Yoga is one of the most important and best known of the six darshanas, or schools of Hindu philosophy (see hinduism). The classical texts are the Yoga Sutras. These are attributed to Pātañjali, c. 200 b.c., although they probably date from a.d. 400 to 500.
Origins of Yoga. The doctrine and practice of yoga go back to a much earlier period than the texts, perhaps to the very beginning of Indian culture. A figure in the characteristic posture of a yogi was found among the excavations at Mohenjo-Daro, West Pakistan, where the remains date from the 2d millennium b.c. In any case, it is probable that yoga originated among the pre-Aryan peoples of India and has its roots in certain mystical and magical traditions of a very primitive character. The decisive development of yoga took place in about the 6th century b.c. when an ascetical movement arose, perhaps as a result of the doctrine of transmigration, which seems to have entered into Hindu tradition at this time. This ascetical movement was to have a permanent effect on Indian culture, for from it Buddhism and Jainism were born, and the doctrine of the Upanishads took shape under its influence.
The word used for asceticism in India is tapas, which meant literally "heat." In the early stages of the development of Indian asceticism, effort was concentrated on acquiring "interior heat" by which, it was believed, magical powers could be obtained. Even in the early period of the Upanishads, yoga came to be regarded as a means of controlling the senses and the mind to attain a state of mystical union with the Divine Being and a liberation (mokṣa ) from the wheel of life (saṃsāra ). These two elements of magic and mysticism have always been closely interwoven in yoga, so that on the one hand it is regarded as a means of acquiring preternatural powers, and on the other, as a means of liberating the soul from the bondage of matter and restoring it to its original state as a pure spirit.
Classical Yoga. The yoga of Pātañjali, or classical yoga, is based on the doctrine of the Sānkhya school of philosophy, according to which the soul is by nature a pure spirit (puruṣa ) that has become identified through ignorance (avidyā ) with matter (prakrṛti ). The purpose of yoga is to set the soul free. Its method is a technique of control of body and mind, conscious and unconscious, until the mind (chitta ) reaches the state of "concentration on a single point" (ekāgrāta ) in which it is no longer subject to the influence of the body. There are eight states or "members" (angas ) in this process, which together compose the system of classical yoga.
Counsels and Disciplines. The first two stages are of a moral nature, and may be compared with the precepts and counsels of Christian perfection. The precepts, literally "restraints" (yama ), are not to kill (ahiṁsā ), not to lie (satya ), not to steal (asteya ), not to be impure (brahmacharya ), and not to be avaricious (aparigraha ). The counsels, or disciplines (niyama ), are cleanliness (shauca ), serenity (saṃtoṣa ), asceticism (tapas ), the study of scriptures (svādhyāya ), and devotion to God (Īshvarapraṇidhāna ). The last two disciplines are of particular interest because, although they were of less importance in classical yoga, they provided the basis for the development of religious yoga (bhakti yoga ) that took place in the Middle Ages.
Posture. The next two stages, posture (āsana ) and control of breath (prāṇāyāma ), were important in the development of HaṬha yoga. The position of the body is considered of cardinal significance in the control of the mind. The position, according to Pātañjali, should be both firm and pleasant (sthirasukham ). The effort to attain the correct position may require considerable practice, but, once attained, it should become perfectly easy, so that the mind is in no way disturbed by the body. The ideal position is said to be padmāsana, the "lotus" pose in which the yogi is normally depicted; but any position is permitted in which body and mind can be calm and recollected.
Breath Control. The control of the breath (prāṇāyāma ) is considered to be of even greater importance than the position of the body, since it is held to lead to control of consciousness. By control of the breath the yogi can not only gain control over the body, so as to be able even to suspend the breath altogether for a considerable time, but he can also penetrate into the deepest levels of the unconscious and control its effects. Even in the early stages it is said that prāṇāyāma brings about physical and psychological harmony.
Withdrawal of the Senses. This stage of yoga (pratyāhāra ) consists of the detachment of the senses from their proper objects, so that the mind is no longer disturbed by any external object but remains recollected in itself. This leads to the three final stages of mental concentration by which the end of yoga is realized. The first of these is "concentration" (dhāranā ), that is, fixing the attention on a single point, such as the tip of the nose, the sphere of the navel, or the "lotus of the heart." The lotus of the heart is not so much a physical point as a psychological "center," and the purpose of the exercise is to bring about a state of psychological unity. It is here that Pātañjali introduces the idea of God in yoga, by saying that the yogi may concentrate on the divine form or "Vishnu in the heart."
Meditation. The next stage is "meditation" (dhyāna ), which is reached when concentration becomes continuous in a "unified current of thought." It should be observed that this is not meditation in the ordinary sense, but a concentration of the mind on an object of thought in such a way as to penetrate to its essence and to enter into the secrets of its nature. This leads to the final stage of "contemplation" (samādhi ), which is a state of total absorption in the object of thought. In this state there is no longer any distinction between the object, the subject, and the act of thought. It is a knowledge by "identity," when the object reveals itself in its state of pure being. It must be observed that this is not a state of trance in the ordinary sense, in which the faculties are suspended, but a state of pure consciousness in which the mind, in perfect lucidity, retains control. Yet even this is not the ultimate state. As long as the mind remains in relation with any object, samādhi is said to be "with seed" (bīja samādhi ); i.e., the seeds of differentiated thought (saṃskāra ) still remain within the mind. It is only in the state of "seedless" samādhi (nirbīja samādhi ), when the mind is withdrawn from all relation with any object and remains in a state of absolute isolation (kaivalya ) reflecting the pure light of the Self (puruṣa ), that the ultimate goal of yoga is attained and the yogi gains liberation (mokṣa ). He is then what is called jīvanmukta, liberated while yet alive, having altogether transcended the condition of mortal life, and become identified with Being itself.
Though the ultimate purpose of yoga is to attain liberation in this way, yet in the course of yoga it is held that various supernatural, or more properly preternatural, powers (siddhi ) are obtained. By penetrating into the different states of consciousness the yogi is said to be able to know his "former births" and to be able to read the thoughts of men. By penetrating to the essence of the object that he contemplates, and so into the secrets of nature, he is said to gain control over nature, and even to be able to control his body to such an extent that he can become invisible and "fly through the air." He also develops a whole organism of "subtle" senses, sight, hearing, smell, etc., so that he has powers of clairvoyance, clair-audition, etc., and of causing things to materialize. No doubt, there is much exaggeration in these claims, but it would seem that there is in this a systematic development of what has been called the psi faculty, through which very remarkable powers can be acquired. In later times great attention was paid to the development of these powers, and Pātañjali himself devotes a whole book to them. Yet he insists that these powers must be renounced by those who would attain to final liberation, as they are a form of bondage to the material world.
Such is the classical system of yoga, sometimes known as Rāja yoga (Royal yoga), which may be called the typical system of Indian yoga. But in addition to this, though largely based upon it, there are many other forms of yoga. Both Buddhism and Jainism developed their own systems of yoga, different not so much in method itself as in the doctrine underlying the method and the form of "realization" that was sought. For the Jain the purpose of yoga was the elimination of karma, that is, the effects on the soul of the actions of former lives, and its final purification. For the Buddhist it was the attainment of nirvana, the "blowing out" of life and the elimination of the self in the bliss of pure being.
Role of the Bhagavad Gītā in Yoga. One of the most important stages in the development of yoga is to be found in the Bhagavad Gītā. It is here that we can begin to discern the distinction between the three ways of yoga, karma yoga, jñāna yoga, and bhakti yoga. The yoga of Pātañjali is properly a form of jñāna yoga, a way of release by "knowledge." But such a way demanded a life of asceticism (tapas ), which was not possible for the ordinary man. The Bhagavad Gītā declares that the way of release is open also to the ordinary householder by means of "action" (karma ). If a man does the ordinary duties of his state of life in a spirit of detachment, without seeking the "fruits" of his action for himself, he can be saved no less than the ascetic. This is brought into relation with the new concept of bhakti yoga, the way of "devotion" to God, which is now declared to be the supreme way of obtaining liberation. If the ordinary actions of life are offered to God as a sacrifice they become a means of liberation, and it is devotion to God, that is to Krishna, the personal form of God, which is the essential means of liberation. Thus the devotion to God, which in the yoga of Pātañjali had played very little part, becomes the essential form of yoga, and liberation is conceived not as form of "isolation" achieved by the ascetic effort of the soul, but as a mystical union with a personal God achieved through his grace.
HaṬha Yoga. Opposite to this in every way is what is known as HaṬha yoga. This form of yoga relies entirely on physical exercises and aims primarily at bodily perfection. In modern times it is considered as a method of acquiring physical health and equilibrium, but in ancient times it was rather a method for acquiring preternatural powers. It belongs, in fact, to the school of tantric yoga, which developed in the Middle Ages (a.d. 500–1000).
Tantric Yoga. The aim of tantric yoga was to enable the body to attain to a supernatural condition; not to transcend the body, as in classical yoga, but to transform it. The purpose was to obtain a "diamond" body, that is a body free from all infirmities and virtually immortal. For this purpose the technique of prāṇāyāma was systematically developed, but various other techniques were added. There were methods of cleansing the body by swallowing a piece of cloth, which was left for some time in the stomach, and of drawing in and expelling water. But more important than this is what has been called a system of "mystical physiology." It was held that the body was made up of a multitude of veins or nerves (nādīs ) and centers (chakras ) in which its powers were concentrated. These are to be regarded not so much as physical but as psychological or "subtle" entities; the chakras are the various centers of psychic energy and the nādīs are the channels through which it is transmitted. It was held that the basic center is at the base of the spine, where the psychic energy is represented as being curled up like a serpent and known as Kuṇdalinī. The purpose of Kuṇdalinī yoga is to lead this energy through the different chakras from the base of the spine to the top of the head by a technique of breathing so that all the different regions of consciousness are awakened. When Kuṇdalinī, the vital energy of shakti, reaches the ultimate center at the top of the head, it unites with Siva, the principle of pure spiritual consciousness, and the whole being is transformed. Whatever may be said of its physical basis, there can be no doubt that Kuṇdalinī yoga is a profound method of psychological transformation, leading to that unification of being which is the ultimate goal of the practice of yoga.
Among the methods used in tantric yoga to reach the final state of equilibrium there are certain practices of a sexual nature. In some schools of tantric yoga a kind of "orgy" was practiced, in which all normal restraints were abandoned, but it is said that even this was often carried out only in a symbolic way. But the practice of intercourse (maithuna ) between a yogi and a yogini was of a different nature. It was never an indulgence in passion, but, on the contrary, an attempt to control sex in such a way as to make it a means of spiritual liberation. The texts insist that in this practice the "semen must not be emitted." It was actually an attempt to control the flow of semen, so as to have complete mastery over the body. Thus by the control of the breath in prāḥāyāma, the control of every movement of the mind, both conscious and unconscious, and finally by the control of the semen, the whole body was to be controlled and the whole nature transformed.
Purpose and Evaluation of Yoga. In all these forms of yoga, as Mircea Eliade has pointed out, there is a constant effort to return to the state of man before the Fall, to transcend the human state and become "like God." In so far as it relies on human effort and a definite technique to attain this end, yoga may be regarded as a system of magic, and there can be no doubt that this element is often present. But, on the other hand, following the original impulse of the Indian mind in its search for God, there is also a definite desire to attain to spiritual freedom, to be freed from the effects of sin, and in certain schools, at least, to depend on the grace of God rather than on human effort. In this case the goal is not so much magical as mystical. The aim is to separate the soul from its subjection to the body and its passions, to free the mind from its subjection to the senses and the imagination, and to attain to a state of absolute freedom and spiritual consciousness. In this state, it is believed, man can be restored to his original state of unity, above the flux of time and change, free from bondage to the material world, and established in perfect freedom and immortality. It marks the deep aspiration of the Indian soul to return to God, to recover the lost state of Paradise; but, lacking the light of revelation, it is inevitably exposed to the dangers of illusion and of magic and superstition. Yet, on the whole, one must say that the desire to know God is the fundamental motive of yoga.
Bibliography: pĀtaÑjali, The Yoga-System of Pātañjali, tr. j. h. woods (Harvard Oriental Series 17; Cambridge, Mass. 1914); How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms, tr. and ed. s. prabhavananda and c. isherwood (New York 1953). m. eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, tr. w. r. trask (New York 1958); Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 6:1855–57. j. g. woodrofee, ed. and tr., The Serpent Power (Madras 1953).
"Yoga." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yoga
"Yoga." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/yoga