Spotlight

The path of yoga

Print edition : February 20, 2015

Padmasana. The practitioner is from the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Padmasana, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Vrischikasana, by a student from the Sivananda Ashram at Neyyar Dam in Kerala. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Natarajasana, at Neyyar Dam. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Krishnamacharya, the great yoga guru. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Padma Mayurasana, Kaivalyadham Yoga Institute, Lonavala, Maharashtra. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Shirshasana, Kaivalyadham Yoga Institute, Lonavala, Maharashtra. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Vrischikasana, Kaivalyadham Yoga Institute. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Chakrasana, at Neyyar Dam, by students from the Sivananda Ashram. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Ushtra-asana, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

B.K.S. Iyengar, at age 95, doing an inverted bend at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, Maharashtra. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

B.K.S. Iyengar instructing a student at the institute. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Halasana, Ayurvedagram, Bangalore. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Shirshasana being taught at the Iyengar Yoga Institute. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

Veerasana, Spirit Yoga, Berlin. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

YOGA has become very popular around the world. Thousands of persons are attracted every year to the practice of yoga in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. However, most of them see yoga as a kind of physical exercise. The documentary Yoga: An Ancient Vision of Life puts across to the world the true meaning of yoga. Yoga is, in fact, the basis of the many Indian spiritual faiths. Its purpose is finally to create a stillness of the mind and to unite one with the divinity that pervades all of creation. The physical asanas are only one of the steps towards achieving this aim.

Yoga is an essential part of the Indic vision of life. In the West, efforts have been made over the centuries to study the external world and to formulate scientific understanding to control it. A few thousand years ago, one does not know exactly when, thinkers in India realised that material aims and ambitions did not really lead to true happiness or even to good health. They began to map the world inside us, to explore it and to find ways of truly creating lasting joy. It is the science of the mind, of life and of the inner world, that is expressed in yoga. Yoga, in its many different manifestations, is the path towards final knowledge and ultimate joy. Asanas have their importance, but they are only a small part of the practice of yoga.

Leading scientists and doctors around the world have found yoga to be extremely beneficial to all people. Yoga is the most profound and deep study of the human mind ever conducted. The entire world can benefit from yoga. In an age where considerable medical problems and psychological disorders are created by the pressures of the commercialised world, the only answer appears to be yoga.

Representations of yoga are to be found in the Indus Valley seals of 5,000 years ago. The Upanishads, formulated by the eighth/ninth century BCE, put forward the concepts of yoga. Ancient Indian philosophy is deeply related to yoga.

The following are excerpts from the commentary in the film, scripted, directed and photographed by Benoy K. Behl and produced by Rahul Bansal.

Narrator Benoy Behl:

There is a wave sweeping the world today. It is yoga. Whether it is in the fields of physical fitness, medicine, psychology, sociology or philosophy, they are all benefiting immensely from yoga. It is estimated that, in the USA alone, over 30 million people, or 13 per cent of the entire population, have practised the ancient Indian science of yoga. Yoga is practised regularly today in 78 countries around the world. Yoga is changing the way that we look at ourselves and our lives in the world.

Dr Ananda Balyogi Bhavanani, International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER), Puducherry:

When we are caught in this maya, my, mine, me, that is what maya is. My house, my wife, my children, my name, my knowledge, my disease, its all my-ya, maya, where we are identifying with it.

And Patanjali so beautifully tells us what this avidya, this ignorance, is. He says, “Mistaking the dukha to be sukha, mistaking the anitya, the impermanent, to be nitya, to be permanent. To mistake the anatmasu, the non-self, to be the atma-khyati. That is what is avidya.” Until we break that union with avidya, we cannot break our misplaced, wrong identification with suffering. And then we are caught in dukha and then all life becomes suffering. For the yogi all life is bliss, anandam, paramanandam, sachchidanandam.

Happiness, joy, bliss is our essential nature. We are universal beings in an individual body. The universe is a happy, healthy, harmonious place. If we as the microcosm of that macrocosm are not happy, if we are not harmonious, if we are not healthy, it means we have lost connection with our essential nature, our swarupa. And if we move away from it, we move away from ease and that results in disease. Disease, vyadhi, is nothing but a moving away from our unitary, unitive state of health.

Benoy Behl:

There are four streams of yoga, which reach us through ancient tradition. It is believed that the final knowledge and unity can be reached through karma yoga, or perfect action in life. It can also be achieved through the losing, the surrender, of oneself through adoration of the divine. That is bhakti yoga. The state of yoga can also be reached through the path of knowledge, or gyan. Finally, it can be achieved through raja yoga, or the Royal Path, which includes the asanas, which we are all familiar with today.

Prof. N.V. Raghuram, Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA) Yoga University, Bangalore:

Bhagvad Gita has been the first text which really gives us the details of what is raja yoga, what is karma yoga, what is bhakti yoga and then gyana yoga. So karma yoga essentially is a path of yoga. We need to make our living, we need to participate in the world. How can we adapt this yoga in the daily life? So according to karma yoga, it’s not what activity that you do which becomes karma yoga, but what attitude is behind an activity. That makes it karma yoga.

Rev. Gyomyo Nakamura, Founder Shanti Stupa, Leh, Jammu and Kashmir:

Japanese people picked up yoga in ancient times, at the same time they picked up karma yoga. Karma yoga comes from seva. You know “service” is seva in Hindi and Sanskrit, but if you say seva in Japan, its meaning is the same. Seva is now Japanese language.

Vamadeva Shastri (David Frawley), American Institute of Vedic Studies, Santa Fe, California:

In the West, there is the emphasis on yoga as asana, and we don’t realise that the common yoga practice in India and historically all over the world is bhakti yoga, or the yoga of devotion. That is not just superficially ambulating some form of the deity, or some pious attitude. It is the ability to surrender at the level of the heart to the reality, the divine presence.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Parmarth Ashram, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand:

Bhakti is devotion. The problem is that in our lives we have become so distracted and so busy and so frenetic that there is no room for love. It’s no wonder that you are going to feel like that ras, that essence, that juice isn’t there in life. It’s not that there the love isn’t there. And so bhakti is allowing the space with divine so that love flows and then that love like a ras, like a juice, which flows through our beings, keeps flowing, and nourishes us and nurtures us.

S. Sridharan, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai:

Krishnamacharya was out and out a bhakta. In fact, the correct word for that is he was a bhagawata. Bhagawata is one who has totally submitted himself or herself to God, total submission. There is no other relationship, total submission. He was a par excellent devotee and he remained so till his last breath.

Benoy Behl:

Yoga is achieving unity, through true knowledge. It is all about awareness: true self-awareness, beyond the body and mind. We lead our lives controlled, moment to moment, by our bodies, by our emotions and by our minds. We do not even really know what it is we are doing most of the time and why we are doing it. We just respond to a multiplicity of ever-changing needs and signals coming from our bodies and mind. We are not even living in the moment, most of the time. Our minds remain occupied by the past and by the future. Yoga brings us to the moment in which we live.

Gradually, we become aware, first of our bodies. An essential process of our body, without which we cannot live, is breathing. Normally, we remain unconscious of it. Yoga brings us to look at it, to control it. In that itself, the transformation has begun. We are becoming aware. When we tell the body to sit in a particular way, when we tell the body to stretch in a particular way, we are again aware of our body and we are gradually leaving the realm of the unconscious, the uncoordinated series of accidents which life can become. The movement of the limbs in yoga asanas is not just physical exercise. We are constantly coordinating the movement with our breath. In that, the mind, the breath and the limbs are being brought into a harmonic rhythm. We move from there to an awareness of the mind itself. Yoga and ancient Indian thought do not consider the mind to be paramount. The mind is in many ways like our body. We have to be aware of it and what it does. In the normal course, the mind flits from thought to thought. The Upanishads describe the mind as a monkey, which will constantly jump about.

Normally, we get caught in the fluctuating state of the mind and follow the thoughts and the emotions which come with them. In yoga, in meditation, we begin to step aside, to become an observer. To see what the mind is doing, without getting carried away by its diversions.

That is the stillness which we are looking for. Not being affected by the ever-changing fluctuations of the mind, not being affected by the constant assault on our perceptions of the ever-changing nature of the world around us. The Yoga Sutras describe yoga as a state of chitta vritti nirodha, or a cessation of the waves or misconceptions of the mind. The Katha Upanishad says: “He who is free from desire, free from grief, with mind and senses tranquil, beholds the glory of the Atman.”

Ancient knowledge of raja yoga was put down systematically as the Yoga Sutras by a great sage called Patanjali, most likely in the fourth century C.E. Patanjali is revered till today as the reincarnation of the serpent Ananta, who is associated with the deity Vishnu.

Patanjali prescribed a system called Ashtanga, or the eight-limbed path. The first five limbs are steps of discipline, the doing part of it. The next three limbs are internal; they are the outcome of practising the earlier five. Yama and Niyama are the first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga. Yama is rules of conduct with the world around us. Niyama refers to ethical discipline, within ourselves.

Vamadeva Shastri:

If we look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga is defined as samadhi. The essence of samadhi is that it is the deepest level of meditation. So all the other practices of yoga are preliminary to meditation and samadhi or supports for them. Asana is calming, harmonising and balancing the body so that it can help you relax into a meditative state.

Rita Keller, Iyengar Yoga, Germany:

So we will always deal with our body as a means, as our first prop, to mingle with our soul. So this is the main essence of this method.

We have to use the physical body; we go from the outer sheath, the outer layer of our body, deep down into the inner part, the innermost part.

Swami Chidananda Saraswati, Parmarth Ashram:

Asana is sthiram, sukham, asanam, which is stable, which gives you the stability not only to your body but to your mind. Mind needs that asana, not only the body. The mind needs that asana, where you can become stable, where you feel comfortable. In that stage, things will go up and down but your asana should not go up and down.

Benoy Behl:

The next limb of Ashtanga yoga is pranayama. The purpose of asana is to prepare the body for the thoughtful extension of breath, pranayama, so that prana, or the life energy, can circulate to all parts of the body.

Next comes pratyahara, which means the withdrawal of the senses: freedom from their constant disturbance, taking us from the outer world to that which is within. The next limb of Ashtanga is dharana, or focussed concentration. Then comes dhyana, or meditation, and finally samadhi, when one has transcended the limitations of the body and intellect, to be in a true state of yoga.

Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati:

Many people these days talk about meditation as a practice. I am going to practise meditation, I am going to learn meditation, do meditation, this meditation technique, that meditation technique.

Meditation is actually an undoing. It’s not about bringing in something new, or becoming something new, or learning something new. It’s about letting go, of all that which isn’t the self.

Vamadeva Shastri:

Meditation, put simply, is the ability to observe, to witness, to be aware, to accept things as they are, to dwell in the presence that embraces the past, present and future at the same time and allowing ourselves to return to our original nature, which is the state of pure consciousness beyond the body and mind.

John Sellinger, Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama, Rishikesh:

I like my master Swami Veda’s response, meditation, taking that little time, however long you can sit for, half an hour, 20 minutes, one hour or more every day, is the most selfless thing a human being can do.

Because if we want to give something, the only thing we can give is what we have. We can’t give anything we don’t have. So if inside we have anger, we have frustration, we have turbulent emotions, we have tense minds, we have tense physical body, then when we try to give something, everything that we give is going to be flavoured with that tension, with that anger, with that emotional turbulence. So if we want to give something really valuable, if we want to give a little peace, a little bit of joy, then to create that within ourselves is absolutely necessary.

Vamadeva Shastri:

So yoga and meditation are never two. And yet yoga provides us all the tools and lifestyle and preliminary practices so that meditation really works.

If we don’t rule our own minds, then the external world rules over us.

Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Harvard University, U.S.:

Yoga is so valuable that it should be practised universally by every human being.

Benoy K. Behl is a film-maker, art-historian and photographer who is known for his prolific output of work over the past 35 years. He has taken over 44,000 photographs of Asian monuments and art heritage, made 131 documentaries on art and cultural history, his exhibitions have been warmly received in 34 countries around the world, and he holds the Limca Book Record for being the most travelled photographer.

The vastness of Behl’s documentation presents a wide and new perspective in understanding the art and culture of India and of Asia. He has been invited to lecture by most of the important universities and museums around the world that have departments of Asian art. His landmark book The Ajanta Caves is published by Thames & Hudson, London, and Harry N. Abrams, New York. It is in its fifth print run.

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