When you hear the word ‘yoga,’ what is the first thing you think of? A slim fellow with a long beard sitting cross legged by the river Ganges? Or perhaps the image of a slim young woman in some exotic posture with the sunset behind her comes to mind. Or maybe the image of a temple or a guru comes to mind. Alas, it is none of the above! But not to worry, here follows a proper introduction!
The word yoga itself is a Sanskrit (an ancient Indo-European language) word which is etymologically derived from the word yuj, which means to unite, harness, or attach. It is also a word used in common (Sanskrit) parlance to indicate an undertaking. A teaming of disparate parts. Conjoining or putting to employment. As such, it is already clear to see from this short investigation into the root of the word alone that we are not necessarily talking about any particular methodology but the very act or experience of bringing into union or oneness two or more things. So the word yoga is actually closer to being a verb than a noun. It does not necessarily represent a particular practice or form.
Interestingly, in the West, when looking into the words that convey the same meaning (i.e. to unite, bind, conjoin, etc.), one finds the word relier in French and religare in Latin. And lo and behold, we have found the etymological root for the word ‘religion’!
Wait a minute! I thought we were talking about yoga! Yes, we still are. As it turns out, in the original sense of the word, ‘yoga’ and ‘religion’ mean the same thing. The act or experience of bringing into unity, parts numerous.
The act of bringing together implies that there are at least two parts that must be united into becoming one. But… what parts? What things must be brought together? And by whom? Is there some kind of a list that details what is to be brought into union with the other? You are in luck!
SĀMKHYA: BEHIND THE VEIL OF CREATION
As we discovered above, the word yoga represents the act or experience of unity. Naturally, we ended up with the question of what parts must be brought together or into union.
Here, it is worth iterating that we are now talking of nothing less than an investigation of the highest order into what the nature of all noumenon (that which is beyond the scope of the senses) and phenomenon. That is to say, what the entire universe is composed of.
What are the forces that govern the world as we experience it? And what lies behind the objects we experience? Without a logically structured framework to guide our inquiry, these grand questions are difficult to answer. And this is where the foundational philosophy of Sāmkhya comes in to offer a holistic view of the architecture of the cosmos.
The word Sāmkhya can loosely be translated as delineation, discrimination, enumeration, or even rationalization. Particularly as it refers to matters concerning numbers or objects with multiple parts. Etymologically, the word can be broken down into sām (total) and khya (knowledge). As such, Sāmkhya is a philosophy that endeavors to draw a clear map of what the entire universe is made of and the means by which it propagates and sustains itself. It is a system of thought that uses observation to describe the visible world and infers about the nature of what can not be observed using a well founded and logical approach. And it serves as the foundation for the path to yoga.
“Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?
He from whom all this great creation came.
Whether his will created or was mute,
The Most High seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it – or perchance even He knows not.”
So, what exactly does Sāmkhya have to say about the nature of all creation, both seen and unseen? Well, first, it starts out by acknowledging the limitations of conceptual knowledge. According to Sāmkhya Yoga philosophy and the earlier Vedic tradition from which it evolved, all of existence is said to originate from a mystery that can not be fully represented by a name, personified, or described in any way at all! But due to the necessity of pointing to it, it is called Brahman. Brahman is said to be the deep mystery out of which everything arises and falls back into.
The source of existence is simply said to be beyond the scope of language and imagery. But out of that unfathomable and ineffable mystery called Brahman, arises what can loosely be called two primordial energies: Purusha and Prakriti. These primordial energies can be thought of as polarities of each other with Purusha representing a repository of unbounded consciousness and Prakriti representing a primordial undifferentiated matter stuff consisting of three dynamic energies known as gunas. As these primordial metaphysical forces arise and evolve within the realm of the absolute (Brahman), it is said that a process of differentiation commences. The cosmos are born and the process of cosmic evolution is under way. Subtle cosmic energies begin to manifest into form and those forms begin to have a sense of individuation called ahaṃkāra.
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NĀMARŪPA: THE NAME AND SHAPE OF EXISTENCE
In this realm of names and forms, or better put, name-forms, we proceed to classify individual forms – both animate and inanimate. All that appears to our senses, including mental formations and the apparent universe can be categorized as nāmarūpa. Let’s go deeper into this world of name-forms as they hold the key to integration or the experience of yoga.
The word nāmarūpa is actually a compound of two words: nāma (name) and rūpa (shape/form/function). The concept of nāmarūpa introduces us to a critical insight in our understanding of the structure of the universe (i.e. reality) by pointing out the inextricable relationship between language and form. It is primarily through our capacity for language that we come to represent the world both to ourselves (via conscious thoughts) and to others (via speech). Without this capacity for language, things in and of themselves become devoid of meaning and therefore their function is not readily apparent. It is the names we give objects that determines their function or makes them meaningful.
“Conceptualization derives from linguistic knowledge, not contact with real things.”
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:9
For example, take the chair that you may be sitting on at this moment. Within the English language, the word ‘chair’ already has an inextricable association with sitting. And now imagine that you were born and lived in a culture, say an Amazon tribe, where chairs are not used. There most likely is not even a word for ‘chair’ in their native language. As such, if you were to bring a wooden chair to the tribe, they would most likely not recognize it as an instrument for sitting but for the material that it was made from. They may use it as fire wood or perhaps as a ladder of sorts to reach for a high hanging fruit on a tree. What this demonstrates is that a ‘chair’ in and of itself is only meaningful as an instrument for sitting because it has been assigned so by its name within the context of the culture, history, language, household, and other furnitures around and within which it exists. It can be said that all of these larger contexts give the chair both its name and function. Both the larger context and function arise together and can not be separated. This is the meaning of nāmarūpa.
The implications of such an understanding are far reaching! If we are to truly grasp the fact that we are shaping the world around us and assigning meaning to objects based on a set of pre designed attributes and filters such as out sensory mechanisms and our cultural heritage, it will lead us to become much more skeptical of our most firmly held beliefs. This is the perfect starting point for a deeper inquiry.
ĀVIDYA: THE PRIMARY IGNORANCE
Now that we have understood the close relationship between language and the form/function of objects, we can begin to explore how the representation of objects in language (nāmarūpa) can easily become mistaken for the thing in and of itself.
As per our previous example about the chair, it is easy to see how the common use of the word ‘chair’ limits our association of that object to the act of sitting and no further. In this case, the material aspect of the chair (wood) and the natural association of wood with earth, water, air, and all that makes the existence of that object possible are not readily observed. The interdependences can extend to objects as far out as the sun as it is responsible for the growth of the tree that eventually became the chair.
This process of casual associations of names and forms can create a deeply erroneous set of assumptions by creating the impression of separateness among objects. The categorizing nature of language and the sensory apparatus we are equipped with (i.e. eyes, ears, etc.) fools us into thinking that objects exist separately or independently from one another. But the truth is, nothing exists without the dependency on another. This profound error is called avidya (A is a negator and vidya wisdom, insight, or knowledge) or lack of proper knowledge.
According to ancient texts such as the Upanishads and the Vedas, avidya or the ignorance of the interdependence of all creation all the way to its origin can be attributed as the primary cause of conflict and illusion. And it is said that wisdom or vidya is attained when one learns to see through the multiplicity of forms and recognizes that all of creation, no matter what name or form, is an expression of that unfathomable and ineffable mystery from which it arose. The mystery that one may call God, the universe, soul, the divine, grace, Brahma, and so on. And it is to this end that many of the world’s religious and philosophic traditions prescribe many different rituals, practices, and disciplines. The yogic path is no exception.
But how do we proceed? How do we acquire true knowledge (vidya) and come to have a deeper insight into the true nature of reality? The answer is counter intuitive.
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NIRODHA: SILENCE AS THE GATEWAY TO WISDOM
Having recognized the limitations of conceptual knowledge, we come to the point where we must abandon our usual tools of analysis and inquiry. Our usual method of understanding through conceptualization is now as useful as a boat on dry land. It actually becomes a hindrance to our investigation.
In the modern world of ‘more is better,’ it rarely occurs to us that what we want may come as a result of doing less. This processes of arriving at what is essential by way of doing less or by way of negation is a common theme in many philosophical schools of Asia. From the Wu Wei concept of the Taoists in ancient China, to the minimalist doctrine of Zen Buddhism in Japan, and most certainly in the yogic schools of India, restraint, stillness, and silence are considered to be an essential means by which one may gain insight into the true nature of reality.
“Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind.”
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1
In the case of certain schools of Hinduism, including the yogic schools, there exists a process called neti neti (literally: not this, not this). A negative (read: negate-ive) process of inquiry by which all that is judged to be temporal (bound to the process of time-space or name-form) is deemed unstable and therefore not real. This approach brings the seeker very fast to the precipice where conventional language, linear logic, concepts, and imagery begin to fail. If is precisely at this point in the process of inquiry that we must be still and silent so as to observe the very part of us that is not subject to fluctuation. That in us which is not temporal. That in us which is not a product of all the impressions of the culture from which we come. That in us which is not bound by time. That in us which is eternal. So in the end, it is not so much an acquisition of a new concept but a realization of what has always been.
KAIVALYAM: LIFTING THE VEIL OF DUALITY
We are now in a most opportune position to discover that which is beyond the linear process of cognition. If thoroughly grasped, this recognition alone can bring us to a point where the pull of the phenomenal world, including the world of mental formations, is discredited from being real. With this recognition, our minds become like a still pond that reflects the moon and the stars without any distortion. This is called Kaivalyam or integration. A state in which the seekers ceases to exist as a separate entity from the very act of seeking.
“A direct intuition of the real existence, intelligence, and bliss. Devoid of birth, existence, destruction, recognition, and experience. This is called true knowledge.”
Yogatattva Upaniṣad 16-18
Whichever process helps us come to this point can be called the path to yoga or integration. Luckily, there is already a well tested process already in place. It is a holistic process that meets you where you are. As traditionally taught, the path to yoga involves a systematic process of removing latent impressions from the body-mind and the observation of ethical precepts that help us avoid improper attachments to erroneous mental formations along the way.
At this point, there is nothing left to do except immerse in the experience of stillness. Having discredited all concepts as limited and all mental formations as unreal, we find ourselves with very little to say, if anything at all. It is only when the mind has come to this point of stillness that we begin to hear the deep echoes of the eternal in our hearts. And this is the meaning and experience of yoga.