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Yoga: The Big Picture

By David B. Hughes

Everyone is familiar with the gentle stretching, graceful movements and calm breathing techniques of Hatha Yoga. People have enjoyed Hatha Yoga in the West since the 40s and 50s, and it has become more and more popular since the 60s. People who practice Hatha Yoga exercise report all kinds of benefits from better fitness to spontaneous cures for any number of diseases, to peace of mind.

However, as beneficial as Hatha Yoga may be, it is only a small part of the original and complete Yoga system. If the entire teaching of Yoga were an ocean, Hatha Yoga would be a minor sea smaller than the Mediterranean. Most Western students of Yoga are content to ply the safe waters of Hatha. But in this article, I would like to batten the hatches, trim the foresail and set sail across the stormy sea of the complete Yoga system--or at least give the map a good looking over.

Where does Yoga come from? Although it may be new to America, it certainly is not a recent invention. The source of Yoga is the Vedic literature of India. The Vedic literature is the written record of the Vedic civilization, the oldest--and perhaps the wisest--living culture on the planet. It comprises a vast spectrum of knowledge from practical, commonsense advice to sublime meditations on the most recondite spiritual knowledge, all set to exquisite Sanskrit poetry. Many authors compiled these ancient books over a period of thousands of years, but with a common purpose: all of them have something to do with the practice of Yoga.

To give you an idea of the scale of the original Yoga teaching: first there are the four original Vedas--the Rg-veda, Sama, Yajur and Atharva-veda. There are four Vedas because they contain directions for ceremonial performances performed by four priests. Then there are the 108 principal and hundreds of minor Upanishads, which contain elaborate discussions of the esoteric philosophical and theological implications of the original four Vedas.

There are the 18 main Puranas, or histories of the universe, along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are histories of the incarnations of Rama and Krishna on this planet. Then we have innumerable Tantras describing the technical details of thousands of Yoga practices. And let's not forget the Vedanta-sutra, or ultimate conclusions of the Vedas, the well-known Yoga-sutras of Patanjali, and the many ancillary treatises such as the law books of Manu, and the Samhitas. All of these books have voluminous commentaries written by hundreds of master teachers over thousands of years.

Altogether the collected volumes of the Vedic literature would easily fill the main branch of the New York Public Library, a very large building indeed! However, only a tiny percentage of this incredible spiritual treasure has ever been translated into English.

This great body of literature and culture ensured that none of the original Yoga teachings existed in a vacuum. All of them were developed and written down in the social and philosophical context of the Vedic civilization. Therefore no Yoga teaching is meant to stand alone, but is a choice, one alternative out of many, for attaining the great aim of Yoga. And what is that aim? Yoga ultimately aims to liberate people from the sufferings of life and help them reach their true spiritual potential:

"One can relieve all material distress by practice of Yoga."
-- Bhagavad-gita 6.17

The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yukt, which means to link or attach, as in the English verb yoke. So the subtext in all Yoga teachings is the spiritual process of linking the soul with the Supersoul, the part with the whole, the human with the Divine. The implication is that our difficulty in material life is due to separation from our original spiritual source. The root problem of human life is thus inextricably bound with our individuation from the Supreme Soul and our descent into matter. The solution is found in re-linking our soul with our Divine source through Yoga.

The original Yoga teaching was one; a self-realized master teacher would prescribe practices appropriate for a given student, monitor his or her practice and certify the result. Then why are there so many different branches of Yoga today? Over time, master teachers became too rare to guide everyone, so Yoga specialists developed to tutor specific branches of the teaching. Human nature being what it is, these specialists formed their own schools with differing philosophical conclusions. Now there are hundreds if not thousands of 'flavors' of Yoga. The principal ones are listed below.

(Excuse me if I happen to omit your particular favorite. If you inquire into the history of your teaching, you will probably find it related to one of these.)

Yoga Description
Hatha-yoga Physical and breathing exercises
Raja-yoga The path of transcendental knowledge
Karma-yoga Work as spiritual service
Astanga-yoga The eightfold path
Dhyana-yoga Meditation on the Absolute
Sankhya-yoga Discrimination of matter and spirit
Tantra-yoga Radical respiritualization of material existence
Mantra-yoga Chanting of sacred prayers and names of God
Nada-yoga Meditation on the Absolute in sound vibration
Bhakti-yoga Cultivation of ecstatic spiritual relationship with God

These different Yoga schools all share common characteristics and practices. None is entirely distinct from the others. And although all schools of Yoga invoke the Vedas as their ultimate basis and authority, yet they profess conflicting practices and differing philosophical conclusions.

Adding to the overwhelming confusion is the fact that the authors of the Vedic literature intended it to be a guide to Yoga for all eternity. That is, the Vedic literature not only contains teachings suitable to the present historical age, Kali-yuga; it contains Yoga practices for all four historical ages. This means that fully three-fourths of the Yoga teachings found in the Vedic literature are not for us, but for our far ancestors or descendants. One must be very astute to know which teachings are appropriate.

Now that we find ourselves adrift somewhere in the vast ocean of Yoga, does anyone have a compass or a map? Fortunately, there still exist teachers who have an overview of the vast teachings of Yoga and can direct us to clarifying sources in the Vedic literature itself.

First of all, the Yoga tradition is coming down from ancient times through different spiritual lineages of Yoga masters: "This supreme science was thus received through the chain of disciplic succession, and the saintly kings understood it in this way." -- Bhagavad-gita 4.2. So to get a clear and practical understanding of Yoga, it is best to approach a teacher who is an initiate of one of the ancient lineages.

If we begin with Hatha, the best-known source book for this branch of Yoga is Patanjali's Yoga-sutras. Patanjali's style of Yoga is called Astanga-yoga. Astanga means 'eight-limbed,' and sure enough there are eight steps to Patanjali's teaching: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Now as any modern yogi can tell you, most Yoga classes start right out studying asana. So what happened to yama and niyama? Most Yoga teachers will say they are too difficult for modern Westerners.

But Yoga is not a sentimental or speculative process. It is more like a mathematical formula: it is as exact in its result as we are precise in its application. If we omit preliminary stages of the practice, we are sure to be baffled in obtaining the ultimate result. Therefore strictly speaking, modern Yoga teachers cannot claim to be in the disciplic lineage from Patanjali, because they jump over yama-niyama and begin teaching asana and pranayama. They are not exactly teaching Patanjali's Astanga-yoga, but an exercise form derived from one or two limbs of that teaching. No wonder nobody is reaching samadhi!

The Bhagavad-gita also discusses Astanga-yoga. After Krishna describes the Astanga-yoga system in some detail, His student Arjuna rejects it. Why? "For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it is, it seems to me, more difficult than controlling the wind." -- Bhagavad-gita 6.34. Arjuna is saying, indirectly, the same thing as our Yoga teacher friends: Astanga-yoga in its original form is too hard for people in this age, it's too hard for me.

Krishna goes on to describe several other Yoga systems, offering Arjuna a menu of practices to choose from. Arjuna finally settles on Bhakti-yoga and the Gita ends happily. But many other people, attracted by the tremendous claims of Yoga, try it only to find that Yoga is more complex, and many of its benefits more difficult to attain, than they first imagined. Perhaps they need to shop around and get acquainted with the different authentic Yoga traditions and their Vedic source literature. Certainly they will find one that they can perform without adapting it beyond recognition.

Yoga is like music, mathematics, art or any other great tradition: you get from it what you put into it. If better health and a smaller waistline are all you want from Yoga, the class across town will do just fine. And if you want to plumb the depths of consciousness, understand the purpose of the universe, mitigate all material pain, attain spiritual bliss through self-realization and have a personal rendezvous with God, you can get all that from Yoga too. But to cross that great ocean, prepare for a longer and more arduous voyage, perhaps decades in length. Arm yourself with good maps and plenty of supplies. And please: don't try to redesign the ship. It was wrought by a much better hand than ours.

Thank you for sailing with me across the wild and wonderful ocean of Yoga. Before we wipe the spray off our goggles and put safely in to port, I will leave you with a final word of wisdom. An important yogic principle is that you can never attain a higher degree of realization than your teacher has. So if you really want the ultimate benefit Yoga has to offer, seek out a teacher who already has won it: "The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth." -- Bhagavad-gita 4.34.

David B. Hughes overcame an 'incurable' glandular condition by practice of Hatha Yoga at age 12. He has a Bachelor's degree in Musical Composition and is an active musician and composer. At age 20 he moved from New York to California to study Nad Yoga with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He later studied spiritual sound with Guru Thakar Singh and meditation music with Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan.

In 1975 David became an initiated disciple of Bengali Bhakti-yoga master Srila Abhay Charanaravindam Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He has spent over 20 years--12 years of it in holy places in India--in formal ashram life under the personal guidance of advanced Yogis.

David also has training in Western psychotherapeutic technique and bodywork. An accomplished professional, David is very sensitive and compassionate. He maintains a small private counseling practice in Dallas.

Questions or suggestions? Please contact Hughes Enterprises.

Copyright ©1997, 1998 by David B. Hughes. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.