Taoism and Modern Yoga

Laozi

In Westernized yoga, there appears to have been a bit of a confounding of eastern traditions in regards to their application in yogic philosophy. We tend to mix up Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, even Jainism and put them all into the same category of “mindfulness” aimed towards stress reduction and happier, more meaningful living. Not that mindfulness isn’t an appropriate subject, but I think it can be important to differentiate between the Eastern religions especially to understand their unique, individual philosophies.

Yoga doesn’t really have a category. Traditional yoga is very similar to Buddhism, but the yoga sutras of Patanjali seem to be the most authentic “yogic” teachings from a historical perspective. Many scholars would also agree that Patanjali’s sutras are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Ujjayi breathing is influenced by Taoist practices and many of the meditational practices in yoga come from Jain and Buddhist traditions.

Most modern yoga teachers seem to be most influenced by Buddhism when teaching, focusing on concepts of Dharana and Dhyana for meditation that are the same in buddhist texts.  Many bring modern science and anatomy into the practice which is a more efficient way to practice because it allows us to understand what is happening while we are performing asanas. With these tools we can avoid injury and progress safely into a fuller and easier practice.

Buddhism teaches that at the center of all things is peace, which is a bit different from the Hindu belief that all things have a divine core. The yoga sutras of Patanjali seem to be more influenced by the Hindu side of things and his concepts in the 8 limbs of yoga support a divine core of all beings. However, the Buddhist state of Nirvana and the Hindu state of Samadhi seem to be very similar conceptually.

Most modern yoga is geared towards balancing the body not necessarily towards complete purification. This is because the whole body purification is more of a youthful activity, it requires a lot more effort once you are older and the body is increasingly more toxic with age (at least as a general rule). Aging well in a yoga practice is not necessarily aligned with yang style of ashtanga or Bikram yoga, but rather a combination of Yin and Yang style of exercises. In this way, modern yoga is more Taoist than Buddhist or Hindu.

The yoga sutras are undoubtedly Hindu, but they borrow many buddhist teachings and concepts. The past of yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism seem to be vastly intertwined with the rest of the eastern traditions, most notably Taoism to produce a modern hybrid western style of yoga. Patanjali’s famous quote to still the fluctuations of the mind might be very similar to finding Lao Tzu’s Tao. It is important to remember that eastern traditions tend to be less ordered and regimented than western religions because the religions tend to cross over into each other. If you get a chance to read Patanjali’s yoga sutras then enjoy searching for the different influences of the texts.

Patanjali

"Patanjali Statue" by User:Alokprasad - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Patanjali_Statue.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Patanjali_Statue.jpg#/media/File:Patanjali_Statue.jpg

Patanjali was the author of the Yoga Sutras, one of the most influential yoga texts in the modern world. Despite what modernized and idealistic yoga blogs and sites will tell you, it was most likely a group of people who lived about 1600 years ago, but could be as old as 2500 years. I say that it was likely a group of people because of the amount of knowledge contained in the sutras and the way that people functioned in groups thousands of years ago. We like to attribute knowledge to one author, rather than recognizing the multitudes of authors, time periods, and influences that a piece of work contains. This is particularly true of the Christian bible.

Patanjali is the not father of modern yoga. That title can be given to Krishnamacharya. Patanjali was more of a founder; the group of people took works from their respective time period and before, then compiled them into digestible teachings that students and teachers could reference on their yoga journeys. He created a framework that Krishnamacharya would later use to create the modern poses, sequences, and specific techniques. Where Patanjali’s yoga begins is in the traditions that Krishnamacharya learned from his father and his father before him. Until yoga became modernized and everyone could start a daily practice of yoga.

As humans we love to idealize about the past and one figure completing this vast amount of infrastructural work for practitioners of yoga, but Patanjali is not a figure that we need to deify or put on a pedestal. There were likely multiple people with the name and likely multiple people who authored the yoga sutras. However, Patanjali’s work on the sutras is enough to keep us busy thinking about our own humanity instead of focusing on the origins of the text, because Patanjali did not seem to claim any credit for the contemporary authors of the yoga sutras.

The 196 sutras, or short teachings from the yoga sutras are fantastic in their comprehensive philosophical scope. They are also written in Sanskrit, which is a great administrative language and is very specifically used in philosophy. They were, however, lost to time in the 12th century until the 19th century when they were revived by modern Indian scholars. During the 19th and 20th century the texts rose in popularity and prominence over the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Vasistha, and other literature on Hatha yoga.

There are four parts to the yoga sutras:

  1. Samadhi Pada – describes oneness with the divine and Samadhi
  2. Sadhana Pada – describes practices and Ashtanga
  3. Vibhuti Pada – describes “supernatural” effects of yoga
  4. Kaivayla Pada – describes moksha, liberation, or enlightenment

Each of the four chapters is an invigorating review of conscious experience and systematic functionality of the human mind. The second chapter is probably the most concrete in terms of advice for actually practicing yoga, rather than philosophy and it is where the eight limbs of yoga or Ashtanga is explained.

Ashtanga is not only a system of acrobatic yoga propagated by Pattabhi Jois, but a philosophical system for achieving Samadhi and Moksha, also known as enlightenment. The eight limbs of yoga are described as scaffolding, or a framework for ascending into the heights of the yoga of knowledge, or Raja yoga, which BKS Iyengar described to be infinite. The eight limbs are as follows

  1. Yamas – ethics and restraints
  2. Niyamas – virtues
  3. Asanas – physical postures
  4. Pranayamas – breathing exercises
  5. Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – single pointed meditative focus
  7. Dhyana – meditative awareness of oneness
  8. Samadhi – unison and oneness with the divine in bliss

These are the scaffolding that Patanjali assembled to assist individuals in realizing their self. Many of these concepts cross-over into Buddhist ideals of meditation, as you may have already noticed. Once the self is realized, liberation and freedom from the cycles of death and rebirth is afforded to the practitioner.This modernization of Hinduism was very well received in the western world.

In reviewing the history of something as old and popular as yoga it is important to understand that we have only theories and hypotheses about what was happening 1500-2500 years ago. No one really knows the group who made up the author named Patanjali, how old they are, how they compiled their information, or what exact sources they used. Instead we can guess, which is more fun anyways.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga (Part 2: Niyamas)

The Niyamas are rules for a yogi to apply to the way that they live. They are more of an internal way of applying discipline to consciousness, so they apply only to an individual. Niyamas are considered duties, or obligations to the practice of yoga. These are powerful ideas that allow for peace and the tranquility of the person and harmony with the environment. There are 5 restrictions, or rules from Patanjali: Saucha, purity of body; Santosa, contentment; Tapas or character building and non-attachment; Svadhyaya, self-study; and Isvara Pranidhana, surrender to god. These are building blocks for the yogi to build a life around and allow for the yogi to be at peace and harmony with all things.

There are many more Niyamas, meaning restraint, observance, restriction, or rule, that were passed down by other teachers of the Hindu religion, such as: Hri – remorse and modesty, Dana – giving without thought of reward, Astikya – faith in the path to enlightenment, Ishvarapujana – worship of the lord in daily meditation, Mai – cognition, Vrata – sacred vows, rules, and observances, Japas – recitation, chanting mantras daily. These are from other sources, but deserve recognition as they can also lead to happiness and good health. But for the remainder of this article, we will stick to Patanjali’s Niyamas.

Saucha means purity and is probably the most popular Niyama in today’s world. American has puritan roots which is why I believe that purity is something that American culture really struggles with. This is part of the reason that Asana is so important in our culture; purity of body is something that has been evasive for us. Pranayama is also very useful for this as it helps to cleanse the organs and bring newly oxygenated blood into the muscles. Svadhyaya, self-study, cleanses the impurities of the intellect; Bhakti, devotion, washes away shortcomings, failures, and impurities of the mind; and the Buddhi, cleansing of the intellect, will bring about an end to hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion, and pride. The final places of purity are within food, something that all people will have to find sources of clean, preferably organic, vegetarian food and within where you practice, to ensure that it is tranquil and pleasing and pest-free.

Santosa means contentment and is definitely something that has to be built and worked on. Depressed or anxious mind’s have difficulty concentrating and being peaceful. The yogi lacks nothing and this brings an unparalleled happiness into their life. When there is no external desire, the yogi becomes free to love every breath and second of life. The yogi realizes that he/she is blessed because during the course of life love and joy have made themselves available.

Tapas are austerities, or self-disciplines. This is known in the modern world as self-improvement and character building. Tapas means burning or consummation by heat so it is literally the burning of all distractions from realization of the divine. There are many Tapas: Brahmacharya and Ahisma are examples of Kayika tapas, or tapas of the body. These allow the yogi to become strong in body, mind, and character.

Svadhyaya means self-study or education and is education of the self. This truly allows for a deeper connection to the divine through knowing the subtleties of the intellect and of the ego, which will pull the yogi away from the ultimate goal. Studying divine literature and philosophy are extremely helpful to this. This will allow the devotee to solve difficult problems when they arise. Diversification of literature is also important and this helps us to learn that yoga is not a religion, but the science of religions, applicable to each one.

Isvara Pranidhana is dedication of one’s actions to the greater powers of this world. Faith in god will allow for despair to leave quietly and will restore vigor to the yogi and their practice. Addiction to pleasures destroys both power and glory because the senses will continue to run after the pleasures after they become attached. This is where true Bhakti begins, or dedication of intellect and will to the higher being. When the feelings of I or mine start to disappear, the soul has reached a stage of completed growth. An individual will glow brightest when their attention and actions are aimed towards god.

These five Niyamas from Patanjali will allow for the soul to shine brightly and the yoga practices to become integrated into everyday life for the yogi. This concludes the second limb of yoga, stay tuned for the third limb, the most physical of the eight, Asana.

5 Yoga Sutras

Yoga Sutras

Patanjali describes many of the various facets of consciousness in the sutras, particularly within part four, Kaivalya Pada:

  1. Consciousness is one, but it branches into many different types of activities and innumerable thought-waves
  2. The existence of past and future is as real as that of the present. As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear in the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s consciousness and intellect is affected
  3. Due to the variance in the quality of mind-content, each person may view the same object differently, according to his own way of thinking
  4. The yogi who has no interest in the highest state of evolution, and maintains supreme attentive, discriminative awareness, attain dharmeghah samadhi: he contemplates the fragrance of virtue and justice.
  5. Kaivalya, liberation, comes when the yogi has fulfilled the purusarthas, the fourfold aims of man (dharma, artha, kama, and moksa), and has transcended the gunas. Aims and gunas return to their source, and consciousness is established in its own natural purity.

Patanjali is great at creating paradoxes, which this is full of. Consciousness after all, is both one pointed and many and its nature is paradoxical because it mirrors itself and others simultaneously. The Gunas are natural qualities; transcending them means to transcend human nature to realize the divine. So must the aims of life be complete in order for one to leave the material plane of the body to enter into the realm of the energetic and divine.

The Opening Ashtanga Chant

Sanskrit of the opening Ashtanga salute to Patanjali

Chanting is powerful, especially in Sanskrit. But I don’t like chanting without knowing the meaning of the words I am saying. Here is a translation of the opening Ashtanga chant:

I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru
Who teaches the good knowledge, showing the way
To knowing the self-awakening great happiness,
Beyond better is the doctor of the jungle, able to remove
The poisoned ignorance of conditioned existence.

In his guise as the divine servant,
With 1,000 white radiant heads,
Human form below the shoulders,
Holding the sword of discrimination,
The fire wheel of time,
and the conch of divine sound,
To the sage Patanjali I prostrate.

Here’s the original chant:

vande gurunam caranaravinde
sandarsitasvatma sukhava bodhe
nih sreyase jangalikayamane
samsara halahalamohasantyai
abahu purusakaram
sankhacakrasi dharinam
sahasra sirasam svetam
pranamami patanjalim

Personal Practice of the Ashtanga Primary Series

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

I practice Ashtanga by myself sometimes. It can be liberating in ways that a studio can’t fulfill. Every time I complete the primary series, I feel so empowered and at peace. I learned the primary series from an instructor in Boston that I forget, but ever since then have felt like I have permission to practice it by myself. Here is what I practice:

Start with the chant to Patanjali:

vande gurunam caranaravinde sandarsitasvatma sukhava bodhe nih sreyase jangalikayamane samsara halahala mohasantyai abahu purusakaram sankhacakrasi dharinam sahasra sirasam svetam pranamami patanjalim

Then begin sun salutation A, completing 5 times with 3-5 resting breathes in Adho Mukha Svanasana each time

Samastitihi > raise hands to sun > Uttanasana > Arda-Uttanasana > jumpt to Chataranga > Urdhva Mukha Svanasana > Adho Mukha Svanasana > jump to Uttanasana > Arda-Uttanasana > raise hands to the sun > Samastitihi

Begin Sun Salutation B for 5 reps, this time taking 5 breathes in Adho Mukha Svanasana

Samastitihi > Utkatasana > Uttanasana > Arda-Uttanasana > jump to Chataranga > Urdhva Mukha Svanasana > Adho Mukha Svanasana > Virabhadrasana A (right) > Chataranga > Urdhva Mukha Svanasana > Adho Mukha Svanasana > Virabhadrasana A (left) > Chataranga > Urdhva Muhka Svanasana > Adho Mukha Svanasana > Arda-Uttanasana > Uttanasana > Utkatasana > Samastitihi

Then we begin the standing postures, doing salutations into mountain pose between each posture

Padagustasana (ragdoll) > Pada Hastasana (palms under feet) > Uttitha-Trikonasana (both sides) > Parivrtta-Uttitha-Trikonasana (both sides) > Uttitha-Parsvokonasana (both sides) > Parivrtta-Uttitha-Trikonasana (both sides) > Prasaritta-Padottanasana > Prasaritta Padottanasana B (hands to hips) > Prasaritta-Padottanasana C (hands in fist behind back) > Prasaritta-Padottanasana D (pointer and middle finger to big toe) > Parsvottanasana (both sides) > Uttitha-Hasta-Padagustasana A, B, C (hand to foot in front, rotate to side, remove hand and extend leg forward) (both sides) > Arda Baddha Padmottanasana (both sides) > Utkatasana > Virabhadrasana A (both sides) > Virabhadrasana B (both sides)

After Warrior 2, then we move into seated postures, continuing sun salutation A between each posture

Dandasana > Paschimottanasana A, B (fingers to big toes, bound hands outside feet) > Purvattanasana > Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana (half bound lotus with hand outside of foot) > Triang Mukhaekapada Paschimottanasana (resting foot behind, hands bound outside feet) > Janu Sirsanana A, B, C (foot inside thigh, foot under thigh, foot facing down below thigh) > Marichyasana A, B, C, D (hands bound behind bent knee, stretched foot into thigh, rebind outside in, bend knee into bound grip) > Navasana > Bujapidasana > Kurmasana > Supta Kurmasana > Garbha Pindasana > Kukkutasana > Baddha Konasana A, B > Upavista Konasana A, B > Supta Konasana > Supta Padagustasana A, Supta Padagustasana > Ubhaya Padagusthasana > Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana > Setu Bandhasana > Urdhva Danurasana

By now you should be ready to cool down, this is an enormous amount of postures and the full sequence can take over 2 hours. Finish with:

Salamba Sarvangasana > Halasana > Karnapidasana > Urdhva Padmasana > Pindasana > Mathsyasana > Uttana Padasana > Sirsanana A > Sirsanana B > Yoga Mudra (double bound lotus) > Padmasana > Utpluthih > Savasana

Now you can take a closing chant, which tend to be very powerful:

svasti prajabhyah paripalayantam nyayena margena mahim mahisah go brahmanebhyah subhamastu nityam lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu

And the practice is concluded.

Adorned Krishna at Patanjali Temple-Bellur India
Adorned Krishna at Patanjali Temple-Bellur India (Photo credit: Keith “Captain Photo” Cuddeback)

“The goal is ne…

“The goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice”
Patanjali

Yogis who practice with enthusiasm, self-honesty, and high levels of energy are close to reaching Samadhi, or the supremely blissful state of existence. But sometimes, even the most intense and powerful of aspirants may become mild or average, slow and moderate in his practice.

This is part of the Sutras where Patanjali talks about the different categories of practitioners and their path on the yoga journey to enlightenment. I interpret this as attempting to give continued inspiration to people who take their practice seriously, and gives understanding that even the most powerful and steadfast of yogis will experience some turbulence on the journey. Bad days happen. Consistency is key with yoga, so detaching from the performance of a practice is key, especially for the impassioned yogi.

 

Patanjali on partial understanding

“Uncertain knowledge giving rise to violence, whether done directly or indirectly, or condoned, is caused by greed, anger, or delusion in mild, moderate, or intense degree. It results in endless pain and ignorance. Through introspection comes the end of pain and ignorance.”

<> – Patanjali (most believe this personification of the yoga guru to be a compilation of ancient Hindu philosophers, rather than an individual)

This quote refers to acting according to uncertain knowledge and how it leads towards painful experiences. Just knowing a part of the story is not enough to act or truly understand a situation; this is why detachment from the situation is important. Then you can examine which variables that are unknown as decide what is likely, while detaching from the conclusion as well. Then no matter the situation or outcome, the yogi is peaceful, calm, and happy. I think that partial knowledge is perfectly useful, but action should be carefully examined before acting on a partial understanding.