Thursday, January 3, 2013

Is Ashtanga Yoga religious? - further questions from Elise

Is Ashtanga yoga religious?

What do we mean by religious? The word religion comes from the latin re-ligare - to re-bind, re-connect... with God/divinity. From one perspective that is the essence of yoga. However yoga is not a religion in the normal sense of the word, nor are yoga practitioners necessarily religious, though they may be, of course. In fact, yoga is the opposite of a religion in a number of ways.

According to Patanjali, liberation and Self-realization do not result from action (yoga) but through knowledge (samkhya). What yoga does is to remove the impurities in the human system, so that the mind can naturally become inwardly absorbed. Ashtanga Yoga concerns the practical field of knowledge, it is not religious, it is more like medicine or psychology. 

Ashtanga practice is certainly ritualistic and contains many aspects which seem religious in nature. The opening mantra worships the lotus feet of the lineage of teachers, the second a prostration to Patanjali. I am sure many practitioners think of Guruji when they start practice - in India there is a saying "Guru is god" - that means the divine may manifest through him. Next a series of prostrations to the sun - the source of our life and symbol of the Self. Those who understand that the purpose of practice is to increase the sattva guna in the system will also bathe before practice. 

These rituals put the mind in the right place to receive the maximum benefit from practice - as we have said elsewhere, the practice is chikitsa (therapy) and shodhona (purification) - with the mind in the right condition, these processes will take place. 

Yoga is at the core of all religions - the priest's knowledge (assuming he has some) and inspiration comes through union, samadhi - what they teach for the masses is the religion - they transmit higher experiences to the masses but often do not teach people how to attain these experiences for themselves, hence keeping them dependent. The path of yoga is to attain direct experience rather than one mediated by a priest.

Patanjali uses the expression Ishvara Pranidhana. In some contexts, the word ishvara denotes a personal deity - shiva, ganesh or some other deity, but in the yoga sutra Patanjali describes Ishvara (in the Samadhi Pada) as a pure soul (purusha), untouched by karmas, the unsurpassed seed of knowledge, the eternal teacher, whose sound vibration is the sacred syllable OM. The word Purusha (soul) means the one who lives within a castle. The castle is the physical body and the purusha lives within its walls (boundaries). In a similar way, Ishvara is said to live within the Purusha (like a series of russian dolls). This Isvara is none other than the true Self, the Eternal Truth etc. - which is our internal essence.

Pranidhana means to draw close to. Ishvara panidhana thus means to move towards one's spiritual essence and completes the action initiated by vairagya which means to move away from externally directed desire and furthered by pratyahara - sense introversion. In drawing close to Ishvara we are approaching something intimate, internal. This seems to be at odds with the path of most religions, where god is seen as being something external.

Patanjali mentions Ishvara Panidhana three times: as one of three elements required for controlling the vrittis along with practice (abhyasa) and dispassion (vairagya), as an element of Kriya Yoga (tapas, svadhyaya and isvara pranidhana) and as one of the angas of Ashtanga Yoga. So there is no doubt that this is an essential element in his view of yoga.

In the Gita Krishna talks about three kinds of yoga - Jnana Yoga - yoga of/through mind/intelligence, Karma Yoga - yoga through the body/action, and Bhakti Yoga - yoga of religious devotion. Patanjali's Samadhi Pada is a teaching for the jnana yogi - the yogi of high intelligence and purity of mind. The Jnana yogi can easily grasp the few concepts presented and apply the method to bring the mind to an arrested state and experience samadhi.

The society in which we live today makes the approach of jnana yoga almost impossible. Our bodies and minds are polluted and we are not able to spend our time in peace and contemplation - we need to perform action in order to survive. All thoughts and actions have consequences both on our own wellbeing and that of others. These repercussions are mostly invisible to us, but we are left with the consequences in the form of further desires and the drive to further actions. This perpetuated cycle leads to sickness, pain and suffering and keeps us in ignorance of our true nature. That is why we need Karma (Ashtanga) Yoga - asana, pranayama and yama and niyama purify the body and mind (take away the pain and increase the intelligence) and make them fit for Jnana Yoga.

As students on the path of yoga we are mix of rajas, tamas and sattva. We all need to cultivate a quality of devotion. For some this devotion could be towards "truth" or "higher knowledge" for others this devotion could be poured into action and for the religious minded, devotion is directed towards a god or guru. Jnana yoga is possible only for the student who is sattva dominant, karma yoga is for the one who experiences the impact of rajas (almost everyone in this modern world) - he must perform action to find satisfaction, and bhakti yoga is suitable for one who experiences many strong attachments and is influenced by tamas. The tamasic aspect of mind can not find its way to the inner purusha, it needs an external representation, in the form of an idol. Through transferring its devotion to the idol, the many attachments are re-directed to the one goal. The idol is symbolic of one aspect or various aspects of the divine. Through meditating on these qualities the student is able to use the deity as a window, a portal into the universal and undifferentiated spirit. Jnana yoga is the  "true" yoga because the other two culminate in it - jnana, or knowledge, is the only means to liberation.

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