What is Yoga?
Typically in the western world, yoga is thought of as a physical practice whereby the individual uses certain postures and exercises in order to improve the health, flexibility and strength of the body, perhaps even to heal some minor physical ailments. There is nothing wrong with this view, yet it is very much incomplete. These benefits can no doubt come about through the disciplined practice of certain forms of yoga, but to make the mistake of thinking that this is the sole purpose of yoga, is to grossly underestimate and misunderstand the greatest gift given to humanity. This gift will be explained and made clear during the course of this essay.
Origins of Yoga
At some point in pre-history, perhaps tens of thousands of years ago, the evolution of mankind reached a point where there was a radical shift. Man’s consciousness moved from the level of being a sophisticated animal, concerned with procreating, eating, protecting its territory and so forth, to a level where the human mind was able to self-reflect – to inquire into its true nature.
Mankind began to ask fundamental questions such as: ‘What am I?’, ‘How do I fit into this world?’, ‘What is the purpose of my life?’ and ‘Why am I here?’ Perhaps this shift happened gradually, in small numbers to begin with or perhaps there was a kind of tipping point scenario where large numbers experienced a sudden shift in communal consciousness.
Either way, it is clear that the shift was not absolute as even today, thousands of years later, with all of our sophistication, new technology and progress in so many fields, many of us still live lives devoid of any deliberate ‘truth seeking’. We go about our lives: working, eating, procreating, seeking happiness in so many ways, enjoying or not enjoying life, unaware of our inherent spiritual depths. Many become depressed or live with a sense of meaninglessness and only a few search for any kind of salvation from this paradigm.
There is nothing wrong with this kind of existence, as the Buddha (one of the greatest yogis who ever lived) said: even the blades of grass will one day reach Nirvana, which is to say, when left to our own devices we move through incarnation after incarnation, from less sentient beings, such as blades of grass, to more sentient, such as animals, then eventually we become humans, a rare and privileged experience. Once we become humans, we are said to evolve from being less aware of our spiritual nature to becoming more aware of it, we towards an understanding of our true, divine nature. The process of becoming realised therefore takes many, many births and we can either choose to go through these births at a regular rate or speed up the evolutionary process…and this is yoga; the deliberate speeding up of the process of evolution of one’s spirit.
So it is clear that at some point the ancient people began to yearn for truth and a higher experience of life. They eventually began to devise methods for realising this truth. Whether this came initially to humans through teachings from realised masters, through ‘divine intervention’ or even by alien intervention is unknown but ultimately any kind of method or system (from any culture) for speeding up the process of human evolution can be called yoga.
The term Yoga refers to both the practice and the goal. There are various paths of yoga and they all lead to Yoga.
The two approaches of Yoga
Yoga can be divided into two general categories: Vedantic Yoga and Tantric Yoga. In brief, Tantric Yoga involves the body, senses, sounds and energies (see ‘What is Tantra?’ essay for more information) and the aim is the awakening of kundalini shakti. In order for this to happen, the primary concern is the awakening of the chakras which can be achieved through a variety of techniques including the practice of certain asanas (postures) which are commonly known, though often incorrectly practied part of Hatha Yoga we all recognise. In fact, awakening of the chakras is precisely the purpose of the asanas and any kind of physical therapy is really a by product along the path of balancing and purifying one’s system.
Vedanta or Vedantic Yoga on the other hand is concerned with the study of the Vedas. These are ancient texts (possibly the oldest books ever written down) that cover a vast array of both practical and abstract subjects. Veda (knowledge) + anta (end) meaning ‘the end of knowledge’ / the ultimate truths.
The Tantras; (also known as Agamas) are ancient texts which expound the practices of Tantra. They are full of specific practices and techniques for cultivating and raising shakti (energy). The Vedas on the other hand contain very beautiful verses of poetry that consist of tales, fables and aphorisms that expound the meaning of life. In part, to practice is to read, memorise and chant the verses of the Vedas though many yogis would say that the act of chanting mantra is itself a tantric practice. So perhaps the most purist practice of Vedanta yoga is Jnana Yoga which is based on that portion of the Vedas which is called Advaita Vedanta non- dualistic theory (more on this below).
Very often there is confusion between which are tantric and which are vedantic practices, for example the first verse of the Rig Veda is dedicated to Agni, the energy of fire but to then worship fire and practice rituals that involve fire is basically a tantric practice.
The confusion between Vedanta and Tantra is exacerbated by the fact that many gurus over the years who have held and preached Vedantic values also taught Hatha Yoga which is clearly rooted in Tantra. For example, Sivananda himself, one of the greatest yogis of the 20th century was predominantly a Vedantan. Yet he is best known in the west for his system of Hatha Yoga. Also the books of B.K.S. Iyengar (one of the most famous Hatha Yogis of modern times) hold Vedantic values rather than tantric, to name just two.
The reason for this is that it is very common in Indian to mix and match practices and philosophies that suit the particular aspirant so it is natural that yogis will draw from many directions. Also, since the sixties when westerners started visiting Indian en masse, Hatha Yoga has become more and more widely available in Vedanta based ashrams as this is the yoga that many people are searching for and drawn to (perhaps due to our identification and obsession with the physical body). The problem is that when Hatha Yoga is taught with a Vedantic attitude it completely misses the spirit of tantra from where Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga (and so on) emanated and this is partly why, for the most part, yoga asana are nowadays taught in such a meaningless and non-traditional way that goes against tantric theory.
A brief overview of the various types of yoga from India
Defining the various Yogas can be a little tricky as Indian culture is such that definitions are often inexact, fluidic and change over time. For example, Hatha yoga consisted originally of a set of purification methods for removing bile, phlegm, mucoid plaque and psychic impurities from the physical body whilst simultaneously purifying the energetic centres and pathways. These practices were called the Shatkarmas and are still taught today, sometimes under the name of Kriya Yoga, (Kriya meaning action). These cleansing ‘kriyas’ were, over time, embellished by the yogis, to include asanas, pranayama, mudra and bandha (defined above). Even moral and ethical guidelines were brought in by some (and later rejected by others, such as Swami Swatmarama in Hatha Yoga Pradipika who does away with these difficult to follow rules.)
So it is worth considering that when some yogis (both today and in ancient texts) refer to Hatha Yoga, they are talking about the cleansing practices rather than asana or any other practices.
Further confusion arises when we take a look at Kriya Yoga. As mentioned, Kriya yoga sometimes refers to the Shatkarmas but more frequently Kriya yoga is associated with the meditation technique taught by Babaji – the great Indian Saint who’s transmission was passed down through a guru disciple lineage ending with Paramahansa Yogananda (See his inspiring book ‘Autobiography of a yogi‘).
A version of Kriya Yoga is also taught through the Satyananda Yoga Tradition and Swami Sivananda (Satyananda’s guru) was said to have been initiated into Kriya yoga by Babaji himself. This is often called ‘Satyananda Kriya Yoga’. These kriya practices are inscribed in numerous tantric texts written in Sanskrit. To date, only a few of these have been translated into other languages. The most authoritative magna opus on the subject of Kriya Yoga today is A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya, its companion volume is Kundalini Tantra.
Kriya Yoga originated in antiquity and evolved over time through practice and experience. The full form of Kriya Yoga consists of over 70 kriyas out of which only 20 or so are commonly known. Unlike other forms of yoga, Kriya Yoga does not seek to curb mental fluctuations but purposely creates activity and awakening in consciousness. In this way all the faculties of the individual are harmonised and flower into their fullest potential.
As mentioned, traditionally Hatha Yoga consisted solely of the six purification practices known as the shatkarmas. However, over time there were additions to the original system of Hatha Yoga, these were: asana, pranayama, mudras and bandhas as well as some rules which should be followed such as non-violence and dietary restrictions to name a few.
Pranayama is a system of pranic awakening practices and mudras and bandhas are psycho-physiological energy release techniques. Both are technical, mechanical and should be taught by a trained instructor.
Hatha Yoga as it is known today in the west consists mainly of asana which is the twisting and stretching the body into unusual positions in order to affect one’s state of consciousness. However they are mainly taught solely as a physical practice in order to improve one’s body, and ironically the six shatkarmas are now ignored in many schools of Hatha Yoga.
Throughout the hundreds of Hatha Yoga systems that exist today, a myriad of aspects of the yogic paradigm are represented. Some systems are traditional and take their practices from ancient texts and traditional guru-disciple lineages others use practices invented or adapted by modern-day yogis.
There are many ‘brands’ of Hatha Yoga (often named after the person who formulated them), such as Iyengar Yoga of B.K.S. Iyengar, Satyananda Yoga (now also called Bihar Yoga) of Swami Satyananda, Sivananda yoga of Swami Sivananda, Ashtanga Yoga of Patabi Jois, Agama yoga of Swami Vivekananda, Integral Yoga of Swami Satchitananda (the term integral yoga was previously used by Sri Aurobindo) and so on.
Etymology: The syllable ha denotes the pranic (vital) force governing the physical body and the chitta (mental) force thus making Hatha Yoga a catalyst to an awakening of the two energies that govern our lives.
ha also denotes the sun and tha denotes the moon so the techniques described in Hatha Yoga are practiced in order to purify the physical body and balance the lunar and solar polarities that make up the human energetic system.
It is said that we use Hatha Yoga in order to harmonise and purify the body systems and focus the mind in preparation for more advanced chakra and kundalini practices. That is to say that Hatha Yoga alone is not enough to reach the higher stages of realisation, however the Tantric texts also suggest that Hatha Yoga alone can lead the diligent yogi to perfection . The fine tuning of the human personality at increasingly subtle levels leads the yogi to higher states of awareness and eventually meditation. For example, through pranayama alone the state of meditation (dhyana) can arise spontaneously.
Excluding the shatkarmas, the main aspects of Hatha Yoga outlined above, in fact fall into the umbrella term of Raja yoga.
For more about the purpose of Hatha Yoga go to the ‘What is Tantra?’ essay.
This yoga works with the psychic content of the individual and like all yogas its aim is nothing less than the revelation of our true nature. By stilling the mind, it is said that our essential nature will eventually be revealed.
Due to the Western misconception that yoga means Hatha Yoga, people often say yoga and meditation. However meditation is not separate from yoga, it is a path of Yoga and it is also an attainment along the path of yoga. (It is worth remembering that all of these Yogas cross over and interlace at some point, so we must not be too ridged in our definitions.)
Dharana is the ability to have fixed concentration on an object for prolonged periods; once this is perfected, Dhyana can arise which means meditation. So in the large majority of ‘meditation’ classes and personal-practices we are not in fact meditating, rather we are sitting down attempting to concentrate in the hope that it leads to meditation.
Within Raja Yoga we can include the Kriya yoga method of Babaji, Laya Yoga, Swara Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga and so on.
There are many other styles of meditation that fall into the Raja Yoga category, to name a few:
- Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
- Theravadan Buddhist Yoga such as Vipassana Meditation
- Sahaja Yoga of Mataji Nirmala Devi
- Meditation practices from the Agamas (tantric texts) such as Vijnana Bhairava Tantra
This is not to mention the various meditation practices of other mystical schools such as Kabbalah, Sufism, Gnosticism and so on.
That said, Raja Yoga usually refers to the system of yoga that is described in Patanjali’s text ‘Yoga Sutras‘, (See the book ‘Four Chapter’s on Freedom’ by Swami Satyananda – a translation and commentary on’Yoga Sutras‘) known as Astanga Yoga. In this ancient text Sage Patanjali describes eight stages of yoga, each one leading on from the next.
Patanjali’s ‘yoga sutras’ describe a comprehensive yoga system which deals with:
- the refinement of human behaviour and personality through the practice of the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (disciplines)
- attainment of physical health and vitality through asanas ( Though it is often postulated that he is referring specifically to meditation postures) and pranayamas,
- management of mental and emotional conflicts and development of awareness and concentration through pratyahara (sensory withdrawal)
- dharana (concentration)
- developing the creative aspect of consciousness for transcendental awareness through dhyana (meditation)
- samadhi (absorption in the universal identity).
This is a widely used form of yoga, which uses various sound vibrations in order to connect and put oneself in resonance with the multitude of subtle energies that exist around us. It is through the agency of various imitative sounds that one is able to access these subtle energies. The vibrations emitted by the yogi whilst chanting mantras (either internally or externally) heralds a corresponding response from the universe. The mantras purify various aspects of the individual and atmosphere around them whilst sending them into spiritually refined states of consciousness.
There are many forms of yoga that use mantra (see below) so it is quite a generic term. Mantra yoga is one of the most widespread forms of spiritual practice and it extends throughout all cultures, religious and mystical paths from Buddhism or Islam to Christianity.
Japa is the practice of repeating a particular mantra (given to the individual by a guru) for a set amount of rounds each day. For most forms of Japa a mala is used which is a rosary of 108 beads. The beads are moved between the fingers in order to count the number of repetitions carried out. For example, a guru may give his disciple the observance of repeating his mantra for two malas per day.
Like many of these Tantric yogas, laya yoga is a form of Raja Yoga which uses Mantra and other tantric techniques for propelling the yogi into states of super-consciousness by rising kundalini shakti. It is the yoga of perfect fusion with specific infinite spheres of forces of the universe. In brief, it works with sound vibrations, concentration and the psychic content of the individual. Laya means ‘dissolution’: dissolving oneself completely in the cosmic self. See the book ‘The Serpent Power’ by Sir John Woodroffe for more detail.
Nada means spiritual vibration and Nada Yoga is a system of yoga that uses the sound vibrations of various mantras and classical Indian musical instruments. The initial practices use concentration and chakra awareness to move ones attention and energy through the main chakras in time with various mantras and. This gradually purifies one’s systems and awakens the energy centres and pathways. This is a simple, relaxing and very powerful set of practices which can be carried out by the individual using a harmonium and one’s own voice.
This form of yoga works with the secret rhythms of nature and their correlation with the breath of man. Through diligent practice, the hidden causal web of the universal manifestation can be revealed. The practices are expressed in part through pranayama techniques where the breath is deliberately alternated between the nostrils, thereby effecting the two hemispheres of the brain and the solar and lunar polarities of the individual.
Bhakti Yoga is the path of channeling the emotions and feelings to realise the transcendental and divine nature inherent in every human being.
Bhakti Yoga is often called the yoga of devotion. It’s essence can be see in many organised religions (such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam), as well as in mystical paths of spirituality such as Sufism, Gnosticism and Tantra.
Bhakti Yoga is a widely accessible form of spiritual practice that appeals to those of us with a devotional temperament. It works with the emotional aspect of the individual and directs this force towards a chosen deity or guru. There are various methodologies for this process but they all lead to the same end: Yoga.
For more on bhakti Yoga see ‘What is Tantra?’ essay
Karma Yoga is the yoga of continued mindfulness throughout all of one’s karma[s] (actions). It is a system which develops immunity to the reactive and negative components of an action. These karmas can be as obvious as digging a hole or as subtle as breathing, tasting or indeed thinking.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati believed that awareness is the Alpha and the Omega of yoga and that without awareness there is no yoga. This awareness must be continuous throughout all of our actions and they must be carried out with the utmost efficiency and attention. This leads to a greater ability to manage mental associations in the form of desires, ambitions, ego and other personality complexes.
Furthermore, according to the doctrine of karma yoga, karmas should be carried out without any desire for remuneration, which is to say we should not be attached to the fruits of our actions. We should act because it is the right thing to do in the moment, not for the desire of praise, thanks, money or anything else in return. The fruits of our actions are then offered up to some higher, nobler cause or idea, so that we are left untainted by the repercussions of that action.
When we are performing correct Karma Yoga, we desire neither positive results from our actions, nor negative ones – the action and the result is consecrated and becomes a form of worship.
Above all other Yogas, Karma Yoga is the one that can be applied in every aspect of daily life and within one’s spiritual practices and the aim of Karma Yoga is to gain freedom from the bondage of karma which restricts and inhibits dynamic, creative and constructive expression in life.
Jnana Yoga is the practical application of the teaching s of Advaita Vedanta. It does not employ the tantric practices listed above but uses an approach that is straight, dry and often suited to intellectually minded individuals.
Jnana Yoga is the yoga of intuitive insight. It uses a Vedantic self-inquiry method whereby the yogi reflects into the nature of the self by stripping through the various layers of their mind thereby eventually transcending the mind and perceiving truth directly as a pure consciousness. It is an uncompromising form of yoga that addresses the ultimate questions that all yogis from all paths aim to answer:
Who am I? What is the truth of my existence?
The yogi inquires into their own true nature by meditating on the concept of neti neti – ‘not this, not that’. The most common technique for this is to inquire into the body and ask ‘Am I the body?’ then inquire into the mind, asking ‘Am I the mind?’ then the senses, ‘Am I the senses?’ and so on. Having discovered experientially that one consists of none of these things the jnani is left with the knowledge of neti neti – I am none of these things…so what am I? And the answer comes not as intellectual knowledge or even as an experience but as a realisation. That realisation is what the buddha called enlightenment, what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven and what yogis call moksha – liberation. It is the realisation that our true nature is pure consciousness without form which is called Jnana – true knowledge.
Swami Satyanada and Swami Sivananda and other gurus from traditional systems of yoga (such as Swami Rama), emphasised the need for an integral approach to yoga in order to adjust and balance every facet of the human personality in a safe and well-rounded manner. Swami Sivananda talks of the importance of having a balance between ‘head and heart’, represented within Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Satyanada and Sivananda Yoga are integral paths of yoga that provide guidance and teachings on many types of yoga (outlined above). For example, within these two Yoga systems there is a greater emphasis on Bhakti Yoga – the Yoga of devotion, Mantra Yoga – the Yoga of sound vibration and Karma Yoga – the Yoga of mindful, non-attached action. In fact, even though both are systems most well known for Hatha Yoga, many yogis of the Sivananda or Satyananda tradition do not practice any Hatha Yoga in favour of the above tantric and non-tantric forms
The Benefits of Yoga
Most people in the west approach yoga by learning asanas or meditation as a form of physical or mental therapy. It is our desire to get fit, toned or flexible or to learn to relax from the stresses of everyday life that causes us to seek out yoga.
Nowadays, it is well known that yoga is an effective, holistic approach to health, both mental and physical. Therefore, seeing as Hatha Yoga is by far the most popular Yoga accessible in the west, it is little wonder that when people profess the health benefits of Yoga, they are talking about Hatha Yoga.
It should be remembered, however, that whilst healing is one of the remarkable benefits of yoga practice, it is in fact a by-product rather than the end goal of yoga. To use yoga as a way of getting fit and flexible is of course fine but it is a bit like using a bar of gold bullion to hammer in a nail. The bullion will effectively do the job but its value far exceeds that of a simple hammer and its uses (when exchanged for currency) reach far beyond the limited applications of a hammer.
Hatha Yoga can deliver the above health benefits and far more. In the west we think of Hatha Yoga as being a useful complementary therapy for healing minor problems such as a bad back or a flabby tummy, however, in India there are many well-documented cases of people curing very serious disease through the practice of Hatha Yoga alone. In order to have such amazing curative results (such as healing cancers, diabetes, heart conditions and so on) we must have a regular and diligent self-practice as well as making a sincere effort to change to our life situation which may have caused the illness in the first place.
The problem is that the healing potential of yoga is unrecognised, unknown and undervalued in the western world (and increasingly so in India) where allopathic medicine is the only option widely available to people. As a result, very few people are prepared to take the ‘risk’ of healing with yoga in favour of using conventional medicine and surgical procedures.
Unlike having a medical treatment or taking some pills, when healing through Hatha Yoga, you are solely responsible for your own healing. You must make a resolve and then spend the time doing the practices. This may mean putting aside a couple of hours every day for a prolonged period of time, but when faced with an unpleasant death at the hands of an aggressive disease this is a small price to pay. Whilst it is true that Hatha Yoga can alleviate all kinds of problems, such as high blood pressure, respiratory problems, diabetes, digestive problems, depression, migraine, it is important that we perform the correct practices to get results. Yoga practice is not a ‘one size fits all’ affair and we must choose the correct practices for the individual condition.
It is not only Hatha Yoga that has the potential to heal. Yoga practices that involve mantra and sound vibration such as Nada and Mantra Yoga can also be very effective. By sending sound vibrations through the body, energetic blockages that correspond to physical ailments, can be shifted.
Through the meditation practices of Raja Yoga, certain phenomena may occur whereby one has insight into, or memory of, the source or root of their ailment so that it can shift. I have heard numerous stories from my guru about people being instantly (self) healed once the original (childhood) cause of a disease is realised and integrated.
Similarly, through Jnana Yoga, insight and understanding can arise that allows the yogi to clear psychic blockages and thereby release mental and physical ailments. In fact, all forms of yoga bring about an expanded, holistic awareness of our nature and through this process it is inevitable that psychic issues will be realised, observed, and eventually cleared.
Yoga for development of the personality
Yoga can be used as a way of deliberately affecting certain aspects of our character (As explained in the ‘What is Tantra?’ essay). This benefit can affect our work, personal relationships and the way in which we relate to the world around us.
Classical, tantric forms of yoga involve mindful, meditative practices that work with the subtle energies and the psychic centres (chakras). By understanding which chakras correspond with which particular personality traits and then working with those chakras directly, we can both purify the negative aspects of our personality and at the same time build up the parts of our personality in which we feel we are lacking.
For example, an ungrounded ‘spacey’ person should work specifically with the root chakra as it corresponds with earth energy and will bring about grounding and steadiness of mind. A naturally awkward or uncharismatic individual should deliberately draw energy into the sacral chakra in order to refine this aspect of the personality. A particularly shy or unmotivated person should work with the fire centre at the navel chakra to become more confident and dynamic. If we are lacking in compassion or the ability to forgive we would work with the heart chakra to become more caring. Someone unable to express themselves clearly or listen to others would work with the throat chakra. One with poor concentration or who wanted to improve their intuition, should work with the third eye chakra, which is the centre corresponding with awareness and psychic power.
Similarly, an individual can use yoga to improve many aspects of their daily life. As long as one’s intention is pure then there is nothing wrong with using yoga as a way of enriching one’s life. For example, before studying it is possible to work with one’s mental command centre to improve one’s concentration and open up the centres corresponding with learning and intelligence. Before a boxing match one could increase the fire element within, corresponding with determination, will power and aggression. Before a date one could practice yoga corresponding with the heart centre in order to become more loving, kind and attentive to one’s partner’s needs. The possibilities for using tantric yoga in this way are endless.
The chakras are accessed directly through the tantric forms of yoga mentioned, bringing about purification and balance. This happens in part by the specific mental impressions (samskaras), which are obstructing us from leading a fulfilling and meaningful life, being brought up to the surface of our consciousness and being cleared. For this we can use Hatha Yoga techniques such as asana pratyahara (withdrawlof the senses while the body-mind is fixed in an asana), Raja Yoga techniques such as Satyananda Yoga Nidra, and the yogas that use vibration and mantric practices.
Also, through the non-tantric practice of Jnana Yoga, the personality can be affected and improved very directly. Inquiring into the self involves becoming a witness to all the layers of our personality; observing the inauthentic ego-created masks we wear and realising that our true nature is not represented in those facades but veiled behind it. We realise that the masks are keeping us trapped in a psychic prison constructed by the conditioned mind. We then, very naturally, allow them to drop away.
Clearly this is a very different approach to the tantric way, which on the whole, deliberately bypasses the mind in favour of more mechanical techniques. Instead of improving our personality from the level of the energetic body, in Jnana Yoga we approach the mind from a trans-mental level. By resting in awareness and observing the body, mind, senses and personality we experience that we are ultimately not those things. This indicates by way of negation that the nature of the self cannot be tied down through identification with anything manifest; the truth of who we are is so vast and mysterious that it cannot be named or spoken, and by seeing what is not real we can eventually clear the way for realisation of truth to occur. This realisation of truth is yoga.
Perfection and Paranormal Powers
When we read the tantric texts, it is clear that the tantric yogis who wrote them were very much concerned with the understanding and attainment of Siddhis. ‘Siddha‘ means to fulfill, to perfect. When you perfect and complete something, that is siddhi. The main reason that they are so important to the yogis is because the attainment of siddhis indicates that the practice (sadhana) they have been performing, perhaps for many years, has become perfected. This does not mean the siddhi is an end in itself but that the yogi has practiced in the correct way and has achieved a certain level of mastery and realisation.
Tantric yoga is very methodical and scientific. The yogi works through the chakras one by one purifying and balancing each. Then the major energy pathways are activated until eventually kundalini Shakti can rise to meet with Shiva consciousness whereby Samadhi can occur. The experiments the yogis perform are empirical and repeatable, which is to say, if the correct practice is followed diligently, specific siddhis are attained. For example, if after practicing specific techniques for some time, a yogic is able to create an immense bodily heat capable of keeping himself warm in sub zero temperatures, either by using mantras, meditation or others, then that yogi knows that the chakra corresponding with fire is very much activated and he is therefore in tune with that aspect of the universe which corresponds with fire. Ultimately the yogi can ‘know’ the chakras which means he has reached to the depths of one aspect of the universe. When we consider that there are six (not including sahasrara) main chakras and each one corresponds to an aspect of ‘all that is’, to ‘know’ one chakra is an astounding and highly advanced feat. To know them all is an attainment only a handful have achieved.
Due to their paranormal and highly impressive nature, many yogis over time have become obsessed with the attainment of Siddhis and forgotten the ultimate purpose of yoga. They have set these yogic powers as their goal rather than seeing them for what they are: milestones along the way that should not have too much attention paid to them. It is reported that siddhis may arise spontaneously without effort and that they can also be forced. To force a siddhi for its own sake is frowned upon by genuine yogis.
In yoga it is said that this attachment to siddhis is one of the most terrible obstacles on the path to realisation and it has been the downfall of many yogis across time. When a yogi gets attached to their particular siddhi and begins to either use it for personal gain or to show it off to others in order to gain recognition or approval then pride arises which is a psychic impurity represented within their energetic system. In other words the yogi may have taken one step forward by attaining the siddhi but then by becoming egotistical and attached to it, they fall back many places whether the siddhi stays or disappears.
When siddhis arise, the level-headed yogi takes the siddhi as a useful guide and carries on with his yoga unaffected. Sometimes the siddhi passes away, sometimes they stay with the yogi.
These psychic phenomena can reach from being able to read other people’s thoughts, to being able to overcome gravity. To give you an idea of how a siddhi may arise I will use the most famous example of yogic powers, called in the west: levitation. There are said to be at least two ways in which one can attain this siddhi. First we must look at the root chakra – mooladhara chakra, as this chakra corresponds with earth energy, sometimes called telluric energy. This is significant because the force of gravity is related with this centre and to ‘know’ mooladhara therefore means the yogi is no longer governed or limited by it. The yogi’s awareness has expanded into and beyond the limitations of gravity and therefore no longer needs to adhere to its rules. So once the adept has reached a certain level of purity, balance and control they can employ certain techniques (including pranayama) that mean the yogi is in such powerful resonance with the macrocosmic mooladhara that he can defy its laws as his consciousness has transcended them.
The second way is through anahata chakra. This is the heart centre and it corresponds with the element of air. In the same way, by ‘knowing’ the heart centre completely, the yogi is no longer governed by the element of air. Through specific practices corresponding with anahata, the yogi becomes as air if he chooses.
The feat of levitation is an important indicator to the yogi but should be seen as nothing more. To show the importance of the actual siddhi in itself, there is a story involving the Buddha by the banks of a river:
One day, the Buddha was minding his own business when a yogi approached him and asked if he could see anything special about the yogi. When the response was a clear ‘no’ the yogi decided to show off his yogic powers by levitating in full lotus position in front of the Buddha. The yogi drifted into the air and then to the far side of the river, before drifting back to bask in the glory of his achievement. In response, the Buddha said to the yogi, ‘now watch this’ then walked over to a boatman who was nearby, paid him one rupee and was ferried across the river and back again. The Buddha hopped out of the boat and said to the yogi. ‘Now what do you think of that?’ The Buddha achieved the exact same result by paying the boatman one rupee that the yogi did after probably tens of years of hard penance achieving that siddhi. This illustrates the uselessness of attaining a siddhi that is of no more use than mere showing off. If the siddhi is achieved just for the pride of attaining that power, then it is not yoga but showmanship, and has no use whatsoever in the realisation of one’s true nature.
In this essay (and more so in the ‘What is Tantra?’ essay) I have shed a little light on some of the tantric practices of yoga but as mentioned earlier, yoga is also the goal of these practices. So what is the meaning of yoga as an end result?
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’ as it comes from the root ‘yuj’ – ‘to yolk or bind’. To understand the concept of this ‘union’ we must look at the Samkya philosophy from which, it is thought, yoga arose. Within this system of thought (darshana), it is said that there is such a thing as an individual soul, jivatman, and an over soul, paratman. The jivatman corresponds to us as individual microcosmic spiritual units and the paratman correspond to some kind of universal or cosmic consciousness that makes up ‘all that is’.
Yoga therefore means to realize experientially one’s unity with this universal soul and to merge with it. This is also known as self-realisation, as ultimately this cosmic consciousness is our true nature, it is the self. The answer to the eternal question: ‘Who am I?’, in yogic terms, is therefore, paratman. This can only be experienced or better said realised. It cannot be simply known as a concept as these are held only within the mind and ultimate truth is far beyond the reaches and concepts of the mortal mind.
In order for God realization to be realized, the mind must first be tamed or transcended. In Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’; perhaps the most concise and informative treatise on raja yoga, freedom from the dominance of the mind is known as liberation – moksha.
Patanjali explains liberation in the first two verses of the ‘Yoga Sutras’ in the pithy dictum:
Yoga chitta vritti narodha
Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind
Then the seer is established (abides) in his own essential nature
As the above verse (sloka) elucidates, it is once the incessant movements and interference of the mind is stilled that our true nature can be known. This true nature was and is always here. It is only the veil of the mind that hides this truth of who we really are: Neti neti, we are not this, not that … so what are we? We are told in the Vedas that our true nature is Satchitananda – pure being, pure consciousness, pure bliss.
A good analogy for understanding our true nature is to think of a picture within a wooden frame. The picture is covered in grime so we see only impurity and believe it is just an unremarkable object. These impurities represent the sub-mental karmic impressions (samskaras) that cause our minds to be continually active and confused. So we go through our lives with no meaning or direction, nothing beautiful to look at. Our evolution is slow and the impurities seem to barely shift at all. Then we come to yoga, in whatever form, and we are told that under that grime is an image of the divine; so we start cleaning the mirror. This we do through yoga: by purifying the body, mind, senses and so forth. Eventually as the dirt gets wiped away we begin to see something moving through the grime and we become intrigued. The picture is moving. Maybe it is something magical; clearly it is mysterious and unexpected. Eventually it is wiped clean and we realise to our joy that it is not a picture at all; it is a mirror, and reflected back to ourselves is our own divine nature. This is self-realisation, also called god-realisation. To know that you and the divine are the same or better said, there is no ‘you‘, only the divine. Tat Vam Asi – ‘I am that.’