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The three most far-reaching benefits of Yoga

Earlier today, when I googled for "benefits of yoga", the following were the top four results:

When students sign up for my classes, one of the questions they answer is "What benefits do you expect to realize from your yoga practice?". Some of the most common expected benefits mentioned are:

  • Stress management
  • Weight management
  • Flexibility and strength
  • Peace in life
  • Dealing with specific issues like back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain etc.
  • Dealing with chronic ailments like diabetes, heart problem, blood pressure etc.

In the websites listed above, these and many other benefits are mentioned.

In today’s post I would like to address the question of benefits of yoga from a deeper perspective. As you may know, we always refer to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for all matters related to yoga.

Sutra 2.28 (sutra #28 in chapter 2) provides us a glimpse of the benefits that the practice of yoga can provide at the deepest level.

योगाङ्गाऽनुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवेकख्यातेः॥२८॥

Yogaanga-anuShThaanaat-ashuddhikshaye jnanadIptiH-aavivekakhyaateH (Sutra 2.28)

"By the practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment." – translation by Swami Satchidananda.

Now, let’s take a close look at this sutra and try to understand each of the terms used in this sutra.

Yogaanga-anuShThaanaat (through the practice of the various limbs of yoga): In the very next sutra, Patanjali lists the eight limbs of yoga. It is for this reason that Patanjali’s yoga is also called Ashtanga Yoga (the Yoga of eight limbs).

Ashuddhi-kshaye (on the elimination of the impurities): This statement is pregnant with deep meaning. Here Patanjali is telling us that through the practice of yoga all impurities will be cleansed out. At various places in the sutras, Patanjali has mentioned various impurities, ailments, suffering etc. which can all be placed under "impurities". These represent impurities at the physical and the vital level (sutra 1.30 and 1.31 for example) and also those at the mental level (sutras 2.3 through 2.9) which he terms as kleshas. We also know that all the impurities are a result of the ego working on the samskaras (past impressions) while keeping us away from the present moment, and forcing us to worry about the past or the future all the time. All the stresses and strains in life are caused because we are not able to stay in the present moment. The term "ashuddhi kshaye" implies that with the practice of the eight limbs of yoga, we are able to learn how not to dwell on the past or the future, but rather stay in the present moment thus eliminating all the deep-seated impurities of the body and the mind.

It is interesting to note that the term "ashuddhi kshaye" means "on elimination of the impurities". That implies that getting rid of the impurities is not the final goal of the practice of yoga; it just paves the way toward the final goal.

Jnana-deeptiH (light of knowledge or wisdom): When the impurities are present, they represent a cloud that is covering the light of innate wisdom and keep us in the darkness of ignorance. The ego which uses the past samskaras to keep us under the cloud of ignorance loves this darkness. When we practice yoga, we gradually begin to chip away these impurities thus removing the cloud of ignorance. When that happens we can now see the glow of pure knowledge which represents our pure, innate, intuitive wisdom.

A viveka-khyateH (finally arriving at the pure discriminative wisdom): The word "aa" (pronounced as "aah") in Sanskrit mean "until". This phrase means that with the practice of yoga, now we can finally reach the ultimate goal of yoga which is "self realization". Viveka means discrimination which is the ability to discriminate between real and unreal, truth and untruth, pure and impure etc. The word khyati literally means knowledge. Patanjali has used the term "viveka khyati" a few times in the sutras to indicate the state of the mind where we are now able to distinguish our mind-body complex from the pure consciousness that we are. In the terminology of Samkhya and Yoga, pure consciousness is termed as "Purusha" and the mind-body complex along with the entire material universe is called "Prakriti". The discrimination between purusha and prakriti has been termed "kaivalya" by Patanjali. Essentially, then, what Patanjali is saying is that through the practice of the eight limbs of yoga, one can attain the final state of kaivalya wherein we recognize our true identity as pure consciousness (purusha) and get rid of the misidentification with the mind-body complex (prakriti).

In summary, the three most far-reaching benefits of the practice of yoga are:

  1. All the impurities at the physical, vital, mental and emotional levels are removed.
  2. The light of pure knowledge and wisdom shines through.
  3. We attain self-realization with the dawn of discriminative discernment.

If you are a yoga practitioner, what kind of benefits have you seen with your practice?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

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