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Finding the Spirit of Yoga


Finding the Spirit of Yoga


In searching to find the `spirit of yoga` we have to examine our own aims in our practice of yoga, and also be open to developing a deeper awareness of our Self.


Society and tradition provide many models to help us in that search, and in the end we have to find which is the most appropriate for us as individuals.  We can follow a religious path, a humanistic or a moral path, even a hedonistic path.


The teachings of yoga also provide us with a number of options.  Bearing in mind the geographical and historical development of yoga in the Indian sub-continent, it is not surprising that the essential truths of `dharma` should be identified and illustrated in Indian terminology.  Thus we have the close connections between yoga and Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.  For many western seekers this can present problems when we think we find conflicts between our own socio-cultural and religious models based on the Judeo-Christian traditions.  Above all else perhaps the greatest necessity is to put to one side our conditioned reflexes, to open our minds to alternative concepts, and to be prepared to look beyond the physical and conscious worlds into a deeper experience of life.


The models which we might find the easiest to relate to date from both the Vedic (ancient – roughly pre 200CE) teachings of yoga, the Classical model of Patanjali ( approximately around 200CE), and the post-classical developments of various forms of yoga, especially of the last few hundred years.  The Veda and Upanishads established the fundamental aims of life and our relationship with a `monistic` creative force or God, also to the stages of life through which we all must pass, the `ashramas`.  Patanjali described the eight limbs leading to enlightenment, and the concept of a dualistic system separating God from man.  During the developments of yoga, and particularly since Patanjali, the principal forms of yoga became established, such as the hatha, karma, bhakti, raja, tantra and gyana yogas.


The Veda & the Koshas


The Veda tells us that we are more than just our physical body; that in fact we exist on a number of levels.  These levels, bodies or sheaths are called the `koshas`, and there are five `panca`, hence the panca koshas as described in the Taittirya Upanishad.  In the centre of these is the essential Self,  the `atman`.

            The Physical / food / earth or diamond body – the `anna-maya-kosha`, is that body which we can see and feel.  It is the body of the physical senses which provide us with an experience of the world around us, and within us on a physical level.

            The Vital / energy / pranic body - `prana-maya-kosha` permeates and extends beyond the anna-maya-kosha by an inch or two.  It is that vital feeling of energy and weightlessness of which we can be aware.

            The Lower Mind / Consciousness body –`mano-maya-kosha` is that conscious level on which we both experience our physical life, but can also begin to see beyond to:

            the sense of Higher Knowledge / Awareness – `vijnana-maya-kosha` which is associated with our development of higher knowledge and wisdom as we begin to transcend our earthly humanity.

            Finally surrounding the Essential Self, the `atman` is the body of Joy or Bliss - `ananda-maya-kosha`.


Being aware of these various layers on which we can develop awareness can help in our progress to the discovery of that Essential Self.




Hindu and yoga teaching from the earliest known times have described the sequence of stages of life.  The `ashramas` are:

            `Brahmacharya` - the first stage of life as a student.  This is regarded as a celibate phase in life.

            `Grihasta` - the stage of family life; a career, marriage, procreation and the establishment of a stable home.

`Vanaprastha`- originally the forest stage when a man ( and sometimes a woman) would withdraw from life, sometimes taking their partner, but essentially losing their attachment to material goods.

`Sannyasa` - renunciation of the world and its material values in favour of spiritual values, and preparation for death.




Patanjali provided a framework for the yoga `sadhaka` (m) and `sadhika` (f) seekers.  Here we are provided with a logical step by step progression towards enlightenment.  It must be stressed however that we should not seek to perfect one step before taking the next, but rather move forward on a broad front.  For this reason I prefer to refer to the eight limbs rather than eight steps of yoga.  These are:


            The Moral Disciplines - `yama`: `ahimsa` (non-harming), `satya` (truthfulness), `asetya` (non-stealing), `brahmacarya` (modesty/chastity), and `aparigraha` (control of greed).

            Personal Disciplines or Restraints- `niyama`: `shauca` (purity), `samtosa` (contentment), `tapas` (asceticism), `svadhyaya` (study), and `ishvara-pranidhana` (devotion to your God, your `ishta devata`).

            Asanas remove physical distractions to our higher practices.  It is worth remembering that the majority of these  postures were for sitting meditation.

            Pranayama - the breathing exercises at their simplest level.  This word can be broken into `prana` and `yama`, signifying control of the prana in the body.  It is also interpreted as `pran` and `ayama` meaning lengthening of the breath, a common feature of pranayama exercises.

            Pratyahara - sense withdrawal, involves  the development of the skill to focus within ones self, shutting out the distractions of the worlds of the physical senses and the active conscious mind.

            Dharana - concentration, where the mind is made single pointed.

            Dyana - meditation where the meditator goes beyond conscious control of the mind, leading to

            Samadhi -  the sense of bliss.


Forms of Yoga


Finally we have the yoga styles which are claimed to have existed for various lengths of time, `tantra` (c.15thC CE) being perhaps the most recent in the generally recognised traditional forms.  In their differing approaches to yoga – self transcendence and enlightenment – they provide everyone with a suitable form for their strengths and interests.

            `Hatha` yoga although seen primarily as a physical form of yoga, in fact also does include all other aspects.  As with Patanjali`s eight limbs we cannot isolate one bit of yoga from another.

            `Karma` yoga is often regarded very simply as the yoga of work and duty.  Again it must be seen in relation to the ultimate aim of yoga.

            `Jnana or Gnana` yoga, the yoga of wisdom or knowledge is sometimes seen as being the yoga of the intellectual and the serious student.  It should be remembered that knowledge has no value unless it is applied; in this instance to the spiritual development of the individual.

            `Bhakti` the yoga of devotion, disparagingly seen by some as most appropriate for simple! souls who can  worship their god with love and emotion.  The concept of the `ishta devata` is central to Hindu dharma and in the `niyamas` of Patanjali.

            `Raja` yoga, or the royal path, seen as primarily the yoga of meditation.

            `Tantra`, developed in recent centuries to provide mankind with a model of yoga suitable for the `kali-yuga` (dark age) in which we live.



In modern times literally hundreds of styles of yoga have been developed, taught and even patented.  Integral yoga, astanga vinyasa, power, Iyengar,  Sivananda, and Bikram are all used to describe particular approaches.  In the end we must each make our own decision as to the style we wish to use on this journey towards enlightenment.


Derek Osborn                                                                                           2003

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