Modern Yoga Versus Traditional Yoga. Part 2.

Two perceptions of Yoga

Perception has recently shifted: The typical perception of Yoga has shifted a great deal in the past century, particularly the past couple decades. Most of this is due to changes made in the West, particularly in the United States, though it is not solely an American phenomenon. (Similar shifts have happened with Tantra as well.) Gist of the two perspectives: The gist of the shift can be summarized in two perspectives, one of which is modern and false, and the other of which is ancient and true.

  • False: Yoga is a physical system with a spiritual component.

  • True: Yoga is a spiritual system with a physical component.

The false view spreads: Unfortunately, the view that Yoga is a physical exercise program is the dominant viewpoint. The false view then spreads through many institutions, classes, teachers, books, magazines, and millions of students of modern Yoga, who have little or no knowledge or interest in the spiritual goals of ancient, authentic, traditional Yoga and Yoga Meditation.

To understand the recent devolution that Yoga is only a physical exercise program is one of the most essential steps forthe modern seeker of authentic Yoga.

Swami Satyananda Saraswati, founder of Bihar School of Yoga, Bihar, India, describes the modern situation of Yoga quite well in the Introduction of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati, where he writes:

“In ancient times hatha Yoga was practiced for many years as a preparation for higher states of consciousness. Now however, the real purpose of this great science is being altogether forgotten . The hatha Yoga practices which were designed by the rishis and sages of old, for the evolution of mankind, are now being understood and utilized in a very limited sense. Often we hear people say, ‘Oh, I don’t practice meditation, I only practice physical Yoga, hatha Yoga.’ Now the time has come to correct this view point. Hatha Yoga is a very important science for man today….

“The main objective of hatha Yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind and energy. When this balance is created, the impulses generated give a call of awakening to the central force (sushumna nadi) which is responsible for the evolution of human consciousness. If hatha Yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost .”

Confusion of goals and instruments

The body is not the goal: The human body is a beautiful instrument, and should be taken care of. However, the body is an instrument, and is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga. In the science and practice of medicine, a pill is an instrument, but the pill itself is not the goal. In the science and practice of authentic Yoga, the body is an instrument, but the body itself is not the goal.

Confusing goals and tools: This can sound like an anti-body perspective, but this is not the case. It is not a conflict between philosophies. Rather, there is a misunderstanding of goals and tools.

The goal of Yoga is Yoga, period.

None of the lower levels is the goal: In traditional Yoga, the aspirant works with and trains all levels of the being, including relationships, self-exploration, senses, body, breath, and mind. However, none of these are themselves the goal of Yoga.

On an authentic path: The aspirant following a path of authentic Yoga:

  • Relationships: The aspirant builds relationship with the world through practices such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, remembering truth, and non-possessiveness. However, building better relationships with the world is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.

  • Senses: The aspirant trains the senses so as to be able to consciously regulate them in positive ways, although working with the senses is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.

  • Body: The aspirant works with the body so as to make it flexible, strong, and steady, but working with the body is not itself the goal of authentic Yoga.

  • Breath: The aspirant trains the breath so as to make it smooth, slow, and serene, but training the breath is not itself the goal of traditional Yoga.

  • Mind: The aspirant deals with the mind at all of it’s levels, although exploring and dealing with the mind is not itself the goal of authentic Yoga.

The goal of Yoga is beyond these: The single goal of Yoga is beyond all of these, while these are the veils that block the realization of the Self, Truth, or Reality that is being sought. Because they are the obstacles, they are emphasized in practice so that they may cease to cover the eternal center of consciousness.

Swami Rama writes about the situation of traditional Yoga and modern Yoga in his text, Path of Fire and Light:

“The majority of people view Yoga as a system of physical culture. Very few understand that Yoga science is complete in itself , and deals systematically with body, breath, mind, and spirit.

“When one understands that a human being is not only a physical being, but a breathing being and a thinking being too, then his research does not limit itself to the body and breath only.

“For him, gaining control over the mind and its modifications, and the feelings and emotions, become more important than practicing a few postures or breathing exercises . Meditation and contemplation alone can help the aspirant in understanding, controlling, and directing the mind.”

In the opening paragraph of Lectures on Yoga, Swami Rama explains:

The word Yoga is much used and much misunderstood these days, for our present age is one of faddism, and Yoga has often been reduced to the status of a fad. Many false and incomplete teachings have been propagated in its name, it has been subject to commercial exploitation, and one small aspect of Yoga is often taken to be all of Yoga. For instance, many people in the West think it is a physical and beauty cult, while others think it is a religion. All of this has obscured the real meaning of Yoga.

In the second volume of Path of Fire and Light, Swami Rama goes even further, where he flatly declares:                                                                                                                                                   “The word ‘Yoga’ has been vulgarized and does not mean anything now .”

Swami Chidananda Saraswati, head of the internationally known Sivananda Ashram (Divine Life Society) in Rishikesh, India explains that:

Yoga is not mere acrobatics . Some people suppose that Yoga is primarily concerned with the manipulation of the body into various queer positions, standing on the head, for instance, or twisting about the spine, or assuming any of the numerous odd poses which are demonstrated in the text-books on Yoga. These techniques are correctly employed in one distinct type of Yoga practice, but they do not form an integral part of the most essential type. Physical posture serve at best as an auxiliary, or a minor form of Yoga.”

Confusing Vehicles and Destinations: If you are going to the Himalayas, you may first ride in an airplane or car. However, the fact that you are riding in an airplane or car does not mean that you will necessarily end up in the Himalayas. Everyday there are many millions of people who travel in both airplanes and cars, but will not mysteriously or accidentally end up in the Himalayas without that being their goal or destination.

The goal or destination of Yoga is Yoga itself, union itself, of the little self and the True Self (While it is not the intent of this article to give a final or conclusive definition of the term Yoga–which can be described in different ways–it has to do with the realization through direct experience of the preexisting union between Atman and Brahman, Jivatman and Paramatman, and Shiva and Shakti, or the realization of Purusha standing alone as separate from Prakriti). The mere fact that one might do a few stretches with the physical body does not in itself mean that one is headed towards that high union, referred to as Yoga.


Below is an example of the unfortunate distortion
of Yoga terminology and practices.

The website describes Ashtanga Yoga as a breath and postures practice of Pattabhi Jois (1915- ):

Ashtanga yoga is a system of yoga transmitted to the modern world by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. This method of yoga involves synchronizing the breath with a progressive series of postures—a process producing intense internal heat and a profuse, purifying sweat that detoxifies muscles and organs. The result is improved circulation, a light and strong body, and a calm mind.”

Swami Sivananda Saraswati (1887-1963), founder of Divine Life Society of Rishikesh, India writes of Ashtanga Yoga:

“It is said that the original propounder of classical Yoga was Hiranyagarbha Himself. It is Patanjali Maharishi who formulated this science into a definite system under the name of Ashtanga Yoga or Raja Yoga. This forms one of the Shad-Darsananas or Classical Systems of Philosophy…. Patanjali’s Raja Yoga is generally termed the Ashtanga Yoga or the Yoga of Eight Limbs, through the practice of which freedom is achieved.”


End part II.