Contrary to current understanding, yoga is not a practice in the strictest definition of the word. Yoga is a Sanskrit word stemming from the root yuj, or ‘to yoke’. This leads to the colloquially held idea that yoga is ‘to join’ and furthermore to the borderline appropriative idea that yoga is ‘to join mind, body, and spirit’. In this article, we will look at why both these colloquial and appropriative understandings stray from the roots of yoga as we aim to offer an understanding of yoga that sits closer to its source texts and teachings.
As a term, yoga is first mentioned in a text that’s age, which has been dated prior to 2000 BCE, is only surpassed by its sanctity, the Rig Veda. The four Veda are sacred texts to the Vedic people – later identified as Hindu via Persian mispronunciation of the Sanskrit term sindhu, meaning river. In first book of the Rig Veda Samhita, chapter eighteen, verse seven states, sa dhīnām yogam invati or ‘he promotes the yoga beyond thought’. Following this verse there is no further explanation on what yoga beyond thought is although it is widely understood that the yoga of the Rig Veda holds spiritual properties. As linear time passed, Rishi, or seers, have offered more insight on the meaning of yoga, in texts like the Upanishads, and gods have given lectures on yoga, as Krishna gave to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. In all these early mentions of yoga, there is no description of a practice – there is nothing you are asked to do or apply. In fact, most early mentions of yoga was simply to use its literary meaning of ‘yoke,’ thus its divine meaning was still elusive.
So then, if not a practice, what is yoga?
Around 200 CE, a sage by the name of Maharishi Patañjali composed a yoga shastra, known as the Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali. In this work, Patañjali writes 196 aphorisms on yoga. This systemizes the practice of yoga. At this point, the difference between the practice and object of practice should be noted. One can practice dancing and we do not call dancing a practice. We call dancing, dancing – all that is practices are the steps and movements that induce the experience known as dancing. Yoga is similar in that regard. One can practice yoga, but we should take care to not belittle the entirety of yoga to the practice of its inducers. In truth, the system of yoga is derived through an indigenous understanding of the scientific method. Yoga is an experience – it is the outcome or result of an experiment with the human conditioning. The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali become a replicable experiment that, when placed upon the human conditioning, induce the experience of yoga with high efficacy. The experiment uses eight limbs – ethical restraints, internal restraints, sitting, understanding of the energy that manifests life, withdrawing from senses of perception, concentration beyond the senses of perception, meditative absorption into the object of concentration beyond the senses of perception, and finally culminating in absolute absorption into the void, infinite, or Brahman. These limbs of the practice of yoga each need their own article and a lifetime more of understanding. For this singular moment of inquisition, lets understand that there is an actual practice of yoga that is structed like an experiment to produce the results known as yoga.
Thus, our next question becomes – what are those results? In a way, we are still asking – what is yoga?
The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, in chapter one, offers the definition of yoga in the second verse – yogaś citta vrtti nirodhah or, loosely translated into English, the experience of Yoga arises through the cessation of fluctuations in the citta. The citta is the subtle processing and subjective essence of the intellect, filtering through the lens of the individualized ego, that implants and stores impressions in the mind. Patañjali, and many other great sages, understood that a life lived through the citta is a life lived in illusion, or maya. This is because the citta does not see things as they are, but rather as you are (this being the localized, individualized ‘you’). In other words, the reality you ‘think’ you are in is an illusion, a mere figment of your imagination created through and impressed upon the citta – the keyword here being ‘think’. All thought is a form of the finite, and while invaluable to the human experience, becomes a barrier of sorts for the experience of yoga – the experience of absolute absorption into the formless infinite. This is physiologically confirmed.
It should be said here that if any of this does not make sense, that is totally natural. It is a cruel juxtaposition that the only faculty of understanding we possess to try to understand what is beyond the citta is the citta itself. Just as water cannot rise above its own level, the citta cannot understand what is beyond the citta. And this is the juxtaposition in the practice of yoga – you will never be able to understand what yoga is conceptually; you cannot make sense of it intellectually.
That is why yoga is an experience – not a concept you can hold onto, but a way of being you dissolve into. It is a process of surrender. It is a promise that you will never know all that you are conceptually, so all that is left is to stop trying. So much of our lives are spent in activity, trying to do something to become something. But yoga is less of a becoming and more of an unbecoming. It is less of a doing and more of an undoing. Yoga understands that ever since we have become, we have forgotten what we truly are. When life is filtered through the citta, or intellect, mind, and ego, there is a sense of a finite self – a self that can be born and is subject to death. Throughout life our citta has wrapped its sense of identity in more finite forms such as an ethnicity, gender identity, occupation, and role in society. And while all of these forms are important for the human experience, the human experience as a whole is limiting.
And you are limitless.
Again, another statement your mind will not be able to process fully. This system of yoga originated in Bharat, or modern day India, and has moved through many teachers to arrive at us today. Every single teacher in this lineage has taught of the infinite self, or Brahman. In the Chanandogyopanishad, a classic text on the philosophies of yoga, it states, sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahman – all is Brahman. Brahman itself, while cannot be put to English words, is the infinite void of everything. It is the underling state of all manifested existence where everything is and therefore nothing is. Think of the polarities of hot and cold. These polarities mutually create each other. We only know cold by the extension of knowing hot. If there were no hot, there would be no cold, it would just be. And therefore, when both are present, they mutually dissolve into each other so that neither are present.
This is Brahman, and tat tvam asi, you are that.
Thus, yoga is a dissolving into all that you are, and it’s not something you have to do, but rather undo. Uncouple your attachment to the finite and dissolve back into the infinite. Unfortunately, we live in an era of doers and a society that will berate people for not doing enough. We have placed all importance on an arbitrary destination coupled with the aspiration that if we one day get there, we will finally be enough.
But here is all there is.
And we can spend lifetimes trying to get “there,” or in this lifetime, we can just be here. Patañjali starts their yoga sastra with the sutra, atha yoganuśasanam – the experience of yoga is only in this moment.
So, lastly, what is that experience?
Yoga is the experience of Brahman. It is knowing yourself as the infinite void, bot conceptually (because the citta must be surrendered in order to dissolve into this experience), but experientially. It is an experience beyond all thought, a pureness of being that cannot be put into words. In fact, the moment we try to put it into words, we pull ourselves out of it. So, there are no more words I can offer you here surrounding this experience known as yoga. All that’s left is to encourage you not to get out there and do, but to sit right here and be.
Go forth in being, atha yoganuśasanam.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Travis Kā’eo is the lead yoga trainer at Yoga Under The Palms. Since he began teaching in 2016, he has lead eight trainings and has certified more than 100 new teachers.