Though spelt yoga in English, the Hindi-Sanskrit pronunciation is yog. Every schoolboy in India knows the meaning of yog as ‘to add’. But here we are talking about the meaning of yoga as “to join” or “to unite” from the root yuj.
Although yoga as philosophy and system was codified by Sage Patanjali around 200 BC, it is much older, its references are found in Vedic literature.
To understand the spiritual dimension of yoga, here we will confine ourselves to the definition of yoga by Patanjali himself and two widely known and quoted fragments of verses in Bhagavad Gita.
First, Patanjali. In the very second of his 192 sutras, he says,
It means, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind or thought impulses. In other words, you are doing yoga in order to achieve a stillness and clarity of mind. But many meditators take it to mean consciously and forcefully trying to stop thoughts. That is difficult to achieve. What does work is creating the right conditions allowing the mind to settle down. In Indian spirituality mind is often compared to a monkey, difficult to control. But lead the monkey to a bunch of bananas, and it will settle down. So it is with the mind. Lead it with meditation towards the source of happiness within (the Kingdom of God is within you, said Jesus), and it gravitates towards that and thoughts subside, eventually leading to the yogic state of samadhi.
In a later sutra, Patanjali also lists five things that cause klesha or obstacles in achieving a state of yoga. These are: ignorance, I-ness, desire, aversion and attachment. And he suggests ways to be rid of them.
In this verse, Lord Krishna is advising Arjuna to perform action while established in yoga, or dwelling in union with the Divine, and at the same time renouncing all attachments. He is advising Arjuna to remain in a state of equipoise in both success and failure. This is Karma Yoga philosophy that leads to equilibrium or equanimity of mind. When all our actions are performed while dwelling in Divine in this manner, we truly start living the ‘Work is Worship’ philosophy. One common misinterpretation of this verse is: never desire the fruits of action. It is wrong because results are inevitable. Action begets reaction. It is the worrying about the desired results that causes anxiety.
Yoga again is central to this statement of Gita.
It simply means, ‘yoga is skill in action’. Even the reverse may be true. Skill in action is yoga.
The full verse ending in Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam says: One who is equipped with equanimity in this life discards both merit and sin. Therefore remain established in yoga; yoga results in perfect action.
This is where Krishna starts addressing Arjuna’s inaction – almost a catatonic state. The warrior prince is bedeviled by doubts arising from concerns about fighting and slaying his uncles and cousins. Krishna argues that if one performs svadharma with equanimity, one doesn’t have to constantly ponder whether an action will beget merit or sin. We begin to detach ourselves from the results or fruits of our actions, we will also not get attached to merit and sin.
Interestingly, Indian philosophy for long was considered renunciatory and escapist, for which partly to blame was this simplistic understanding of Gita: Karam karo phal ki ichcha mat karo. Imagine, the sermon of Gita is given on a battleground, the acme of action!
You may think this is spiritual mumbo-jumbo, and ask, “What is in this for me in practical terms?” Well, one can show ‘yoga is skill in action’ translating as increased efficiency and improved productivity. Yes, since the 1950 there have been umpteen research studies on meditation’s psycho-physiology and the effects of regularly experiencing the meditative state (yoga) on everyday life.
What is well established by now is that meditation slows down the metabolism while mental alertness instead of reducing (as seen when one is drowsy) is actually enhanced. This unique state of consciousness called restful alertness is different from the three states of consciousness, which we normally experience, namely sleep, dreaming and wakefulness. And it washes away tension and stress. As a result, quality of sleep improves. There is relief in psychosomatic diseases like high blood pressure, ulcers, and migraine. Brain waves (as graphed by EEG or electroencephalogram) become more coherent and synchronous. More energy, ability to concentrate and a positive attitude all add up to improve efficiency and in turn productivity. The overall quality of life becomes better.
From the various forms of meditation, Transcendental Meditation or TM as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi ruled the roost for a few decades. Lately, mindfulness is finding favor in the corporate world as well as hospitals and health centers in America. Mindfulness comes from Buddhism if not the Buddha himself and has been popularized in our time by France based Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
As you can see, there is no religious symbolism, no belief system involved here. It is as secular as you can get. So is yoga.