Yoga is one of the most important Sastras. The word yoga means union. Yoga is the Sastra of uniting individual consciousness with cosmic consciousness. It combines metaphysical world view and Consciousness Studies with methods to achieve this.
Yoga is a broad term, and is used differently in different contexts. This brings a bit of confusion about what yoga actually is. In general yoga is union; however it is used to refer to any exalted state. Bhakti, jnana and karma, the three-fold pursuit of salvation are also referred to as yogas. However they remain paths or rather approaches, and do not come under yoga Sastra. Technically the word “yoga” refers to yoga Sastra. The different methods of yoga are methods rather than approaches.
The methods of Yoga Sastra are based on Yoga Darsana of Patanjali, according to which binding (bandha) of individual soul (jiva) is because of mistaking intellect (buddhi) for self (atma). However self is beyond all upadhis – body (sareera), senses (indryia), mind (manas), intellect (buddhi), memory (citta) and ego (ahankara). And it cannot be reached through any of these. Only in unalloyed self-conscious state can the being be united with the cosmic Being. The only way is to dissolve the physical and mental consciousness in consciousness of self. Yoga Sastra specifies methods for attaining this.
Yoga defines Samadhi, the state where the seeker, sought and the process of seeking merge into one single continuum and no separation remains between them. When applied to worship, this translates as “the state where there is no difference between the devotee, God and worship”. If this is to be expressed in non-theological terminology, it translates as “the state in which mind dissolves in self-consciousness, the being experiences himself as the unalloyed self, and clearly distinguishes self from other faculties of consciousness”.
While the objective of yoga remains the same, different upadhis and methods are used to achieve the objective. Based on this diversity, yoga comes to be known in three forms. The goal of all these remains the same. The three major forms of Yoga are: Laya yoga, Mantra yoga and Kundalini yoga. They are not exclusive, but overlapping methods.
By yoga one usually means laya yoga. For any other form they usually specify what form of yoga it is – for instance mantra yoga or kundalini yoga. This is because this method does not implicitly, but explicitly mentions its goal – laya or dissolution (of mind in self).
Meditation is the means in laya yoga. Mind and life are mutually dependent, and so are the states of mind and breath. One controls mind through the control of breath, so that full concentration is possible in meditation. Through meditation, one’s consciousness merges in the object of meditation and one realizes Atman. The state in which the difference between the one who meditates, the act of meditation and the object of meditation dissolves, is called samadhi or sayujya.
One also observes during meditation one’s own being, the different sheaths of his own being and consciousness. There are five kosas or sheaths of consciousness of being - annamaya (physical), pranamaya (vital-life), manomaya (mental), vijnanamaya (intellect-knowledge) and anandamaya (causal - blissful). The first is gross, next three comprise subtle and the fifth causal being. The causal being is Isvara who resides in all beings. He is the one Who actually causes the cosmic sport through veiling and unveiling Himself to the beings. Binding of a being is because of that veil, and liberation is when that veil is lifted. It requires efforts of the being as well as the grace of Isvara, and a total surrender of the being for this to happen. The cosmic sport of Isvara can be seen in karana-akasa or the causal space.
However Isvara is all pervading and not limited to the causal plane. Being the causal principle, He is the origin of gross and subtle, and also pervades them. In Vaishnava schools the causal being is represented as Isvara. In Saiva-Sakta schools the causal being is explained as an inseparable dual of two principles – the dynamic and absolute. Isvara Himself being absolute, the dynamic principle that causes the cosmic sport is the primal rhythmic energy, Sakti or Maya. She being the dynamic half of Isvara, does it for Him.
According to Mandukya Upanishad, the gross (sthula), subtle (sukshma), causal (karana) and absolute (turiya) are the four states in which Brahman manifests. Realizing eternal through meditation is laya yoga. In Laya yoga one, through meditation, identifies himself progressively with the inner sheaths, and finally with the inner most being – Atman. The Mother is said to reside in and beyond the five sheaths – Panca kosantara sthita. Thus the seeker achieves oneness with the Mother through laya yoga.
Coming back to meditation as a means to achieving Samadhi, there are five states of mind. The first two are restless and dispersed states. The third is the state of concentration, in which mind is focused on the object of meditation. The fourth is the state of pure consciousness where mind gets to differentiate between its object and other objects. The fifth is the state of dissolution where mind dissolves completely into the object of meditation. This is called Samadhi.
The entire process and ways of controlling mind through breath and achieving Samadhi, is enunciated as Astanga Yoga or yoga of eight limbs, by Patanjali Maharshi. There are eight steps in sequence to achieve Samadhi. They are:
- Yama: Yama in general, speaks about restraint and practices that help cultivating austerity. There are many aspects of yama, however Patanjali gives five of them. Ahimsa or non-violence is the first of them. Satya or being truthful is the second. Asteya or belief in divine, being content and satisfied comprise the third. Brahmacarya or sexual fidelity is the fourth. Aparigraha or non-coveting is the fifth.
- Niyama: Niyama is a regulation. While yama is more of a restraint to overcome obstacles in achieveing austerity, niyama is a practice or method to actually achieve it. There are many niyamas such as doing worship, taking sacred vow, giving alms, however according to Patanjali five of them are important. They are sauca (purity), santosha (happiness and contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (scriptural study) and Isvarapranidhana (surrender to divine).
- Asana: Asana is the posture required for practice. While padmasana is the most practiced posture, there are many others that are used contextually.
- Pratyahara:Pratyahara is literally abstention. This step is about internalizing one’s consciousness, withdrawing mind from external senses and directing inwards, cultivate inward-looking or antar-dristi.
- Pranayama: Pranayama is the control of breath. There are three stages in respiration, puraka (inhaling), recaka (exhaling) and kumbhaka (holding the breath). By systematic practice of breath and doing these three proportionately, one can achieve prolonged kumbhaka, during which one can eventually attain Samadhi. It is during kumbhaka that one attains stillness of mind, which is fertile ground for dhyana.
- Dharana: Dharana means bearing or wearing. This is the step of concentration. The seeker directs all his concentration and invokes divine consciousness in the various limbs of his body in this stage. This precedes dhyana.
- Dhyana: Dhyana is the stage of concentration, where the seeker has totally developed inward-looking and concentrates on the object of meditation, isolating totally from his environment and external consciousness. Dhyana is usually of two kinds, one with a seed or beeja, an object of meditation and one without a form to concentrate on or seed of meditation.
- Samadhi: Samadhi is the state of actual union of the seeker’s consciousness with the object of meditation. It is also called laya. There are two forms of Samadhi, savikalpa and nirvikalpa. In the first, there is still a vikalpa or alternative, which means that the seeker is still aware of something other than the object of meditation. In nirvikalpa Samadhi, the object of meditation alone remains, and nothing else remains in the consciousness of the seeker – neither the process nor himself nor anything else. It is in this state that one realizes self.
Laya yoga is usually the basis for other methods too, though they employ other means to dissolve mind in self. This involves specifying different objects and forms of meditation, controlling mind through chanting instead of breath and so on.
Mantra yoga achieves union of individual and cosmic consciousness through union with cosmic vibration, the eternal hiss.
Sound is produced through contact, vibration and obstruction. This is called Ahata. However cosmic hiss if one can hear is eternal and existent. This is called Anahata. It is not produced by us but only heard. A yogi can hear this. In sadhana one makes the sound oneself (by doing mantra japa), in a rhythm, resonant with the vibrations of his nadis and his breath. Through this one will be able to discover the deeper vibration. This way of merging individual with cosmic is called mantra yoga.
Mantra is said to be the sound-form of the god-form, or the subtle body of the Devata. Thus chanting the mantra is very much invoking and worshiping the Devata, and not different. In fact seers say Mantra is Devata. One realizes Devata through the chanting of mantra in mantra yoga. Mantra yoga concentrates on nada (sound) to strike rhythm between individual and cosmic vibration, to activate the right nadis, to expose one into the cidakasa or daharakasa (causal space). Sabda (sound) is the tanmatra (subtle attribute) of mahabhuta (primal element) Akasa (space). And through sabda one tries to turn his vision inwards from akasa to daharakasa, through chanting the mantra, by producing sound to slowly listening the anahata sound without producing it. Eventually when mantra yoga is achieved, one achieves laya yoga also, since his consciousness is directed and dissolved in daharakasa where his devata resides.
Saraswati Sukta of the Rigveda says that Vak or word is of four forms – Para (eternal), pasyanti (experienced by seer in a state of deep consciousness), madhyama (when it translates as idea in the intellect) and vaikhari (when it is verbally expressed). Realizing Para Vak or Nada Brahman through a regulated chanting of mantra, first externally then mentally and then finally without producing it, is mantra yoga. In mantra yoga one realizing anahata (madhyama) is equivalent to the stage of subtle consciousness in laya yoga, in which one can see Taijasic beings and see subtle objects. The subsequent stage is of pasyanti or realizing causal being or prajna. Finally the eternal being or turiya is realized with para vak. Devata is a comprehensive concept, and is not just a subtle being. To the seeker, it is a ladder through which he can climb through the different levels of consciousness. Initially he worships Devata, then realizes Devata as a subtle being, then as a causal being and then as the absolute or Brahman. However it is the seeker that is evolving and not the Devata that is changing.
While every Devata is essentially Mantra rupa, Saraswati is the presiding deity of Vak. Ganapati is praised as vak-rupa. He is in fact called Ganapati because Ganapati beeja is formed from the first of Ganas or groups of alphabet. Devi is called trikuta, with three parts of the Pancadasi as Her head, trunk and lower part respectively.
Mantra yoga uses nadis of the subtle body. Each Devata represents a nadi. There are waking and sleeping times for the Devata, meaning the suitable time in the day or specific days when the Devata’s grace can easily be obtained.
The place of origin of external sound in the body is throat center. In trikutas, this is called vagbhava kuta. The sound that is produced is of Vaikhari form. At anahata cakra (above heart center) Madhyama form is known. Still below is pasyanti and para vak is realized at muladhara. This is the reason why, the representative of Para vak, Ganapati is said to be residing at muladhara.
Unlike in kundalini yoga where the seeker’s concentration proceeds from below to above, in mantra yoga the concentration goes downwards – from vagbhava to muladhara. These two directions (upward and downward) are called pravritti and nivritti margas respectively.
In Kundalini yoga, one realizes divine consciousness through the activation of the hidden energy of Kundalini. There are six centers (cakras) in the spinal channel. Kundalini is said to be initially coiled up at muladhara. She is the Mother. Kundalini is a part of the subtle body. She passes through these six centers from muladhara at the bottom of spine to ajna at the forehead, then to the crown of the head (sahasrara) where individual consciousness fully unites with cosmic consciousness. There, the Mother is said to unite with the Lord. This involves the opening of three knots or granthis in the path, called Brahma granthi, Vishnu granthi and Rudra granthi. There is one granthi per two cakras. Muladhara (pelvic) and swadhisthana (navel) associate with Brahma granthi, manipura (heart center) and anahata (midway between neck and solar plexus) associate with Vishnu granthi, visuddha (throat) and ajna (center of forehead) associate with Rudra granthi. These three are triputi of Sri Vidya tantra. In Puranic imagery, these three are the triplet of Brahma-Vishnu-Rudra.
The three functions – creation, sustenance and dissolution can be seen in the context of triputi too. Triputi is common to mantra and kundalini yoga. The six centers are divided into three groups of two cakras each.
The bottom two – muladhara and swadhisthana associate with one granthi, the Brahma granthi. This will be Agni mandala. This is where kundalini, the Mother starts moving upwards – and this is the reason she is called Agni kunda samudbhava or Agni Sikha or Agni mandala vasini. This will be the beginning of the sadhaka’s spiritual life. These centers represent bhu and bhuvah lokas, or the anna maya and prana maya kosas – the gross and its link with subtle.
Manipura and anahata associate with Vishnu granthi. This will be Aditya/Surya mandala. Bulk of the sadhaka’s spiritual life is spent here, sustaining it. These centers represent swarga and mahar lokas, the mano maya and vijnana maya kosas – the subtle and its link with causal. At Anahata one can transcend the mind-life-matter triplet and reach the knowledge plane, and can see the cosmic instead of individual. This is the place where he can hear the cosmic hiss too.
Then visuddha and ajna cakras associate with Rudra granthi. This will be Soma mandala. This is the culmination of sadhana, and one achieves laya yoga here. The causal begins from here. Visuddha is the center of jana loka, or the ananda maya kosa. This is the world of existential bliss, or maaya. Ananda maya is still not beyond maaya.
One will have the glimpse of what is driving the universe but not the reason for it. It is at ajna, when the consciousness totally gets merged in and one is roaming freely in daharakasa, that one gets to see the causal being or Isvara. This is tapo-loka. Isvara is in two forms, Sakala and Nishkala. Kala is His consort, the Mother. She is variedly called Kala, Kalavati. Maya emerges from Brahman and is inseparable. For the sadhaka, it is the Mother who subjects him and releases him from Her Maya. When the universe dissolves in the absolute, or when one can realize Brahman without Maya, it is called Para Nishkala. It is suddha pranava. Eventually between ajna and brahma randhra, one realizes this. In other words, at this stage one sees Maya to be dissolving into Brahman or the Mother uniting with the Lord. Thus at sahasrara one gets to see Siva-Sakti as eka rupa, and one gets advaita-siddhi or complete sayujya. This is satya loka. Depending on the taste of the sadhaka, he sees this as Satya loka or Kailasa or Vaikuntha.
The union of Mother Kundalini with the Lord, is the liberation of seeker from the cycle of birth and death. This is possible with anugraha or divine grace, and completes the cycle of births. This is the same as realizing Nada Brahman in mantra yoga, and sayujya of laya yoga.
Kundalini yoga is implicit in some traditions and explicit in some. Sri Maha Vishnu sleeping on the coils of Ananta in the Ksheera sagara, symbolizes yoga nidra with awakened Kundalini. Saiva has similar symbolism; the lord is in yoga nidra in Kailasa, the snow mountain with silver colored peaks, with Vasuki the great serpent as His adornment. His vehicle Nandi, is symbolic of Sukra that transforms into the divine energy. Skanda is Subrahmanya, the great serpent Himself – with six heads symbolic of the six centers. He is said to feed on the breasts of six mothers or matrikas in those six places. Moreover He is the general of divine armies. Devi is Kundalini Herself, who dwells in three mandalas – Agni, Surya and Soma mandalas.
The three forms of yoga are overlapping and having pursued any one of them to the goal, one can see that the same can be achieved through other forms. That is to say if one achieves laya yoga by then his kundalini would be fully active. If one achieves mantra yoga he would achieve Samadhi and also completely awakened kundalini. If one achieves kundalini yoga he would achieve Samadhi.
Yoga and Mukti margas The three-fold path to salvation of bhakti, jnana and karma, coincides in the goal, with the goal of yoga. In jnana yoga nididhyasana is equivalent to dhyana and Samadhi of yoga. The method of jnana yoga is more similar to laya yoga, where the seeker transcends each sheath of consciousness and identifies himself with the innermost being or Atman. In karma yoga the state of permanence one achieves is basically Samadhi of laya yoga. The state of ananda one achieves immersed in love of God in bhakti yoga, is laya too.
Schools of Yoga
However popular yoga is, the fact remains that only a miniscule minority of yoga practitioners succeed in achieving its goal. Most of them stop in the initial steps without great progress. For this reason it is usually combined with many other practices, so that one can get into the path. They include remembering God, His name and praising His glories, consecration, worship, attending religious congregations, serving pious people and so on.
There are many variants and schools in yoga. They are all based on the above three methods in varying degrees, with variations in practices. The two major schools are Hatha yoga and Raja yoga.
Each tradition, philosophical or theistic, has its version of yoga, which is basically a combination of the three forms of yoga, with stress on different aspects or steps of those.
Hatha Yoga Hatha means adamant, firm. Hatha yoga is named so, because it involves severe austerities and difficult practices to achieve purification. Hatha Yoga concentrates more on austerity and purification. In contrast to raja yoga, hatha yoga concentrates more on physical discipline. However the goal in both the systems is the same. There are six limbs or shadangas in both the schools. They are asana, pranayama, pratyahara, pranayama, dhyana dharana and samadhi.
However the kind of asanas used in hatha yoga are tougher. Besides, hatha yoga employs mudras to achieve higher control over limbs, and bandhas (locks) to achieve prolonged kumbhaka.
The most famous practitioners and exponents of hatha yoga are the seers of Natha tradition, such as Mastyendranath and Gorakhnath.
The popular opinion about hatha yoga is that it has to do with asanas, bandhas and other physical practices, and siddhis associated with those practices. However like all other forms of yoga, only a miniscule portion of the practitioners get to the advanced stages of practice, and that is the reason for this opinion.
Raja Yoga Raja yoga is basically laya yoga, and it deals with the control of mind. Through achieving stillness of mind (citta vritti nirodha) the deeper faculties of consciousness are awakened. The difference lies that it uses six of the eight limbs specified in laya yoga.
Most of the popular spiritual missions and yoga institutes go by Raja yoga.
Vedantic Traditions Vedantic traditions stress more on jnana marga, and are inclined to laya yoga.
Vaishnava Vaishnava schools are varied. However they stress the aspects of yama and niyama, such as asteya and Isvara pranidhana since they are bhakti-centric. They seek to overcome the drawbacks in other schools following shadanga yoga, by emphasizing yama-niyamas.
However, Vaishnava schools do not stop at those steps. The bhakti schools in Vaishnava have made the explicit stress on yoga implicit, but Vaishnava involves mantra as well as kundalini yoga, though the latter is much less emphasized. The Pancaratra texts expound Mantra Sastra that forms the basis of Vaishnava vidyas.