Four Parts of Classical Yoga

Yoga and Meditation

by Jayaram V

Yoga is not meant to be a merely physical or mental exercise for health or stress relief. It is a short-term goal only. Its long-term goal is to transform your mind and body, by overcoming the natural limitations and deficiencies, which Nature imposes upon you. Through yoga you can take your life and destiny into your hands and create a new beginning for yourself.

With the help of yoga, you can elevate your conduct and consciousness and become a better human being or a pure being. You can hasten your physical, mental and spiritual evolution by dealing with the causes which interfere with your thinking, perception and behavior. While you have little control over your natural birth, you have control over your spiritual birth in which you emerge from a state of impurity and imperfection to purity and perfection. Yoga empowers you to achieve this goal through self-effort.

Just as any other philosophical schools in Hinduism, the ultimate purpose of the system of Yoga is to overcome existential suffering and find the highest and the best in oneself. Its immediate purpose is the suppression of the disturbances (vrittis) of the mind or consciousness (citta), whereby one attains clarity of thinking, discernment and mental absorption or self-absorption (samadhi), and progressively awakens to the realities and possibilities that are hitherto unseen. The modifications which need to be overcome are of five types.

  1. Pramana: These are disturbances caused by the standard methods of knowing such as perception, inference, learning, studying etc.
  2. Viparyaya: These are disturbances caused by errors or mistakes in our thinking, knowing, learning, perception, etc.
  3. Vikalpa: These are disturbances which arise from imagination, visualization, conjecture, speculation, etc.
  4. Nidra: These disturbances arise in sleep or rest (nidra) due to dreams, bodily discomfort, pain, etc.
  5. Smriti: These are disturbances which arise from conscious and subconscious memories(smriti) and past life impressions.

These disturbances keep the mind in a stressful state of flux or commotion and prevent us from experiencing peace and equanimity. Because of them we experience afflictions (klesa), ignorance (avidya), distractions, mistaken notions of self-identity (asmita), attachments (raga), revulsion (dvesha), longing for life (abhinivesa) and so on. We may regard them as obstacles to a healthy and happy mind or the serene states of yoga.

Our suffering arises from our own thinking, perception, actions and states of mind. Yoga goes to the root of the problem and tries to resolve it by identifying the factors which disturb the mind and the body. We experience suffering or the disturbed states of mind because of our imperfections or weaknesses. They in turn arise from the modes (gunas) and past life impressions (samskaras). Because of them, our actions, perceptions, thinking, attitude, etc., remain imperfect or clouded. They complicate our lives, behavior and relationships and cause suffering and instability.

In Yoga, we recognize them as impurities and try to overcome them by suppressing them, changing them or removing them. At the same time, we also focus upon the positive factors which contribute to peace and equanimity. Thus, yoga is a transformative process in which we achieve perfection through purification, suppression and expression. We may divide this process into four concurrent and concomitant parts.

1. Transformation of conduct

Purification of conduct is the foundation to all spiritual practices. In the Buddhist Eightfold Path also you will find a similar concept. There, the emphasis is upon cultivating moral conduct (sila) on the Eightfold Path with the help of Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood. In Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga, it is achieved by the sustained practice of the five restraints or abstentions (yamas), and five rules or observances. They are, nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), abstaining from sex (brahmacharya), non-coveting (aparigraha), cleanliness (saucha), contentment (santosha), austerity (tapasa), self-study (svadhyaya) and devotion (Isvara-paridhana).

The Yamas are universal and applicable to all classes of people. In other words, there are no exceptions. Everyone has to practise them. Patanjali also lists the benefits that accrue from their practice such as overcoming hatred and enmity, attaining wealth, success in actions, power, etc. The practice of yamas and niyamas lead to improvement in our character and conduct. We become better human beings as sattva predominates in our minds and bodies, and our thinking, discernment and perceptions improve.

2. Transformation of the body

According to the Yoga system, the body is the field of Nature (prakriti), in which the soul resides as the lord (Isvara). It is the vehicle of the soul or the Self, which is compared in the scriptures such as the Bhagavadgita and Upanishads to a temple or a chariot. In Yoga we focus upon transforming the body because it is the field of energy where consciousness resides as the witness making possible the very experience of living and being. If the energies are pure, we experience peace and happiness, and nearness to the Self.

For the practice of Yoga, which is a spiritual journey that passes through different states or stages (yogas), the body must be clean, healthy and fit for the transformation or the cleansing that happens at various levels in its organs (indriyas) and building blocks (tattvas). The practice of yamas and niyamas greatly contributes to the process. So also the ancillary practices which lead to dispassion (vairagya), detachment and sameness.

In addition, Patanjali also prescribes breathing practices (pranayama) postures (asanas). Classical yoga does not state what postures or breathing techniques should be practiced. Ancient yogis were familiar with some of them. Some were adapted from other traditions such as Buddhism and Tantrism, while some, especially the complex asanas, were invented or improvised as recently as the 20th century. In Yoga, there are no universal asanas or breathing techniques. You have the freedom to choose your own, or follow those which are taught by your teacher or which you invent on your own according to your knowledge and convenience. These practices result in the suppression of inertia (tamas) and passion (rajas), and lead to purity, peace and virtue (sattva).

3. Transformation of the mind

Suppressing the modifications of the mind is chief aim of Yoga. Since the mind and body are interconnected, yogis focus upon both of them. However, since the mind is the seat of those modifications, they have to spend more time and energy to transform it. These efforts eventually lead to a state in which the mind becomes silent or absent. In other words, it ceases to interfere with our knowing, letting us experience the ultimate state of being.

Hence, if you want to practice yoga and go to the end, you must set your focus upon cleansing the mind. It is not an easy process because you have to use the mind to clean the mind, remaining fully awake and guarding yourself against self-induced delusion and indiscretion. The modifications arise from both external and internal causes. Some are hidden in your subconscious, which you may not be even aware of unless you introspect and go deeper into your own mind. Therefore, you have to bring in multiple techniques and practices for the transformation to take place on a lasting and permanent basis.

The main methods which are prescribed in the classical yoga for this purpose are concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and concentrated meditation (samyama). The other limbs of yoga which we have discussed before also strengthen the practice. Apart from them, the practice of detachment, dispassion, sameness and renunciation are also important. in the second chapter (2.33) Patanjali also suggests how to overcome negative thoughts (vitarka) which arise from the practice of yamas and niyamas. They arise in different intensities from moderate to extreme, and can be countered by cultivating their opposite ones (pratipaksa).

Of the three practices which are mentioned so far, samyama is the most difficult and advanced. It is through samyama one can quickly transcend the turbulent mind and enter the deeper states of tranquility. In samyama, you reach the pinnacle of self-control, as you restrain and silence the functions and movements of both your mind and body to experience tranquilly, peace and stability.

4. Entering Self-absorption

Self-absorption (samadhi) is the culmination of perfection in the practice of all the eight limbs of yoga. In some it may happen without much effort due to the progress achieved in previous lives. In the state of samadhi, the mind becomes tranquil and recedes into oblivion, leaving the Self to shine alone. In Buddhism, it is called mental absorption, which arises as one passes through different states of mental purity (jhanas). In the Yogasutras we come across mainly two types of samadhi, samprajnata and asamprajnata.

In the samprajnata samadhi (self-absorption with awareness) a yogi is still self-conscious, with the idea of otherness or objectivity still present and the Self still moving in the field of Prakriti as the witness. Patanjali describes four successive stages in it.

  1. Vitarka, in which awareness of the body, names and forms is vaguely present
  2. Vichara in which awareness of thoughts and ideation is still present
  3. Ananda in which awareness of pure bliss, lightness or happiness arises
  4. Asmita in which awareness of individuality or i-ness still remains.

Vitarka Samadhi is further divided into two.

  1. Savitarka samdhi in which awareness of words and ideas still exist
  2. Nirvitarka in which conceptualization, names and forms completely disappear.

In the asamprajnata samadhi, which is consequential to samprajnata, all thoughts and notions are absent, but subconscious memories and impressions are still active. In other words, it is a subliminal state, which falls somewhere between dream state and deep sleep state and in which one remains as a passive witness, without any conscious effort, thought or movement. Those who reach this stage may initially experience subconscious impressions, past life memories, etc., and may not remember much of what happens. However, in the advanced stages, as one persists in the practice with faith, vigor and memory, one goes beyond the mind into stateless tranquility, in which only the Self remains and all objectivity disappears.

Yoga is a journey of self-transformation

Thus, yoga is essentially a transformative journey, which culminates in the birth of a new being and the resurrection of a fallen soul. It is a voyage in the turbulent ocean of mortal life from darkness to light, from impurity to purity, from turmoil to tranquility, and from death to immortality. It heralds the return of the soul from its entanglement with the body to its pure state, through the twisted passages of mind. In that transformative process, our attention and involvement shift from the world of objectivity, duality, names and forms to the world of pure subjectivity and limitless pure consciousness.

The eight limbs of yoga are not consequential, but concurrent. They are also interdependent and reinforce each other. Thus, for example, pranayama strengthens the practice of concentration. Perfection in concentration contributes to progress in meditation. Perfection in breathing, concentration and meditation contributes to success in concentrated meditation, and so on. Progress through the successive stages of samadhi also depends upon the progress achieved in other fields. There are many grades within Samadhi itself. One may experience savitarka samadhi in the early stages of practice, but the purest state of Samprajnata samadhi is attained only in the final stages.

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