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Is Yoga a Spiritual Science?

On one of the yoga groups on LinkedIn (Yoga Instructors and Practitioners), one question that is being discussed currently is, “If yoga is a spiritual science, what happens when you take the spiritual out of it?”. Lots of different views have been expressed. I have also been contributing to the discussion by presenting my best understanding of the subject basen on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I am giving here my thoughts as I have presented in that discussion group.

In the question stated above, there is a tacit assumption that yoga IS a spiritual science. That begs the question – what does it mean to be spiritual? Let me defer that question for the time being and focus on what Patanjali says about yoga. He defines yoga (sutra 1.2) as “yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah” or “controlling the fluctuations of the mind is yoga”. As we can see from this definition of yoga, there is no indication that yoga can be considered ‘spiritual’ since only the mind-field is being talked about. The next sutra (sutra 1.3) states, “in that case (when the mind is controlled) the ‘seer’ (drashta) gets established in his own true nature”. In this sutra, we notice that there is mention of the word "seer" or "observer". The “Seer” in this context is nothing but ‘purusha’ of Sankhya or in common language one can translate it as ‘soul’, ‘atma’ or the "spirit". When we talk of yoga at this level, indeed it becomes a spiritual science since now we are talking of our true nature being the ‘soul’ or ‘purusha’.

Next, let us look at the question, "what happens when you take the spiritual out of it?". To answer this question we need to understand why people turn to yoga in the first place. In my own experience as a yoga teacher, I notice that many people begin the yoga practice purely for physical wellness. They are either not interested in or not aware of the deeper benefits of yoga available to the practitioner. Some people may even be averse to any discussion of spirituality in a yoga class. For such people, it may be advisable to keep the discussion of yoga to sutra 1.2 where we are only talking about controlling the mind. Even if we were to talk about sutra 1.3, the word ‘seer’ may be translated as just your own true nature, the position of perfect peace and stillness within yourself. In majority of the cases, students slowly begin to understand the deeper aspects of yoga and one day may feel comfortable talking about yoga as a spiritual science.

There is another statement that appears in a subsequent post on the discussion group, “Yoga is a union of body, mind and spirit, as per its definition – yuj – as is described in the Sutras”. Here are my thoughts on this statement.

As we know, yoga is derived from the root word ‘yuj. According to the dictionary of root words, ‘yuj’ has the following meanings:

  • (gana 1P) to control, unite
  • (gana 4A) to concentrate as in ‘samadhi’
  • (gana 7U) to unite, yoke
  • (gana 10U) to control

( FYI – in Sanskrit all root words have been grouped into ten categories called ganas).

So the question is which of these meanings of ‘yoga’ or ‘yuj’ is applicable in the sutras. Sage Vyasa, who is considered to be the original and most authentic commentator of the sutras, in his commentary on sutra 1.1, states, “yogah samadhi” – that means yoga is nothing but samadhi. At no place in his commentary he translates yoga as union or yoking. The goals of yoga emphasized in the sutras are attainment of "samadhi" (complete mind control) and “kaivalyam” (sutra 4.34) which can be translated as ‘independence’ or ‘absorption’. Here we are talking about the realization that our true nature (termed Purusha in yoga) or the true self is different from the mind-body complex. In fact, sutra 2.17 clearly states that our mis-identification with the mind-body-intellect complex is the cause of all suffering which can and need to be avoided. To eliminate this suffering (kleshas) we need to attain the state of ‘kaivalyam’, NOT union.

The commonly understood meaning of yoga as union comes more from a Vedantic point of view. In this view, the individual soul (atma) is identical with the supreme consciousness (paramatma or Brahman). This view is outside the purview of Patanjali’s yoga sutras as he does not talk about "Brahman". Patanjali’s main focus is the realm of the mind/ego and the main goal is to cleanse the mind of all impurities so the fluctuations can be controlled (sutra 1.2 -yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah). This is called the state of samadhi or yoga. So, to reiterate, the word ‘yoga’, in the context of yoga sutras, does NOT mean union of any kind. It is simply the state of samadhi which will ultimately lead to "kaivalyam". Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the word ‘yoga’ appears only in these four sutras – 1.1, 1.2, 2.1 and 2.28.

I think it is important to understand what yoga really means as described in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. When we practice yoga, we need to keep its deep meaning in mind. Whether to term it spiritual or not will depend upon our level of understanding and objectives of our yoga practice.


5 comments to Is Yoga a Spiritual Science?

  • Rachna Puri

    This is so beautifully surmized, informative and thought provoking.. Thank you!!

  • Todd Fields

    I also find this discussion very thought provoking, and it raises some interesting questions for me. My Buddhist understanding would suggest that the mind/body/intellect complex is actually not divorced from the true self, the Buddha nature. Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of the analogy that we are like waves on the ocean. We have a beginning and an end, and various characteristics, but we are also the water. In this view the form that is our body and mind is simply a manifestation of the ultimate dimension. If we want to be scientific, we can say that the “matter”, which is our body is a manifestation of the energy of the universe. When I practice asana, pranyama and meditation, I do sometimes have the sense that my body/mind has been transcended or left behind, and this is a wonderful and invigorating feeling. In the end what I am left with when the patterns of consciousness have been stilled is an awareness of the water in the wave. But, to me this does not mean that the wave does not exist, is not holy or meaningful, is not to be enjoyed or cherished. Really the opposite is the case. In the letting go of the fluctuations of mind, the attachments and aversions, there arises a freedom to love and appreciate with complete openness. I don’t think of samadhi as seperation from form, but as insight into the true nature of form. If we become absorbed in the contemplation of a rose (or a loved one), there is a sense that we become united with them. If we observe carefully our own bodies and thoughts with compassion, we can become comfortable with who we are. Thanks, Subhash for opening these ideas.

  • Subhash Mittal

    Todd, you mention – “My Buddhist understanding would suggest that the mind/body/intellect complex is actually not divorced from the true self, the Buddha nature.” As I mentioned in my post, this thought is an extension of the Vedantic philosophy where there is only one reality called Brahman. Everything else is simply a manifestation (also called Upadhi or superimposition). From that perspective, indeed, the material entity (mind/body complex included) is not divorced from the true self; and the true self is not separate from Brahman. The Yoga Sutra, of course, has the different view as mentioned in my post.

  • Amita Desai

    Dear Subhashji,

    I was looking for the set of eye excercises as you had mentioned yesterday in the class. After going back lots of pages, I found it and now I have it! However, in the process I was attracted to read your post( discussion) on ” Is Yoga a spiritual science?”. Very interesting reading and for the first time I understood the difference between Vedantic view of YOGA and that of Patanjali. I get it.Todd Field’s posting too was very interesting.i am glad that this dialogue has taken place. As I understand, the message is to enjoy life fully by being present in the moment but also continue to move past it, move forward and not get attached. Thank you for helping to open my mind! Pranam.

    • admin

      Hi Amita,
      I am so glad that you ended up on this topic of yoga and spirituality. I enjoy discussing this topic as it brings out the differences between Vedanta and the Yoga system and actually helps us understand yoga in its proper light. You are so right when you say “enjoy life fully by being present in the moment but also continue to move past it”. In studying Vedanta, there is this possibility that we spend far too much time and effort in understanding this single reality called Brahman. In the process we may not spend enough time understanding our physical being, our body and mind, and the world we live in. Our rishis of the past have told us that to know Brahman is beyond the capability of human intellect. And yet, we keep trying! On the other hand, the yoga system recognizes two realities – Purusha (atma or the soul) and Prakriti (the material counterpart). Patanjali’s yoga system provides a wonderful insight into our mind and the whole creation. A study and understanding of all aspects of Prakriti helps us get rid of kleshas (all suffering) and we CAN indeed enjoy life to the fullest extent. Thanks for highlighting this beautiful thought.
      – Subhash