Yoga Philosophy

The Final Step

The first five limbs of Patañjali’s system, then, are designed to enable you to sit without distraction so that you can concentrate and contemplate the undisturbed reflected image of the Self. Then, when you have become so focused on and absorbed by that image of the Self, the seventh limb, Dhyana, has a chance to manifest itself. Once that has happened the first time, so the theory goes, it then becomes easier and easier for it to happen again until, eventually, one is in that state permanently and the last limb has been attained: Samadhi. Samadhi is a state of complete union of the small, individuated self with the Universal Self. In that state of Samadhi it is not that one no longer has emotions, but rather the emotions no longer affect and disturb the connection of the mind to the essential and Universal Self. In fact, the two have become the same thing. There is no longer any distinction between the reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake and the actual moon, and the metaphor breaks down completely.

Oneness Of Soul With Action

How these eight limbs translate into a practice that someone can integrate into their daily life varies considerably. An acquaintance once commented to me with amazement that asking someone what style of yoga they practiced was like asking a musician what instrument they played. It only makes sense that the diversity of human experience even within the same culture would generate a vast number of variations on any given tradition. Look at the many different flavors of Islam, Christianity, popular music or representational painting. Impressionism and Cubism both use pigments on canvas, but are very different from one another. Beyond that, compare the Impressionism of Monet with that of Van Gogh or even Salvador Dalì. We don’t think of Dalì as being an Impressionist, but he did go through an Impressionist phase before he settled on Surrealism as his preferred form.

The concept of Yoga as a tradition rather than a monolithic dogma is, I think, very important. It is very much a system in which teachings are handed down from teacher to student, from Guru to disciple. There is an acknowledgement of what has come before that can be traced all the way back to the time of Patañjali and earlier. That does not mean, however, that the teachings remain immutable in their expression, no matter how much a given proponent would like it to be so. Take, for example, two lineages that are fairly well-known in the West: those fostered by Swami Sivananda and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

Swami Sivananda was an Indian renunciate, or monk, who lived from 1887 to 1963. He taught a very jovial and upbeat version of yoga rooted in the devotional tradition of Vedanta. His disciple, Swami Vishnu-Devananda (1927 – 1993) came to the West in 1957 to open several Sivananda Vedanta centers. Another famous disciple of his, Swami Satchidananda, came to the United States in 1966 where he made his home until his death in 2002, and where he founded the Integral Yoga organization. Both schools have an ascetic flavor to their expression of yoga. They are both founded around the concept of an ashram, a cross between a monastery and a community center. Both place a strong emphasis on community and study of the scriptures with the physical practice of asana being secondary to the devotional aspects. Even between the two there are substantial differences, Sivananda still retaining a strong Hindu flavor, while Integral Yoga is more ecumenical in its approach.

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