Hatha Yoga and the Bhagavad-gita

Hatha Yoga and the Bhagavad-gita

Wisdom Quest

( – Hatha Yoga and the Bhagavad-gita

From Back to Godhead

By Satyaraja Dasa

How the Gita teaches the eight steps of hatha yoga, the topic of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras.

According to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, an estimated 13.4 million Americans practice yoga, and many more experiment with it every year. Yoga is everywhere—from Mumbai to Moscow to Monte Carlo. But while yoga is meant to bring one closer to God, many of today’s yogis have a different agenda, the most common being to keep their bodies in shape.

“They’re not necessarily deeply spiritual, but looking more to do yoga as another form of exercise,” says Jennifer McKinley, co-founder and general manager of Plank, a Charlestown, Massachusetts, maker of chic, high-end yoga mats, totes, and other accessories. Launched in 2005, the company projects sales in the upcoming year that will rival that of Western exercise equipment.

In an increasingly secular world, we naturally want to adapt valuable ancient techniques for contemporary purposes, but yoga is losing its essence in the process.

Yoga is a science left to us by the sages of India. The word yoga literally means “to link up,” and its implication, originally, was similar to the Latin root of the word religion, which means “to bind back.” Thus, yoga and religion are both meant to bring us to the same end: linking up and binding with God.
The Inner Message of the Yoga-sutras

Today’s yogis might find it interesting that traditionally the preeminent text on yoga is Bhagavad-gita—not Patanjali’s famous Yoga-sutras. But the Gita is not your usual yoga text, full of difficult bodily poses and strenuous meditation techniques. Rather, it offers a practical outline for achieving the goal of yoga—linking with God—by encouraging the chanting of Krishna’s names, by teaching how to act under Krishna’s order, and by explaining the importance of doing one’s duty in spiritual consciousness. These activities, properly performed under the guidance of an adept, allow one to bypass much of what is considered essential in conventional yoga.

And yet there is harmony between the Gita and the Yoga-sutras. For example, both Lord Krishna and Patanjali indicate that we must transcend all false conceptions of “I” and develop love for God, which Patanjali calls ishvara-pranidhana (“dedication to God”).

Patanjali wrote in the third century CE, but little is known about his life. His only surviving text, the Yoga-sutra, would indicate that toned physical and mental tabernacles are helpful in the pursuit of spiritual truth. In fact, his major accomplishment is that he took age-old practices meant for improving the body and the mind and codified them for the benefit of spiritual practitioners.

But Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras merely hint at the truths illuminated in the Bhagavad-gita, which might be considered the post-graduate study of Patanjali’s work. Even so, Patanjali intended his method to be used for ultimate spiritual benefit, as some of his verses, especially later ones, clarify. Still, many yoga practitioners today use his method solely for physical and mental health because in the beginning of his work Patanjali mainly focuses on basic methods related to the body and the mind, without much spiritual commentary.

In sutra 3.2, for example, we learn that dhyana, or meditation, is the one-pointed continuous movement of the mind toward a single object. But Patanjali’s technique can be used for concentration on any object, not just on God. And even though he tells his readers the point of his sutras—to get closer to God—one may be tempted to use his methods for selfish ends, as he says later in the text. Ultimately, one-pointed concentration is for focusing on God, though it’s not until one graduates to the Bhagavad-gita that one clearly learns how to do this.

As Professor Edwin Bryant points out in his excellent article “Patanjali’s Theistic Preference, Or, Was the Author of the Yoga-sutras a Vaishnava?”1 Patanjali was trying to gear his diverse audience toward the worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even if he was doing so in a roundabout way. Much like today, many forms of religion beleaguered the India of his time; practitioners worshiped numerous aspects of the Supreme. Consequently, he opted for a stepwise approach in his Yoga-sutras that he believed would accommodate his varied audience.

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