The spiritual roots of yoga

From children to elders, atheists to spiritual seekers and Indian saddhus to Western businessmen; in recent decades, yoga has gathered practitioners from all over the world regardless their age, nationality, religion, and background. While some prefer to practice yoga as a sport, others also want to drink from the spiritual source of this ancient Eastern tradition.

While the practice of yoga is globally widespread, the knowledge of its origins is still quite obscure. However, anyone interested in the spiritual dimension of yoga will find it helpful to know where yoga comes from and what was the original goal of this practice. In this short article, I will highlight a few points that can help understand and practice yoga as a spiritual discipline.

Asana: a seated posture for meditation

Everybody who consistently practices yoga knows the modern meaning of the Sanskrit word asana, the generic name used to refer to any yoga posture. However, the original meaning of asana is a suitable place to sit on. In the context of yoga, it also refers to any type of stable seated position. It is therefore not a surprise that the oldest carved illustrations and books on yoga only show and teach seated postures such as padmasana, the lotus posture.

Why finding a stable seated posture was so important for yoga? Because the original purpose of this practice was to achieve a motionless, one-pointed, and steady state of mind. In other words, yoga arose for the purpose of dhyana or meditation.

 Samadhi: the goal of meditation and yoga

Patanjali’s book The Yoga Sutras say that there are eight ‘limbs’ or parts that constitute the practice of yoga. All of them, including asanas, are leading to the mental state referred as samadhi, the cessation of the activity of the mind. According to Patanjali, when this state becomes refined, the ‘unbounded consciousness of the Self’ (s.1.51) is the only experience that remains. That’s why samadhi is also conceived as a state devoid of any sense of separation of subject and object.

At the same time, samadhi is a widespread notion in the Buddhist tradition, whose core practice is meditation. All variants of Buddhism emphasize samadhi as the goal of meditation, at least as a short-term pursuit. It is also the last constituent of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. This stresses the parallel between meditation and yoga traditions.

Therefore, despite the emphasis nowadays on the yoga postures, yoga originally shared the same purpose as meditation. Both practices were means to achieve a mental state higher than the ordinary changing and moving mind.

Yoga as the ‘union’ of purusha and prakriti

The Sanskrit root word for ‘yoga’, yuj, provides another interesting point. Yuj has been translated as ‘to yoke’ or ‘union’. This suggests that the reality we work through in yoga is somehow split or disconnected. There is something that needs to be unified, harmonized, welded. What is then what yoga is trying to connect or unite?

Although there could be many answers to this question, it could be useful to look at the background philosophy of Patanjali yoga sutras. Drawing ideas from Samkhya philosophy, Patanjali posits a fundamental division of reality between two universal principles. These principles are prakriti and purusha. The first one refers to that which is constantly moving and changing, active and evolving. It includes matter, the senses, and our mental activities. Some people like to call it the ‘body-mind’. The second concept, purusha, refers to the inactive, imperturbable, and static nature of pure consciousness. Both principles are found in each human being as well as the universe.

As we have seen, the goal of yoga or samadhi is dissolving the split between the activities of the body-mind and the ‘unbounded consciousness’ of our true nature. Thus, we could suggest that yoga is trying to harmonize these two universal principles, purusha and prakriti, within ourselves. Therefore, from a non-dual perspective, one could think about yoga as the union between consciousness and the body-mind.

Practical tips

Now, how to put all of this into practice while doing the ‘yoga’ we know these days? Here you have a few suggestions:

Firstly, try to remember the goal of the practice every time you step on your mat. This will help you gain some focus on the practice and channel your energy towards a clear direction.

Secondly, you may start checking in first with the state of your mind at the beginning of the session, whatever it is. Doing short meditation practice is a helpful way to do so.

Thirdly, you can read a passage of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or any other spiritual text connected with yoga and let it stay with you during the practice. I find this very helpful to integrate the insights of the ancient rishis not only in a conceptual way but also on an experiential level.

Then, while doing your yoga asanas, try to be very aware of where your mind is going and bring it back to the body if it drifts away. I also find helpful to stop the body from time to time in some sitting position to check what the mind is doing and if necessary, try to settle it down.

Finally, taste the difference between the beginning and the end of the practice when you are in savasana. Try to feel consciousness as embodied, and the body-mind – as part of consciousness.

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