What is the Purpose of Yoga in Today's World?
Question: Yoga is very popular worldwide. Commercially, it is worth billions of dollars. People from all backgrounds and religions, spiritual people as well as materialists, practice it. Many dubious claims are also made in its name. What is the true purpose of yoga in today's world?
If I tell you that so and so is the true purpose of yoga, or give you a specific answer, then I am minimizing the importance of yoga itself or limiting its scope and purpose. With that answer I may also be deciding or dictating what is important for you or others, whereas that decision should entirely be yours only according to your essential nature and spiritual or material needs. Everyone’s circumstance is different. Hence, there is no single or universal solution for anything unless we want to ignore the details or specific circumstances.
For yoga also there is no single purpose for which it is practiced. You may practice it for any number of reasons, peace of mind, good health, calming the nerves, increasing the mind and body balance, improving memory, intelligence or self-awareness, cultivating detachment, overcoming stress and so on. From a worldly perspective, they are all good reasons to practice yoga. It depends upon what you want to achieve through yoga. Any decision you make is your personal choice. As a lone traveler and karma yogi in the world of samsara, you have the freedom to make it.
Similarly, there is no one yoga system which fits all. The choice of yoga is purely a personal matter since it must align with your basic nature or your gunas and personality. Whether you want to practice one or more yogas or integrate several of them into a complex system of your own to achieve multiple goals, you have to choose what suits you and what is best for you. However, while making those choices, you may consult a teacher or an expert and seek their advice to ensure that your decision is appropriate and practical.
Traditionally, yoga is practiced for some definite purposes. The answers can be found in the Yogasutras, the Bhagavadgita and several Yoga Upanishads. In the very beginning of the Yogasutras, Patanjali states that the purpose of yoga is to suppress the modifications or fluctuations of the mind, which may arise from right thinking, wrong thinking, imagination, sleep or recollection. Patanjali says that these modifications may be troublesome or wholesome, but only when they are fully suppressed you will realize your true nature and abide in it.
When the mind becomes still through self-control and purification practices, you will gain control over your thoughts and emotions and achieve mental stability, equanimity, peace of mind, sameness, freedom from attraction and aversion, intelligence or discernment, and so on. Thus, stilling the mind to know who you truly are or abide in your true nature is another important purpose. In other words, through the practice of yoga you learn to be yourself. You remain true to yourself and be yourself, which is but practicing truthfulness and honesty.
Most of our problems arise because we refuse to acknowledge the truths regarding ourselves and live in denial. Through yoga we become mindful of them and learn to accept them. When your mind is peaceful and in your control, you will have additional benefits such as good health, right discernment, mindfulness, patience, tolerance, better judgment and so on. These are all immediate benefits or ancillary purposes. Most people are happy with them and with the change they see in themselves because of yoga.
Now there is a greater or higher purpose, which is to overcome suffering (dukkha). The Bhagavadgita defines yoga itself as the state of disassociation of the wakeful self from pain and suffering. It has to be achieved gradually and in stages by seeing oneself in the Self through discernment, detachment, withdrawal and self-restraint. The Yogasutras do not dwell much upon suffering (dukkha) except in a few passages regarding the klesas or mental afflictions. However, the Samkhya philosophy with which it is historically associated recognizes suffering as the central problem and overcoming it through self-transformation and liberation as the ultimate aim.
Patanjali says that for a yogi who has discrimination, suffering is ubiquitous. For him everything is suffering because it arises from his karma which accumulates continuously due to his actions; second, because of the physical and mental pain to which he is vulnerable; and third because of the samskaras or the latent impression which are etched in his consciousness. One has to overcome suffering, knowing its causes and removing them through the practice of yoga. Desires and attachments are the main reasons for our suffering and they have to be overcome through discernment, detachment and renunciation.
Undoubtedly, overcoming suffering in all its forms is an important and higher purpose of yoga, but it Is not the ultimate purpose. The ultimate purpose is achieving liberation and abiding in the true Self by removing the impurities of egoism, ignorance, desires and delusion. It is to escape from the world of dualities and impermanence or from samsara, the cycle of births and deaths to which we are bound. By suppressing the modifications of the mind, cultivating right knowledge and overcoming false knowledge, one becomes aware of the true Self. Abiding in that through devotion, concentration, contemplation and self-control (samyama), one ultimately overcomes the duality between the seer and the seen and becomes dissolved in the purest state of stateless, seedless and formless (nirbija) Samadhi.
Whether you practice Raja yoga or Jnana yoga or bhakti yoga or sannyasa yoga, these are the broader goals or purposes of any yoga. It is better to keep them in mind while you may practice any yoga for any purpose which you deem fit. However, do not forget that yoga is a great tool, which is readily and handily available to change yourself, or change your thinking and motives or improve your knowledge and self-awareness or build your bridge to the world of immortality. It is like having a great spaceship in your backyard for your personal use. Whether you want to use it to go on an interstellar journey across the universe or just want to visit a nearby store to buy groceries, that is entirely up to you.
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