Why our Western view of yoga overlooks the best parts
In the Western world, when we talk about yoga, we’re generally speaking about a posture-based physical fitness, stress-relief-, and relaxation technique. This is mostly a series of asanas, practiced on the mat. As shown in many studies, yoga practice has many health benefits such as improved strength, balance, flexibility, and cardiovascular health. The practice of yoga leads to enhanced fitness, boosts weight loss, and has resulted in ‘improved lipid profiles in healthy patients as well as patients with known coronary artery disease. It also lowered excessive blood sugar levels in people with non-insulin dependent diabetes and reduced their need for medications. Yoga is now being included in many cardiac rehabilitation programs due to its cardiovascular and stress-relieving benefits’ (Harvard Medical School, 2021). According to John Hopkins Medicine, numerous studies show yoga’s benefits in arthritis, osteopenia, balance issues, oncology, women’s health, chronic pain, and other specialties (John Hopkins, 2021). There is a lot of proof for the benefits of yoga as we generally know it, practiced on the mat. However, this approach to yoga leaves out a vast amount of value from this ancient practice. It's especially this other side of yoga that I intend to focus on. As identified by Jacobsen, yoga has five principal traditional meanings (Jacobsen, 2008):
A disciplined method for attaining a goal;
Techniques of controlling the body and the mind;
A name of a school or system of philosophy (darśana):
With prefixes such as "hatha-, mantra-, and laya-, traditions specializing in particular techniques of yoga;
The goal of Yoga practice.
In the sense of the second and fifth meaning of yoga, I’m diving deeper into this practice with the help of Acharya Siddhant, founder of the Siddhant School of Yoga in Rishikesh, India. My talk with Acharya Siddhant on yoga, and it’s meaning beyond the practice on the mat very much expanded my views on the broader tradition and value of yoga. I’ll try to summarize the insights shared by Siddhant here for your benefit.
A disbalanced focus with the physical
According to Acharya Siddhant, 80 percent of people are living their lives only at the physical level (Siddhant, 2021). ‘No one represents themselves as their pure soul’ (Siddhant, 2021). Instead, we are representing ourselves as our physical body. The main focus of most ‘modern’ practitioners of yoga is therefore with the body. To improve the flexibility of the body, strengthen the body, or to purify the body. There is a slight focus on the mind, however this is mostly aimed at merely relaxing the mind. However, as Siddhant explains, when looking at the strict definition of yoga, its practice goes much further. Namely, yoga aims to achieve there to be nothing in our conscious mind (Siddhant, 2021). Yoga then is about becoming and being completely clear and empty, in our mind. It aims at reaching behind who you identify as. Yoga therefore is about going beyond your personality. It is the meditative element of yoga practice that enables us to attain this state through continued practice and dedication. It is this part that sadly is typically left out in most ‘Western’ or ‘modern’ practices of yoga today.
Our five bodies
As Siddhant explains, as human beings, we are always looking for growth. No matter what your role in life, we always aim for growth. Similarly, the practice of yoga is about growth. ‘We aim to grow, so that we can become free from our suffering’ (Siddhant, 2021). As Siddhant explains, we have 5 bodies, which together form our personality:
Physical body (annamaya kosha): This is the entirety of our physical body, its outer layers of our body, but also our internal organs. This part is the most vulnerable;
Mental body (manomaya kosha): This refers to the mind, which is a combination of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It’s home to our ego and holds our perceptions of the world;
Breath body (pranamaya kosha): This is all about our energy. This life force, or prana, our energy, it flows in our circulatory-, lymphatic-, and nervous systems;
Understanding body (vijnayanamaya kosha): This is about wisdom, about all our concepts, ideas, our values, beliefs and our sense of right and wrong;
Bliss body (anandamaya kosha): Bliss means to be happy and joyful without any active support. It’s about simply being happy. We can experience bliss in flashes where we move beyond our self into oneness. The first part of bliss is happiness, and the last part is emptiness.
As Siddhant explains with the metaphor of a pool diving board, we’re moving through the first four bodies to arrive at the bliss body from where it functions as a springboard from where we ‘jump’, or shoot if you will, into nothingness (Siddhant, 2021). However, in our current societies, we have been disbalanced. The majority of us have been solemnly focused on our physical bodies. Because of our unawareness and inability to control and utilize our other bodies next to our physical body, we experience suffering and incomplete existence.
We are consciousness
In many cases, we identify ourselves with these different bodies. For instance, when we’re feeling hungry through our physical body, we say ‘I’m hungry’, or when through our mental body our mind is confused, we say ‘I am confused’. Instead, as Siddhant explains, we are not our body, our mind, our energy, our understanding, or bliss; we are consciousness. We are consciousness, and we have a personality consisting out of our five bodies. When we identify completely with our physical body, or our thoughts, as happens so much in today’s society, we forget we are consciousness. When identifying with these bodies, as Siddhant explains, we are living a borrowed life. We’re merely a role that we take on, like an actor, playing in a movie (Siddhant, 2021). When we discover we’re not these bodies, or these roles we take on, but instead that we are consciousness, that’s what Siddhant identifies as the growth, which is the purpose of yoga.
The practice of yoga then becomes about learning how to achieve balance in our physical body, our mental body, our breath body, and our understanding body. From there, we can enter nothingness, through our conscious being. By doing the asanas, we achieve our physical balance. And though meditation, we achieve our mental balance. Through the practice of pranayama, we achieve our energetic balance through our breath. Understanding and bliss, as Siddhant explains, are the byproducts and results of our work on balancing these first three bodies (Siddhant, 2021). To work with the body, is to discover you are not your body. I have experienced this through endurance sports, and similarly through Vipassana meditation when it comes to working on the mind. Then, through prolonged practice, a distance emerged between what I thought is myself and my body, and another witnessing consciousness through which I was seeing myself without any judgement, as part of, and connected with, a bigger whole.
The mind is the captain of your personality, comprised of the five bodies (Siddhant, 2021). The physical body is directly controlled by the mind. Therefore, as Siddhant states, if you can control your mind, you can fully control your body. Your mind is developing your understanding. Through the focus of our mind, we can understand. At the same time, our breath (prana), energy, and our understanding are supporting our mind. When, for example, we decide to sit and meditate for 20 minutes, the decision comes from our mind. But our body and energy must support it.
‘All’ we need is 2 minutes and 24 seconds.. of not thinking
In order to expand this control of our mind, the aim of yoga is to have no thought in our mind for some time. To be more exact, to have no thought in our mind for at least 2 mins, and 24 seconds. This is indicative of course, as from person to person it can require a bit more or less time. It’s then, according to Siddhant, that we will take the last step to experience who we are (Siddhant, 2021). According to Siddhant, when you can manage to stay 2 mins and 24 seconds without any thoughts, this state of mind is called meditation, and this is the last step to Samadhi after which you will merge yourself into existence. Samadhi is the state of consciousness in which through meditation, our mind becomes one with the object of meditation, free from any activity. In samadhi the duality between object and subject disappears, and we experience wholeness and unification. We have our personal (individual) existence, and there is existential existence. Yoga is about forming the connection between these two forms of existence. As Siddhant explains, when we experience we are the existence, and are not separate from existence, that state is called yoga (Siddhant, 2021). We can start experiencing, and begin to attain this state, by having no thought in our conscious mind for 2 mins, and 24 seconds. It the continued and repetitive practice of meditation that will enable us to get there.
Meditation as our pathway to clarity and thoughtlessness
Most of the time, we have a very cluttered, chaotic, and confused mind. Then, many thoughts are racing through our minds simultaneously. When we’re luckier, we have a few thoughts in our mind. It’s calmer then. When we then really focus, there can be only one though in our mind. The stage after that is no thought at all. From there, we can enter something even more substantial, which is, no you. There, our ego seizes its presence.
The first step, as with everything, is the most challenging according to Siddhant. Namely, to move from a cluttered, chaotic, and confused mind, to a mind with less thoughts (Siddhant, 2021). In order to move from chaos to less thoughts, one needs a point to stay, a goal. Many people go through live without clear goals. As a result, they remain with confused, cluttered, and chaotic minds. Then, when we increase our focus on this one point, this one goal, we can start to achieve moments of silence in our thoughts. As I’ve learnt during my practice of Vipassana meditation, by focusing very specifically on the breath, and later on specific sensations at specific areas in the body, our mind can become free of thoughts. This process, called pratyahara in yoga, focuses on withdrawal of the senses. Through continued practice, of bringing our focus back to, for instance, our breath, automatically the volume and frequency of our thoughts start to reduce. The more focus we achieve; the less thoughts will come to surface. Thus, as with everything, though continued practice we can achieve a state where ultimately no thoughts emerge anymore. Then, through our continued focus, we can ultimately achieve a thoughtless state of mind and experience being.
Our mind is the combination of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Thoughts are our conceptions, sentiments, opinions, concepts, and ideas. They come and go. With our attention away from our thoughts, thoughts pass, and new thoughts emerge, as clouds in the sky. Thoughts then relate to the conscious mind. Feelings then are physical sensations, or the general state of conscious mind considered independently of particular sensations, thoughts, or other stimuli. So, from thoughts in our mind, feelings expand into the physical domain of our body. Feelings relate to both the conscious mind and the physical body together. Emotions add yet another layer according to Siddhant, as they involve both the conscious mind, the physical body, and the subconscious mind (Siddhant, 2021). We can learn to control our thoughts, and with more practice and discipline, can also control our feelings. But as Siddhant explains, we are unable to control our emotions. We have to allow them to be, as earlier articulated by Dr. Faye Mandell during our talk on being present.
Our mind as barrier to experiencing ourselves
At the same time, the mind, as Siddhant explained, is the only barrier to experiencing our self (Siddhant, 2021). He explains this by differentiating between the negative and positive parts of the mind. Thoughts, feelings, and emotions form the negative part of the mind when they lead our decisions and actions. When they are supporting us, they’re not considered part of our negative mind. Siddhant illustrates this with the example of feeling sleepy, or hungry. Giving into those feelings puts our feelings in charge of us. Even stronger are our emotions, and the way they lead our decisions. On the other hand, clarity, understanding, and intelligence together form the positive part of our minds. By actively choosing not to focus on our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, they lose power over us. Consequently, as communicating vessels, our clarity, understanding, and intelligence increase. As Siddhant argues, we can’t directly affect our positive mind. However, by choosing to focus less on the parts of our negative mind, and choosing not to let our thoughts, feelings, and emotions determine our decisions and actions, automatically the capacities of our positive mind expands (Siddhant, 2021). The trick here is choosing where we focus. As I’ve said, thought, and written many times; where our focus goes, energy flows. This leads to a positive sequence of events, as focus leads to clarity, clarity leads to understanding, and understanding leads to intelligence, intelligence leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to wisdom, and finally, wisdom give you freedom (Siddhant, 2021). Therefore, we need to live our lives by decision. Take time to arrive at decisions coming from the positive part of your mind. Decisions can be wrong or right, but when made from clarity, understanding, and intelligence, they will be always better decisions then made based on feelings and emotions (Siddhant, 2021).
Attachment and suffering
Our focus on enjoying, and our enjoying attitude, create attachment. Attachment leads to suffering. Contrary, our observing attitude gives clarity. When we observe, we can achieve clear vision without attachment, and see things for what they are, without judgement (Siddhant, 2021). The intelligent mind, and a mind with knowledge, automatically are free of judgement. Then, you’re not doing anything that is not necessary. This is what Siddhant also refers to as having no mind. This is a consequence of intelligence. The important element here is the absence of attachment. When we’re observing our mind, it’s called witnessing. When we’re looking at someone else, in the outer world, it’s called observing. When we are going behind our personality; our physical body, mental body, breath body, understanding body and bliss body, then it is meditation. To know your mind is meditation, and to know the outer world is observing (Siddhant, 2021). We can look at this as if it were a journey, between on one side the outer world with many thoughts and observations, and on the other side the center, with no thoughts. At this side, we’re not observing, we’re only witnessing. Witnessing is meditation. When we are witnessing, we are detached, and hold no judgment. When we witness, we experience that we’re not mind (Siddhant, 2021). Then, when you’re not mind, you are no personality, and thereby free from attachment. attachment create the problems. Things or people are not the problem. Therefore, when we can see things for what they are, without our thoughts, feelings or emotions being at the helm of or observations and attributing meaning to what we’re observing, but instead merely witness things for what they are, we will be free, detached. Thus, it is our enjoying attitude that creates attachment, and thereby pain and suffering. Instead, let us simply observe, witness, and with that create clarity instead of attachment.
Doing versus knowing
In Western society, there is great emphasis on doing (Siddhant, 2021). Siddhant explains this with an example of listening. When we’re listening, two things happen simultaneously. Firstly, we’re listening; that is the doing part. Secondly, we are knowing that we are listening, that is the conscious part. The nature of our consciousness is knowing. Meditation is about giving importance to the knowing part, instead of the doing part. When we’re not doing, we are knowing more clearly and prominently. When you’re not giving importance to the doing part, automatically, you’re increasing the importance to the knowing part, as mentioned earlier, like communicating vessels. This expanding of the knowing is called awareness, and consciousness, or witnessing, as discussed above.
Hopefully, the above is useful to you. Writing this and listening to- and learning from Acharya Siddhant has been extremely useful to me. It reconnected me to my earlier practice of Vipassana meditation. As many of my close friends and family know, that experience would be the gift I wish everyone would accept. However, it requires hard work, dedication, and focus. It requires a decision to part from enjoyment, and instead to do the work. Which brings me to a common and dangerous misconception. Namely, that we perceive enjoyment as a gift, and work as suffering, while in reality, the reverse is true.
Interview Acharya Siddhant
To learn more about the benefits of yoga, and what yoga actually means outside of the practice on the mat, I have talked to Acharya Siddhant, founder of the Siddhant School of Yoga in Rishikesh, India. To be more exact, I have spent most of my time listening, and I loved it. Quickly into our conversation, Siddhant got up and presented some of the fundamental concepts of yogic practice to me, and you, in front of his whiteboard.
Acharya Siddhant has spent years with different spiritual Masters and Yogis in the Himalaya and all over India, learning about the practice and philosophy of yoga. Now, through his own school in Rishikesh he shares his learnings with others.
It was a great experience listening to Siddhant. He explained the fundamental principles underlying yoga practice. Concepts like our personality, our mind, consciousness and how we can expand this through the practice of meditation and focus. He shared about attachment and how to free ourselves from this. It was an absolute great talk, and I hope you get as much value from it as I did. Enjoy!
Yoga school of Acharya Siddhant: https://siddhantschoolofyoga.com
Jacobsen, Knut A., 2008, Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson. https://amzn.to/3Fq4QzD
John Hopkins Medicine, 2021, 9 Benefits of Yoga. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/9-benefits-of-yoga, accessed on 9 October 2021.
Harvard Medical School, 2021, Yoga Benefits Beyond the Mat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-benefits-beyond-the-mat, accessed on 9 October 2021.