There are many interpretations about what yoga actually is. Ask ten different yoga students to describe what they understand as their yoga practice, and you are likely to get ten varying responses. Attend ten different yoga classes, and you’ll emerge with ten different experiences.
Most people perceive yoga to be the practice of various ways to stretch the body in physical postures called “asanas”. Some yoga students think yoga is the use of breathing and focusing exercises to enable a mindful connection to things—body, mind and spirit—to bring joy and bliss. Some say yoga is sitting or lying in meditation. Others think that yoga is some kind of religious sorcery, or devil worship. For others, yoga is a lifestyle practice for those who people who have renounced being a member of the normal communities of people.
It’s been 49 years now since I was introduced to yoga at the feet of two swamis from Sivananda yoga, which is a yoga system founded by Swami Vishnudevananda. It is yoga interpreted according to Vedanta, one of the six orthodox Hindu philosophical traditions (these are Sankhya, “Classical” yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta). Sivananda yoga is not based on Classical yoga, but on the Principal Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
For a dozen years I inquired into this style of yoga alongside Rosicrucian Studies, as a member of the Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosy Cross (AMORC). Then circumstances caused hugely destructive challenges to my life, and when I applied the yoga practices to assist my suffering and give me direction, they gave me little or no comfort.
I didn’t abandon yoga in its broad sense, because I entrusted that yoga did hold the key to stop an individual’s physical and mental suffering. It was just possible that the philosophy I had been focusing upon was not right for me. I changed direction and eventually studied Classical yoga which was based principally on the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, rather than the earlier Upanishads and Vedas.
I studied classical Sanskrit and using my biology training, to look for the essence of yoga in its practical application to the individual, rather than yoga as a religious sociocultural system of designated behaviours and practices—which was very much a part of Sivananda yoga and other similar yoga “organisations”.
I discovered that the philosophy of classical yoga involves mental and physical processes with almost total focus on internal reality to grow toward excellence—the growth of strength and purity of character—which is then applied to assist others in a social-community context. The yogi or yogini, travels a personal path of spirituality within and of, themselves, and not a path of religious or sociocultural practices defining themselves through others or religious systems.
In the strictest sense, the word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root: yuj which means a yoke, and the word “yoga” means “the act of using a yoke, of joining, attaching, harnessing, putting to (of horses, bullocks). Yuj can also mean “a yoke-fellow, a companion, a comrade, an associate”.
Used in a Vedanta yoga approach, the word and process of yoga is popularly interpreted as the physical practices that aim to join the mind, body and spirit to achieve liberation—to gain balance and control in one’s life, free one from confusion and distress and provide a sense of calm when relating to others. This type of yoga approach relates to sociocultural existence.
Used in a Classical yoga approach, the word and process of yoga firstly involves recognising that there are two realities of mind and then use physical and mental techniques and practices to yoke them as one.
In Classical yoga, one mental reality develops from using our senses—we believe we are a conscious physical entity in the world (prakriti). The other develops as an internal reality of who we believe we are as a spiritual self (purusha)—the myth of who we are through collecting our sense experiences over our lifetime and integrating them within a forever changing “sense of self”.
To achieve yoga in a classical sense requires maintaining the best physical health possible, so that the neurochemistry of the brain is normal and this will allow internal yoking of the realities. This requires the discipline to perfect physical techniques to maintain a youthful body, and maintaining a signature diet for optimal health.
Classical yoga is more a mystical and metaphysical journey to evolve the perfect you over a lifetime.
While the Vedanta and Classical approaches to yoga may seem similar, in practice they are very different.