Yoga as a State of Being
By Dr Benjamin Major
We now find ourselves in an age in which more people are practicing yoga than ever before, the term yoga here being more or less synonymous with postural asana practice. There are a bewildering array of yoga styles out there, each one trying to make their mark. Yoga appears in glossy magazines and on YouTube and TV programmes and yoga studios are cropping up all over the place in most cities. At least 12,000 ‘yogis’ turn up at Times Square in New York twice a year to practice asana en masse. These days it can feel as if almost everyone is doing yoga. Yet, the question has to be asked, is what they are ‘doing’ really yoga? To answer this question, it may be useful to try and more clearly define what we mean by ‘yoga’. This in itself is a tricky business! First off, is there something tangible, a set of practices and worldviews that we can point to and say conclusively ‘ah-ha, that’s yoga’? Or does the term yoga, as I suspect, refer to something more encompassing, more primordial even, to that yearning to find one’s place in the universe that has arisen amongst all humans in all times and cultures?
These days we often hear people say something like “I’m doing my yoga”. In the very early history of yoga this phrase would not have made any sense. Yoga was not something you did, it referred to a state of being, something you were at the core of your being, and the word was often used interchangeably with samadhi. I think it is important to fully understand this point, that yoga is ultimately the goal, that which we aim to attain, through whatever means and whatever practices seem right for us. But what does the word ‘yoga’ actually mean? Well, you often hear it said that yoga means ‘union’ and in fact this definition has become ubiquitous. Yet, this is only one root of the word yoga, and it is was not necessarily the prominent one in the early history of yoga. This idea of yoga as union may have only become prominent at a later date, with the influence of non-dual schools such as Advaita Vedanta and Shaiva Tantra. In opposition to this idea of yoga as union, earlier texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tend to define yoga in terms of the separation or dis-junction of purusha (pure consciousness) and prakriti (energy/matter) so in fact the complete opposite of union!* The truth is, yoga can and has been defined in many different ways, as even a cursory look through yoga history will attest.
We could begin this journey shifting through the questionable ‘evidence’ presented by pre-Vedic archaeological finds and early Vedic texts, where we meet the long-haired sages and vratyas who some claim, not without grounds, to be proto-yogis. Our first real hard evidence of yoga appears in the genre of texts known as the Upanishads where the first clear reference to yoga (in the Katha Upanishad) defines it as firm restraint of the senses, a state in which one becomes completely undistracted by the outside world. Within the Bhagavad Gita itself, we see yoga defined in a multitude of ways, including in this sense-withdrawal guise, but also as separation from suffering and also as ‘skill in action’ in the context of karma yoga. In Samkhya and subsequently in the Yoga Sutras the aim of yoga becomes the stilling of the mind (admittedly a crude translation) and the separation or isolation of our true self or purusha from the everyday world of prakriti, and explicitly not becoming ‘one with everything’ which is a more Vedantic, Tantric and New Age notion.
Later on, yoga becomes inflected with a new set of meanings from the Shaiva Tantric traditions. The aim of yoga here becomes any practice aimed towards the achievement of that heightened state of awareness where one can perceive the Divine in all things, all situations, and all beings, including oneself. Later still, we come to the tradition of Hatha yoga. The overarching aim here remains one of ultimate liberation, but to reach this all kinds of bodily practices are employed, and in some strands of the tradition at least these are geared towards raising the kundalini energy up the sushumna nadi, awakening the chakras as it goes. Here, the division of four yogas, with raja yoga placed highest, first appears. Though bodily health and longevity are promised as benefits of Hatha yoga these are hardly seen as the ultimate goal. Indeed, it can be said with some confidence that health related aims (admirable as they may be) do not take on any considerable significance until we get to the present age, within the last half century or so. Nowadays, yoga is very much embedded within the Health and Wellbeing industry and we have seen the rise of ‘fitness yoga’, for want of a better term.
So what is yoga, and can it even be said to have a definable essence? For me, yoga describes a state of being that is innate, natural and primordial. Yoga is not even something to strive for or towards because each one of us has yoga at the very core of our being. In prehistoric times I believe we were all naturally engaged in yoga, and by saying this I certainly don’t want to portray a rose-tinted view of the past in which all was perfect and peaceful, but I do think we would have been more deeply connected with the source, with the ground of Being, that purusha, brahman, Shiva, Pure Consciousness, call it what you will. In the modern technological age we have more and more distractions that prevent us from realising and abiding in this true state. This does not necessarily mean that the modern age is all bad, it just means we have to work much harder to regain this state of yoga. And again this is not the right wording, because we are not actually re-gaining anything, as yoga is always with us, it is simply veiled or covered to varying degrees.
Having as I do a preference for the Shaiva Tantra view of things, I also happen to believe that rediscovering the state of yoga does not mean renouncing or closing oneself off from the world, to the contrary, it means opening up fully to the universe and all the wondrous potentiality it contains. If one could see the Divine working creatively through everything (including oneself) in every single moment, whether enjoying a beautiful beach, cleaning a toilet, or doing a headstand or whatever one does in life… then one would know one was truly living in yoga. We might rediscover that lost state through dancing or whilst washing the dishes, we might rediscover it through sitting in deep meditation, and yes, we might rediscover it through standing on our heads! Who cares how we find it? Yoga is a destination with many paths, and now is hardly the time to bicker about which path is superior. As a species, we stand at a crossroads. Our egotistical desire to control and manipulate everything has left us at the edge of destruction. I know it all sounds a bit grand but maybe, just maybe, rediscovering this state of yoga, this state of equilibrium and joyous exuberance in all-pervading Divinity, will be the thing that can save us...
* Just to be clear, most yoga scholars I have read, including Edwin Bryant, James Mallinson and Christopher Wallis all seem to agree that Patanjali and his immediate commentators were not taking the word yoga as meaning union but rather in it's meaning of 'contemplation'. For a more in depth discussion of the two meanings of the word yoga see this article.