What is yoga? Classical definitions.
Generally speaking, there is a lot of confusion of the real meaning of it. Even among its teachers and those dedicated to “yoga” some ideas drifted apart from the real meanings of the word yoga still exist.
We will now take a look at the most used classical definitions to try to understand its meanings and implications.
We must read and study the classical texts. This is not just an option or a complement: it is a must. Love of Knowledge and Truth hold hands, along with the Yogic culture, the Dharma and a disciplined life.
This article is based in part of the first chapter of the book “Light over Yoga” of our master BKS Iyengar. In this text BKS Iyengar uses thirteen verses of the Bhagavad G̅ita̅, one of the Yoga Su̅tras and one of the Kathopaniṣad. With such references, we can grasp the importance of the Bhagavad G̅ita̅ in yoga’s conceptions.
Definitions that entail attitudes
In the Bhagavad G̅ita̅ itself, second chapter, we can find two classical definitions of the word yoga.
“Taking pleasure and pain, gain and loss, victory and defeat to be the same, prepare for battle. Thus, you will not commit fault.“
In this verse, Kṛ̣ṣ̣ṇ̣rsna plants the seed of another classical yoga definition we will find in verse 2.48.
And in this verse 2.38 he is already pointing out the direction toward that definition. Kṛ̣ṣ̣ṇ̣rsna is letting Arjuna know that what must prevail is the sense of the what is right (dharma) and not convenience or personal preferences.
This attitude towards actions (doing what is right) turns into yoga and it is precisely this attitude what creates certain composure, certain equilibrium, certain non-dependence to personal conveniences in the mind of the yogi, in karma-yogi’s mind. This transformation into equanimity is yoga and is one of the targets of any adept.
It is named karma-yogi because a certain interpretation of any action and its results is used as a preparation and discipline instrument that purifies and minimizes the conveniences of the searcher’s mind.
“ Your choice is in action only, never in the results thereof. Do not think you are the author of the results of action. Let your attachment not be to inaction”
The election is whether you do, you do not do or you do in a different way, but there is no absolute election on the results.
This is a fact. It is not a piece of advice. To believe that we are the absolute agents and responsible of all the results of our actions is a totally wrong and disproportionate perception.
“Remaining steadfast in yoga, Dhanañjaya (Arjuna)! Perform actions abandoning attachment and remaining the same to success and failure. This evenness of mind is called yoga.”
Mind equanimity (yoga) towards the result of actions is the definition we were looking for.
Equanimity comes over by understanding that our sense of welfare and happiness does not come of having obtained or not what we wanted. We will sometimes achieve want we want, others we will not and others we will obtain more than we expected. As it is impossible to achieve it all (it is not realistic), what is best is to adopt an attitude of equanimity with the results and of greater attention to our duties (bigger attention than to our rights). By combining equanimity and attention we can achieve a greater satisfaction of doing what is right, what is appropriate, instead of weighing up the possible success we have achieved by studying the results we have obtained.
As it is later stated, the wise is the one who is satisfied with himself without any particular reason (verse 2.63).
To adopt this healthy attitude of detachment for success and failure and to be ruled by what is right and by duty is a step toward maturity and a sign of independence from afflictions.
And to end up these definitions in terms of attitude, here is the last one, in verse 2.50:
“One who is endowed with sameness of mind, gives up both punya (merit) and pa̅pa (demerit) here, in this world. Therefore, commit yourself to karma-yoga. Karma-yoga is discretion in action.”
The word Kauśalam in this verse means discretion in the election. But it is not an election on what to do that is free of rules. Everyone’s election must be in harmony with certain rules.
Kauśalam is the ability of interpreting properly with reference to the rules of human interaction. This ability and the skill to interpret and choose is Kauśalam. Dharma (what is right) is the rule for human interaction.
Why are these two definitions considered as yoga? In short, because in both you are no more in the hands of the preferences, conveniences and likings emerged from the ra̅ga-dvesas (attachments and aversions): you are now doing the good, appropriate action that matches what must be done at each moment according to the role you are playing.
Definitions that cover mastery and mind absorption:
a) Definitions in the Bhagavad Gi̅ta̅.
The verses that refer to the mastery and absorption of the mind mostly appear in the sixth chapter, entitled dhya̅na yoga.
“ May the meditator, whose body and mind are relaxed, who is free from longing and possessions, remaining alone in a quiet place, constantly unite his (or her) mind (with the object of meditation)”
“…Sitting there on the seat, making one’s mind one pointed (absorved in the object of meditation), may the one who has mastered the mind and senses practice meditation for the purification of the mind.”
“… being the one whose mind is tranquil, who is free from fear, established in one’s commitment to the life of a brahmaca̅rin, may (that) meditator sit thinking of Me, having Me as the ultimate goal, while withdrawing the mind from everything else. “
As we can see, Kṛ̣ṣ̣ṇ̣a starts addressing himself to the person who is already matured, to the prepared karma-yogi, who has undergone a transforming process toward maturity. He specifically addresses to the person who has mastery over himself, free of ambitions and possession anxiety, the one with a serene and fearless mind, the one engaged with a life of yoga. He does not address the novice; he addresses the karma-yogi who has begun a transforming process by adopting the karma-yoga definitions we said before.
We must bear in mind that we are in chapter six and spoken mainly on karma-yoga, that is, of the means by which an individual prepares and transforms his mind, intelligence and senses to be able to receive and realize this contemplation with or without a form (saguna-Brahma, nirguna-Brahma). For doing this you need a mature mind, well prepared and ready to receive and assimilate the knowledge. A worried person or a person with very strong internal pressure will not be able to carry out this contemplation o meditation that Kṛ̣ṣ̣ṇ̣a speaks about in this chapter.
On the other hand, the fundamental mechanism referred to here with several different words is union, direction, absorption of the mind in the contemplation of a meditation object which, in this case, is one self’s essential reality, with or without support (with or without form, personal or impersonal).
“Always connecting the mind in this manner, the meditator, the one whose mind is mastered, gains the peace, which is centered on Me (which is in the form of an absorption in Me), which is the ultimate liberation. “
“When the mind has gained a certain composure (and) remains in the self alone, where one is free from longing for all the objects (of desire), then (the person) is said (to be) one who is accomplished.”
Kṛ̣ṣ̣ṇ̣a keeps on stressing the mastery of the mind, when it is able of dwelling and settling in the vision and assimilated understanding of the Self.
“A lamp, protected from the wind. does not tremble. This illustration is cited for the composed mind of the meditator who practice contemplation of the self. “
“When the mind, mastered by the practice of meditation, abides (in a̅tman) and when, seeing oneself by oneself alone, one rejoices in oneself …
“… (and when) one recognizes this absolute happiness known by the intellect, beyond the limits of the senses, where once settled one does not move away from one self’s truth”.
The effect of this absorption and understanding comes from the impossibility of moving back or away from truth.
Verse 22 and 23:
“… and, having gained which, one does not think there is any other better gain than that, established in which, one is not affected even by a great sorrow (sorrowful event) …
… may one know that dissociation from association with sorrow, to be what is called as yoga. That yoga should be pursued with clarity of purpose with a mind that is not discouraged”
b) Definitions in the Yoga Su̅tras and in the Katha Upaniṣsad
Pa̅tañjali defines yoga and the repercussions that its application will have. In the yoga su̅tra
I.1: yoga is still defined as the restriction and cessation of the functions or fluctuations of consciousness. If this restriction of the fluctuations occurs, whoever “sees” it dwells in his own and splendid magnificence (I.2). If it does not occur, whoever “sees” it identifies himself with the fluctuant consciousness (I.3).
BKS Iyengar states: “Yoga is the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for the human uplift. “
As B.K.S. Iyengar says in his comments on the Yoga Su̅tras: “The tendency of consciousness is to get involved with the seen object. To drag who sees towards him and to cause that this one get identified with the object. This process turns into a seed of the intelligence diversification and makes possible that who sees forget its own and radiating conscious perception.
When it is restrained and regulated, a reflective state of being is experienced. In this state, knowledge dawns so clearly that the true grandeur of the seer is seen and felt.
All the technique of yoga, its practice and its control, have as object to dissociate the conscience from his identification with the world, to restrict the senses that entangle it and to clean and to purify the lens of the citta, until they transmit total and solely the light of the soul”
The last point in this category is the definition in the Kathopaniṣad:
“When the senses are stilled, the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not- then, say the wise, is reached the highest state. This steady control if the senses and mind has been defined as Yoga. He who attains it is free from delusion.”
The very root of the word yoga, Yuj., refers to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It is also means union or communion.
If there exists a notion of being an individual, this individual will always feel restricted, small, powerless, helpless and overwhelmed by the power and immensity of the world. The acknowledgement and appreciation, the vision of this non-separateness, of the non-separation with the world and with God: this is yoga.
Yoga within the six Darśanas
To finish this small exposition, Yoga is one of the six “philosophical” orthodox systems or darśanas in the Vedic culture. Samkya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisisekya, Mimamsa and Veda̅nta. Yoga’s darśana was compiled and systematized by Pa̅tañjali in his masterpiece, the Yoga Su̅tras.