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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

How Well Do You Know Yoga?

Editor’s note: Brother Shankara is the resident minister of the Vedanta Center of Atlanta. Below is the first installment of a three-part series in which Brother Shankara guides readers through the meaning and goals of yoga, based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Those who have been practicing Hatha Yoga for some time with a qualified teacher may know a flexible routine of poses (asanas). They may have gained the physical poise and sense of inner balance that are two wonderful fruits of practice.

Yet, there is so much more to learn about the great tradition of which Hatha Yoga is a part.

Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk born Narendranath Dutta, first introduced yoga to a wide audience of Americans in the mid-1890s. He called it Raja Yoga, the “royal path” to conquering one’s internal nature. Vivekananda’s translation of and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras was published in July 1896. The book became a bestseller in the United States and Great Britain, influencing the spiritual and intellectual thought leaders of both countries.

The Swami taught that, as a yogi, a person uses ancient, proven techniques to quiet the mind and gain control of inner awareness. Regular practice of Raja Yoga increases the ability to concentrate, and may lead to meditation. From Patanjali’s point of view, that is the deeper purpose of perfecting the asanas: They allow the body to sit perfectly still, comfortably, for long enough to truly turn the mind within.

Sinking into the profound silence of meditation “will take away all our misery,” Vivekananda promised. By analyzing one’s own mind, he wrote, a person “comes face-to-face, as it were, with something which is never destroyed, something which is, by its own nature, eternally pure and perfect …” This encounter with Pure Consciousness, the source of being, liberates an individual “from fear, from unsatisfied desire.”

“Man will find that he never dies, and then he will have no more fear of death. When he knows that he is perfect, he will have no more vain desires, and both causes being absent, there will be no more misery — there will be perfect bliss, even while in this body.”

Yet, why should a person believe what the Swami says? Practitioners know the pleasing results of doing asanas. What proof is there that if a person takes more time to follow Patanjali’s other instructions, they can achieve anything like what Vivekananda promises?

The first evidence will be found in the life of a qualified teacher of concentration and meditation — a woman or man who shows, by the way they live and behave, that they are free from fear and vain desire, that they are joyous and blissful.

When a person is attracted to someone who offers to teach Patanjali’s yoga, they should watch the teacher closely and critically for some time. How does that teacher interact with others? What does he or she talk about in casual conversation? As a person observes these and other aspects of the teacher’s life, the body’s intuitive sense can let a student know whether to accept instruction from that person.

The second proof is the saintly personalities, alive today or in the recent past, that practiced meditation, centering prayer, or other methods similar to those taught by Patanjali. Mother Teresa, Swami Ranganathananda, the Dalai Lama, Cynthia Bourgeault, Father Thomas Keating, and Amma (the Hugging Saint) are just a few examples. Their radiant lives attest to the power of reaching deep inside oneself, to discover that “which is never destroyed.”

Yet, the most potent proof will be experience. As Vivekananda pointed out in his introduction to Raja Yoga, a person cannot learn chemistry just by reading a textbook. “You must go to the laboratory,” he writes. “Take different substances, mix them up, compound them, experiment with them, and out of that will come a knowledge of chemistry.” For Patanjali, the entire body, mind, and intellect is that laboratory, in which one can gain the full knowledge of yoga, as defined by Vivekananda.

So, who is Patanjali? Swami Prabhavananda, who taught in the United States from 1925 to 1976, wrote this in a Translator’s Foreword to his book, How to Know God: “Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms are not the original exposition of a philosophy, but a work of compilation and reformulation. References to yoga practices … are to be found, already, in (several of the) Upanishads, very many centuries earlier. Indeed, yoga doctrine may be said to have been handed down from prehistoric times.

“What Patanjali did was to restate yoga philosophy and practice for the seekers of his own period. But what was his period? And who was Patanjali? Hardly anything is known about him … As for the date of the sutras, the guesses of scholars vary widely, ranging from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E.”

Yet, as Prabhavananda remarks elsewhere, this lack of facts about Patanjali matters little when compared to the enduring power of his systematic approach to self-actualization and self-realization. Over the many centuries since they first appeared, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have changed the lives of uncounted millions, freeing them “from fear, from unsatisfied desire.”

Next issue: The Purposes and Practices of Patanjali’s Yoga.

Email Brother Shankara at [email protected]

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