Understanding What Yoga Isn’t: Clarifications from Classic Texts & Modern Sages

Throughout its history, there has been a fair amount of confusion as to what yoga is.  It can be helpful for modern students to know this confusion is far from new, and that yoga has often been misunderstood both in the West and the East, and by outsiders as well as practitioners.  In today’s article, we’ll look at some of these classical and contemporary misunderstandings, in the hope that this might give you a better understanding of what Yoga really is.


The Human Grounds for Misconception

To begin, it’s valuable to realize that several of these misapprehensions are due to basic human tendencies – tendencies that are by no means unique to a given time or culture.  For example, we humans have always had an inclination to focus on the physical at the expense of appreciating the essence of a teaching or practice – a tendency we see in Christianity and Judaism every bit as much as we do in traditions of the East.

We also have a tendency to focus on teachings or activities that are easy to quantify – that is, practices that give us measurable or demonstrable results, even (unfortunately) when those “gains” go against the very spirit of the tradition we purport to embrace.  Whether these results are material or social (e.g., improved social standing or worldly security), we tend to be drawn to things that can be proven and substantiated – a tendency that, again, can actually lead us away from the values behind the practices.

The following are some of the more common misperceptions found in Yoga as highlighted by the major texts and teachers.  As always, by learning to be more aware of our natural, human inclination, we increase the likelihood of seeing our mistakes before investing too much energy in practices or beliefs that may actually lead us away from our goal.  By learning to avoid getting distracted by the superficial aspects of Yoga, we can stay closer to the true spirit behind them.

Yoga is More Than the Poses

The most common misconception about Yoga seen today is in fact a long-standing one, and that is the belief that Yoga is primarily about mastery of the poses.  This is in fact an error against which every great Yoga sage has warned his or her students, including such legendary masters of asana as Matsyendra and Vasistha.

Again, it can be helpful to realize that, even in less image-oriented times, it has always been natural for us to become attached to the physical practices.  Mastery of complex poses garners attention and praise, and always has.  Moreover, progress on the physical path is easier to gauge, and thus become attached to or find ourselves identifying with, than more ephemeral practices, such as meditation.

This is why countless experts in the field of Yoga have cautioned their students against thinking asana alone is sufficient.  In fact, Swami Svatmarama in his classic treatise on the physical branch of Yoga, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, reminds us: “I consider those who do Hatha Yoga (i.e., the physical practices) without Raja Yoga (i.e., meditation and self-study) to be laboring fruitlessly.”  It’s highly illuminating that the man widely recognized as the single greatest authority on the physical branch of Yoga saw the necessity of such a warning.  The fact that he reminds his students that asana is not only limited without the mental side of practice but is in fact pointless is powerful testimony to the importance of the inner practices of Yoga, namely learning to control the mind.

Yoga is More than Accoutrements & Trappings

Just as we in America are not the first to become attached to the poses, we’re also not the first to become obsessed with yoga clothes and “yoga speak.”  Again, this attachment is normal – it is far easier to focus on external changes than the hard work of changing our mindset.  And it is also easy to find comfort in the ready identification of likeminded people that a clothes and mannerisms provide.

For this reason, again, even centuries ago, Swami Svatmarama reminded his students: “Success is achieved neither by wearing the right clothes, nor by talking about it…” – in other words, it takes far more than appearance to be a yogi, let alone achieve the end of Yoga.  Of course, this doesn’t mean these superficial aspects are “bad,” simply that we shouldn’t let focus on them lead us away from the greater goals of Yoga, such as self-knowledge, equanimity of mind, and compassion for those around us.

Yoga is Not About “Extremes”

Those dedicated to the path of Yoga often fall into the belief that “more is better” – whether in terms of the intensity of their practice or strictness of diet or other forms of self-mortification.  This is most commonly seen in the area of asana, with the belief that “harder” poses are better or that a longer practice is superior to a short one, but it can also be seen in any area of Yoga, including dietary practices,  fasting, study, devotionalism, or even meditation.

The Bhagavad Gita reminds us that more does not necessarily mean “more Yogic.”  Sloka 6.16 states: “Yoga is not eating too much, nor is it not eating at all, and not the habit of sleeping too much, nor not sleeping at all….”  Similarly, Svatmarama again tells us that Yoga in fact “perishes by overeating, overexertion, talking too much, needless austerities, socializing, restlessness…” – in short, excess in any form, including excess of spiritual practices, prevents us from achieving the peace and harmony that is the true goal of Yoga.

Yoga is Not About “Isolation”

Related to this is the common belief that, in order to truly excel at Yoga, we must isolate ourselves – whether through a yoga retreat or an ashram or a pilgrimage to India.  As the great Jnana Yoga sage Ramana Maharishi frequently reminded his students: “Your efforts can be made here and now, regardless of environment…” – that is, we don’t need a special environment in order to progress on the Yogic path.

Much like the trappings of Yoga, solitude or spiritual company can be beneficial, but they are by no means necessary.  As Ramana goes on to remind us, wherever we go, our minds come with us, and they are our true challenge.  No matter our location, we bring our fears, our assumptions, and our prejudices with us.  Instead of waiting to find a “better” location in which to tackle these inner issues, we should realize both the challenges and the opportunity to overcome them are available here and now.

Yoga is Not (Necessarily) About Becoming a Swami / Giving Up Worldly Obligations

Related to assumptions about location/context is the misconception that those of us who are committed to worldly obligations (e.g. family or career) can never truly succeed on the Yogic path.  Even in ancient India, it was natural to admire those who had chosen a life of simplicity and poverty, while also assuming that those who were tied to practical responsibilities couldn’t be expected to make the same gains on the spiritual path.

A wonderful rebuttal of this assumption is found in the life of another twentieth-century luminary, Nisargadatta Maharaj.  Nisargadatta achieved enlightenment, and subsequently offered profound spiritual wisdom to literally thousands of students, while continuing to uphold his familial obligations, including running a small tobacco store.

In fact, like Ramana, Swami Sivananda, Swami Satchidananda, and many others, Nisargadatta frequently told his students that this mistaken belief – the idea that we need to go somewhere or change our role in order to become enlightened – is itself actually a far greater obstacle to enlightenment than these obligations themselves.  Again, we don’t need a special location or role any more than we need a flexible body in order to travel the path of Yoga or to achieve its goal.

Yoga Cannot Be Mastered by Study Alone

Of course, study is a valuable part of the Yogic path, but even the most erudite scholars of the tradition remind us that learning alone does not suffice.  As Svatmarama again observes: “Success in Yoga is not achieved by merely reading books.  Practice alone brings success. This is the truth, without a doubt.”  Similarly, Ramana Maharishi, who again is considered one of the greatest examples of the cognitive branch of Yoga or Jnana Yoga, states: “There will come a time when one will need to forget all that one has learned….”

Again, this of course is not to dismiss the value of study on the Yogic path, but rather to point out that study alone will never take us to the goal of Yoga, nor should we be discouraged if our capacity or opportunity for formal study is limited.  As Nisargadatta so eloquently put it: “To go beyond the mind, a well-furnished mind is not needed….”

The Goal of Yoga is Not to “Make the Mind Silent”

Another common misconception about Yoga, as well as with meditation, is the belief that the goal is to make our minds completely calm.  Many of us not only mistakenly hold this belief but become discouraged when we find this difficult to achieve.  People often believe that they are either doing something wrong or even that there is something wrong with them that they find this so challenging.

According to the great sages of the tradition, this not only is not the goal of Yoga but is in fact impossible.  According to the yogis, the very nature of the mind is to think – again, a fact we have all experienced if we’ve ever tried even a small amount of meditation.  Thinking is actually what the mind is designed to do, and to believe we can somehow stop it is to misunderstand both the nature of mind and the goal of Yoga.

According to the yogis, the goal is not to make the mind completely still but rather to learn to see beyond the activity of the mind.  As Ramana Maharishi puts it: “How can an unsteady mind make itself steady?  Of course it cannot.  It is the nature of the mind to roam about.  All you can do is to shift the focus of consciousness beyond the mind….”

Of course, rendering the mind more calm and focused – through asana, breath-work, and most of all meditation – is a valuable part of the Yogic path.  However, it is important to realize that our objective is not to make the mind utterly free of thoughts, but rather to realize that peace and presence exist inside of us at all times, even when our thoughts are at their most “rambunctious….”

Yoga Is Not “Faith-Free”

Related to this – and a significant issue for modern practitioners – is the role of faith.  Because many of us come to Yoga in part due to dissatisfaction with Western religion, it is natural to assert that faith is not a necessary part of yoga.  However, once again, the classic texts of the tradition suggest otherwise.

Again, The Bhagavad Gita reminds us that the path actually begins with faith, which naturally leads us to the goal of Yoga: “He who possesses faith attains knowledge; devoted to that, restraining his senses, having attained knowledge, he quickly attains supreme peace.” (4.39)  Not only that, but it reminds us that, without sufficient faith to genuinely invest ourselves in the practice, we cannot hope for results: “The man who is ignorant and does not have faith, who is of a doubting nature, is lost…”  (4.40).

Of course, it is important to note that the faith spoken of here is not necessarily faith in a given deity, such a Krishna or Siva, nor in a human teacher (that is, a guru).  However, The Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yoga Vasistha and many other primary texts remind us we must have faith in both ourselves and the teachings if we are going to apply ourselves with sufficient zeal and dedication in order to advance on the path.

In all our exploration of what Yoga isn’t, it is important to conclude by taking a moment to remind ourselves what Yoga is.  Again, a natural human tendency is to be distracted by the immediate – that is, “to lose the forest for the trees.”  And when we lose sight of our objective, we often end up stuck in the “forest of details” instead of reaching our true goal.  This is as true of Yoga as of any other human endeavor, and for this reason, all the great teachers and texts speak of the importance of reminding ourselves what Yoga is all about.  For this reason, let’s take a final moment to remind ourselves of the true goal of Yoga.

As discussed previously, the goal of Yoga can be challenging to summarize, in part because it can be expressed in as many ways as there are lives to experience it and minds to conceive it.  That much said, here is a brief summary with which all the major texts of Yoga agree:

The goal of Yoga is to know true and lasting Peace and Joy; to learn to see that they are available to us in all moments, and to learn how to stay in touch with them even amid the challenges of life; and, finally, to support those around us in experiencing that Peace and Joy as well.

Ultimately, all of the tools of Yoga – from headstands and chanting to such “material” practices as the cleansing practices of Hatha – are designed to help us achieve these goals.  And so, to truly practice Yoga means staying in touch with these greater objectives and to remind ourselves of them any time we find ourselves bogging down in the particulars.  Again, as my teacher Swami Satchidananda used to remind us, the ultimate goal of Yoga is: “To be Peaceful, Easeful & Useful….”

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