By William F. Sands
It can be difficult to define Yoga precisely, as there are so many types and variations available, but a few general characteristics will probably satisfy almost anyone. We can all agree, for example, that yoga is an ancient collection of disciplines involving stretching and various physical postures (asanas), some breathing exercises (pranayama) — and that meditation is often included, particularly for those interested in spiritual development (however they may define it). And I’m sure almost everyone will accept that yoga is good for you: enthusiasts cite numerous health benefits, including stress management, increased mental clarity, improved strength and flexibility, and relief from the symptoms of some chronic disorders.
But the term yoga means more than that. There is an additional understanding that has been missed by most commentators and translators of the Sanskrit yoga texts, leading to its near absence from modern yoga philosophy. Traditionally the term yoga not only refers to the practices we might find in yoga studios, which we could call the path of yoga, but also to an inner experience characterized by profound peace and unending joy — the state of yoga.
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation program, discussed this understanding extensively in his books and lectures, defining the state of yoga as the union of individual awareness with an infinite, eternal field of pure consciousness lying deep within each of us. He describes this “ocean” of consciousness as the most fundamental level of our inner self, the source of our thoughts, creativity, and intelligence.
This may seem like an obscure and somewhat inconsequential philosophical point, but its implications are enormous for yoga practitioners and teachers. In Maharishi’s view, many of the practices taught in the name of yoga have been derived from misinterpretations of the traditional literature, such that descriptions of the inner experience of yoga have been taken as prescriptions for mental or behavioral practices.
Let’s look at an example.
The Patanjali Yoga Sutras, a primary source text of yoga philosophy, defines yoga as: Yogaś chitta-vṛitti-nirodhaḥ. Yoga in this sutra is usually taken as a practice — part of the path of yoga — and so the usual English versions go something like this: Yoga is the inhibition of the activities of the mind. This translation implies that yoga is a practice of restricting mental activity, so that one can reach a quieter, more peaceful state. The logic seems to be that eliminating mental activity will make the mind calmer, leading to the experience of the silent inner self. Many meditation practices have been created on the basis of this interpretation.
Maharishi, however, disagrees. He explains that trying to remove thoughts or control the mind in any way — or even attempting to remain mindful — actually increases mental activity. As a result, rather than experiencing progressively quieter levels of the mind, one’s awareness remains active, on the surface. Likewise, concentrating on a thought or idea in order to still the mind (because the inner self is said to be eternally silent), or focusing the attention on the present, disallows the possibility of diving deep within. Such meditations may have their own value, but they do not allow one to enjoy the inner state of yoga.
Maharishi adds that his meditation, the Transcendental Meditation technique, does not involve concentration or mental control — it is effortless, thus allowing the mind to spontaneously settle to quieter levels, and ultimately to the silence and peace of the inner self. With this in mind, Maharishi translates the above sutra as: Yoga is the complete settling of the activity of the mind.
The distinction is subtle, but monumental in its implications, for Maharishi is suggesting that yoga in this context is the goal, not the path — it’s not something you do (such as restraining mental activity), it’s a blissful state of inner awareness that you experience. He feels that this is the intended meaning of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, and that this sutra should therefore not be used as a model for meditation.
There are also many behavioral practices that have become associated with yoga, such as eliminating desires, remaining unattached to worldly pleasures and ideas, trying to maintain equanimity, and even performing austerities. These have arisen for the most part from mistaking descriptions of the state of yoga for yoga practices.
Here’s an example, this time from the Bhagavad-Gita, another source text of yoga philosophy:
Satisfied with whatever comes unasked, beyond the pairs of opposites, free from envy, balanced in success and failure, even acting he is not bound. (4.22)
“Pairs of opposites” refers to opposite values, such as heat and cold, sickness and health, happiness and sorrow, etc.
Well-meaning commentators and teachers often use this and similar verses to instruct students on how to behave. One should, they say, hold on to an attitude of satisfaction, never entertaining desires; and one should maintain equanimity in all circumstances, never yearning for what one doesn’t have nor exulting in what one does.
In Maharishi’s view, the above quote describes “a more mature state of yoga,” the state of enlightenment in which the inner Self — in all its unbounded, blissful glory — is permanently a part of one’s daily experience. This is a state of yoga in which unlimited creativity, intelligence, and happiness are ever-present, coexisting with normal waking life. One enjoying this state is completely satisfied, unaffected by the ups and downs of life, always balanced, and never bound to small successes and failures, because he or she is already living a state of perfect fulfillment.
The Bhagavad-Gita is filled with similar descriptions of this enlightened state, which one can attain through the regular experience of the state of yoga. But — and this is the critical point — one does not attain this state by trying to emulate it. Maintaining a mood of equanimity, of non-attachment to the material world, or of trying to behave in a lofty manner, no matter how well-intentioned, will not bring one to the inner state of yoga. Yoga is attained through regularly taking the awareness deep within, and then all these qualities — such as serenity, equanimity, self-sufficiency, etc. — come automatically. Maharishi taught the Transcendental Meditation technique for many years for this purpose.
William F. Sands, PhD, is Dean of the College of Maharishi Vedic Science at Maharishi University of Management, in Fairfield, IA. He is the author of two books on Maharishi’s philosophy: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and His Gift to the World and Maharishi’s Yoga: The Royal Path to Enlightenment. Please visit his website.
sutra: A concise Sanskrit expression, often followed by extended commentary.