Understanding Yoga with the Help of Classical Definitions

Understanding Yoga with the Help of Classical Definitions

Today Yoga has become synonymous with Asana practice. Asana has become the most prominent aspect of Yoga. Asana is one of the ways to approach yoga, which is a way of life to develop deeper awareness about ourselves. The scope of Yoga portrayed in classical texts like Yogsutra and Bhagavadgita is far more comprehensive and gives us a clear picture of what yoga stands for. In this article we will try to understand the profundity of Yoga with the help of some ancient definitions of yoga.

Before we delve into the definitions of Yoga in classical texts, let us explore a powerful explanation of Yoga by Swami Vivekananda. He says “Yoga is a means of compressing one’s evolution into a single life or a few months or even a few hours of one’s bodily existence”. We all are moving towards freedom form bondage. These are the bondage of body, mind, intellect, emotions etc. But it may take hundreds of years for this natural growth towards freedom. Yoga which is a conscious and systematic process of living can compress the process of man’s evolution greatly by accelerating his development. That is the nature of Yoga.

Let us see some of the classical definitions of yoga.

Yog Sutra

In Yogsutra, Patanjali defines Yoga as – Yogah Citta Vritti Nirodah; ‘Yoga is the process of gaining control over mental-modifications’. Why do we need to arrest or gain control over mental modifications (vritti)? By so gaining control over mind and its modifications we reach our original state or Self.

Whatever we see, hear, read, understand, gain knowledge are all mental modifications. We cannot hear or see anything unless our mind is modified in the form of hearing and seeing. Same holds for every other experience of life. Therefore, rise of mental modifications is happening every moment. To calm down or control these mental modifications is yoga. So how to calm down the mental modifications? Should we shut down outside world for us. The answer is no. Whenever a Vritti (mental modification) arises, it brings with it the associated feeling of either pain or pleasure. Learning to observe them and not to react at first is the way forward towards settling the mind.  As we move to higher practices of yoga such as meditation, this art of witnessing can be greatly developed for complete mastery over mental modifications.

Yog Vashishta

In Yoga-Vasishtha, one of the ancient texts on Yoga, the essence of Yoga is beautifully portrayed as – “Manah Prashamanopayah Yoga Ityabhidhiyate”; ‘Yoga is called a skillful trick to calm down the mind’. It is an Upayah, a skillful subtle process and not a brutal, mechanical, gross effort to stop the thoughts in the mind. For example, we know through observation that there is deep connection between the breath and movement of mind. We start by working on our breath, make it slow, deep and rhythmic. As we begin to understand our breath we begin to understand the mind. As the breath is getting slow and long, the mind is getting calm and clear. So this is one way to approach mind skillfully through breath. Likewise we can approach mind skillfully through our body as well; the technique called asana. Thus, mind is not a concrete object upon which you can apply any force you like; it has to be handled skillfully and softly.

This definition also highlights the fact that mind is both our friend and foe. A calm mind is friend and a distracted mind is foe. When the mind is calm and concentrated we can accomplish much work with less friction and energy loss. On the other hand if the mind lacks concentration, a small amount of work appears as a huge task which consumes lot of time and energy. Also the final result is not up to the standard. Therefore yoga is a skill of mind management, since it is the mind which is the source of our bondage as well as liberation.

Bhagavad Gita

In Bhagavadgita we find two classic definitions of yoga with practical utility in life. The special feature about Bhagavadgita is that it calls for spiritual emancipation through active participation in life processes.  The first definition is “Samatvam yoga uchyate”; Yoga is equanimity. Equanimity is a state of inner equilibrium, balance and equipoise. Equanimity is a dynamic process of seeing things as they are and not with our likings and disliking. We all are engaged in various actions throughout the day. All sorts of actions bring with it all kinds of emotions, feelings and thought waves. Maintaining an unperturbed sameness in this dynamics of action is yoga. This sameness is achieved when we perform action without attachment. The more we are attached to action the more we carve for success and averse for failure. The moment we lean towards success or abhor failure, we will lose our balance. Therefore, we have to be in the middle. Whether it is success or failure, remaining equidistant from both the extremes is yoga.

 The second definition that we find in Bhagavadgita is – “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam”; Yoga is skill in action. This skill or dexterity is in maintaining relaxation and awareness in action. Relaxed action is the process. We can perform action in relaxation only with evenness of mind. Evenness or equanimity comes with renouncing the attachments and remaining tranquil in the dualities of success or failure, pain or pleasure while engaged in action. With equanimity comes the ability to let-go virtue and vices alike, which in turn further strengthen the evenness of mind and thereby greater skill in action.

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