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Philosophy

Philosophy is the human attempt to understand the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. For the study of philosophy to flourish, a settled society where people need not struggle for bare existence is important. India is blessed with a good climate, fertile land, the protection of the Himalayas and an abundant rainy season.

Introduction to Indian philosophy

In many parts of the world, the reflection on the nature of existence is luxury of life. However, since ancient times, philosophy has held a prominent position in Indian society as the basis of all arts and sciences.

The Indian view of the universe is that it is dynamic and constantly transforming itself. This is in quite different from that of Western science, which seems to want to “freeze” reality.

Indian philosophy accepts:

  • a cordial relationship between the human and Divine realms. God is not a tyrant, sitting up in heaven, who punishes you for your sins. Your karma (your own action) determines the reaction that you will get.
  • The idea that what thought reveals is not opposed to reality, but part of it. Reality can be understood by intuition; the subjective “truth” is as important as objective truth. It is generally accepted that truth may be many sided and paradox is readily accepted.
  • Each one of us, in essence, is pure – and can never be impure. Although you might identify with certain negative qualities, your essential nature remains pure. An analogy is that water may appear to be polluted, but actuality the water is simply carrying impurities.

Indian scriptures tend to be written in a way that is difficult for you to understand. The general consensus is that it is best to study them with a teacher. Yoga Vidya offers many excellent courses on Indian philosophy and various scriptures. In addition, you might want to consult the following books:

  • "Ayurveda and Yoga" by Dr. David Frawley
  • "The Yoga Tradition" by Dr. Georg Feuerstein

What is Yoga?

Enlightenment practice

  1. Union, union of individual soul with supreme soul;
  2. discipline by which such union effected;
  3. name of philosophy of sage Patanjali, teaching process of this union; '
  4. unruffled state of mind under all conditions.
  5. from root ‘yuj’ meaning to yoke, to harness, join together’

All life interconnected, integrated whole. When don’t experience that wholeness, feel isolated & dis-empowered.

Yoga means both experience of oneness, as well as practice by which attain that experience. Yoga is your progress & techniques for overcoming whatever obstacles may try to prevent that progress

“Yoga is the union of the individual psyche with the transcendental Self.” - Yoga-Yagnavalkya, 1.44

“Evenness of mind is called yoga.” - Bhagavad Gita, 2.48

“Yoga is skill in action.” - Bhagavad Gita, 2.50

“This is the real meaning of Yoga, the severance of union with pain and sorrow.” - Bhagavad Gita, 6.23

“yogas cittta vritti nirodhah” - “Yoga is the cessation, or the calming, of the mental modifications, i.e. the thoughts.” - Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.2

“Yoga is ecstasy.” - Yoga Bhashya, 1.1

“Yoga is said to be the oneness of breath, mind and senses, and the abandonment of all states of existence.” - Maitri Upanisad, 6.25

“Yoga is said to be control.” - Brahmada Purana, 2.3.10.115

“Yoga is he separation of the Self from the World-Ground.” - Raja-Martanda, 1.1

“This they consider yoga: he steady holding of the senses.” - Katha Upanishad, 6.11

“Yoga, in a nutshell, is to keep the entire eternal and internal body clean, pure, sanctified, so that the mind flows without any barrier within and absorbs what goes on inside the body”. - B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction”. - T.K.V. Desikachar

“Yoga is the science which teaches us how to get direct experience of God”. - Swami Vivekananda

“I consider Yoga to be the oldest spiritual tradition in the world. The purpose of Yoga is to instil or to realize complete inner freedom. - Georg Feuerstein, Yoga Unveiled

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A word about karma

The word “karma” has become a fashionable term that many people use with little understanding of its actual meaning. The Sanskrit word means “action”, and every action has an equal and opposite re-action. Karma has nothing to do with your destiny or fate – or with being punished for your sins. It doesn’t refer to luck – good or bad.

The principle of karma is simple: if you throw a ball against a wall, it will rebound with a force equal to the strength you used to throw it. If you think of this in terms of life in general, you will understand how your actions return to you.

Another way of summarising karma would be: as you sow, so shall you reap. If you plant an apple seed, you will get an apple tree. If you plant apple seeds, don’t complain because you would prefer to have cherries.

In yoga, do your practice and reap the rewards. Don’t resign yourself and think “I will not do anything”. It is impossible. You can’t live without doing action – even for a second. If you are not doing something positive with your life, the lack of activity will result in negative consequences.

An understanding of the ‘law’ of karma leads to your taking responsibility for your own actions. Don’t blame others when things aren’t going as you would like them to. If you want to change your life, change your actions. You always have a choice, but sometimes it takes time for your actions to manifest – so be patient, but keep at it.

Take some time to understand the philosophical basis of yoga. Then, in addition to asanas and pranayama you can begin to put them into practice in your own life.

Remember: success in your yoga practice is the result of six important qualifications. You need cheerfulness, perseverance, courage, knowledge gained from direct personal experience, firm belief in the teachings, and solitude.

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How to keep your life in balance: yamas and niyamas

“Cultivate the ground with Yama and Niyama, living morally and ethically because it is the only way to live, the only possibility if you seek spiritual growth”.
- Dr Swami Gitananda Giri

If you are like most people, you probably use between five and ten percent of your mental potential. If you already do yoga and/or have a meditation practice, you may have noticed that it has begun to awaken and enhance latent capacities within your personality. As these capacities continue to develop, you will most likely see your mind becoming more concentrated and more powerful. The ancient rishis (sages of India) were obviously aware that a concentrated mind is a strong mind. They recognised that there is a natural tendency for people with strong minds to control others with weaker minds. Unless you have unswerving spiritual integrity and discipline, the newly found powers of your mind can put powerful negative distractions into your path. A powerful mind, bereft of ethics and morals, can affect you and others adversely.

Patanjali begins his 8-limbed system with the “yamas” and “niyamas”, i.e. admonitions to practice truthfulness and non-violence; develop compassion; don’t steal; don’t be jealous; learn to control your energy and cravings. Simplify your life. Purify your mind and your environment; try to be content. Continue to study; never think that you have “mastered” yoga – and surrender your ego.

The yamas and niyamas are not harsh rules, but descriptions of human potential. As ethical guide-lines they offer you a way to live with heightened consciousness, integrity and joy.

Yamas suggest ways of establishing a healthy relationship to others, to society; they include positive attitudes towards life. These are ethical tenets with an outward aspect; they provide you with the guidance for mindful self-regulation when you interact with the world around you. The principles of ‘yama’ provide boundaries that can assist you in simplifying your life, creating peaceful interactions and in preserving your peace of mind.

Studying and attempting to practice the yamas, guides you in developing non-violent sensitivity (ahimsā), honesty (satya), non-stealing (asteya) , healthy intimacy (brahmacharya) and non-greediness/generosity (aparigraha) . These attitudes cannot be imposed upon you, nor can you develop them by merely imitating other people’s behaviour.

Niyamas address your relationship with yourself; observances with an inward-turned aspect. The niyamas focus on your obedience to the spiritual laws of yoga, self-discipline, and your attitude and relationship with yourself. They advocate positive means of self-empowerment by encouraging you to take full responsibility for your own actions. They consist of keeping yourself and your environment as pure as possible (śaucha), cultivating a sense of contentment (santosha), working to strengthen your mind and body (tapas), on-going study (swādhyāya) and a recognition that you are not separate from the Infinite (īshwara-pranidhāna).
 

Yamas

Ahimsā: non-violence, refraining from doing injury, compassion

Ahimsā-pratisthāyām tat-sannidhau vaira-tyāgah - When your mind is peaceful, hostility vanishes in your presence.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, 2.35

By making ahimsa the first principle of the first limb (yama) of his eight-limbed system, Patānjali seems to be emphasising the importance of the practice. He does not debate the fact that violence can be an integral part of survival. As a human being, you are a combination of animalistic tendencies and divine inspiration. Your reactive mind (manas) is prone to acting instinctively and habitually. However, by using your higher mind (buddhi), you can choose whether or not you will respond to violence with violence. Unselfish love and compassion are expressions of your divine nature.

Ahimsā is more than non-injury; it is best expressed as positive, cosmic love. It includes forgiveness, gentleness and non-injury, whether physical, mental or emotional. Ahimsā stops you from doing harm with your thoughts, tongue or hands. When you practice yoga and meditation on a deep level, your goal is to transmute your basic aggressive nature.

To cultivate compassion, it is important to refine your awareness and develop clarity of vision. From pure visualisation, enlightened action arises. As a yogi, one of your ultimate goals is to see everything as your own Self. Patānjali suggests through the practice of ahimsa, you recognize the suffering of others and feel inspired to attempt to alleviate it.

Ahimsa is not passivity, nor is it cowardice. To practice ahimsa you may have to put up with insults, rebukes, criticisms and sometimes even assaults. Never retaliate nor wish to offend anybody even under extreme provocation. Don’t entertain negative thoughts against anybody nor harbour anger. Ahimsa is the perfection of forgiveness.
 

Satya: truthfulness, honesty

When you are firmly rooted in truthfulness, your actions accomplish their desired end.
- Patañjail’s Yoga Sūtra, 2.36 -

Satya entails your continued efforts to live your life in accordance with the highest spiritual values. As the second of Patanjali’s yamas (ethical guideline that suggest ways in which you, as a yoga practitioner, can best relate to other people), satya indicates truthfulness on all levels.

Satya involves approaching life without being bogged down by preconceptions that hinder your freedom. It means starting to get rid of some of the extraneous “baggage” that you probably carry around with you. It entails becoming more aware of how your perceptions may be inaccurate.  

When tuning to the truth you attempt to speak, think and act in positive ways that are not hurtful to others or to yourself. Yet it is also vital to try to be as straightforward and sincere as possible. It might seem impractical or too difficult for you to always be truthful, but with practice, you will find that it gradually becomes easier. You begin to understand that non-violence, non-injury, purity, justice, harmony, forgiveness, and peace are all facets of the highest Truth.

Gandhi considered Truth to be the highest power in the Universe. His “Satyagraha” (meaning “the power of Truth”) is known in the West as the “passive resistance” movement. He realised that a truthful person is fearless and powerful. You have nothing to hide – from yourself or from others.

Some suggestions to help you to integrate the practice of satya into your daily life

  • Begin to recognize how your fears and other negative emotions may prompt you to twist reality. Once you have understood this subtle process, your thoughts, speech and actions will start to realign themselves with each other.
  • Think about how a regular meditation practice might improve your adherence to the principle of satya? Then meditate on a regular basis!
  • Remember to keep your practice diary. See the attached sample; add a few other questions that could help you to adhere to satya.
  • Be honest with your practice. Begin to notice how important it is to set an intention that is within your capability rather than something that you know is beyond you.
  • Notice how the opportunity to practice satya arises every day.

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Asteya: non-stealing

When non-stealing becomes firmly established, all wealth comes to the yogi.

- Yoga Sutra 2.37

Asteya: Non-stealing; refraining from taking what is not freely offered; considering what you really need and not letting your desires persuade you to take more

Asteya encourages you to be aware how many levels of stealing there may be. For example, a teacher may ‘steal’ from her students’ by not giving them opportunity to understand things for themselves or by providing too much information. Well-meaning, overly protective parents may ‘steal’ their children’s chances of becoming strong and free-spirited. An abusive adult may steal a child’s innocence. It is possible to steal time, especially if you are the type of person who always tend to arrive late – or a teacher who rarely finishes her class on time. You can also mis-appropriate affection, space, credit/praise, ideas, energy, trust, independence and free-will, among other things.

Many people, who wouldn’t consider shoplifting, would not hesitate to take a few pens from work, or aren’t entirely forthcoming on their tax returns. Stealing comes from a sense of entitlement, i.e. a feeling or belief that you deserve something that you haven’t actually earned.

As with the other yamas, asteya may be interpreted as both an individual and a collective value. With a view to connecting with the principle of asteya, take an honest look at how you live. Is yours a life of over-consumption that steals from the earth? Although asteya literally means "non-stealing" it can also be interpreted as not taking on more than you can handle, whether it is material expenditure or consumption of time and energy.

Some people steal when their bellies are empty. Others steal for psychological reasons, when their hearts are empty. There is also the stealing that comes from feeling spiritually empty or incomplete. When you compare yourself with others, you may feel inadequate and want what others have in physical ability, beauty, youth, material wealth, fame, power, love or spiritual attainment. This may constitute an act of psychological stealing.

When you move beyond the satisfaction of needs to the fulfilment of wants, you enter the realm of stealing. Yet, “needs” and “wants” are very subjective. People's needs vary in different climates, work and living situations. Needs change with time, season and age. Yoga practice enables you to quiet your mind so that you can listen deeply to what your own body, mind and soul truly need.

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Aparigraha: freedom from greed; not desiring more than you need

When you are free of greed, you understand the purpose of your life and are aware of your past lives.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.39

Aparigraha: freedom from greed, avarice and covetousness; deep generosity; non-possessiveness, non-hoarding, not desiring more than you need; neutralising the desire to acquire and hoard wealth; non-acceptance of gifts/bribes; not appropriating what is not freely offered

Modern people are routinely hit with sales barrages. Daily emails try to tempt you with the “free” shipping of gifts and TV ads try to convince you that spending money = loving your friends and family.

Maybe this is the perfect time for you to begin to integrate the principle of “aparigraha” into your daily life. Patanjali’s fifth “yama” (ethical ways of relating to the world around you) is usually interpreted to mean non-greed and lack of attachment to material objects. It may be more helpful to your spiritual practice to view aparigraha as the ability to be happy without the desire for excessive possessions. It is living simply without a surplus of possessions, sharing what you have, not judging others by their material possessions, and not believing that what you own is tantamount to who you are.

Aparigraha is the highest form of non-attachment or detachment. Some yogis consider this principle to be the key to all the others. Many see it as the most subtle and most difficult of Patanjali’s ten ethical guidelines to master. Aparigraha can be viewed as going against many of the principles of western consumerism.

Aparigraha enables you to let go of the fear and clinging associated with trying to protect what you own, or protect yourself against loss. This yama, perhaps more than any of the others, has a profound effect on your happiness. In yoga philosophy, all suffering is seen as being caused by a real or imagined loss. When you overly cling to someone or something, you tend to suffer.

When you invest your possessions with emotional meaning, you tend to starve yourself of what you most need, i.e. authentic deep relationships. As a yoga practitioner, you may be beginning to understand that when you yearn for ‘things’, you are, in fact, yearning for a closer connection to your true self and to the divine. The well-known American yoga teacher, Erich Schiffman, states aparigraha in a very positive way: "love is what is left when we let go of everything we don't need."

Aparigraha can also refer to ‘acquiring’ people as well. If you are emotionally needy, you may find yourself running from one person to another, always seeking a new friend, a better partner: a prettier one, a funnier one, a more successful one. This is a painful form of grasping, as it reduces people to objects that you can acquire and/or discard. It stimulates feelings of alienation and anxiety, as with each interaction you tend to become more distant from your true self and less able to experience the real joy of friendship.

Another subtle form of grasping is self-doubt and self-hatred. How often do you find yourself thinking: if only I could master some new fancy pretzel-asana … If only I weren't so timid, so clumsy, so fat…. These feelings reflect your attachment to negative concepts. You may be using what looks like ‘yoga’ to destroy yourself in a greedy attempt to be somehow better, to be someone you’re not.

Perhaps it would be best to frequently remind yourself that the purpose of meditation, and all yoga practice, is to help you to free yourself from the bonds of your mind. A greedy person will always experience many obstacles to meditation.

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Brahmacharya: non-dwelling of mind on sense objects

When you are able to be moderate, you will find knowledge and strength flowing to you”.
- Patanjali’sYoga Sutra, 2.38

Brahmacharya: control of passions; moderation; abstaining from excessive indulgences that waste your energy

The literal translation of the word ‘brahmacharya’ is the ‘path to Brahman’ (the Absolute). In its richest sense, brahmacharya represents training your mind to refrain from excessive dwelling on sense objects. It involves resisting the outward and downward pulls of sensuality that may disturb your spiritual practice. In the deepest sense, brahmacharya is also the transcending body-consciousness.

The practice of brahmacharya helps you to create a harmonious relationship among the different manifestations of energy in your body: emotional, sensual, sexual, physical and the more subtle levels of thought. With the practice of brahmacharya you consciously transform your physical energy (ojas) into spiritual brilliance (tejas).

Many modern students have trouble relating to the simplistic interpretation of brahmacharya as celibacy. But, brahmacharya is not about repression; it suggests sublimation. Rather than permitting your energy to be wasted or to become stagnant, you consciously direct it towards positive endeavors. Yoga texts prescribe total abstinence only for an extremely small number of people who are swamis, monks or nuns. For most people, the principle of brahmacharya refers to the art of self-control and moderation.

Brahmacharya may be seen as nurturing a healthy respect for yourself and your partner(s). It is also refraining from meaningless sexual encounters that deplete your energy. With practice, you find that, instead of feeling tired and drained, you have the energy necessary to control your own mind.

For yogis, reducing or being more moderate in your sexual activity is not a question of morality, but of energy control. If you discharge too much energy through sexual and sensual indulgences, you may not have sufficient energy to attain success in your spiritual endeavors. Without sufficient self-control, it is extremely difficult to progress in meditation.

If you are a glutton or epicurean, you are not practising brahmacharya, even if you are abstaining from overt sexual activity. This is also true if you are a person who waste their time and energy in needless talk and gossip. Through the practice of brahmacharya, you can begin to control your energies and channel them in more positive directions.

Some suggestions for integrating the practice of brahmacharya into your daily life:

  • Examine your beliefs and values regarding the role of healthy sexuality in your life. Notice whether they tend to be puritanical, hedonistic or more balanced.
  • Become more aware of how much your attitudes to sexuality are influenced by advertising and other media.
  • If you have a partner, examine together the concept of moderation in your relationship. If you do not have a partner, choose a good friend to have this discussion with.
  • Refrain from gossip!!
  • Notice what you tend to do to excess, whether it is talking, eating, watching TV, sleeping or your sexual pursuits. Choose one of your excesses and try to be more moderate in it

Suggested further reading:

  • Yoga and Ayurveda by Dr David Frawley
  • The Practice of Brahmacharya by Swami Sivananda

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Niyamas

Swādyāya - spiritual self-study

From self-study and reflection on sacred words, you are able to connect with the underlying natural reality.

- Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtra 2.44

Swādyāya can be interpreted to mean that you study by yourself, i.e. that you read about meditation, yoga or other aspects of spiritual life. Regular study is important because if you only practice, there is the tendency to forget why you are practicing.

Personal study not only provides you with the inspiration to practice, it also enables you to better focus yourself on a regular basis. Study of spiritual texts helps prevent your mind from being overly influenced by negative forces. It assists you in resisting distractions and defending yourself against the lure of your senses.

Swami Sivananda used to tell students that “an ounce of practice is worth a tonne of theory”. Yet, he never said that theory is unimportant. Swādyāya enables you to supply yourself with the necessary motivation to develop an inspired yoga practice.

Swādyāya works best when you practice without pre-conceived ideas and prejudices. By approaching the teachings of yoga in the spirit of right inquiry (vichara), at the right time and in the right place, you make it possible for a deep and long-lasting change to take place within your being.

Swādyāya goes beyond the intellectual gathering of information to include regular study and contemplation on how you can apply wisdom teachings to your life. It is not enough to simply have an intellectual, conceptual grasp of the ideas associated with the yoga tradition. You must also be willing to integrate those concepts into your daily life.

Some suggestions for integrating the practice of swādyāya into daily life:

  • Dedicate some time each day to reading and studying spiritual texts – actually schedule the time into your agenda. Notice the effect this study has on your yoga practice – and on your life in general.
  • Map out a programme of study for the year.
  • Choose some spiritual texts, inspirational readings and/or poems to read. Studying does not mean just scanning the pages; it entails trying to understand every word, studying with your heart. The more you read, the more deeply you will find yourself beginning to see things in a new light. Swādyāya implies elevating your mind and expanding its horizons.
  • Keep a weekly practice diary
  • Begin a list of “spiritual books to read”
     
  • Start working with a Journal:
    Below are some suggested questions that relate to the practice of swādyāya. Choose one question at a time to work with; begin by writing it at the top of a new page in your journal. Each morning, sit and write for at least 10 minutes (preferably after meditation).
    •  What in my life has led me to this point?
    • What pre-conceived ideas or patterns of behaviour might be blocking me in my spiritual practice? How might I best let go of them? 
    • What is it that I hope to achieve through my spiritual practice?
    • Where do I hope to be by the end of this year?
    • What have I learned about myself from being a silent witness to my own thoughts and actions?
    • What negative emotions tend to surface most frequently? Instead of repressing them again, how could I channel them into a positive direction?

When Patanjali speaks of swādyāya, he is referring not only to the reading of spiritual texts, but also the practice of japa (repetition of a mantra).

People who have not worked intensively with the practice of japa often scoff at it; you may perceive it to be mechanical to “just repeat the same word over and over again”.  However, if you watch your mind, you may notice it jumping between scraps of songs you have heard, people you have seen and would like to see, thoughts about the weather, the soup you ate for lunch, a perceived insult by a stranger on the street and many other unrelated thoughts. Most people do little to control this reverie – so their minds tend to remain conditioned by external circumstances. Japa focuses your mind and fills it with positive sound energy.

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