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The Practice of Yoga

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The Practice of Yoga

An excerpt from "HISTORY OF ETHICS Volume 1 - To 30 BC - Ancient Wisdom and Folly"
by Sanderson Beck

The practice of yoga in India is very ancient, probably even pre-Aryan. Yoga is mentioned in several Upanishads, and its philosophy is described in the great epics, particularly in the Bhagavad-Gita portion of the Mahabharata. The classic text for what is called the royal (raja) yoga is Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, probably written in the second century BC, although scholarly estimates range from the fourth century BC to the fourth century CE. The word yoga has the same origin as the English word "yoke" and means union. In the Katha Upanishad the senses are to be controlled as spirited horses are by a yoke.

The raja yoga tersely described by Patanjali as having eight limbs is considered the psychological yoga. The Yoga Sutras begin with the idea that yoga (union) is the control of the modifications of consciousness; this enables the seer to stand in one's own form instead of identifying with the modifications. The five modifications are knowledge (perception, inference, and testimony), error (ideas not formed from reality), imagination (ideas without objects), sleep, and memory (experienced objects). These are controlled by practice and detachment. Practice requires constant attention for a long time, and detachment comes from getting free of the desire for experiences. Mastery of this comes from the spirit overcoming the qualities.

Meditation can be reasoning, discriminating, and joyful awareness of the unity of the universe and self or cessation by renunciation and constantly dissolving impressions, resulting in undifferentiated existence, bodilessness, absorption in the supreme, or faith, enthusiasm, memory, and wisdom. Intense practice brings the best results, or it may be achieved by surrendering to the Lord. The perfect spirit of the Lord is untouched by afflictions, actions, and their results; it is the infinite seed of omniscience beyond time, and its symbol is the sacred word. Constant practice of that brings cosmic consciousness and the absence of obstacles.

The obstacles that distract consciousness are disease, laziness, indecision, apathy, lethargy, craving sense-pleasure, erroneous perception, lack of concentration, and unstable attention. These distractions are accompanied by sorrow, worry, restlessness, and irregular breathing. Cultivating the feelings of friendship, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward those who are happy, suffering, worthy, and unworthy purifies consciousness, as does breathing in and out. Subtle vision modifies the higher consciousness by bringing the mind stability, as does the transcendent inner light, the awareness that controls passions, the analytical knowledge of dreams and sleep, and concentration according to choice.

The lessened modifications become transparent and transformed, and the memory is purified and empty so that objects shine without thought. The subtle elements become undefinable nature in the meditation with seed. Beyond discrimination the oversoul is blessed with direct truth, which is different from verbal inferences. This impression prevents all other impressions, and control of even this controls everything in seedless meditation.

The practice of yoga and meditation is enhanced by discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord in order to remove obstacles such as ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life. Obstacles result in action patterns that cause suffering in this life and the next, as virtue and vice bear the fruits of pleasure and pain; but concentration overcomes their effects. Future suffering can be avoided if the perceiver does not identify with the perceived. Discriminating undisturbed intelligence removes ignorance and suffering by the absence of identity and the freedom of the perceiver.

The practice of union proceeds through the eight steps of restraint, observances, posture, breath control, sublimation, attention, concentration, and meditation. The restraints are not injuring, lying, stealing, lusting, nor possessing and are called the universal great vows we have often seen before. The second step of observances involves cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Lord. Patanjali suggested that destructive instincts may be overcome by cultivating the opposites of greed, anger, or delusion. In confirming nonviolence the presence of hostility is relinquished. Not lying brings work and its fruits, not stealing riches, not lusting vigor, and from not possessing comes knowledge of past and future lives.

Cleanliness brings protection of one's body, goodness purified becomes serenity, and single-mindedness conquers the senses. Being content gains happiness. Discipline perfects the senses and destroys impurities. By self-study one may commune with the divine ideal, and meditation is successfully identifying with the Lord.

Stable and pleasant postures (asanas) release tension and transform thought. Regulating the inhalation and exhalation of the breath (pranayama) prepares the mind for attention. By withdrawing consciousness from its own objects, the senses are sublimated (pratyahara) and under control.

The last three steps of attention (dharana), concentration (dhyana), and meditation (samadhi) are the same as the last three steps of the Buddha's eightfold path. Attention is defined by Patanjali as the original focus of consciousness, concentration as continuing awareness there, and meditation as when that shines light alone in its own empty form. These three work as one in inner control leading to wisdom and are the psychological steps. As the control of destructive instincts and impressions evolves, the flow of consciousness becomes calm by habit, and oneness arises in meditation. As this oneness evolves, past and present become similar in the conscious awareness.

Patanjali then described various psychic abilities that can be attained from the practice of yoga. Supernatural powers may come from birth, drugs, chanting, discipline, or meditation. Yet he warned that worldly powers are obstacles to meditation. Only the knowledge of discriminating between goodness and spirit brings omnipotence and omniscience, and only from detachment to that is the seed of bondage destroyed in freedom. The soul of the discriminating perceiver is completely detached from emotion and mind so that with serene discrimination the consciousness can move toward freedom. Finally the evolution of transforming qualities fulfills its purpose and stops, cognized as a distinct transformation. Patanjali concluded,

Empty for the sake of spirit
the qualities return to nature.
Freedom is established in its own form,
or it is aware energy.

This yoga text has been tremendously influential in India and beyond, and is in my opinion a very positive guide to spiritual liberation as well as being beneficial to ethical development.

History of Ethics Vol. 1 by Sanderson Beck

Sanderson Beck's website


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