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.