Yoga is one of the Six Systems of Vedic philosophy, and Yoga Sūtra is the oldest and most authoritative text on this philosophy. This book translates and comments on this ancient text.
The text begins by describing how conscious experience begins in the Chitta, which is the repository of our past experiences, accumulated over many lifetimes. From this historical record of past experiences, thoughts and desires are produced automatically, which the soul falsely considers as its creations, and thus becomes a slave to its past. The purpose of Yoga is to destroy this historical record and liberate the soul from the bondage of its past. To achieve this goal, the Yoga Sūtra presents an eight-step process comprising Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prāñayāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhārana, Dhyāna, and Samādhī.
The steps of meditation called Dhārana and Dhyāna are stated to be the surrender to the form of the Lord called Paramātma in the heart. This surrender—called īśvara prānidhāna—is the perfection of Yoga. All previous steps are presented as the means to help the practitioner of Yoga meditate unflinchingly.
The text presents eight-fold mystical perfections called Siddhis, gained by a Yogi who has mastered the control of Prāña. This book discusses the details of these mystical perfections and how they rest upon an alternative understanding of matter. They enable a Yogi to become light or heavy, small or big, walk on fire, water, or air, travel to distant places in a moment, or change his or her body instantly.
The Yoga system of philosophy dwells on the following key topics:
- The understanding of the nature of chitta, which is an unconscious repository of impressions from the past. We can understand these impressions as the ideas that were acquired in previous lives. The Yoga system describes how successive manifestations from the chitta produce the mind, the senses, and eventually the body. This produced reality then binds the soul, quite like a spider who might produce a web and then seem to be caught in its own creation. Therefore, the Yoga system prescribes the processes by which the successive productions of the modifications of chitta can be stopped. That cessation would then lead to the soul’s liberation.
- It discusses the eight-fold path of meditation called aśtānga-yoga. The eight limbs of this process are called Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Pranāyāma, Pratyāhara, Dhārana, Dhyāna, and Samādhi. The system prescribes only one Āsana, and many types of Yama and Niyama. This is quite instructive to the modern practitioners who don’t practice the Yama (don’ts of life) and Niyama (do’s of life), but only practice many types of Āsana. The Yoga system also describes the preconditions of meditation, namely, the perfection of Pranāyāma, and the progression from Dhārana, which is an initial impression, to Dhyāna, which is detailed understanding of the object of the meditation, to Samādhi, which is seeing oneself as the part of the object of meditation. The first five steps are said to be external, while the next three steps are said to be internal. The first five steps are also different compared to other processes of spiritual upliftment described in Sāñkhya, and the last three are common. Thus, the eight-fold path is not different in its goals, although appears to be different in the initial stages of the practice.
- The Yoga philosophy repeatedly emphasizes devotion and surrender to the Lord. This is initially presented as the method of the perfection of yoga, then it is presented as the goal of the perfection of yoga, then it is presented as the practice of those who have previously perfected yoga, and finally it is presented as the state after the perfection of yoga is attained. Based on these statements, the devotion to the Lord is established as a process, a goal, a proven path, and the final conclusion by those who are perfected. The repeated emphasis establishes this as the ultimate view of yoga.
- The text refutes impersonal ideas about the cessation of all qualities upon the perfection of yoga. It describes how the perfection leads to the development of spiritual senses by which the Paramātma is perceived, and these are produced from within the soul. The text discusses numerous spiritual qualities of the soul, and states that these qualities are pure forms of meaning, thereby rejecting the contention that these may be material qualities. The text rejects many popular meditations on emptiness or a void, the cessation of thoughts, or a merger of various consciousnesses. All these are recognized as possible states, but not considered ultimate or even permanent states. Thus, a difference between voidistic, impersonalistic, and truly divine meditations is established.
- There is a discussion about the various material advancements obtained by the yoga process, such as a strong body, freedom from illness, place in heavenly planets, knowledge of the nature of the sun, moon, and the stars, and eight types of mystical perfections. However, two things are noted subsequently. First, by the time these perfections are attained, the desire for enjoyment is almost completely destroyed. Second, the remnants of the desire to enjoy, the text warns, can lead to a fall from the position of perfection. Thus, even though such perfections are noted, they are indirectly discouraged as not being the real purpose of the yoga practice. They are, however, recommended as a method by which bodily strength leads to mental and emotional strength, and the latter then brings about the courage to tolerate the difficulties of yoga. The mystical perfections are thus recommended for a person who lacks mental and emotional strength to tolerate difficulties.
The study of the above key areas in the Yoga Sūtra refutes some of the common misconceptions about its practices today. First, the emphasis on postures is contrary to the system; there is far greater emphasis on renunciation, celibacy, cleanliness, and truthfulness. Second, all the impersonal doctrines about the merger of the soul into the Supreme Soul or Paramātma are summarily rejected. Third, the manifest differences between the aśtānga-yoga and other systems are only in the so-called “external” aspects of body control, and not in the “internal” aspects of meditation, where devotion to the Lord is the sole conclusion.
Finally, we might note in passing that there is absolutely no discussion of Chakras, Kundalini, and other bodily aspects of the yoga process, with which people today are preoccupied. These latter practices are based on the Tantra system, rather than on Yoga Sūtra. Those who follow such practices, therefore, are not practicing Yoga philosophy, but a system of Tantric practices. Tantra practices have also become popular among the Buddhists, who borrowed these from the Vedic Tantra system, and merged them into their voidistic philosophy. The Tantra system is considered much lower than the Yoga system. Just as mystic perfections are means to an end in Yoga, similarly, the Tantra practices are a means to an end for those who cannot practice Yama and Niyama. For instance, if someone cannot practice celibacy, then they are prescribed an alternative system of sex by which sexual enjoyment is severely curtailed. If someone cannot practice solitude and silence, then they are given an elaborate ritual by which to engage their mind through an activity performed by the body. The postures and practices used in Tantra are not Yoga, but they have also been practiced by those who found the stipulations of Yoga Sūtra impossible to implement.