjali is said to have composed 196 sutras or aphorisms on yoga.
Patanjali, says Iyengar in the book, assumed human form, experienced a typical human being’s sorrows and joys, and learned to transcend them. “In Yoga Sutras he described the ways of overcoming the afflictions of the body and the fluctuation of the mind: the obstacles to spiritual development,” writes Iyengar. He further says that the 196 sutras cover all aspects of life, beginning with a prescribed code of conduct and ending with man’s vision of his true self.
Another legend relates to Yogi Matsyendranath (the first of the famed Nav Nath religious sect, the second being his disciple Gorakhnath/Gorakshnath; the town of Gorakhpur in India is said to be named after the latter), who is said to have lived around the 10th century. Once Matsyendranath (also called Machhindranath; Matsya or Machhi means fish) was traveling in a boat when it capsized and he was swallowed by a large fish. As luck would have it, the fish happened to be around a place where Lord Siva was lecturing his consort Parvati on yoga. Matsyendranath acquired this knowledge by overhearing them. Later, he emerged unhurt out of the fish and went on spreading the knowledge of yoga among his disciples.
YogaYajnavalkya is another ancient treatise on yoga, which is attributed to Yajnavalkya Rishi (who is said to be a philosopher in the court of King Janaka of Mithila, around 700 BCE). According to a Wikipedia entry, the book takes the form of a dialog between Yajnavalkya and the renowned female philosopher Gargi. The extant Sanskrit text is said to comprise 12 chapters and 504 verses. Further, many later yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (attributed to Yogi Svatmarama) and books on Kundalini (Google this word and you’ll get over 10 million results) quote substantively from Yoga Yajnavalkya.
It goes without saying that yoga as a discipline has the richest and most ancient history of any healing system in the world.
The yoga as propounded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras envisages eight angas or limbs, which is why it is also called Ashtanga Yoga (besides its other name, Raja Yoga). The prefix ashta in Ashtanga means eight in Sanskrit.
A brief look at the eight limbs would reveal how holistic and all-encompassing indeed is yoga:
(1) Yama (ethical restraints), namely, ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence), and aparigraha (non-covetousness)
(2) Niyama (ethical observances), namely, shaucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (fiery discipline or austerity), svadhyaya (study of sacred literature as well as one’s own self), and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender of the self to God)
(3) Asana (the famous body postures most people now mistake for the bigger concept of yoga): While some texts suggest there are as many asanas as there are species on Earth according to Hindu philosophy (that is, 8.4 million), many sources point to 84 classical poses. Of these, 32 are said to be preeminent or of particular importance (a few famous poses include Padmasana, Shirshasana, Siddhasana, Bhadrasana, Simhasana, Vajrasana, Chakrasana and, of course, Surya Namaskar).
Here, it is pertinent to draw attention to the attempts by purely commercial elements (especially in the West), to get patents on traditional asanas. Taking note of the 130 yoga-related patents granted in the US in 2007, the government of India, according to Wikipedia, sought clarification on the guidelines for patenting asanas from the US Patent Office. Next year, to stress that all asanas are public knowledge and so cannot be patented, the government formed “a team of yoga gurus, government officials, and 200 scientists from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to register all known asanas in a public database.” The team collected asanas from 35 ancient texts, including the Mahabharata, the Bhagwad Gita, and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and as of 2010, identified 900 asanas for the database, which was named the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library and made available to patent examiners.
If such precautionary steps are not taken, imagine the outrage that rampant, commercial patenting can cause among Indians. For instance, suppose you are practicing an asana in the local park one fine morning when a foreigner catches hold of your leg mid-asana, proclaiming: “Sorry, you can’t do this—it has been patented by my firm Yogadusht Inc.”
(4) Pranayama (giving dimensions to “prana,” the breath realized as the life-force): In the book, Iyengar describes pranayama as the expansion of the life force through control of the breath. Pranayama by nature has three components: inhalation, exhalation and retention. He says that Patanjali adds one more type of pranayama that is free from deliberate action: called Kevala Kumbhaka or Kevala Pranayama, it transcends the sphere of breath which is modulated by mental volition.
In my opinion and experience, pranayama calms your nerves, regulates your breathing to make it easy and smooth-flowing, and provides for a tranquil body-mind platform better suited to embarking upon dhyana or meditation, the seventh limb of yoga.
(5) Pratyahara (withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects): If one follows the precepts of pratyahara, one gains full control of the sense organs and all craving for things such as food, drink, clothes, and other paraphernalia just goes away.
It is said that the first five limbs of yoga—yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara—set the stage for the next three angas: dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
(6), (7) & (8) Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi: These three are so closely interlinked that it might be a good idea to consider them together here. In dharana, which is translated as concentration in English, the saadhak aims to focus his concentration on a single point or object. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has identified certain points within and outside the body which should be used by the seeker for concentration and contemplation. If dharana is maintained steadily, explains Iyengar, it flows into the next limb, dhyana (meditation). And when the meditator and the object meditated upon become one, dhyana flows into samadhi.
Of course, all this is not so simple and quick as it sounds. To achieve the final state of samadhi can take one a few days, weeks, years, decades or even several lifetimes. All this, they say, depends on the current status of one’s accumulated karma over past lives. Yogis have even described different states of samadhi. (Karma, like yoga, is another integral aspect of traditional Hindu philosophy. The law of karma is somewhat like the Newtonian law of action and reaction—only the results of actions are spread across various births.)
Unlike the puffed up and greedy yoga peddlers one often finds these days, the old masters who dedicated their entire lives in the study, practice and selfless service through yoga were humble to the core. It is my belief that such masters, gurus and yogis abounded in and around India in ancient times (historic as well as pre-historic) but there numbers have dwindled over the centuries.
Some of the modern names I can recall, who are widely believed to be true yoga masters and did a lot to spread the discipline without greed, include T Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, BKS Iyengar, K Pattabhi Jois and Andre Van Lysebeth.
I have a book by Lysebeth (a Belgian yoga instructor and author who was a disciple of Sivananda) that is quite popular in the West. In the book, Yoga Self-Taught, Lysebeth not only explains some of the key asanas with great lucidity, he also gives detailed scientific explanations of how particular positions affect different regions of the body and what benefits they bring to the practitioner.
To cite but one example, talking about the effects of Dhanurasana (the Bow position), Lysebeth writes that “the compression of the dorsal part of the rachis, and the stretching of the anterior surfaces act upon the ligaments, muscles and nerve centers of the spinal column. The Bow prevents untimely calcification in the vertebrae, and straightens backs hunched through years of sitting at desk, in offices or at workbenches.” He goes on to describe the asana’s beneficial effects on the abdominal muscles, cellulitis, endocrine glands, and a few other regions of the human body with precise terms and logical explanations.
Such instances are scattered throughout the book—leaving little room for doubt about yogasanas’ immense ability to keep the body healthy and the mind rejuvenated. There is a small supplement on dietary control as well.
I am sure there would be many more yoga instructors, teachers and authors who have spread or continue to spread the light of yoga in a spirit of service and authenticity in these get-rich-quick times. But as the age of instant gratification rolls on, you will find fewer and fewer of them. In the olden days one went to the jungles and peeked inside caves in search of true yogis, but now that humanity is spread over the whole planet like locusts, even that option may not work. (I wonder what a modern-day Paul Brunton would find if he were to undertake his “Search in Secret India” in today’s messed up, crowded country!)
What strikes me about the few good yoga gurus such as Iyengar is their honesty and humility—hallmarks, in my view, of anyone worthy of being credited with greatness. In the introductory note on Patanjali in his book, Iyengar writes: “Though I have practiced and worked in the field of yoga for more than fifty years, I may have to practice for several more lifetimes to reach perfection in the subject. Therefore, the explanation of the most abstruse sutras lies yet beyond my power.”
Contrast this with the haughty and misleading claims of several self-styled yoga gurus who are busy minting money with their own concoctions of yoga (and who would rather have fifty million in their bank than practice a rigorous discipline for fifty years).
The literal meaning and import of yoga is union of the self with the Supreme Soul (you can call the latter God, the most powerful universal force, energy or whatever). The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means “to join.”
There have been attempts by the yogis, mystics and Buddhists of yore to define the supreme bliss, feeling of peace and ethereal experience that spring forth from the state of samadhi, the apogee of yoga. But it is generally agreed upon that no words suffice to fully describe this unique, divine occurrence. And this experience is something to strive for, to live, to share with the world at large for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Just as scientists are discovering different levels of intelligence among various species of animals, practicing yogis achieve varying degrees of success and stages of mind-body control in their saadhana. Think of yoga like a perennially flowering tree, which gives different kinds of fruit in different stages of its unfolding. The most popular of these, asanas, have amazing health-giving properties as we have seen. Others—yama, niyama, pranayama, etc.—too have great benefits that can significantly lessen the rampant greed and corruption and bring about a sense of wholeness, peace and well-being.
While the roots of yoga are steeped in ancient Hindu traditions and philosophical thought, to the best of my knowledge, not a single (true) yogi has ever uttered any remark prohibiting people from other religions from practicing asanas or living by the precepts of yoga.
The goal of yoga is to unite, not divide.
There couldn’t perhaps be a more opportune time for yoga than the current “disjointed” age we are living in.
Post-script: Having finished writing the post, I realized that something substantial was missing. After a while, I noticed that all the yogis mentioned here are male (barring a brief mention of Gonika, Patanjali’s mother). How could this happen, I thought?! But then, don’t we all take our mother for granted, even though she is the one who brings us into this world and is truly our first guru?
I also remembered that there are temples in India dedicated to yoginis, often called chaunsath yoginis (chaunsath = 64 in Hindi). Besides being a female adept of yoga, a yogini is considered to be an incarnation of the sacred feminine (goddesses Lakshmi, Parvati, Durga, Kali, etc.) Said to be enlightened women, yoginis are known to possess exuberant passion, deep insights into the nature of reality and great spiritual powers. Some of the 64 yoginis depicted in the Hirapur Chaunsath Yogini Temple in the Indian state of Odisha are: Bahurupa, Tara, Yamuna, Vaishnavi, Kalaratri, Chinnamasta, Saraswati, Mahalakshmi, Ambika, Kali, Aditi, Chamunda, Aghora and Ganga. (Also, check out "Tibetan yoginis" on the Web and you will be overwhelmed with a wealth of amazing information and images.)
PPS: This blog post is but a tiny, humble attempt to encapsulate a system and philosophy as vast as yoga into a few words—with the hope that it would kindle interest in yoga among those who want to live holistic lives and rise above the ordinary. Namaste!