From Back to Godhead
How the Gita teaches the eight steps of hatha yoga, the topic of Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras.
According to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, an estimated 13.4 million Americans practice yoga, and many more experiment with it every year. Yoga is everywhere—from Mumbai to Moscow to Monte Carlo. But while yoga is meant to bring one closer to God, many of today’s yogis have a different agenda, the most common being to keep their bodies in shape.
“They’re not necessarily deeply spiritual, but looking more to do yoga as another form of exercise,” says Jennifer McKinley, co-founder and general manager of Plank, a Charlestown, Massachusetts, maker of chic, high-end yoga mats, totes, and other accessories. Launched in 2005, the company projects sales in the upcoming year that will rival that of Western exercise equipment.
In an increasingly secular world, we naturally want to adapt valuable ancient techniques for contemporary purposes, but yoga is losing its essence in the process.
Yoga is a science left to us by the sages of India. The word yoga literally means “to link up,” and its implication, originally, was similar to the Latin root of the word religion, which means “to bind back.” Thus, yoga and religion are both meant to bring us to the same end: linking up and binding with God.
The Inner Message of the Yoga-sutras
Today’s yogis might find it interesting that traditionally the preeminent text on yoga is Bhagavad-gita—not Patanjali’s famous Yoga-sutras. But the Gita is not your usual yoga text, full of difficult bodily poses and strenuous meditation techniques. Rather, it offers a practical outline for achieving the goal of yoga—linking with God—by encouraging the chanting of Krishna’s names, by teaching how to act under Krishna’s order, and by explaining the importance of doing one’s duty in spiritual consciousness. These activities, properly performed under the guidance of an adept, allow one to bypass much of what is considered essential in conventional yoga.
And yet there is harmony between the Gita and the Yoga-sutras. For example, both Lord Krishna and Patanjali indicate that we must transcend all false conceptions of “I” and develop love for God, which Patanjali calls ishvara-pranidhana (“dedication to God”).
Patanjali wrote in the third century CE, but little is known about his life. His only surviving text, the Yoga-sutra, would indicate that toned physical and mental tabernacles are helpful in the pursuit of spiritual truth. In fact, his major accomplishment is that he took age-old practices meant for improving the body and the mind and codified them for the benefit of spiritual practitioners.
But Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras merely hint at the truths illuminated in the Bhagavad-gita, which might be considered the post-graduate study of Patanjali’s work. Even so, Patanjali intended his method to be used for ultimate spiritual benefit, as some of his verses, especially later ones, clarify. Still, many yoga practitioners today use his method solely for physical and mental health because in the beginning of his work Patanjali mainly focuses on basic methods related to the body and the mind, without much spiritual commentary.
In sutra 3.2, for example, we learn that dhyana, or meditation, is the one-pointed continuous movement of the mind toward a single object. But Patanjali’s technique can be used for concentration on any object, not just on God. And even though he tells his readers the point of his sutras—to get closer to God—one may be tempted to use his methods for selfish ends, as he says later in the text. Ultimately, one-pointed concentration is for focusing on God, though it’s not until one graduates to the Bhagavad-gita that one clearly learns how to do this.
As Professor Edwin Bryant points out in his excellent article “Patanjali’s Theistic Preference, Or, Was the Author of the Yoga-sutras a Vaishnava?”1 Patanjali was trying to gear his diverse audience toward the worship of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, even if he was doing so in a roundabout way. Much like today, many forms of religion beleaguered the India of his time; practitioners worshiped numerous aspects of the Supreme. Consequently, he opted for a stepwise approach in his Yoga-sutras that he believed would accommodate his varied audience.
Still, he asserts that the ultimate object of meditation is Ishvara, which means “controller” and generally refers to God. Although there are many controllers and many forms of the Godhead, Bhagavad-gita (18.61) says that the ultimate ishvara is Krishna. Other texts tell us this as well. Consider the ancient Brahma-samhita (5.1):
anadir adir govindah
“Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Godhead [ishvarah-paramah]. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin, and He is the prime cause of all causes.”
Patanjali advises his audience to choose an ishta-devata, a deity of their choice. His reasoning is transparent: He is trying to teach a method of meditation, and learning this method is easiest if one practices on a subject close to one’s heart.
Did Patanjali have Krishna in mind when he outlined the yoga process and its goal of love of God? For one learned in the Vedic literature, it is obvious that the answer is yes. In the words of Edwin Bryant:
Krishna is . . . promoted by the Gita as possessing all the . . . qualities listed by Patanjali as pertaining to ishvara, namely, being transcendental to karma, of unsurpassed omniscience, teacher of the ancients, untouched by Time, represented by om, and awarding enlightenment. Krishna is not touched or bound by karma (Gita, IV.14, IX.9), and, in terms of omniscience, he is the beginning, middle and end of all (X.20 & 32), who pervades the entire universe with but a single fragment of himself (X.42). Krishna taught the ancients (here specified as Vivasvan, the sun god, who in turn imparted knowledge to Manu, the progenitor of mankind [IV.1]) and is himself Time (X.30 & 33; XI.32). He is also the syllable om (IX.17). And, of course, Krishna assures his devotees that he will free them from the snares of this world such that they attain the supreme goal (IX.30-32; X.X; VIII. 58). There is thus perfect compatibility between Patanjali’s unnamed ishvara and Krishna as depicted in the Gita.2
The commentarial tradition of the Yoga-sutras bears this out. Patanjali’s major commentators were Vyasa (fifth century CE, not to be confused with the compiler of the Vedic literature), Vachaspati Misra (ninth century CE), Bhoja Raja (eleventh century CE), and Vijnanabhiksu (sixteenth century CE). All identify the ishvara of the Yoga-sutras with Vishnu or Krishna and show how the Bhagavad-gita expresses the culmination of all Vedic wisdom relating to yoga.
The Gita’s Eight Limbs
The Bhagavad-gita addresses all eight limbs of raja-yoga, the form of yoga popular today as ashtanga yoga or hatha yoga.3 For example, yama, the first limb, consists of five ethical principles: truthfulness, continence, nonviolence, noncovetousness, and abstention from stealing. These fundamental disciplines of yoga are mentioned in the Gita, as is niyama, the second limb, which consists of things like worship, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, and self-reflection.
Now, the third limb of Patanjali’s method, asana, is less obvious in the Gita. The term asana appears infrequently on Lord Krishna’s lips. But when it does, it refers to “the place where one sits for spiritual practice.” The Gita does not give tips on sitting postures. Its Sixth Chapter, though, comes close. Verses 11 and 12 state: “To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat [asana] should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses, and activities and fixing the mind on one point.”
Here Krishna uses the word asana in a general rather than technical sense. He is talking about sitting to focus the mind.
It’s easy to lose focus, and that’s basically Arjuna’s argument against hatha yoga. In fact, Patanjali himself identifies nine obstacles on the path: doubt, disease, lethargy, mental laziness, false perception, lack of enthusiasm, clinging to sense enjoyment, lack of concentration, and losing concentration. His commentators list several others as well, including inordinate attraction to yogic powers, a misconceived view of meditation, oversimplification of yoga’s eight limbs, and irregularity of practice. All of these problems are traceable to the difficult nature of Patanjali’s method and are why Arjuna views hatha yoga as virtually impossible. By the end of the Sixth Chapter he denounces it as too difficult. Krishna agrees, telling Arjuna that the ultimate yogi always thinks of God. He further tells him that such meditation is real yoga, implying that using one’s body and mind in Krishna’s service is the perfect asana.
The Gita also discusses pranayama, or breath control, the fourth limb. Krishna says that yogis can use the incoming and outgoing breath as offerings to Him. He speaks about dedicating one’s life breath to God. He tells Arjuna that His devotees’ prana, or air of life, is meant for God and that Arjuna should use it “to come to Me.” In fact, if one follows Arjuna’s example and offers every breath to Krishna—by speaking about Him, chanting His glories, and living for Him—there is little need for breath control as delineated in Patanjali’s sutras. Breathing for God is the essence of pranayama. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Chanting of the holy name of the Lord and dancing in ecstasy are also considered pranayama.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.23.8, Purport)
The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, deals with the withdrawal of the senses, a major subject in the Bhagavad-gita. In the Second Chapter Krishna tells Arjuna that the yogi withdraws his senses from sense objects, “as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell.” Taken superficially, this might seem to suggest full renunciation of the world. But that’s not what Krishna is getting at. Rather, as other verses make clear, He’s teaching how to renounce the fruits of work, not work itself, and how to be in the world but not of it. In other words, His teaching centers on how to withdraw one’s attachment to sense objects for personal enjoyment. He instructs us to use these same objects in the service of God. That is true pratyahara.
The Upper Limbs
And then we have the culmination of yoga practice—the last three limbs of raja-yoga: dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, or concentration, meditation, and complete absorption.
While yama and niyama are preliminary steps, these three are called samyama, “the perfect discipline” or “perfect practice.” Bhagavad-gita speaks extensively of these upper limbs. For example, Lord Krishna states, “Just fix your mind upon Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, without a doubt. My dear Arjuna, O winner of wealth, if you cannot fix your mind upon Me without deviation, then follow the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga [abhyasa-yogena]. In this way develop a desire to attain Me.” (Bg. 12.8–9)
The process of Krishna consciousness is practical dharana, or spiritual concentration. By seeing paintings of Krishna, we use our sense of sight for God; by chanting and hearing we engage the tongue and the ear; by offering incense to Krishna we engage our sense of smell. All the senses can help us engage in dharana, leading to advanced states of meditation and absorption.
The holy name is particularly effective in this regard. That’s why Krishna says that of austerities He is the austerity of japa, private chanting, especially while counting on beads. Chanting is the king of austerities because by chanting we can easily reach the goal of yoga. It all comes together in the practice of japa because by chanting God’s names we focus on Him with our voice, ears, and sense of touch. And kirtana, congregational chanting, not only takes us to deep levels of absorption but engages the senses of onlookers as well. In sutra 1.28, Patanjali, too, promotes “constant chanting.”
Overall, Patanjali’s ambivalence might appear confusing. When he first mentions ishvara-pranidhana, dedication to God, he presents it as optional, while later he gives it far more attention, with six verses elaborating on the nature of ishvara. In the beginning he seems to allow variance in the object of meditation (1.34-38), but ultimately he advises the yogi to focus on ishvara, who in Patanjali’s words is the “special supreme soul” who alone can bestow samadhi, yogic perfection.
Patanjali says in sutra 3.3 that samadhi occurs when the object of your meditation appears in your heart of hearts without any competitors or distractions. You have no other interest, as if your intrinsic nature loses meaning.
The Bhagavad-gita makes it clearer. In samadhi your intrinsic nature doesn’t lose meaning. Rather, it takes on new meaning: You see yourself in relation to Krishna. You are now His devotee; He’s the focus of your life. That state of perfect and total absorption is called Krishna consciousness.
1. Edwin F. Bryant, “Patanjali’s Theistic Preference, Or, Was the Author of the Yoga-sutras a Vaishnava,” in The Journal of Vaishnava Studies, Volume 14, Number 1 (Fall 2005).
3. This has been pointed out by my friend Graham Schweig, professor of religion at Christopher Newport University, Virginia. Much of the material in this article on the eight limbs of yoga comes from his interviews and lectures.