Yog is one of the six pillars of Indian thought school. Modern world has changed the perspective of Yog to Yoga, and merely reduced it to a set of asanas or postures, which help you maintain fitness and health. But, Yog is more than therapy for the body. In fact, I would be bold to say that Yog is not about the body at all. Yog is all about conditioning of mind and it helps your body to prepare for this state. But, first, let us take a step back and look at the rich history of Yog in Indian subcontinent.
Evidence of Yog in Indian sub-continent
As per the archaeological evidences, especially a figure is seated with arms extended and resting on the knees in a classical meditative posture, found on the sites of Indus Valley civilization, it has been deduced that Yog has been practiced on the Indian subcontinent for well over four thousand years. The literary mention of Yog finds its way in almost all texts in late-Vedic era, starting the Upanishads to The Mahābhārata. The evolution of understanding of Yog and its practices can be very much seen in these texts. The Mahābhārata contains a number of references to practices that are clearly relatable to the system of Yog. An important point to note is that neither the Upaniṣads nor the Gītā (a part of The Mahābhārata) mentions posture in the sense of stretching exercises and bodily poses. In all these texts, there has been mention of Yog as a practice achieve salvation by meditation. And Maharishi Patanjali’s compilation of Yog Sūtras has its exclusive focus on the psychological mechanisms and techniques involved in puruṣa’s(soul) liberation.
NOTE: Knowledge systems in ancient India were transmitted orally, from master to disciple, with an enormous emphasis on fidelity toward the original set of sūtras upon which the system is founded, the master unpacking the dense and truncated aphorisms to the students, and this system continues in traditional contexts today.
The first literary commentary on Yog Sūtras is Bhāṣya by Vyāsa, typically dated to around the fourth or fifth century. This literature forms the basis of study of Yog for subsequent authors and is recognized as understanding of philosophy of Rishi Patañjali according to Vyāsa. Other notable commentaries in this subject are Vivaraṇa (8th to 9th century C.E), Tattva-vaiśāradī (author: Vācaspati Miśra, a Maithila Brāhmaṇa from the Bihar, India; 9th century), Rāja-mārtaṇḍa (author: Raja Bhoj, mid 10th century) and Yoga-vārttika (author: Vijñānabhikṣu, 15th century).
Origin of Yog
As mentioned in Yājñavalkya Smṛti, a sage named Hiraṇyagarbha was the first teacher of Yog. Hiraṇyagarbha is considered to be an epithet of Brahmā, responsible for engineering the forms in the universe. He is said to be born on a lotus emanating from the navel of Viṣṇu, who is reclining on the divine serpent ŚeṣaNag on the cosmic waters pervading the entire universe prior to creation. Maharishi Patañjali is considered to be incarnation of ŚeṣaNag.
With time teachings of Hiraṇyagarbha became extant however, information about its content, which overlaps with scope of Rishi Patañjali’s Yog Sutra, is preserved in the Ahirbudhnya Saṁhitā. Rishi Patañjali also implies in the very first sutra that he has mere articulated and systematized a method from sets of teaching preexistent. And subsequently he defines Yog as stilling of the changing states of mind. The etymology of yoga traces back to the word ‘yuj’, which means to contemplate, leading to further deriving its meaning as ‘that joins one with the Absolute Truth’.
Yog: As per Maharishi Patañjali
Yog described by Maharishi Patañjali is not some philosophical treatise of a meditative practice. Neither it is about various body postures or Asana. Rishi Patanjali focuses on dualism between pure awareness/consciousness and all objects of awareness, whether objects are physical and extended or non-physical/internal and non-extended.
Internal world of thought and feeling is ultimately reducible to neurological brain functioning and other purely material phenomenon.
In yogic tradition, mind is perceived as inanimate and it is brought to life by pure consciousness or purusa or atman(in Hindu philosophical thought), the actual animate life force. Mind is animated by purusa and imagines itself to be real self rather than a material entity separate from consciousness or purusa. Hence, mind is the seat of ignorance and bondage. While purusa is the constant, entities such as bondage are changeable.
In summary, Yog claims to provide a system by which the practitioner can directly realize his or her purusa through mental practice.
The Katha Upanishad describes the entire ecosystem of mind-body-soul(purusa) as follows:
Body à Chariot
Senses à Horses
Mind or manas à reins that controls the horse
Intellect or Buddhi à driver who controls the reins and charts the course
Purusha or Soul à Inactive passenger
Ego or Ahankara à Illusion of self identity such as this is mine, I am happy, etc.
Rishi Patañjali uses the term ‘chitta’ to refer collectively Manas, Buddhi and Ahankara, which comprise the internal body, also called as ‘Antahkaran’. ‘Chitaa’ is used to refer the above three cognitive functions combined.
Buddhi or Intelligence produces the functions of thought related to judgment, discrimination, knowledge, ascertainment, and will. It is intelligence which molds itself in form of data presented to it via mind or manas and presents this to soul or purusa. Intelligence is the immediate covering to soul as soul becomes aware of the outside world via intellect as it channels images of sense objects through senses, sorted by mind, thinking and organizing.
Ahankara or ego causes the notion or illusion of self identity or I-ness or my-ness.
Manas or mind engages in the functions of thought which basically organizes sensory input and directs the senses.
Soul just becomes aware of the state of mind and it never changes.
Goals of Yog
Activities of ‘Chitta’ are called Vrittis. A Vritti refers to any sequence of thought, mental imaging or cognitive action performed by Chitta[state of mind]. As many yog teachers explain, If chitta is the sea, the vṛttis are its waves, the specific forms it takes. All forms or activities of mind or manas are product of prakriti, matter and they are distinct from purusa or true self. Hence, they must all be restrained in order for the soul to be realized by the yogī as an autonomous entity distinct from the mind. The mind serves its master, the soul, by presenting objects of experience in the form of vṛttis.
Chitta are body are observed as software and hardware, both unconscious and useless without presence of conscious observer which is purusa or soul or true self. Purusa, when decoupled from mind or manas, is free of content and changeless. To attain this state, thoughts must be stilled and consciousness extracted from its embroilment with mind and then only soul is realized as an entity completely distinct from mind.
Mind is the cause of bondage as it misidentifies (avidyā) itself as the pure consciousness, although in reality, it is unanimated and brought to illumination only via light of pure consciousness, which is purusa or soul. Hence, the experiences of mind and body: birth, death, disease, old age, happiness or distress, etc. are merely transformations to external body and mind, however, mind considers itself to be the subject of the above experiences, as it misidentifies itself with soul or purusa.
Yog helps to maximize the proportion of guna of sattava in mind and correspondingly decreases guna of rajas and tamas. Gunas are the catalyst in the evolution of mind and are inherent in prakriti or matter. As mentioned in The Mahābhārata, one can light thousands of lamps from one lamp, so prakriti can produce hundreds of thousands of transformations of the guṇas. On a broader scale, gunas are of three categories: sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is purest of gunas and is characterized by lucidity, tranquillity, wisdom, discrimination, detachment, happiness, and peacefulness. Rajas is characterized by hankering, energetic endeavor, power, restlessness, and all forms of movement and creative activity. Tamas is the least favored guna in yogic tradition and is characterized by ignorance, delusion, disinterest, lethargy, sleep, and disinclination toward constructive activity. A detailed explanation about gunas are described in the Bhagvad Gita.
Yog involves preventing the mind from being molded into these permutations, the vrittis, the impressions and thoughts of the outside world in such a way that purusa or soul can regain its autonomous nature. Through grace or sheer concentration, mind can attain an inactive state where all thoughts remain only in potential but not in active form. When all objects of awareness are removed, awareness can then only be aware of itself. It can then bypass all objects of thoughts and even get disassociated from sattvic chitta (purest form of cognition) and become aware of its own source, which is soul or purusa.
The above described state is called asam-prajanata-samadhi or Self Realization in yogic terminology.
There are eight limbs of Yog and Self Realization is the final one. Following are the limbs of Yog:
1. Yama : Abstention or moral refrain
2. Niyam : ethical observance
3. Asana: postures
4. Pranayama: Breathe Control
5. Pratyachara: Withdrawal of senses
6. Dharana: Concentration
7. Dhyana: Meditation
8. Samadhi: Full meditative absorption.
Yogis say that nature of the soul is pure consciousness just as nature of sun is to shine. It needs no external instrument to shine, nor does it exert any effort to do so.
1. Edwin F. Bryant — The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali_ A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary-Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2014)
2. Yog Course — Madras Sanskrit College
3. Patanjalil Yog Darshan
4. The Mahābhārata