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Demystifying Yoga

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
July 2015
Demystifying Yoga

By the time you read this, the global and local festivities surrounding the International Yoga Day (IYD) will have passed into the rear view mirror of our lives. There is a reason the global community of nations embraced this initiative with the consensus that it did. Few resolutions have received such a widespread, almost unanimous, acceptance and approval as has IYD. It is the same reason why IYD-Atlanta was so successful in collaborating with many diverse yoga organizations to host a milestone event.

To those who know yoga only as stretching exercises (sadly that includes many Indians, too), it may be impossible to comprehend at first glance the magnitude of what that two-syllable word encompasses. The stretching “exercises”—Hatha yoga—is but just a tip of the iceberg. Technically speaking, it is just one of the many aspects of the eight steps of Raja yoga (also referred to as Kriya yoga): 1. Yamas (restraints); 2. Niyamas (observances); 3. Asana (the physical aspect of yoga that most of the world associates it with); 4. Pranayama (control of vital energy); 5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses); 6. Dharna (concentration); 7. Dhyana (meditation) and 8. Samadhi (Superconciousness).

Since yoga and its terminology (Sanskrit words) arose from the body of knowledge which later gave birth to the religion now called Hinduism, it is often mistakenly seen as a religious activity—which it most accurately is not. But thanks to chauvinistic Hindus who are shouting over each other to claim yoga as a Hindu practice, it becomes hard to see that, at its essence, there is nothing dogmatic, scriptural, and therefore religious about yoga. There is no worship of a particular deity or a Godhead that’s required.

What complicates this however is the deep association of Hindu Godheads with yoga. Lord Shiva, for example, is recognized as the Adi Yogi (the first yogi). And it is the Bhagavat Gita that puts forth the four types of yoga discussed later in this article. Despite this deep intertwining with Hinduism, yoga itself, as a means of human evolution and liberation, is, as Sadhguru Vasudev of Isha Foundation describes, a “technology”—a technology for human well-being. “If yoga is Hindu, then gravity is Christian,” declares Sadhguru, erasing any doubt that yoga is as neutral as gravity.

The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word “yoga” is “to yoke” or join. The ultimate goal of yoga as envisioned by its progenitors was far loftier than what most people conceive or bargain for—the union of the part (individual soul) with the whole (universal soul or God). That being so, how can any aspect of life be omitted from yoga? Not surprisingly, the above described 8-steps of Raja yoga is not the only branch of yoga. With the goal being so all encompassing, there is a yoga for all aspects of how a human being knows life—through the mind, body, emotions, and energy. While Raja yoga entails the mind and vital energies, the yoga that pertains to the body is broadly seen as Karma yoga, or the yoga of action. Since it is through this personified body that one interacts with this world, one’s actions, and more so one’s volition, is what concerns Karma yoga. Is the action and volition in service of the ultimate union or against it?

Then there is Bhakti yoga which addresses emotions. According to Vedanta.org, “Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, the method of attaining God through love and the loving recollection of God.” Finally, Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge and wisdom. “It involves deep exploration of the nature of our being by systematically exploring and setting aside false identities,” as per one technical description.

It is important to note that there is nothing sequential or compartmentalized about the four main branches of yoga as well as the 8-steps of Raja yoga. Not only do they overlap, but are also catalytic to each other. A refined intellect, for example, naturally tends towards love and devotion. Similarly, sustained pranayama is known to facilitate the practice of yamas and niyamas, and vice versa. Based on one’s unique personality and proclivities, a unique combination of the four types of yoga is most beneficial. There are rare exceptions. Mirabai, the 16th century saint, for example, was primarily a Bhakti yogi. In contrast, the late Jiddu Krishnamurti, a contemporary giant in the world of philosophy, was primarily a Jnana yogi. For most of us, however, Integral yoga—a combination of the four—is most suited. In the Indian spiritual ethos a self-realized guru is therefore revered—because such a guru intuitively concocts the right mix of the various types of yoga based on the individual at hand.

All the knowledge and nuances surrounding yoga would need several volumes, and is far beyond the scope of this forum. All I would like to do in these concluding paragraphs is to attest to the transformation in my own life ever since yoga became a nonnegotiable commitment over 10 years ago. I have been systematically practicing pranayama, asanas, and meditation since then. The mental, physical, and psychical transformations are profound. Take just one small aspect—my breath. Over 10 years ago, I was, almost all through the year, afflicted with sinus and allergies. A box of tissue was never too far, out of necessity. Today, not only do I remain unaffected through Atlanta’s notorious pollen season, but my breath is smooth and sublime. To provide a crude but nevertheless effective analogy, it feels like having gone from a 1976 Chevy Chevette with a bad carburetor to an ultra-refined modern Rolls Royce. Only those who have experienced it know how a seemingly little thing like fluid breath greatly affects one’s quality of life, much beyond what can be effectively verbalized.

In the realm of mental faculties, the meditation brings with it clarity that allows simple things like taking an hour or two to write what used to take several hours or more. Psychically and psychologically speaking, stress, tension, and fear are largely erased.

The plenty of weaknesses of mind and body that still remain can be clearly traced back to my own actions and indulgences that go against the yamas and niyamas that are necessary to stay on track. The problem then is not with the technology of yoga, but rather with our own mortal flaws that have yet to be fully addressed.

Amongst all of the human knowledge about living optimally, I know of nothing that offers such a wealth of tools as does yoga. I hope the start of an annual marker of the International Yoga Day will go a long way in bringing this ancient technology to transform our modern lives. I know experientially that it has the power to do so. 

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