The Concept of Yoga


Dr Varanasi Ramabrahmam

Yoga is currently a very popular pastime. Many gurus and many systems of yoga are presently in vogue. Many innovative titles are given to their respective methods of yoga by yoga teachers. Before trying to enter yoga and practice it, you need to know what exactly yoga is.

Indian spirituality is replete with many systems of thought about God and mind. Yoga and Samkhya (a system in which the mind is split into 24 parts: the sense organs, action organ and so on) are two systems of thought which view God and the mind in their own way. The Yoga-Samkhya system views mind and its structure in a slightly different way to the Upanishads, the source books and guides to spirituality.

Yogaha chitta vritti nirodhaha  – ‘Yoga is the prevention of mental activity’ – is one of the most famous Patanjali yoga sutras. Here chitta vritti refers to mental functions. Technically vritti means antahakarana parinama – ‘transformation of the inner mental tool’ (antahakarana). The four antahakaranas are respectively manas, buddhi, chittam and ahamkaramManas handles cognitions, their reception, storage and retrieval.  Buddhi takes care of all intellectual operations.  Chittam deals with the reception, storage and retrieval of all cognition-related experiences which include the meanings of words and senses of utterances, thoughts and ideas which form understanding and insight.  Ahamkaram is concerned with self-consciousness, i.e: the identification of the individual with one’s body, gender, mental traits, social status, nationality and so on. All these four together constitute the mind. The activities theses perform are the antahakarana parinamas –transformations of the inner mental tools – which account for all our mental functions.

Our mental functions start with mood, insight, remembrance, understanding, experience, urge, intuition and instinct – our direct perceptions and experiences. These are then converted into thoughts and feelings which are then expressed. We cognize and know through our sense organs: through the eye we detect forms and scenes, through the ear sounds, through the tongue tastes, through the nose smells and via the skin touch and heat.  These cognitions are received in accordance with manas, and perceived.  Together with the experiences they create, they are stored within us as remembrances and memory. When our memory is activated, they generate moods, thoughts and feelings.

This is at least a summary of how the mind works.  Yoga is designed to understand this working of the mind and cultivate it so that its vagaries are understood and taken care of and that psychological remedies are prescribed and implemented. Yoga is not merely about doing physical exercises. Physical exercises are just a starting point just as primary school is a starting point for more complex learning. Unfortunately, many practitioners and gurus of yoga teach and promote an incomplete type of yoga which starts and ends in physical exercises.

Praanayaama – a focused inhaling and exhaling – is a way of calming the mind.  The mind is reined in by a proper understanding of its nature and functions. The mental make up of the individual plays an important role in this regard. There are many methods of yoga each of which is appropriate for a different type of individual. The simplest and best way is chanting the name of the favorite deity continuously while listening to sruti.  The chanting must continue as a background to our mental activity or when we are resting, just as sruti is kept and goes on in the background of the singing in the music concert. Many of today’s yoga practitioners choose their guru and yoga method more based on current trends than according to their individual mental make up.  Thus their practice of yoga is in vain.

As above, yoga is by definition the prevention of mental activity.  Yoga involves not allowing antahakarana parinama – transformation of the inner mental tool – to take place. This is what you call a negative definition. The positive definition of yoga is: cheto vritti rupetya tisthati sada –   ‘transcending chitta vritti (mental activity) is also yoga’. The technical term for this state is nivritti – the absence of mental activity. Yoga is a form of communion with divinity. Yoga is efficiency in mental activity; yogaha karmasu kausalam – yoga is skill in performing various assigned actions and duties.  Yoga thus is also about being able to control your thoughts, feelings and moods.  Managing these efficiently is yoga.

Yoga is of many kinds. That means we can manage the functions of our mind efficiently in more than one way. The various systems include: bhakti yoga (devotional yoga), Karma yoga (interpreted popularly as yoga through one’s actions) and jnaana yoga (yoga through knowledge). We are attracted to a particular yoga method depending on our mental make up, genetic composition and ultimately God’s grace. Raja yoga – learning, practising and performing yoga as a series of exercises (both physical and mental) as described and professed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – is now the most commonly “sold” method of yoga. But unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, this type of yoga focuses more on physical exercise. Yoga is an inquiry and practice for attaining peace of mind and has to be knowledgeably cultivated and practiced. Nothing is impossible if we will it. But one must realize that yoga is designed to be practiced to transcend worldly concerns and to remain peaceful and blissful throughout all – good and bad – unaffected by the outside world. 

Yoga is tuning our “selves” and ourselves with the divinity within us, and finally merging into that divinity. Meditation is the conscious cultivation of mind in this direction.  And the conscious or unconscious merger of mind in its source is what yoga (literally ‘union’) really is.


1 Response to “The Concept of Yoga”

  1. 1 keera October 29, 2010 at 5:31 am

    Very nicely explained.

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