Arjuna kneeling in front of Kṛṣṇa on the battlefield.

What is yoga practice, really?

THE WRITER

Tara standing in the forest with a backpack on, smiling.

Tara
Yoga Practitioner and Teacher

Tara (they/them) lives in a white, thin, non-disabled and neurotypical body, and was assigned ‘girl’ at birth. They grew up in a middle class family with access to generational wealth, and was born as an uninvited settler on, and citizen of, Canada. They have a degree in Environmental Studies and identify as genderqueer.

They have taken 500 hours of postural training, and 100 hours of yoga philosophy training.

INTRO INFO

Notes:

  • In the following paragraphs, ‘YS’ is short for ‘Yoga Sūtra.’
  • The source for all Yoga Sūtra references on this page is: Patañjali. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra: Translation, Commentary and Introduction. Translated by S. Ranganathan. Edited by S. Ranganathan, Black Classics. Delhi: Penguin Black Classics, 2008.
  • Please check out Dr. Shyam Ranganathan’s work here: www.yogaphilosophy.com

RE-ORIENTATION

As a quick recap, let’s remind ourselves that yoga is a contribution to moral philosophy.

The topic of moral philosophy is The Right and The Good: it is a category of ideas about how one should live life (the Right), and what one should be aiming for (the Good).

There are many different people who have contributed ideas about how to live and aim; examples include Plato, Confucius, Jesus of Nazareth, Aristotle, the prophet Muhammad, Karl Marx, Lao Tzu, the Buddha… and Patañjali!

Note: ‘Religion’ is a word used by the western tradition of thought to group together all moral philosophy that is rooted outside of the western tradition. The topic of ‘religion’ is The Right and The Good, just as it is for all moral philosophy.

What makes Patañjali’s contribution so unique is that he proposes we don’t use what we are aiming for as an explanation for the actions that we take. Rather, he suggests that if we focus on Right action, the Good outcome/aim will happen on its own. After decades of philosophical research (done by my teacher Dr. Shyam Ranganathan), there is yet to be a similar contribution found.

By removing outcomes as a justification for action, yoga philosophy offers an approach to living life that prioritizes People over profit. So naturally, it is consistently being colonized in an attempt to eradicate it’s critical and cutting response to today’s status quo. So let’s talk about what yoga practice really is.

“WAIT, WHY SHOULD I CARE ABOUT HOW I LIVE?”

You might take an interest in how you live because, from a yogic perspective, you are currently afflicted in a way that blocks you from knowing your real self as a Person.

avidyāsmitā-rāga-dveṣābhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ (II.3)

The afflictions come about by ignorance, egotism, attachment, aversion, and false self-identification / clinging to bodily security.

In the absence of yogic practice, we remain in unskilled confusion rather than in “the tranquility and good humour belonging to the real self.” (YS I.47)

Every decision you make, every action you take, either reinforces your affliction, or helps you move passed it. If you want to live a life of liberation, you need to care about how you are living it.

“OKAY, SO WHAT IS RIGHT ACTION?”

In his contribution to moral philosophy, Patañjali is inviting us to take a procedural approach to living, where we make decisions by prioritizing Right action instead of Good outcome.

Patañjali describes this procedure of Right action (aka yogic action) in the first sūtra (aphorism) of the Sādhana-pāda (Book of Practice) in the Yoga Sūtra.

 

tapaḥ svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni kriya-yogaḥ (II.1)

Yogic action consist of austerities, self-study and reflection upon the Sovereign.

 

Note: Patañjali does not describe any postural forms as inherently yogic action.

Opportunity for reflection: Does this description of yoga practice sound like what happens at your local studio? If you’ve taken a certified 200+hr training, were you taught this? Do you teach this to your students?

 

Let’s explore each of these three concepts separately.

1. tapaḥ – austerity, penance, heat

Patañjali theorizes that we collect saṃskārāḥ (tendencies) over our lifetimes; some tendencies are helpful in reducing our affliction while others are unhelpful and uphold continued affliction.

Tapaḥ is the practice of challenging your unhelpful tendencies, which often entails an experience of internal and/or external friction.

Think of the process of sanding a block of wood: heat is created through friction between the wood and the grit, resulting in parts of the wood falling away.

Here, the block of wood is your collection of saṃskārāḥ, the grit is your challenging action, and what falls away are your unhelpful tendencies.

A person and their samskarah.
Image description: A geometric representation of an owl's face labelled, "Person/you," surrounded by fluff labelled "saṃskārāḥ."

2. svādhyāyaḥ – self-study, study, study of scripture

Svādhyāyaḥ is the practice of taking a critical stance towards your mental life.

To study the self is to be introspective. It is an effort to discriminate between the true self and the contingencies of the external world.

Success in yoga can only be had by the practice of tapaḥ COUPLED with the difficult project of self-criticism.

A person using their mind as a mirror to block the external world and bring their focus back to themselves.
Image description: A geometric representation of an owl's face labelled, "Person/Seer/you," surrounded by fluff labelled "saṃskārāḥ." In front of the Person are two stained glass windows labelled, "What is seen." In front of one window, a mirror is descending that is labelled, "Mind." There are arrows indicated the Person/Seer is looking at the stained glass windows, but for the one with the mirror in front, there is an arrow pointing back towards the person, indicating an ability to see the self.

3. Īśvara praṇidhānam – reflection upon the Sovereign

Background Info:

According to Patañjali, our bondage by way of saṃskārāḥ is a result of our beginningless past actions and poor decisions (YS IV.10). It would seem then, that in the absence of grace we are powerless to overcome our own pathologies.

Consider a river flowing down a never-ending mountain. As the river flows, it feeds its present trajectory and reinforces its vector with acceleration. In a similar way, there is a momentum to your unhelpful saṃskārāḥ which feeds your present trajectory, and can result in an experience of being ‘stuck’ in your past choices.

Without some intervention, it seems that the river could never reverse its direction.

Grace, for the yogi, would thus not be a pass from self-effort, work and criticism. But it would constitute a helpful push in the right direction.

So, who is the Sovereign that bestows this grace? How do we reflect upon It? What does ‘grace’ look like?

The Sovereign is a special kind of person, untouched by afflictions, actions, effects of actions, and tendencies. (YS I.24)

In the Sovereign is the unsurpassed seed of omniscience. (YS I.25)

It is a teacher, unbound by time. (YS I.26)

The syllable ‘oṃ’ is Its significator. (YS I.27)

Through repetition, the meaning of ‘oṃ’ comes to life. (YS I.28)

Hence one is led inward to knowledge of consciousness, intelligence and volition (the characteristics of a Person), and also the nullification of the impediments to that knowledge. (YS I.29)

A comparison of you now, you at the conclusion of yogic practice, and Īśvara now.
Image description: a PDF excerpt showing a graphical comparison between yoga's theory of you now (before/during yogic practice), you at the conclusion of yogic practice, and Īśvara now. The Person labelled "You now" is surrounded by saṃskārāḥ. The Person labelled "You in kaivalya, the final state of yogic practice," appears in isolation from all saṃskārāḥ. The Person labelled "Īśvara now" appears in isolation with a note that says, "Īśvara has never been touched by saṃskārāḥ."

When you place yourself in front of the Sovereign, you are reflecting upon and considering the ultimate Right Person – the unafflicted version of yourself that you share with all People.

Arjuna kneeling in front of Kṛṣṇa on the battlefield.
Image description: A picture of Arjuna kneeling in front of Kṛṣṇa on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Arjuna's palms are together in front of his chest as he looks up at Kṛṣṇa, who is standing and in mid-speech. Chariots and warriors can be seen in the background.

TWO REQUESTS

In conclusion to this brief introduction to yogic practice, I have two requests:

  1. Please stop using the words ‘yoga practice’ as a synonym for ‘postural practice.’ It is inaccurate and contributes to the continued colonization of this philosophy. And calling it ‘āsana’ doesn’t work either.

  2. Please study yoga! It is an incredible contribution to moral philosophy that can change your life and this world for the better. I recommend studying with my teacher Dr. Shyam Ranganathan, whose decades of research are quoted in this post.

 

Until next time,

Tara

What is yoga practice, really? – the one person revolution