Misconceptions about Yoga

By Rudra Shivananda

low angle view of woman relaxing on beach against blue sky

Whenever I talk to someone about my devotion to Yoga, I wind up having to explain that it is not what has been popularized in the media. Yoga is not really about physical postures and is really a spiritual discipline for Self-realization. Of course, there is no doubt that the Hatha Yoga asanas (postures) do provide a good system for keeping the physical body healthy, flexible and coordinated with the mind. It is the ubiquitous equating of asana practice with Yoga that is requiring a lot of energy to overcome and can be an obstacle for those spiritually inclined to explore the transforming aspects of this ancient discipline.

Imagine my amazement when, on a recent visit to Hong Kong I read in the South China Morning Post a sensational article purporting to be about yoga. The author, who has a doctorate in physics but makes no claims to any study or knowledge of Yoga or even asana practice, based all of his statements on an article in the New York Times. Apparently, the founder of Anusara Yoga was embroiled in a sexual scandal and had been forced to resign. This seems to have provided the pretext to launch a series of misinformation about Yoga as a whole.

The first piece of misinformation was that ancient Yoga was about enhancing sexual satisfaction. This is patently erroneous because the authoritative work on classical Yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras authored over two thousand years ago. In this text, the sage maps out the evolution of higher consciousness. There is no mention or hint of sex. The eightfold aspects of the yogic system and the various states of higher consciousness formulated by this sage have over time been adopted in various ways into many non-yogic philosophies.

The definition of Yoga laid down by Patanjali is “the cessation of the modifications or perturbations in the mind.” Controlling the mind and the senses and going into meditative states called Samadhi is the hallmark of Yoga.

The second misinformation in the article was that Hatha Yoga is the basis of all systems of yogas. Since Hatha Yoga is of recent origin – only about one thousand years old, this is of necessity erroneous. However, since all western styles of yoga are concerning postures with some breathing techniques, it is understandable why someone might commit this error. Hatha Yoga is most associated with the practices.

The third misconception is that Hatha Yoga is of tantric origin. A casual study may lead to this confusion since modern tantras do employ Hatha Yoga techniques, but this is of a more recent amalgamation. It is not the case that Hatha Yoga utilizes tantric practices or philosophy. I’m sure all of you are aware that the term Tantra is used to loosely convey the aura of sexual preoccupation.

It is beyond the scope of this article to try to clarify the deeper and original spiritual context of Tantra. My intention here is only to indicate that Tantra and Yoga are different disciplines. The authoritative text for Hatha Yoga is the aptly named Hatha Yoga Pradipika which states very clearly that it is the first half of the classical Yoga and is the foundation for the subsequent practice called Raja Yoga. In essence, Hatha Yoga is comprised of the first five steps of Patanjali’s eight step system. These are yama or body/mind restraint, niyama or body/mind development, asanas (physical postures), pranayama (life-force control) and pratyahara (sense-withdrawal.) The remaining three steps of dharana (concentration), dhyana (absorption) and Samadhi (unity consciousness) is collectively called Raja Yoga. The practice of pratyahara is the bridge between the two. Therefore, Hatha Yoga is an integral part, together with Raja Yoga, of a practical system developed utilizing Patanjali’s framework. It is not derived from Tantra.

The increasing burden caused by both Western and even Eastern misconceptions about Yoga is reaching an alarming pace. I sincerely pray that we will not have to pay the price of abandoning the use of the term Yoga due to the heavy misuse and prejudice.

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