Yoga, literally, means "union." This union can be understood on different levels: philosophically, as that of the relative, limited self with the absolute Self; religiously, as that of the individual soul with the Infinite Spirit; psychologically, as the integration of the personality-a state wherein a person no longer lives at cross-purposes with himself; emotionally, as the stilling of the waves of likes and dislikes, permitting one to remain in all circumstances complete in himself.
It is this last level that serves as the classical definition of yoga by the ancient sage Patanjali.
Patanjali’s profound Yoga Sutras, or aphorisms, have been looked upon for millennia as yoga’s definitive scripture. He wrote: "Yogas chitta vritti nirodh"-"Yoga is the neutralization of the waves of feeling." Chitta (feeling) has been variously translated as "mind-stuff," "consciousness," "subconsciousness," "the lower mind." In a series of classes on Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms many years ago, Paramhansa Yogananda pointed out that those waves in the mind which produce delusion and bondage are primarily the likes and dislikes, the biased feelings of the heart. Vritti (vortices) literally means, "whirlpools"-the whirling eddies that interfere with life’s smoothly flowing stream, sucking into a purely private orbit whatever one likes, making one so preoccupied with egoistic selections and rejections that he is no longer consciously a part of the stream.
Thoughts pass through the minds even of enlightened sages whenever they wish them to, though they subside easily because of the sages’ nonattachment to them. Other functions of the mind, too, such as memory, idea-association, and analysis, the sage can perform far better than the average person. It is not as if he ceased completely to function as a human being after achieving enlightenment. What cease for him are the waves, or eddies, of selfish likes and dislikes of attachment. Entering thereby into the sacred lifestream of Pranava, or AUM, he merges consciously into the silent, infinite ocean of Spirit.
Yoga is the neutralization of ego-directed feelings, because once these become stilled, the yogi realizes that he is, and that he has always been, one with the Infinite-that his awareness of this reality was limited only by his infatuation with limitation. The different paths of yoga, then, must be understood in the light of how they help to bring about this neutralization of the waves of feeling. Merely to whip oneself into a lather of devotional excitement does not constitute bhakti yoga (the attainment of yoga by the path of devotion). Merely to work hard, even in a good cause, is not truly karma yoga (yoga attainment by the path of action). Merely to study and philosophize intellectually is not the path of gyana yoga (the path of wisdom). All these paths must be followed with a firm awareness of the goal of all yoga practices: Yogas chitta vritti nirodh.
This is, moreover, the true goal of all seeking. The reason Patanjali’s aphorisms are accepted as a universal scripture is that he was dealing with universal spiritual truths, not with sectarian practices. Every truth seeker, regardless of his religion, eventually reaches the same state of divine calmness that is yoga. Consider the path of bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. Those true saints in all religions, no matter how eagerly they prayed, sang, or danced in their devotion, reached a point in their development where deep inner calmness took over. All movement ceased. Saint Teresa of Avila reported that in this state she could not even pray, so deep was her inner stillness. Truly, she was a yogi though she had never heard of yoga. But because she was not aware that such perfect stillness is the goal of the spiritual search, she wasted many years (as she later stated) in trying to force her mind to return to superficial devotional practices which the soul was endeavoring to transcend.
Bhakti yoga, then, must lead from personal fervor to impersonal calmness. The important thing is not how one defines God, but how one approaches Him. The bhakti yogi thinks of God first in personal, human terms: as Father, Mother, Friend, or Beloved. Such a personal view helps him to awaken and direct love towards God. Ignorant followers of this path waste much energy in arguing over the respective merits of their chosen deities. They see not that Spirit is all forms, and no form (because essentially beyond all forms). It is not what we love, but how we love, that is important if our devotion is to lead us to enlightenment. Sectarian differences only create more waves of likes and dislikes; they do not result in yoga.
Bhakti yoga, or pure devotion, is essential to some extent for every seeker. Selfless love is one of the quickest ways of smoothing the selfish eddies of desire, and of drawing one’s feelings out of an egoic orbit to merge in the Divine Stream. Bhakti yoga must be above all a self-offering: not noise and loud chanting only, but also silence-a listening for the divine reply. Devotion is a way of creating such a strong current of pure energy that all impure desires are simply carried along in its wake.
The path of karma yoga (yoga through action), similarly, leads not to ever-more-frenzied activity, but to deep inner calmness and freedom. Fulfillment in karma yoga lies not so much in doing many things as in acting more and more, even in little things, with the consciousness that it is God who, truly, is the Doer. Everyone engages in mere activity, yet few people are karma yogis. The true karma yogi tries, by God-reminding activities, to redirect all the wrong impulses of his heart into wholesome channels. More than that, he tries to become aware of the divine energy flowing through him as he acts.
As the bhakti yogi is taught to be more concerned with loving purely than with defining exactly what it is that he loves, so also the karma yogi is taught that the spirit in which he serves is more important than the service itself. Nishkam karma, desireless action, or action without desire for the fruits of action, is karma yoga. All other activity leads, not to yoga (union), but only to further bondage, for it stirs up more waves of likes and dislikes in the heart. ("I’ll just die if I don’t succeed!" "Look everyone-John, Mary, Bill-Isn’t it wonderful what I’ve done? What else could possibly matter any more?" "What happened? John liked what I did, but Mary didn’t. I’ll have to work harder now, until everyone is impressed with my achievements." Or: "I failed! Nothing in life now is worth living for!")
With all this personal excitement, the mainstream of life flows by, and all we ever notice of it are the few little sticks that we struggle so desperately to draw into our private orbits, thinking in the acquisition of them to find peace, not realizing that in the very act of whirling with desire we only destroy whatever peace we may presently have.
Activity is a part of being human. We could never find inner freedom if we starved every impulse by inaction. Attunement with the Infinite Creator comes in part by wholesome, creative work, not by denying every manifestation of His power in us. The neutralization of the waves of feeling comes partly by the satisfaction of our wholesome desires. But this satisfaction must result in just that: the neutralization of the feeling-waves. Personal satisfaction must be offered up to the Divine; it must be perceived as a mere ripple on the ocean of cosmic bliss. In this way right activity leads to inner freedom, which is the true, spiritual goal of all action.
Karma yoga does not necessarily consist of building hospitals or doing works that people commonly label religious. Since freedom is the goal, it is also the criterion of right action. If, for example, one’s own nature (which is determined by past karma) impels him to work in the soil, gardening may be a more important-because liberating-activity for him than preaching to multitudes. In every man’s life, the criterion of right activity is that which will bring him, in the highest sense, to a divine state of inner freedom.
It will be seen, then, that karma yoga is not only a distinct and separate path. Even bhakti yoga involves a kind of activity: the expression of devotion. So also does the exercise of discrimination. So also does meditation, and the practice of the yoga postures. The teaching of karma yoga is not, "Do this or that, specifically," but, "Whatever you do, do it with a sense of freedom. Realize that you are only an instrument of the Divine. Do nothing for selfish ends. Instead, act so as to neutralize, not to agitate, the waves of your likes and dislikes." By acting without desire for the fruits of action, the yogi learns to live, not in the past or future, but in the timeless NOW.
By acting consciously as a channel for the Divine, finally, he realizes that actions are effective even objectively, not according to how zealously he works, but according to how much of God he expresses in his work. Because energy is an aspect of God, hard work will bring greater divine attunement than half-hearted, slovenly work. But a simple, divine smile may change more hearts than a thousand windy sermons or learned treatises. A single walking stick made with divine joy will be, to one sensitive enough to see deeply, a greater work of art than a gigantic sculpture carved with consummate skill, but without profound understanding. The more the yogi, by his selfless actions, develops an awareness of the divine power flowing through him, the more he realizes that he can accomplish more, even for humanity, by becoming still and serving as a transmitting station for the Infinite Power, whose sermons are Silence.
Thus, outward work falls away, and the yogi’s true work becomes the upliftment of others by the silent emanations of his peace. (A word is in order here, however, to those self-proclaimed "free" souls who, in the name of high Vedanta philosophy [usually with a generous admixture of drugs], imagine that they are serving in the highest way by sitting and doing nothing, claiming to be divine instruments when all the inspiration they feel is the vague prompting of their subconscious minds. Hard work is purifying. The great yogi, though not necessarily outwardly active, is conscious of directing a great deal more energy than any thousand ordinary men. His activity is enormous. It is merely so sensitive as no longer to require muscular application. Neophytes, however, should devote themselves to the generous exercise of their muscles.)
Gyana yoga is the yoga of wisdom. Wisdom first comes through the practice of viveka (discrimination). The temptation of the ego, once it takes up this practice, is to flatter itself with its own profundity by stepping further and further afield in its analyses of different aspects of reality. Yogas chitta vritti nirodh. The important thing is not how many different deep truths one can grasp, but rather how deeply one grasps the central truth: the need to rise above personal likes and dislikes. Many gyana yogis, in their exercise of incisive discrimination, actually feed their likes and dislikes-in the form of an inordinate fondness for profound ideas.
Discrimination means in all things to look for the kernel of reality. It means penetrating to ever-deeper levels of insight. One person’s gift to another, for example, may really be intended only to buy the recipient’s friendship. Yet his apparently cynical wish to buy friendship may actually spring from a pathetic fear that he couldn’t win it in any other way. This fear, in turn, may be due to an awareness, on a still deeper level, that friends can never be won, nor owned-that nothing, in fact, can be owned. Such an awareness, again, though sad at first glance, springs from the soul’s even deeper knowledge that it is complete in itself, and need look nowhere outside for its fulfillment. Its sense of self-completeness, finally, is rooted in the deepest fact that, essentially, it is the Infinite Itself. The gift given for selfish gain, then, was due in the last analysis to the soul’s inner, divine urge to claim the very universe as its own.
"Neti, neti"-"Not this, not that." By looking behind veil after veil that obscures the door to Truth, the gyana yogi comes at length to the Truth Itself, stripped of every superficial appearance.
But he will never come to this reality so long as he seeks it only on a level of ideas, some of which will attract him, others of which he will find repulsive. His search must take him within himself, to ever deeper levels of realization of who and what he is. It is his own heart’s false identifications that he must dispel. As in bhakti and karma yoga, it is not what he sees, but how he sees, that really matters.
And that is why this path is called gyana yoga (the yoga of wisdom), not viveka yoga (the yoga of discrimination). Wisdom is not only the goal; it is also the path. The gyana yogi must view all things with the impartial consciousness of a sage. It is less important that he see through human follies than that he not be affected by man’s supreme folly: delusion itself.
The Bhagavad Gita, India’s favorite scripture, states, "He finds contentment who, like the calm ocean, absorbs within himself all the rivers of desires." (II:70) Man seldom realizes that even his outward, worldly enjoyments spring in fact from within himself-from his reactions to things rather than from the things themselves. The gyana yogi tries, even at the time of outward enjoyment, to interiorize his consciousness, feeding the inner flame of soul-consciousness. He knows that if, like worldly people, he borrowed its embers to give light to things, the true source of joy within himself would burn itself down at last to gray ashes.
He deals similarly with his desires. He realizes that their fulfillment depends entirely on his own mental pictures that he has formed of fulfillment, and not on any outer circumstance. He therefore sets mirrors, as it were, around himself. He refers his mental images back to the light of joy within himself, and sees those images as reflections, only, of that inner joy. In this way his soul’s light becomes intensified, not diffused.
A comparison might also be drawn here to the extra comfort one derives from a blazing fireplace in a warm home, when one is aware at the same time of a raging blizzard out-of-doors. The more deeply aware one becomes that all joy is centered in the Self, the more the lures of the world serve only to strengthen one’s affirmations of soul freedom.
Gyana yoga is not only a particular path to God. It also points out the direction all our thinking should take, even in bhakti yoga and karma yoga, if we want it to lead to liberation.
The different paths so far outlined are designed to fit the basic temperamental differences of men: those who live more by feeling, by action, or by thought. Because every man is a composite of all three of these attributes, regardless of which is uppermost in his particular nature, all three of these paths of yoga should be followed to some extent by everyone.
But temperament is a superficial consideration. It is not a quality of the soul-only of the ego. The perfection of each of these paths transcends temperament, leading from outward practices to deep inner stillness. Again, unless there is a degree of "inwardness" even from the beginning of one’s journey, outward practices will remain outward; they will not lead to the neutralization of the eddies of feeling which alone constitutes yoga.
In addition to these outward practices, therefore, one should also practice daily meditation. Meditation will give force to one’s devotion, to his activities, and to his divine understanding; the special practice of these yogas will in their turn give force to, and will help to determine the course of, his meditations. Not meditation only, but the harmonious combination-with meditation as the supreme guide-of all these yogas, constitutes the path of raja yoga, the "royal" yoga.
Raja yoga views human nature as a kingdom composed of many psychological tendencies and physical attributes, all of which require considerate attention. A king cannot afford to favor one class of his subjects at the expense of all others, lest dissatisfaction among the rest sow seeds of rebellion. Man, similarly, progresses most smoothly when all aspects of his nature are developed harmoniously. The raja yogi, or kingly yogi, therefore, is enjoined to rule his inner kingdom wisely and with moderation, developing all aspects of his nature in a balanced, integrated way. Since it is the soul which is the true ruler of man’s inner kingdom, the development of soul-consciousness, by daily meditation, forms the principal activity of raja yoga. But even meditation, if one-sided, can result in imbalances. The raja yogi is therefore encouraged to develop all sides of his nature-always, however, with a view to neutralizing the waves of his likes and dislikes, and not, by egoistic self-expression, to creating ever-new eddies of selfish involvement.
This Philosophy section is an excerpt of the book The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Also included in the book are Yoga Postures, Breathing, Routine, Healing, Diet and Meditation.