YOGA — A Wide Angle View
The word yoga evokes some very contrasting and apparently irreconcilable images. The commonest of these is that of some techniques such as asanas, pranayamas and meditation. The other image is that of yogis who have renounced life, are on a spiritual quest, and spend long years on the mountains or in a cave in search of God. These days it is also quite trendy to describe yoga as a way of life. Each of these images has a grain of truth, and it is not as difficult to reconcile them as it looks. Let us see how we can reconcile techniques, renunciation, God, and a way of life.
The simplest way of looking at yoga is as a process of self-improvement, a process that affects both the body and the mind. In other words, yoga makes a person physically more fit, emotionally more stable and intellectually more agile. Further, in yoga, the process of improvement is carried to its logical conclusions. Improvement is not as simple a word as it looks. After some improvement has been achieved, one finds that there is scope for further improvement. Since there is always room for improvement, the process of self-improvement can become a life-long journey. If a journey is long, one way to make it easier is to move faster by using the best available technology. For example, for travelling a short distance, we may walk; for a longer distance, we may use a train; and for going to the other side of the globe, we have to use an aeroplane. Since self-improvement is a long journey, for improving the body-mind complex, yoga uses the best available technology. Over thousands of years, yoga has worked out techniques such as asanas (postures), pranayamas (breathing disciplines) and meditation, which do far better than simply jogging, cycling or swimming. Techniques are the most visible part of yoga, but these techniques are not enough to stay physically and mentally fit. Eating the right kinds of food in just the right quantity, not putting into the body any substance which might harm the body, and adequate sleep are also necessary for staying healthy, and are a part of what is called ‘physical culture’ in yoga.
When a journey is long, another strategy we employ is to choose a route that has the minimum number of traffic lights, the maximum number of flyovers, and the least possibility of a traffic jam. In the long journey called yoga, such a route lies through renunciation. Worldly life involves so many temptations, distractions, obligations, responsibilities and conflicts that it slows down the process of self-improvement. One way out of all these problems is to renounce worldly life. If we renounce worldly life, all the problems associated with the world disappear automatically – na hoga baans, na bajegi baansuri (if there is no hollow piece of wood, it is impossible to play on the flute). But the path of total physical renunciation is a path that suits only a select few. For the rest of us, detachment (inner renunciation) is all that is feasible, and is in fact necessary on the path of yoga. However, now it is easy to see why great yogis choose a secluded spot, away from the rough and tumble of the world, for their exploration of the mysteries of existence.
Even a long journey should at least have some goal. The goal of self-improvement would be a point beyond which no further improvement is possible. The point beyond which no further improvement is possible is the point of perfection. Thus the goal of yoga is self-perfection. However, man (and woman) is, by definition, imperfect; only God is perfect. Therefore, the goal of yoga is to achieve identity, or union, with God. In terms of Vedanta, the philosophy underlying yoga, man is a manifestation of God. Hence, the union is a self-discovery. Becoming conscious of God within the individual, and in all creation, is the goal of yoga. Yoga (yuj, union) literally means union. The union it implies is becoming one with what we truly are at the deepest level. In short, God is the goal of yoga, which is the same as saying that perfection is the goal of yoga. However, moving from the point where we are now towards perfection is also called yoga. Thus, yoga is both the journey as well as the goal; both the process as well as the product.
God enters yoga not only as the goal, but also as an indispensable aid. In a long and difficult journey, and yoga is a journey that is both long and difficult, we also look for guidance, protection, and help from someone who is more knowledgeable and more powerful. In yoga, God is the power without whose grace we cannot make much progress. God needs instruments to act, and our guru can be that instrument. Thus God is our beacon light on the journey called yoga, and His force may work through the guru.
Yet another point at which God enters yoga is as the One to whom we surrender. In our erratic and unpredictable world, surrender to God is a prescription for peace that is yet to be improved upon.Prabhu-ichha, Inshallah, Jo rab di marzi, Thy will be done, As Thou willest – they all mean the same thing. Surrender is not a passive process; it is an active, willing and happy subordination of our will to the will of God because we know that He knows best. He knows better than we do even what is good for us. In yoga, we do our bit for self-improvement; we leave the rest to God’s grace; and so far as the pace of our progress goes, we surrender to God.
Having talked about the multiple points at which God enters yoga, it is possible to practice yoga even without believing in God. An atheist can look upon yoga as an endless process of self-improvement that will take him towards self-perfection. However, he may get impatient or anxious, because he will not have available the certitude that comes from believing in God’s Grace; he is on his own in the long journey. He will also be vulnerable to emotional upheavals because instead of surrendering to God, he will be looking for a mental explanation for every inexplicable event in life, and for every setback in his journey towards self-perfection.
Way of life
Improving the body-mind complex improves only the surface instruments. An instrument is like a knife. It is good to have a sharp knife, but with the same sharp knife, one may either chop fruits and vegetables, or stab somebody. Similarly, being physically fit, emotionally stable and intellectually agile will enable a person to do better the job of a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a manager, or a scientist; but with the same attributes he will also make a more ‘successful’ robber or murderer. Yoga cannot be a spiritual discipline if it just improves the body-mind complex, and then leaves it to the individual to use his sharpened instruments to become a better teacher or a ‘better’ robber. Yoga is a spiritual discipline because it not only improves the body-mind complex, it also tells us how to use this equipment. We may take only an hour a day on the techniques that improve our equipment, but we have the remaining twenty-three hours for using this equipment. It is only if we bring yoga into whatever we do during these twenty-three hours that yoga becomes a way of life. What does bringing yoga into life mean? What it means is doing our work as an instrument of God, and offering the work to God. That does not mean that a thief can steal as an instrument of God! We can be an instrument of God only for the work that God expects of us. We get clues to what God expects of us from the unique talents and gifts He has given us, from the circumstances in which we are placed, and within the framework of these, God expects of us work that will raise our consciousness. What yoga demands is also that we make choices presented to us in the course of the day after consulting God. For example, if we are passing by a person injured in a road accident. If we go deep within, consult the God within us before deciding whether to walk away or take the person to the hospital, there will be only one option that we will have. The inner voice from our deepest Self will tell us clearly that the only right thing to do is to take the person to the hospital. Making choices from the deepest Self (called the psychic being by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother) is a part of yoga. When Sri Aurobindo said, “All life is yoga”, he meant that all life gives us an opportunity for the practice of yoga. We can make use of the opportunities that we get every day by making the right choices, choices that emanate from our deepest Self, choices that take us closer to God. Our deepest Self is God. How can we hope to unite with God if we do not listen to him, although He is always available to us for consultation without an appointment! As an opportunity for taking a step towards yoga (union with God), nothing is too small. As the Mother (of Sri Aurobindo Ashram) said, “Do not ever take lightly all the circumstances of each day, all the tiny little things of life, all the small events… Do not react just like that with what is most commonplace in you. Enter within yourself, try to find the best in yourself and with this you must react.” The best in us is God, and it is by letting His voice prevail that we can make choices consistent with the yogic way of life. Thus yoga is a full-time activity. It is a journey that can engage us 24 X 7 for a whole lifetime. We may still not reach the goal, but we will enjoy the journey because far before we reach the goal, we will become much healthier and happier. We may not reach the summit, but we will have a much better view of what lies below. Yoga brings out the best in us. Therefore, one way to look at yoga is as the process by which we move towards the full realization of our potential. Every stone is a potential statue. Yoga is the chisel by which we can chip ourselves bit by bit to manifest the divinity that we hide.
Now it is easy to understand Sri Aurobindo’s definition of yoga: “… a methodised effort towards self-perfection by the expression of the potentialities latent in the being and a union of the human individual with the universal and transcendent Existence we see partially expressed in man and in the Cosmos.” Yoga involves methodized effort, not haphazard effort. Effort becomes fruitful only if guided by a method, discipline and clear vision of the goal. For example, steam escaping from a pot of boiling rice serves no purpose, but if the same steam is subjected to the method and discipline of a pressure cooker, it can cook the rice much faster. In yoga, the underlying spiritual philosophy and well-established techniques guide the effort. The effort takes the seeker towards self-perfection. Thus the emphasis is on the direction, not the destination. The movement towards perfection consists of several steps of self-improvement. Improvement consists of enhancing the strengths, and eliminating the weaknesses. Through such progressive self-improvement, more and more of the hidden potential of the individual gets expressed. Approaching the potential tends to unite the individual with God, which is the universal (because It is everywhere) and transcendent (because It is also present beyond the manifest universe) Existence. The universal and transcendent Existence is partially expressed in man, and also in the rest of the creation (the Cosmos). Through the process of yoga, more of the Existence (God) gets expressed in man, and consequently less remains hidden. Complete expression of the divinity inherent in man is the goal of yoga, and also of life. In that sense again, “All life is yoga”, but all life truly becomes yoga if the goal is pursued consciously. Drifting towards the goal is possible, but in that case the journey becomes still longer, and the path zigzag. Yoga makes the journey faster, and the path less tortuous.