Yoga āsanas

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The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali define the essence of yoga as follows:
योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोध || Sūtra 1.2 ||
Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ
English transl: Yoga is the restriction (Nirodha) of the fluctuations (Vritti) of consciousness (Chitta).
German transl: Yoga ist das Zuruhebringen (Nirodha) der Fluktuationen (Vritti) des Bewußtseins (Chitta).

Commentary by Swami Vishnudevananda
The citta is thus the background of the mind. It is like a lake on which rise and fall waves, which are comparable to the thoughts. These thought waves are called vrittis. A vritti is a ‘mental whirlpool’, or mental modification; it is the difference between action and the absence of action in the mind. In the average person there are thousands of vrittis arising each minute in the mind. It is impossible for the conscious mind to keep track of the minute and intricate changes through which the mind is traveling every second. It is no surprise, therefore, that it takes many years of observation of ones own mind to understand its workings.

The Self is the witness of all that is perceived, but it neither acts nor reacts, for all action and reaction take place in the mind, appearing as vrittis. Thought, the most powerful force in the universe, initiates all action. Activity carried out on the physical plane is only a mirror of the inner workings of the mind. That which is assumed to be reality, the physical environment in which each person lives, is only a projection of the mind. In truth, when the many mental modifications, vrittis, are restrained, one is no longer affected by the comings and goings of the world, and the Self shines forth in undisturbed purity.

Various definitions of yoga in classical Indian texts
Source Text Approx. Date Definition of Yoga
Katha Upanishad c. 5th century BCE “When the five senses, along with the mind, remain still and the intellect is not active, that is known as the highest state. They consider yoga to be firm restraint of the senses. Then one becomes un-distracted for yoga is the arising and the passing away” (6.10-11)
Bhagavad Gita c. 2nd century BCE “Yoga is said to be equanimity” (2.48); “Yoga is skill in action” (2.50); “Know that which is called yoga to be separation from contact with suffering” (6.23).
Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra (Sravakabhumi), a Mahayana Buddhist Yogacara work 4th century CE “Yoga is fourfold: faith, aspiration, perseverance and means” (2.152)
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali c. 4th century CE “Yoga is the suppression of the activities of the mind” (1.2)
Vaisesika sutra c. 4th century BCE “Pleasure and suffering arise as a result of the drawing together of the sense organs, the mind and objects. When that does not happen because the mind is in the self, there is no pleasure or suffering for one who is embodied. That is yoga” (5.2.15-16)
Yogaśataka a Jain work by Haribhadra Suri 6th century CE “With conviction, the lords of Yogins have in our doctrine defined yoga as the concurrence (sambandhah) of the three [correct knowledge (sajjñana), correct doctrine (saddarsana) and correct conduct (saccaritra)] beginning with correct knowledge, since [thereby arises] conjunction with liberation….In common usage this [term] yoga also [denotes the soul’s] contact with the causes of these [three], due to the common usage of the cause for the effect. (2, 4).
Kaundinya’s Pancarthabhasya on the Pasupatasutra 4th century CE “In this system, yoga is the union of the self and the Lord” (I.I.43)
Linga Purana 7th-10th century CE “By the word ‘yoga’ is meant nirvana, the condition of Shiva.” (I.8.5a)
Brahmasutra-bhasya of Adi Shankara c. 3rd century BCE “It is said in the treatises on yoga: ‘Yoga is the means of perceiving reality’ (atha tattvadarsanabhyupāyo yogah)” (2.1.3)
Mālinīvijayottara Tantra, one of the primary authorities in non-dual Kashmir Shaivism 6th-10th century CE “Yoga is said to be the oneness of one entity with another.” (MVUT 4.4–8)
Mrgendratantravrtti, of the Shaiva Siddhanta scholar Narayanakantha 6th-10th century CE “To have self-mastery is to be a Yogin. The term Yogin means “one who is necessarily “conjoined with” the manifestation of his nature…the Siva-state (sivatvam)” (MrTaVr yp 2a)
Yogabija, a Hatha yoga work 14th century CE “The union of apana and prana, one’s own rajas and semen, the sun and moon, the individual soul and the supreme soul, and in the same way the union of all dualities, is called yoga. ” (89)
Śaradatilaka of Lakshmanadesikendra, a Shakta Tantra work 11th century CE “Yogic experts state that yoga is the oneness of the individual soul (jiva) with the atman. Others understand it to be the ascertainment of Siva and the soul as non-different. The scholars of the Agamas say that it is a Knowledge which is of the nature of Siva’s Power. Other scholars say it is the knowledge of the primordial soul.” (SaTil 25.1–3b)

Having taken as a bow the great weapon of the Secret Teaching,

One should fix in it the arrow sharpened by constant Meditation.

Drawing it with a mind filled with That (Brahman)

Penetrate, O bright youth, that Immutable Mark.

The pranava (AUM) is the bow; the arrow is the self;

Brahman is said to be the mark.

With heedfulness It is to be penetrated;

Become one with It as the arrow in the mark.

Know that Self alone, the ONE without a Second,

On which are strung Heaven and Earth,

Inner Space, Mind, Vital Energy, All the organs.

Leave off other words, for this is the Bridge to Immortality.



— Mundaka Upanishad ii 3,4

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Yoga rejuvenates the nervous system and specifically the brain.

The word psyche is etymologically derived from the ancient Greek ψυχή (psukhḗ, which translates into “mind/soul/spirit/breath”).

Vrischikasana (Sanskrit: वृश्चिकासन) or "Scorpion pose" is an inverted asana which requires deep balance.

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The definition of yoga according to 'The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali' and some neuro-linguistic and hermeneutic considerations
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali define the essence of yoga as follows:
योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः || 1.2 ||
Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ

English: Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.
German: “Yoga ist das Zuruhebringen (Nirodha) der Fluktuationen (Vritti) des Bewußtseins (Chitta).”

Furthermore Patañjali states:
तस्यापि निरोधे सर्वनिरोधान्निर्बीजः समाधिः || 1.51 ||
Tasyāpi nirodhe sarva-nirodhān nirbījaḥ samādhiḥ

English: Nirbiija samadhi is attained once even these impressions have become tranquil and when everything has become tranquil.
German: “Wenn selbst diese (neuen unterbewußten Eindrücke) zur Ruhe kommen, kommt alles zur Ruhe, (und daraus entsteht) die keimlose Versenkung (Nirbija samadhi).”

It needs to be emphasised that the translation of Sanskrit into other languages is extremely difficult. These difficulties exceed the ‘normal’ hermeneutical difficulties associated with the interpretation of ancient texts. The Sanskrit language is very special in that it is specifically designed to express the ineffable. It has a rich psychological vocabulary which allows to communicate states of consciousness which are virtually unknown to the Western mind. Next to its semantic complexity phonetics plays a crucial role, i.e., the sounds/vibrations produced by the Sanskrit language convey a dimension of meaning which cannot be reduced to its lexical and syntactic properties. Interestingly, neuroscience has recently shown that different aspects of language are hemispherically lateralised (the hemispheric lateralisation of language). For instance, Nobel laureate Roger Sperry’s classical studies on split-brain patients have shown that the left hemisphere is predominantly responsible for lexical and syntactic elements of language processing (grammatical rules, sentence structure, et cetera). Per contrast, the right hemisphere preferentially processes prosodic and emotional aspects of speech and language. These neuro-anatomical asymmetries therefore provide important insights into the way language and speech are processed in the brain. Furthermore, they neuro-anatomically support the claim that the prosody of the Sanskrit language is essential in order to fully grasp its meaning, both intellectually and emotionally. In India, the aphorisms are chanted in a very specific melodic manner.

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by Swami Vivekananda (full text as PDF)

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवन्तु
Lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu
“May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”

Most Westernised versions of yoga put great emphasis on its physical aspects. However, exercising the physical body with asanas (complicated postures) is not that important in real yoga. In fact,  “asana” (आसन) can be translated as “seat” and according to Patañjali it means “to be seated in a position that is steady but relaxed“. In order to be able to sit absolutely still, firm, and relaxed for an elongated period of time (in order  to silence consciousness) one needs to be in a very good physical condition (sitting still sounds much easier than it is). Therefore, physical exercises can be seen as a preparation for the real yoga which is internal, introspective, and meditative. If one uses yoga to attain physical fitness on misses its truly divine essence. A fitting analogy compares yoga to an airplane: You can of course use an airplane to drive fast on a road (this is the physical aspect of yoga). However, the airplane can fly! If one does not use the airplane for flying across oceans and continents one does not utilise its real purpose and its full potential. The same holds for yoga. It is a psycho-spiritual practice and reducing it to its physical components is a misconception of it intended purpose. Yoga is a truly divine science of consciousness.

“Even in the state of ignorance, when one sees something, through what instrument should one know That owing to which all this is known? For that instrument of knowledge itself falls under the category of objects. The knower may desire to know not about itself, but about objects. As fire does not burn itself, so the self does not know itself, and the knower can have no knowledge of a thing that is not its object. Therefore through what instrument should one know the knower owing to which this universe is known, and who else should know it? And when to the knower of Brahman who has discriminated the Real from the unreal there remains only the subject, absolute and one without a second, through what instrument, O Maitreyī, should one know that Knower?”
― Jagadguru Śaṅkarācārya

See also: https://christopher-germann.de/yoga-sutras-of-patanjali

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