The Heart of Yoga

heart-yogaWelcome to The Living Yoga Blog — we very much hope you’ll find this to be a helpful resource in your exploration of the path of Yoga. We’d like to start by sharing a bit of the idea behind this site. We feel very lucky to live in an age where there’s so much great information about Yoga, especially the physical. That much said, while there’s definitely some great information on Yoga philosophy, we believe there isn’t quite the same unified support – that is, a place to learn more about the “big picture” and to build a systematic understanding of how the pieces of Yoga fit together. Our hope is The Living Yoga Blog can be such a place: a resource you can turn to, not only to learn the basics but to understand the interconnections, and, in turn, deepen your own understanding & approach. We’d like to start that today with an exploration of what Yoga is ultimately “all about,” including how the branches of Yoga fit these greater ideas.

The Heart of Yoga

Of course, most of us have heard yoga literally means “oneness” or “union.” This is a powerful principle, but also a little vague, so for that reason we’re actually going to start a slightly different way, and that is through the Yogic concepts of prakriti and purusha.

Basically, in looking at life, the Yogis observed we humans have two distinct aspects: on the surface, we have our unique elements – our bodies, temperaments, and experiences – which are distinct and always changing. The Yogis referred to these as a group as prakriti or “material nature” – which for them, interestingly, also includes our thoughts & feelings, as they realized these are every bit as “conditional” as our bodies.

Beneath these transient elements, the Yogis also observed something more: a fundamental sense of “Self,” or what they referred to as purusha or atman – that is, basically an unchanging witness to the drama and pageant of our lives. Where the external elements are always transforming, the purusha is always calm and abiding — watching the drama of life with interest & concern, but ultimately “untainted” by the ups & downs we experience. Further, where on the surface we all have our distinct character, the Yogis observed deep down the “true Self” is universal – for example, while we have different things that make us happy or sad, the experience is the same, especially the pure act of “observing” or “Being.”

Three Simple Truths….

From this simple observation, the Yogis then went on to discern a few equally simple but powerful truths that can provide the key to living a joyous, peaceful life:

  • Our inherent nature (i.e., the Purusha or true Self) is bliss, joy and peace — what the Yogis referred to as satchidananda, or “being, knowledge, bliss….”
  • Because the “superficial” parts of ourselves are always changing (again, our bodies, emotions, thoughts, or external circumstances, or prakriti), when we misidentify with these, we face the frustration of change & inconsistency and in turn experience suffering.
  • By letting go of this misidentification and returning to awareness of our true Selves, we return to our inherent state of joy & peace — experiencing true happiness in life and also being better able to serve & love those around us.

 Branches & Primary Practices

Of course, this is a wonderful goal, but the Yogis realized since much of “ordinary life” fosters exactly the opposite – that is, we spend a lot of time building & reinforcing our sense of difference – it takes equal effort & dedication to build this approach. For this reason, they went on to develop specific practices to help us achieve these two distinct but interconnected goals — that is, to connect with the “witness consciousness” and see the transient parts of ourselves for the conditional things they are. Together, these constitute the practical branches of Yoga, of which the postures are one component. Let’s look at each now, with emphasis on how they support these two principles….

To begin, the Yogi’s observed we humans all have four major elements or aspects of our “human-ness,” each of which can either be grounds for mis-identification with differences or grounds for awareness of interconnection, depending on how we approach them. Within each category, the Yogis went on to develop specific tools to build awareness of the witness consciousness and increase mindfulness of/release misidentification with the conditional.

  • Hatha Yoga — The Path of Effort (Physical Self)

Hatha means “effort” or “exertion” and refers to the physical branch of Yoga or the one that begins with the body. The tools of Hatha include asana (postures), pranayama (breathwork), meditation, diet & fasting, kriyas (cleansing practices), and awareness of the chakras & nadis (the energy channels of the body). Through the application of these tools, we can help our bodies and minds be more calm and also get better at seeing the experiences of the body as the transient things they are, which in turn can help us move beyond the superficial to the inherent peace of the true Self….

  • Jnana Yoga — The Path of Wisdom/Cognition (Mental Self)

Jnana means “wisdom,” and the path of Jnana Yoga uses meditation, self-study (svadhyaya), inquiry, scriptural study and satsang (spending time in the company of fellow truth-seekers) to build greater self-awareness and mindfulness. Again, by being more aware of the conditional nature of our sense of “self” – in terms of our opinions, thoughts and experiences – we can become more aware of the true Self always present beneath these ever-changing mental states. And greater awareness of our own particular “programming” and assumptions also becomes a means for greater compassion for others – even those coming from a very different set of experiences….

  • Karma Yoga — The Path of Service (Social Self)

Karma literally means “action,” and the path of Karma Yoga involves using seva or “selfless service” (to strangers, community, family or holy persons) as a way to let go of

selfish attachment and learn to see our common spirit – even & especially in the case of seemingly different “likes” & lives….

  • Bhakti Yoga — The Path of Devotion (Spiritual Self)

Bhakti means “devotion,” and Bhatki Yoga uses ritual & ceremony — including prayer, chanting, and scriptural study & recitation — to build awareness of the universal spirit always present, even in the “mundane.” It’s important to note that while, classically, these practices would have been Vedic or “Hindu” in origin, in our tradition we believe any form of ritual – including communion, observing the sabbath, sweat lodges, tea ceremony, or any other personal practice – can be a tool for expressing and building devotion….

Of course, because all four parts of our humanity ultimately connect, the Yogis realized all branches naturally lead to the others. For example, the more we practice devotion (Bhakti), the more we naturally wish to honor the divine in those around us, leading to service or Karma Yoga. And the more we see the divine in ourselves, the more we’ll want to respect and care for our bodies and minds, leading to Hatha and Jnana Yoga. And of course, the same applies when we start with any of the other branches. In this way, ultimately, the various branches of Yoga lead to an integrated way of life – but the beauty is we can start “where we are,” beginning with the tools & techniques that are most comfortable for us and gradually growing at our own rate & in our own way….

Uniting the Branches: Raja Yoga & Our Own Unique Path

Through this “interconnectedness,” the Yogis ultimately observed a form of Yoga they referred to as Raja or “Royal Yoga,” which is the path that combines all four branches – obviously in the ratios & forms that speaks to us. For example, one person’s path may include a little more asana and study with a little less formal “ritual,” while another’s may involve a simpler physical practice with more emphasis on service. By finding our own unique blend, we’re able to speed our growth by working on multiple areas at once and honoring our own areas of “enthusiasm” & preferred ways of learning – of course all with the understanding our tools & ratios are likely to change over time, just as we do….

“Quo Vadis?” — Where To…?

So now we have an understanding of the key principles of Yoga and how the major branches support them, we can begin to look at each area in more detail. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore the major ideas & practices, starting with some of the bigger themes, such as meditation & breathwork, and gradually moving to subtler but equally-essential topics, including primary texts (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Bhagavad-Gita), an overview of the ethical principles, and more. Again, our hope is you’ll find this site to be a helpful and rewarding resource for building your own personal relationship to this powerful, life-transforming body of teachings….

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