What Yoga really is. How it is learned, how it is practiced, and how it is taught, in the words of a highly advanced adept.
Originally published 2012
What Does it All Mean?
Yoga means “union”. It comes from the same root word as “yoke”. Its goal is union with the Divine – uniting your limited “self” with your larger, all-encompassing “Self”, in essence, discovering your True Self. But beyond that high-level description, what does it really mean to learn, practice, and ultimately teach Yoga?
This article answers those questions, using a series of quotes taken from the book, Sivananda Buried Yoga, by Yogi Manmoyanand — mostly because there isn’t much more to add to what he has to say! Think of this article as the “Reader’s Digest” version of that book. Consider it a must read for all students of Yoga, and most of all for teachers. Because, while it does not go deeply into specifics, it covers the general approach in no uncertain terms — clearly, and authoritatively.
If you have read Autobiography of a Yogi, and enjoyed it, or felt illumined by it, or both, then you will certainly gain at least as much from Sivananda Buried Yoga.
The Nature of Yoga
“I had the notion that Yoga would take me closer to God. Surely anything as serious as finding God should have a process far more respectable than performing mere physical exercises.
“Yoga practices are a derivation of early tantric practices. One needs a good understanding of Tantra for the successful application of the Yoga Sutras. It is Tantra that provides us with knowledge about the human body, its subtle channels, its energy dynamics, and above all…the seat of ultimate energy
“Asana is a kriya [action with awareness] that helps you break through the limits of the physical body and allows you to experience the subtler aspects of exist that lie beyond it.
“(A lion raised by sheep, thinks of itself as a sheep.) “As long as it doesn’t know or realize its true nature, it is only another sheep….There is an urgent need for everyone to wake up to the true reality of themselves.
“The immortal sutra from Maharshi Patanjali (2:46) gives the ultimate definition of Asana, which translates as ‘steady and pleasurable is the posture’.
— p. 147
“Asana involves a very stable or rock-steady condition of the body…It takes enormous effort to accomplish this…(and at the same time) to reduce brain activity. The target level of stillness in this process is to reach a level of activity where the frequency is of the brain waves is three or less per second (below alpha, below theta, to beta)….In his next sutra (2:47), the great master Maharshi Pantanjali has given us the secret of achieving this feat, ‘by shifting and establishing the mind into the infinite (of the self).’
— pp. 148-149
“In the psycho-physical synthesis of Asana, it is important to achieve both of these elements together….Many people have tried to practice asanas only from the physical angle without involving the mental or psychic element….but such an apparently ‘still’ body lacks the vital ingredient of pleasure.
— p. 150 (emphasis added. because of the way that tantric meditation produces bliss)
“As a necessary condition of Asana, the mind has to be shifted into the infinite dimension — the etheric and subtle energy body. It is actually simpler than it sounds….First, we take the body into a specific posture in a specific manner; Secondly, we focus our attention at a specific part of ourselves; Thirdly, we give a specific direction to the breath and mental activities.
— p. 152 (emphasis added)
“Whenever we move any part of the body (energy is produced). All of you have noticed that after doing a little work, the body gets warmed up. This is because energy is generated in the process.
— p. 152
“By physically manipulating the body, we end up creating a definite quantity of energy. By the breath and conscious direction of the mind, we channel this created energy into a specific part of our energy body. We then assimilate the energy in the etheric body. In this process, the mind acts as a pathfinder of energy, and energy acts as the carrier of the mind. During this mutual movement, energy assimilates into the chakras and the mind gets shifted beyond the physical body. It is this combined effect that satisfies the requirement of Asana.”
“The asana does not actually end here. After the entire set of asanas has been performed, one has to lie down, and through active and conscious mental direction, channel and accumulate the entire etheric energy into the appropriate chakras.
— p. 153 (emphasis added, because “appropriate is a key word that depends on person, time, and need)
“This process, by gradual practice, results in the enrichment of the ethereal body and consquently improves the possiblity of shifting attention into it.
— p. 153
“This shifting has far reaching effects. On the one hand, it shifts the mental and psychic elements out of the body resulting in a reduction of brain activity. This reduction of brain activity is experienced as a state of supreme relaxation, wherein the body is absolutely stable. On the other hand, the shifting of the cognitive faculty of the mind detaches it from the perception of any physical discomfort. The combined experience of this process is the absolute stability of boday and the pleasurable state of mind.
— p. 153
“In Yoga, an asana has only one absolute purpose: to achieve the absolutely steady and pleasurable condition of body and mind. This condition or state is called Asana.
— p. 153
“From ancient times, yogis have provided the exact procedure, schedule, and modification of the manner of practice for the yogasanas on the basis of natural changes. There are seasonal regimens, solar and lunar schedules, as well as daily schedules based on planetary presence, not to mention the hourly modifications that are applied to the asana kriyas.
— p. 155
“The lower level asanas are the easier to perform, because they are performed mostly by the body only. As one ascends into the higher level of asanas…more and more of the mental and psychological elements are used, rather than physical stress….The steady and pleasurable posture at the top of the pyramid is, in fact, the most difficult one to accomplish.
— p. 156
“At the top (of the pyramid) lies only one asana, the essential ‘steady and pleasurable’ condition….This primary asana can be accomplished through padmasana (lotus pose), siddhasana, virasana, swastikasana, or vajrasana. There is no hard and fast rule as to which of these or any other asana has to be adopted for the subsequent practice of the yogic kriyas.
— p. 155
“Asanas can also be classified by groups (standing, kneeling, sitting, lying on the back, lying on the stomach — from most ‘stressful’ to least, with respect to energy dynamics).
— p. 157
“They can be classified by the planetary condition of the day [guidelines are given for each day of the week]….They can also be divided into morning and evening asanas [with the more relaxing asanas done in the evening].
— p. 157-159
“Asanas (can also be) chosen on the basis of the astrological conditions which specifically support (your) body, (with the set) getting all of the chakras involved (and the sequence can change every day).
(These “rules” aren’t like social laws — they’re more like the laws of physics. They determine what works, based on millenia of experiments.)
— p. 159
“The manner in which youget to the posture and the manner in which you return from it are equally as important as the posture itself. From the beginning position of an asana, we begin to concentrate on the appropriate chakra. As soon as we feel the pulsating of the chakra and the energy traveling in that direction, we start to move. Maintaining the focus at the chakra, we slowly and gently move into the posture. If the focus or the balance is disturbed, we have to go through the whole process again.
— p. 162
“There are generally three kinds of trainings that we go through in life: physical, mental, and spiritual. The physical trainings develop the body and its components, but these physical effects are short-lived and gradually diminish over time. The mental trainings last much longer than the physical trainings, but with the death of the body, your mental faculties also come to an end. However, the case of spiritual development is different. It never comes to and end, because the spirit has no end. In an asana kriya, there are some physical, mental, and spiritual acts involved. Hence, all effects of the asanas do not cease over time or by death.
— p. 164
“(Once you have learned) to synchronize yourself into the posture with all its components….it is time to learn to hold the posture for a prolonged period of time, until its effects become permanent and irreversible.
— pp. 165-166
The Nature of Pranayama
“Pranayama, as a component kriya of the eightfold practice of Yoga, is actually a product of Tantra.
— p. 191
“The subject of Pranayama can have three major approaches: Yogic, Vedantic, and Tantric….[explanations of each are given]….(but an) important rule is that the practice of pranayama should not be mixed with the incorrect system. People practicing the Vedantic practice of pranayama should not confuse and mix up the tantric explanation, not should the tantric practitioners confuse their practices with the yogic processes.
— pp. 192-194
“The restraint of prana is what the practitioner should look for — not the mere restraint or manipulation of breath. Prana is a spiritual or cosmic element. The correct harmony with prana and its acceleration has a spiritual outcome, whereas the mindless manipulation of breath can seriously and harmfully interfere with our physical and psychological health.
— p. 196
“When sunlight is broken through a prism, we seen seven wavelengths as seven different and distinct colors (from violet to red)
— p. 201
“The function and mechanism of the body largely depends on seven systems: The nervous system, cardiovascular system, respiratory system, excretory system, reproductive system, lymphatic system, and digestive system. Each of these systems are in turn governed and regulated by seven specific endocrine glands. These endocrine glands are located along a vertical axis in the body, at more or less the same place where the chakras or energy whorls are situated.
— p. 202
“The energy frequencies of these chakras are exactly the same as the seven different wavelengths of sunlight. The crown chakra corresponds to the violet wavelength, and in that order, the base chakra functions with the red wavelength. Thus the functions of the entire body are directly related to the frequencies of sunlight.
— p. 202
“Surya Namaskar (sun salutation) is not an asana, as technically it does not function to provide the ‘stead and pleasurable’ state of Asana. It is, rather, an important kriya used for the support and sustenance of the body. It has seven kriyas, arranged in a sequence of 12 steps corresponding to the number of zodiacs of the sun. These seven kriyas are individually designed to assimilate each of the individual wavelengths of solar energy into the seven specific and corresponding chakras of the body. As a result, the seven physio-pathological systems of the body are nourished and sustained.
— p. 202
“The practice of surya namaskar involves the practice of mantras.
— p. 202
“For the practice of surya namaskar, once needs to face the rising sun and expose as much of the body as possible. The kriya is not very useful when practiced indoors or with a covered body. Standing in the energy-invoking position, one has to keep chanting the first mantra until the corresponding chakra begins to pulsate strongly. Keeping the attention on this receiving pulsation and maintaining the chanting of the mantra, one has to perform all seven kriyas of surya namaskar in the correct sequence of 12 steps….In order to acquire and assimilate the seven wavelengths of the sun, once has to perform the whole process seven times, with the chanting of the appropriate mantra and the concentration at the appropriate chakra. This becomes one cycle of the kriya of surya namaskar.
— p. 204
Bliss and Samadhi
“A yogi enjoys all sensory outcomes, but for that, he does not depend on his sense organs. His sensory bliss originates right in his mind and not from any part of his body.
— p. 219
“Bliss, no matter how beautiful it is, is only a sheath that surrounds the supreme consciousness. Only the tools of prolonged and powerful concentration can take the yogi beyond the alluring realm of bliss.
— p. 229
“The lotus pose is the most desired position for the performance of Samadhi. However, there are no hard and fast rules that make it absolutely necessary….There are a few technicalities of the lotus poste. One must make sure that the hips, thighs, and most importantly the knees, rest evenly on the floor in this asana. Any tightness or stiffness will only lead to the restriction of blood supply to the lower limbs, and soon it will become impossible to continue the asana any further….The position of the spine should be perfectly perpendicular to the floor (apart from its natural curves), as viewed from all angles.
— p. 240
“After conforming to this ‘stable and pleasurable’ posture, one has to start with the shaktichalana kriya. This practice owes its origin to the tantric tradition. With conscious psychic direction, the controlled and regulated prana is made to travel complete cycles between the mooladhara and sahasrara chakras. A few days of practice is necessary to arrive at a comfortable rhythm for the introduction of Samadhi. Samadhi is practiced by the rhythmic introduction of Pranav, or ‘cosmic resonance’
— pp. 240-241
“This is the most delicate of all yogic practices. Its correct practice results in the achievement of powerful siddhis [psychic capabilities], but repeat failure can result in permanent psychic damage.
— p. 241
The Nature of Teaching
“Teaching is synonymous with touching a soul forever and is not merely a means of transmitting information.
— p. 258
“No matter how good or bad, wise or dumb the teacher may be, he always remains respectable in the eyes of his student.
“A teacher never makes the student; it is always the student who makes a teacher.
“A teacher is only a teacher for the purpose of a student.
“A teacher does not claim himself as such; rather it is the student who recognizes him as a teacher.
— p. 260
“The answers from a student only reflect his recollection capacity, while his questions reveal the way he thinks, and this is precisely what the teacher is looking for.
“The mode of questioning of a student always helps the teacher to modify his teaching; and thus allows the teacher to remain completely aware of the student’s questioning pulse.
“A teacher is never satisfied with the correct answers provided by the student; rather he looks for the correct questions from the student.
— p. 260
“The teacher should never be jealous and protective about his teachings and should never attempt to give his teachings a concrete shape in the mind of the student.
“The teaching has to be perfectly fluid and flexible. Creating a rigid and concrete block in the mind of the student causes more damage than any long-term benefit. Such kind of teaching is less teaching, more brain-washing. Hence, all attempts to create a solid “belief” in the mind of a student must be avoided.
— p. 260
“The teacher should bear in mind that he is only a passing phase in the student’s life, and any attempt to hold onto that phase will only prove disastrous for the student.
“A teacher has no right over the future of his student.
“A teacher should be willing to pass away from the memory of the student.
— pp. 259-260
“The teaching is never judged on the basis of much knowledge was impart, but on the basis of how much knowledge was demanded.
“A teacher can expect nothing from his students, though he deserves and is entitled to a ‘tuition fee’ from his students, which he can ask for only at the end of the teaching — not on the basis of how much he has given, but on the basis of how much the student has taken.
“Greed and expectation always spoil and dilute the teacher-student relationship.
“As long as a teacher has not embodied the correct mindset of teaching, he should not commence teaching.
— p. 261
“Sometimes teachers subconsciously project pride of ownership of knowledge onto their students. This tends to happen when the speaker identifies himself with the ‘information’ he ‘knows’. No matter how subtle these projections may be be, they are always perceived by the audience. Along with the teaching, the audience comes to acquire and integrate these projections, and subsequently everyone in the lineage continues to project and propagate pride and arrogance from generation to generation. In this process, over a short period of time the entire substance of the teaching is lost, and only arrogance and pride remain. Hence it is important for the teacher not to identify himself with his knowledge or teaching.
— pp. 261-262
“Every true teacher humbly dedicates the entire credit of his teaching to his guru. As long as this is done, there is no place for pride to determine teaching.
— p. 262
“The teacher not only owes knowledge to his guru, but also owes it to his students. He should humbly relay the entire knowledge to his students without any conditions, reservations, or attachments. By the purest manner of transmission of knowledge, the substance of the teaching becomes more and more luminous in the process, and is never lost.
— p. 262
“Yoga is primarily and essentially a spiritual training, hence it is essential to know the spiritual past of a student before even giving the basic practices….The student is never in a position to know or remember his past. It is always the duty of the teacher to find out the spiritual background of every student prior to taking responsibility for his spiritual growth.
— pp. 263-264
“The calculation (of a student’s history) is accomplished through the use of vedic astrology and the application of certain siddhis….The teacher actually comes to ‘see’ the past lives of a student.
— p. 264
The Temptations of Teaching
“Every day, dozens of people visited me to beg for some help or other. They seemed to posess the strong belief that I was personally responsible for all the amazing effects of their practice and well-being, and that my blessings had the capacity to rid them of all their woes….I persistently explained that it was not me, but their sincere efforts that helped them. Everything they were asking for was beyond the blessings of anyone….But none of them would ever listen to me.
— pp. 284-285
“In my opinion, the greatest misfortune that can happen to a yogi is his followers. Followers invariably raise the status of a yogi to a level that is difficult to resist. The more people praise and raise him, the more he gets carried away with the glory of his own false image.
— p. 285
“A yogi is essentially identified with his detachment, indifference, and egoless existence. The moment he acquires followers, he begins to lose the absolute purity of his life….An aspiring yogi should never forget that he himself has yet to complete his journey. The reason behind my teaching is not only to help others, but also to help myself….Teaching is a way of paying for my journey. Followers have no place in my life.
— p. 285
“I would place spiritual seekers into two groups. One group follows the teacher, while the other group follows the teaching. I always placed myself in the latter group.
— pp. 285-286
Epilog: WHY did Shivananda Bury Yoga?
In the book, Yogi Manmoyanand’s thesis is that Shivananda effectively buried the “true” Yoga — the synthesis of tantra energy pathways with Hatha asanas, leaving in its place a “gymnastics” practice that dealt with the body only, without providing a path for true spiritual growth. The question of why Shivananda would do such a thing is placed at the doorstep of personal greed and arrogance.
But there is another possible explanation.
According to a story I heard recently, Shivananda was the disciple of a woman who learned Tantra directly from Babaji. At the time Shivananda began teaching however, people simply were not ready for Tantra — either in the West or in India, where it had a bad reputation — so he left that part of things out of the practice, focusing instead on the physical health benefits.
So while the Yogi Manmoyanand is correct that Shivananda “buried” (true) Yoga that marries Tantra with Asana, Shivananda did manage to create widespread recognition and acceptance of the Yoga, preparing the ground for the eventual re-combining of those two disciplines —along with Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga, and the many other delightful variants, all of which have their place in the development, evolution, and elevation of humanity.
The popularity of the book suggests that the time is right for that synthesis, as does the emergence of disciplines like Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga, Devotional Tantra, and ISHTA Yoga, which combines mantra, meditation, Hatha Yoga, Tantra, and Ayurveda.
- Tantra Lessons
A collection of insights and inspirations gleaned from my practice of Ipsalu Tantra Kriya Yoga.
An excellent resource for tantric insight and awakening. The practice includes a variety of techniques taken from ancient Rishis (holy/wise men in India), Tibetan monks, and Tai Chi, as well as some Yoga asanas.
- Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda
An incredibly illuminating book, filled with inspirational tales and miraculous events.
- Sivananda Buried Yoga, by Yogi Manmoyanand
An equally enlightening, and inspirational autobiography that doubles as the definitive text on the nature of Yoga and its teaching.
- Yoga for Health and Relief of Tension, by Yogi Vithaldis
Long out of print, but still available in used book stores, this slim volume gave me my first introduction to the subject, when I was still in High School. It has a great introduction to postures, internal cleansing practices, and the Yoga Concentration and Visualization practices that are the foundation of Yoga meditation.
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