The definition of yoga is often misunderstood. Yoga means union. It is not merely a mind-body connection as you may have been told in the West, nor does it mean community. Sure, yoga brings people together and does connect our mind and physical body, but it is not that. Yoga means divine union with the Self, or Cosmic Consciousness. Through the true meaning of yoga, we can rediscover the Truth of our being and return to a life of happiness, peace, and freedom.
The goal of anybody doing anything is happiness- all that we do, we do it for happiness. The desire for happiness is reflected in all the chakras. For example, if someone is dominated by the first chakra (Muladhara/Root Chakra), they will desire to find security. A first-chakra person may desire a house, a prosperous bank account, or a full fridge as a means for attaining happiness. A person ruled by the second chakra (Svadhishthana/Sacral Chakra) will seek happiness and pleasure through enjoyment of the senses. They may seek happiness in the form of eating a chocolate bar, listening to music, watching TV, etc. A person ruled by the third chakra (Manipura/Solar Plexus Chakra) is concerned with social status, personal power, and making a name for themselves in the world. For example, a third-chakra person may buy a fancy car to impress his friends- not because he is after the car or impressing his friends- but for the feeling he thinks he will get when he sees that his friends are impressed. A person ruled by the fourth chakra (Anahata/Heart Chakra) has overcome the desires of the lower chakras and embodies love for oneself and others, compassion, and empathy. A fifth-chakra (Vishuddha/Throat Chakra) person desires a deeper understanding, spiritual growth, and knowledge that is true. The realization of the Self happens in the sixth chakra (Ajna/Third Eye Chakra). This is where the aspirant desires meditation, bliss, the Self, and to go beyond the play of life. The seventh chakra (Sahasrara/Crown Chakra) is beyond the elements and beyond desire. The illusion of the individual self is gone, and the aspirant merges with nondual consciousness, enjoying life without becoming troubled by it. We have learned that when we try to find happiness in anything outside of ourselves that it doesn’t last. We come to yoga because we want eternal happiness independent of external happenings. In yoga, we find that happiness is our innermost self- it is us. This is what yoga is about.
Yoga offers many paths that all lead back to the truth of who we really are: The Self. The four main paths of yoga are: Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion), Karma Yoga (path of selfless service), and Raja Yoga (8-limbed path). We will get into each of these paths in more detail soon when we discuss the koshas, but first let’s raise an important question: What is the best way to merge with the universal consciousness that is in each one of us? Spoiler alert: there is no ‘best yoga’. Each of these paths all lead to the same truth, only the method differs. In fact, these four paths are commonly practiced in combination with each other. This is what Patanjali meant by the saying, “Many paths, one truth”. Separation is the illusion; the union is the Truth. The Self is already in each of us. There is nothing we have to do except drop what we are not: the desires, the mind, the identification with the body, the stories we tell ourselves, etc. The four main paths all deal with the koshas (layers of consciousness) differently. In order to reach enlightenment, the practitioner has to drop the koshas. There are different ways in which we drop the koshas, which is why we have different yoga traditions.
In a previous blog post, we cover the five koshas in detail: Annamaya kosha (sheath of matter), Pranamaya kosha (sheath of vital air), Manomaya kosha (sheath of mind), Vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of knowledge/ego/intellect), and Anandamaya kosha (sheath of bliss). Now, let’s look at how the koshas relate to the different paths:
Annamaya Kosha: “Sheath of Matter”
The physical body has a place in all yoga traditions. Perhaps you’ve heard the term, ‘asana’ and think of backbends, inversions, and hip-openers. The original meaning of the word ‘asana’ as described in the Yoga Sutras is ‘seat’, as in the seat you take for meditation. All other postures are seen as optional, not essential. Asana is popular because it feels good, but also represents an approach to yoga from ahamkara (ego… “I am the body”). You can learn 978 asanas and still not be satisfied and find peace. You have to learn how to feel where you are in your body (body consciousness) and asana can be a starting point. This is because meditation starts with concentration, going in, and feeling the body. Asana can teach you how to be one-pointed (focus). When we look at all the yoga traditions, asana really is limited to sitting. In some traditions like in Bhakti yoga, it doesn’t matter how the aspirant sits when they’re singing and chanting. When we talk about the physical body, the combination of yoga and Ayurveyda also becomes important (i.e., what to eat, how to sleep, how to be in tune with natural cycles, etc.). The main takeaway in the Annamaya kosha is to drop the identification with the physical body so that the aspirant can reach higher states of consciousness in deep meditation.
Pranamaya Kosha: “Sheath of Vital Air”
Pranayama (breath control or breath expansion) also has a place in most yoga traditions. Pranayama comes in many different forms: expanding, reducing, and harmonizing the breath and life-force energy. There are many ways of working with prana (life-force energy), but the main point is to stop the breath (breath retention). Prana is responsible for all movement in the mind and creates all our feelings. The main takeaway in the Pranamaya kosha is to make the breath slow and deep so that the aspirant can drop the idea “I am this feeling”. When we can control the prana, we can gain control over mind and reach higher states of consciousness. However, not all yoga traditions will consciously teach that because the breath naturally slows down during deep meditation (i.e., mantra meditation).
Manomaya Kosha: “Sheath of Mind”
The Manomaya kosha (the mental body) is where the game becomes more serious. Anyone can learn asana and pranayama, but mind control is a different story. Most Westerners don’t go beyond asana and pranayama (this is where you find lots of commercial bhoga studios ignoring the purpose of yoga). Mind is a fantastic tool. Without mind, the universe would not exist. Thinking is the main activity of the mind; jumping from one thought to the next so that you receive maximum input is essential for survival. However, mind can be bothersome when you want to shut down the thinking process because it always wants to play. This is where we find an important distinction in yoga: the yoga of being serious, and yoga of not being serious. The yoga of being serious, is the yoga for mind. The yoga of not being serious is the yoga for ego. In yoga, you need to have control of mind. You cannot drop that which you don’t hold. This is the same for the physical body and prana. If you don’t master your body or your prana, how will you drop it? It will have a will of its own, always bothering you. The same goes for the mind. You have to be able to hold mind still and learn to use it as a tool. To drop mind, a daily meditation practice of at least one hour per day is necessary. This allows you to practice the yoga of not being serious for the remainder of the day, so that you can remain detached from whatever happens. When mind is under control, it is possible to be light, happy, and peaceful regardless of what happens in life. The yoga of being serious is about conquering mind so that we are no longer slaves to it. Then, we can drop the mind and reach higher states of consciousness.
The way to get mind under control is very well described in Ashtanga yoga (8-Limbs/Raja Yoga), starting with Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), then Dharana (concentration) and then Dhyana (meditation). Pratyahara purifies the senses and teaches us to approach stillness in the mind by shifting our attention away from external distractions and going within. When you are free of your mind and the senses, you are no longer a slave to the external circumstances around you. The eyes are still seeing, the ears are still hearing, and so on, but you are no longer hearing or seeing- you are focusing on something specific (i.e., mantra, yantra, flame).
Dharana means you are focusing on one object. This can be a challenge in the beginning. For example, think of “A” as the mantra and “B” as the thought. When the practitioner is practicing Dharana, it is not uncommon for thoughts to come in (i.e., A-A-A-A-B-A-A-A-A-B). When meditation (Dhyana) comes, then thought disappears (i.e., A-A-A-A-A-A-A). Meditation (Dhyana) is where the mind is effortlessly fixed on the object and you are the observer. The continuous flow of consciousness in meditation creates a feeling of bliss and peace.
You will find this process in all traditions, only the objects of meditation will differ. Each tradition has found something specific that may have a certain power or effect on the different koshas. Any object that is working for you is good (i.e., mantra, flame, yantra, breath, silence). It is important to not get stuck in, “I have to do it like this”. When we insist on doing things in certain ways (i.e., “I must chant inside even though thoughts keep coming in”), the ego come in. If you notice thoughts coming in, try chanting the mantra aloud and then bring it inside. When there is no ego, there are no problems in any of the koshas.
Vijnanamaya Kosha: “Body of Knowledge”
The ego is the first concept in the Vijnanamaya kosha (body of knowledge). Ego is the one who says, “I exist as a separate individual being”. The ego has wrongly identified with all the koshas (i.e., “I am this body” identification with Annamaya kosha, “I am this feeling” identification with Pranamaya kosha, “I am this thought” identification with Manomaya kosha, “I am this understanding” identification with Vijnanamaya kosha) and is the cause of all suffering.
Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Raja yoga all have different ways of dealing with the ego so that the practitioner no longer erroneously identifies with the different kosha bodies and can reach higher states of consciousness:
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of Knowledge
Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of truth. This path is the most direct and involves introspection and self-inquiry to find out the truth of your being. When you ask, “Who am I?”, you get no answer. If an answer comes, you know it’s mind. In Jnana yoga, you realize who you are through discovering what you are not. Everything that can be perceived is maya (illusion), and not what you really are. In following this path, you gain self-knowledge (pure awareness) and drop the ego and its attachment to the koshas. The Self is already there, it has been there all along. That is the practice in Jnana yoga.
Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of Devotion
Bhakti yoga is another practice where ego is surrendered to the divine. Bhakti yoga is the yoga of love and devotion. It is a heart-centered, devotional path to enlightenment. This path includes chanting mantras and singing bhajans (devotional songs). This path recognizes expressions of the divine in all of creation and transcends the ego through love for the divine.
Karma Yoga: The Yoga of Selfless Service
Karma yoga is another way to deal with ego. Karma yoga is the path of selfless service, fulfilling your dharma (role) without ego. In Karma yoga, all your actions are selfless, you are only working for others. When you fulfill your dharma without ego or attachments, the ego disappears, and self-realization comes.
Raja Yoga: The Yoga of Mind Control
Raja yoga, also known as Ashtanga yoga (8-limbed path), is a fourth option to get rid of ego. In following the 8-limbed path (Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi), the practitioner reaches enlightenment. In Raja yoga, the practitioner gains control over mind through various techniques to stop mind long enough for the ego to disappear by itself. This path doesn’t work directly on the ego, but directly on mind. If you stop mind long enough, and if ego is no longer fed by thought, then ego has to disappear because it’s just an idea.
Depending on your dosha (body type), circumstances (i.e., do you live in the cold mountains or hot plains), and preferences (i.e., do you like to feel, think, or act), one path might be more dominant for you than another. For example, people with the vatta dosha (thin build) are dominated by wind, which means they are thinkers by nature. Those with the vatta dosha tend to prefer Jnana yoga (i.e., solve the problem by realizing there is no problem). People with the pitta dosha are athletically built, are more action motivated, and dominated by the fire element. Those with the pitta dosha would much rather do than think, so they are drawn towards Karma yoga (i.e., work for the universe). Individuals with the kapha dosha are ruled by the water element and tend to be on the heavier side and more emotionally driven. Those with the kapha dosha are likely to be drawn towards Bhakti yoga. This is not to say someone with the vatta dosha should stay away from Bhakti yoga, or that someone with kapha dosha should stay away from Jnana yoga, and so on. Although it is common that one path will dominate, it is important to remember that these paths are meant to cross each other and be combined to create the perfect mixture for your practice. There is no best way when it comes to these major paths. If you want to think, think the truth (Jnana yoga), if you want to act, act in selfless service (Karma yoga), if you want to feel, feel love (Bhakti yoga), if you want control, control your mind (Raja yoga). Each of these paths have their place.
If yoga were only about the conscious mind, then it would be very easy. If all we had to do was listen to someone talk about the Truth to realize the Truth, we would all be awakened beings. But this is not the experience. The experience is that we can feel the Truth and the bliss that comes with it, and then something external happens in our life and suddenly we are caught in this maya (illusion). This is because of the Vijnanamaya kosha- it acts as a cellar; full of rubbish from this life and past lives. This rubbish is the same rubbish that made you take another birth, choose a particular body, and life. It’s the baggage that produced your karma. Getting rid of karmic impressions is said to be long work but can be done in samadhi (absorption) or through Tantra yoga (working with energy). Samadhi is found in all yoga traditions and is one step beyond dhyana (meditation). In meditation, we think A-A-A-A-A, no more B. What we are thinking at that moment is not A-A-A-A-A, but I-consciousness-A-I-consciousness-A-I-consciousness-A because the ego is still there. The ego is the one still meditating. In samadhi, the I-consciousness disappears temporarily, and then comes the bliss. In samadhi, you have dropped all conscious thought and you become merged in the subconscious mind. One way to clear the subconscious mind is to remain focused, to witness without getting involved (detached awareness). If you can do that long enough, the karmic impressions will clear. You may have to do this 2-3 times, but eventually it will clear the subconscious mind. This is one way in Raja yoga.
Another way to clear subconscious blockages in the Vijnanamaya kosha is through Tantra yoga. Tantra is a science that works with energy of all types and brings a devotional element to the practice to harmonize and balance the divine energies within, leading to enlightenment. One could say that Jnana yoga is the opposite of Tantra yoga because in Jnana yoga you are stopping everything, just being (i.e., Have a problem? Forget. Stop thinking.). This is not always an easy feat, which is why we use Tantra yoga to work with the energy to harmonize it and then drop it. If the energy is unhappy, it becomes difficult to drop. If we are able to change the energy slightly, we can balance it. Tantra yoga includes Mantra yoga (i.e., uses the power of sound on the energetic field and koshas), Kundalini yoga, Hatha yoga, yantra, puja, pranayama- anything that can be done is Tantra yoga.
All of these subconscious impressions create desire. In Tantra yoga, if a desire comes, drop it. If it comes again, and again, drop it again. But if this desire persists and you cannot renounce from it, then fulfill the desire so that you can drop it. Some desires are so essential that we’ve taken birth to fulfill them (even the desire to be desireless). Tantra can best be understood by understanding the desires of the seven chakras. Most people in adulthood have the desires of the first three chakras (Root, Sacral, and Solar Plexus Chakras): security, sensory enjoyment, and social status. Some people go beyond the three chakras when they find themselves unfulfilled by these desires. This is where they discover the fourth chakra (Heart chakra)- the love that is pure, unselfish. When you want to understand more about yourself, the universe, the cause for suffering, you enter the fifth chakra (Throat Chakra)- the desire for knowledge. Once you understand that there is nothing to understand, and it’s more about living the truth, you enter the sixth chakra (Third Eye Chakra)- the desire for meditation, eternal peace, self-realization.
We all want to lead peaceful and happy lives free from suffering. When you look at the many paths of yoga, they all lead to the same truth- the Self. Only the method in how we get there differs. It is important to remember that these paths are meant to blend and co-exist together. There is no ‘best’ path, but rather unity in a combination of each according to our own unique nature, interests, and proclivities. The greatest illusion in the world is the illusion of separation; the Truth is one.
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