This is a short introduction to yoga philosophy for beginners. Where should we start, what should we read? What is the essence of the method and aim of yoga? There’s no one book
Indian thought does not have one singular textual authority which makes it difficult to know where to begin. The two principal books representative of yoga thought are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and The Bhagavad Gita.
However, whilst they are still a good entry to the subject, its’ worth understanding them in their deeper context. If not simply to understand these two texts better. They are appropriate places to start as they act as a summary of thinking up to that date. On the other hand, in order for more critical reading, recognising their fundamental underpinning is essential.
The importance of The Yoga Sutras and The Bhagavad Gita
These texts offer slightly contrasting perspectives in terms of their understanding of god or Isvara. However, they both present a clear, synoptic overview, almost unique to these texts. Patanjali’s text gives a summary of all methods of yoga up to that point. For this reason it is very terse and benefits from reading with a commentary to unpick the layers of meaning.
The Bhagavad Gita In acts as a kind of back to basics of what the sanatana dharma really entails. In addition the egalitarian approach can be taken up without resort to the institutions of religion.
The Yoga Sutras
Almost mathematical in its preciseness, it is comprised of 4 chapters or padas. Within which are what are commonly referred to as short terse aphorisms. Basically, short and cryptic one-line sentences, these provide the boiled-down essence of the path of yoga. The point being, that they act as a kind of glossary. Patanjali presents a synopsis of many different methods and perspectives regarding aims, up to that point.
The aim being given at the very start as the now famous definition of yoga as;
yoga citta vritti nirodha (yoga stops the turning/whirling mind).
The rest of the text elaborates on how this might look. In addition to what it means, and different approaches as to how to do this.
At one point you can find the detail and interest at separating Purusha and Prakriti of Samkhya. At other points he mentions kriya yoga, and, the yamas and niyamas, ethical codes of conduct based on equanimity, non-attachment and compassion. These are in no small way influenced quite possibly from the teachings of Buddhism also flourishing at this time.
Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga
It is also noted that Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga pays little attention to hatha yoga. Asana is one of his ashtau-angas’ (eight limbs). However, he spends little time on elaborating the practice other than to say; ‘stirham sukkham asanam’. That is, asana is a steady and comfortable position.
Partly, this is representative of his glossary-like approach as a whole. This why it is always recommended to use a commentary for those serious in a deeper study of the text. He isn’t in the business of presenting instruction. He gives an overview of all that is yoga up to that point. His greater interest in meditation and the use of the mind to know itself as opposed to that of the body.
In fact, the yoga sutras are remarkable in presenting a very modern overview in fact of modern psychology. From the unhappiness that comes from misperception to the need for positive social interactions and, finally, the nature of the mind. It doesn’t so much tell us what to do exactly, as much as what we are dealing with.
I would recommend a close reading of specifically the first two padas. The first samadhi pada deals with the aim of yoga, the second sadhana pada, the means. For commentaries Vyasa is the most famous one. But, for a more current and approachable reading Edwin Bryant’s yoga sutras offers a popular way in.
The Bhagavad Gita
A much longer text than the yoga sutras, The BG is part of the larger epic The Mahabharata. Hence, it is also a great deal more colourful, engaging in the telling of a story wherein the teaching happens. Set upon a medieval battlefield where the hero Arjuna is engaged in a civil war, his companion Krishna (who, little known to Arjuna at first, is actually god in disguise), offers him guidance in this time of crisis.
Indeed, the war functions as a metaphor for our general predicament. Arjuna is part of the shatriya or warrior-class of society, faced with a no-win situation. He must protect his family on one-side, by killing family and beloved teachers on the other. This very much mirrors our own life-circumstances living within the material realm (fortunately, generally to a much more moderate degree!).
However, living in the realm of duality where pleasure and pain follow one another inseparably. We can never, as Arjuna tries to, reason our way to a happy outcome. The Bhagavad Gita as a reaction to monastic decadence, still is very much interested in our regular world of action. Indeed, its popularity stems from its most pragmatic and democratic attempt to convey the spiritual path to the general householder.
To which end, the injunction is to do our duty and follow our dharma. Easier said than done these days (we lack the clear roles in life that we did before0, the text is still as relevant as ever in its consistent emphasis that the only happy path in life being that of non-attached action.
Indeed, in showing how our reason is corrupted by emotional responses arising from our karma, it provides a radically different, and, much needed, way of looking at life than our current one. That is, as a sovereign individual invested in the power and objectivity of our own reasoning. The answer, as always is yoga as facilitating a deeper state to guide us.
So, accordingly, the book is very much practice-based, alluding briefly to those practicing yoga-asana, still really as meditation, but, as always in the BG much more descriptively than in comparison to the manual-like YS. The book also has a much stronger colouring of bhakti yoga, wherein it is often taken as the seminal text.
The context of the work is as a reaction to Brahmanical decadence as already mentioned. The idea then, is to suggest that the practitioner may practice and achieve yoga through their own efforts as opposed to paying for the many rites and rituals that had become necessary at that time to access god. This text is then a fantastic place to begin as an individual wanting to get the real flavour of the approach of the sanatana dharma.
The Vedas: the basis of Hinduism, or, the “Sanatana Dharma”
Indian thought is popularly known as hindu, but, actually, better termed Sanatana Dharma, the ‘eternal’. This broad context originates from the many numerous and diverse texts known as The Vedas which share a concern in how to act in the world, or our dharma. From now on we shall use this term as it is more specific than hindu which stands to denominate a culture generally (ie. the people of the indus valley as they were seen by colonisers), as well as many diverse religious practices.
The Vedas are divided into 4 parts by what era the texts were composed. The oldest the rig veda is thought to date back to roughly 1500-1200 BCE with the others falling between this period and 900BCE. The Vedas are viewed as the word of god by those followers of the Sanatana Dharma. Like our Bible in a way, they are considered an unquestionable source of understanding for any orthodox hindu.
Where to start with reading The Vedas
There are over 100 Upanishads that come under the umbrella of The Vedas. However, there are only 10 principal ones; Isha, Kena, Katha, PRashan, Mundaka, Mandukya, Tattriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka.
Where the Vedas is particularly involved in the prescription of religious ritual, the Upanishads are concerned with the philosophy behind the ritual and therefore the best place to begin. It is worth reading through all these Upanishads, they aren’t long. There are also many other incredibly important and helpful texts in their own right (as well as the above-mentioned yoga sutras and bhagavad gita).
For example, the much revered ashtavakra gita, as well as some of the puranas such as the bhagavata purana and the Indian epic the Ramayana. Yoga being a vast subject, it really depends on finding your own particular interest in it really. For, the ashtavakra gita is interested in Vedanta, for example, whereas the puranas are generally bhakti based.
Different types of yoga (method)
That said, there are many different approaches to solving the problem of how to act in the world, ones’ dharma, depending on the individual. One reason for the utmost importance placed on the teacher, guru in the yoga tradition. They help to guide us in our particular journey as to how we are most suited.
It is also worth noting here to avoid confusion that yoga stands for a method as well as an aim. Here, we are talking about a method, an approach to the aim, and not the aim or goal itself (which, we shall discuss further in part 2).
I have outlined the main approaches we will find. But, of course, there are schools within schools as well as overlap. The obvious example being Patanajali’s ashtanga yoga that seeks a synthesis of the whole range of methods.
Hatha yoga (from the root ha: forceful), comes under this method as an action and technique (kriya) based method. It uses the physical body as a vehicle to purify the mind of ignorance. Of course, as we well know, there are many various schools of hatha yoga. But, they are all essentially characterised by this approach to the aim of union through facilitating a kind of alchemical change in the body through its purification.
karma yoga focuses on the use of action in the world as a means to discover the true nature of self. Specifically, that action that is not motivated by personal desire. This is the basis of the teaching formulated in The Bhagavad Gita, a book about how to act in the world. Basically, as selfless service, otherwise known as doing ones’ duty, or, living ones’ dharma.
This is the most common form of Yoga as it’s found in India up to the present day, through less so in The West. Bhakti yoga concerns itself with devotional practices, the worship of God (pretty much always with a form). In some cases, this may be simply worship. But, Bhakti yoga is more than this; the attempt to generate a love that transcends our individual self to find union.
The inquiry through using logic and reason to penetrate to the nature of reality. This is more than just mental reasoning, however. As ever, the aim is an experiential understanding in the body.
Patanjalis’ Ashtanga Yoga
Ashta-anga meaning 8 limbs, it seeks to integrate all aspects of yoga method under one broad undertaking. Hence, its recent popularity as a seemingly most comprehensive method of practice. Here, we find kriya yoga in asana and pranayama, jnana and meditation in the final limbs. Then, in the early limbs, the yama/niyamas, we find the practice of karma yoga.
The different schools of yoga philosophy: The 6 Darshanas
Darshana means viewpoint. Although, all schools broadly agree on the fundamentals, there are still differences of perspective in terms of their vision of reality that then also affect approach to practice. There are six traditional (accepted as part of The Vedas), darshanas. As well as this, there are 2 unorthodox schools; the Buddhist and Jain.
The oldest school of Indian thought, it is concerned with the difference between spirit purusha from matter, prakriti. By use of analysis, it seeks to differentiate the one from the other to arrive at knowledge of the true reality; that of the spirit.
From Patanjali. Much the same in outlook philosophically, yet its methods are less jnana yoga (of logical understanding) and more about physical techniques; kriya or karma yoga.
A lesser known branch to do with logical analysis in according with reasoning from experience. Actually, much like our modern-day science.
This school analyses all of the universe down into the fundamental elements of fire, water, earth, fire and ether. Logic based, it is very similar in fact to nyasa.
Encompasses the last two schools of thought but adds the sovereignty of The Vedas as the basis of all knowledge. Very much dharma based, it is by the execution of our correct role in life we attain happiness.
Literally the end of the Vedas, this perspective is based on the philosophical teachings of the Upanishads. Vedanta’s most well-known exponent was Adi Shankara. There are different schools within Vedanta, the defining principal, however, is the relationship between Brahma, God, and, the individual soul, or atman.
Within Vedanta there is a fundamental division; as to whether they see the relationship between individual and world/God as dual (dvaitavedanta), or, non-dual (advaitavedanta). An important difference in yoga philosophy, non-dual means that Brahman and Atman, god and individual are one. Whereas, dualists believe that Brahma and Atman are separate.
This has important ramifications, as it either predicates an aim that is imminent; for an experience in the here and now, or, one that is transcendent, unity being impossible in the corrupted (as separate), physical body.
In recent years advaita and even neo-advaita have become popular terms for a style and form of teaching based on the idea that all is one. The two most famous exponents of this were Sri Nasargadatta and Ramana Maharishi. Both living and teaching in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century.
Very similar to Hindu teaching it is, perhaps, strangely, still seen as unorthodox, non-Vedic. Deriving from Mahavir the first guru of Jainism, they are most well known for their belief in the sacredness of all life. This is due to their belief that the universe itself is the sacred principle, eternal and self-creating. A belief which culminates in some extreme forms of Jainism to the wearing of masks and sweeping the ground as they walk so as to not kill any living being, however small.
Based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha, Buddhist teachings have become particularly
Popular in The West in recent years. This is, in part due, to the forced exile of many eminent
Buddhist teachers, lamas, from Tibet in the early 60’s. But, also, because Buddhism is generally much less culturally-contextualised than Hinduism. It presents a much more reason and logic-based form of teaching, without the foreign and unusual gods one finds in the hindu pantheon.
The teaching is very similar, however, in terms of the use of right-action to escape an essentially unsatisfactory material reality. Indeed, the basis of this are the four noble truths – that life is essentially suffering or dukkha and that there is a way out of this through our individual efforts.
In Buddhism, this is usually a form of meditation (although, there is also a form of yoga practiced in Tibetan Buddhism and involving the well-known technique of tumo, or, generating an inner-heat). As with yoga in hinduism, there are many forms of meditation in buddhism. It must be stated, however, that, just like yoga-method, meditation has a similarly homogenous aim at union through concentration.
Further reading recommendations on yoga philosophy for beginners
- Yoga Sutras, Edwin Bryant
- The Bhagavad Gita, Stanley Lombardo translation
- The Ashtavakra Gita
- The Bhagavata Purana
- The Upanishads, S Radhakrishnan
- The Autobiography of a Yogi, Swami Yogananda