In recent years, “yoga” has become a household word with the number of practitioners steadily growing around the globe. A 2016 study reported that more than 36 million people—up from 20 million in 2012—practice yoga in America alone. The varying ways yoga is being taught has also expanded with new forms regularly appearing, including the hybridization of yoga methods with other modalities, from spinning to paddle-boarding to wine tasting, etc.
While the popularization of yoga is, generally, a positive thing, in many cases the meaning of yoga and the reason for practice may be lost or obscured. When yoga is practiced without understanding or the correct intention, it can lead you away from the yogic state rather than toward the bliss that is promised.
Ultimately, the word yoga refers to the union of the personal self (soul) with the Universal Self, also known as Paramātman or Brahman, considered as the highest form of God. While yoga is an experience, the practice is the vehicle used to bring about the conditions for this union to arise. It is this one state of unity, singular in nature, that many different methods of yoga practice aim to achieve. In order for yoga practices to be successful, however, it is necessary to understand not only what is yoga, but also to develop a state of mind conducive to fostering the ideal environment for this unity to arise.
The Sanskrit word bhāvanā is used to describe this mindset. From the Sanskrit root bhū, or “to be,” bhāvanā means the cultivation of a proper intention. In this context, it refers to creating the mental conditions and focus supportive of success in yoga. It also infers a feeling of faith and devotion in the process. Nurturing yogic bhāvanā from the outset is crucial for the practice to lead toward the final goal of yoga, that is, ‘to be’ or ‘to reside’ in the Self.
There are many sources of inspiration and knowledge for the cultivation of yogic bhāvanā. First, and foremost, is the direct connection to a teacher who has progressed on the path of yoga and attained sufficient experiential knowledge of the system while following an unbroken paramparā, or lineage. The direct connection and devotion to such a teacher has the potential to bring one’s practice to a new level of understanding. In some cases, this may be sufficient, however, for most students, further study of yoga texts and related materials is an important foundation in developing bhāvanā.
While Śrī K Pattabhi Jois, or Guruji, was often quoted as saying, “Yoga is 99 percent practice and 1 percent theory,” he did not mean that we should practice blindly and ignore the underlying philosophy of yoga explained in the śastras, the ancient texts that contain the authoritative teachings of yoga. He simply meant that we should understand and apply the theory of yoga through constant effort—both on and off the mat—incorporating those philosophies into our lives instead of just talking about them. Furthermore, he felt that we should study philosophy as much as possible to try to gain necessary insights into yoga.
Related: Sharath Jois On the Systematic Nature of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga
But how can we gain an understanding of what the yogic state entails without having experienced it directly? Guruji often explained that the method he taught was the Aṣṭāṅga Yoga of Patanjali and Patanjali’s text, The Yoga Sutras, are key to understanding both the method of practice and the state of yoga. Patanjali describes the different stages of yoga in great depth, including the objectives and outcomes of practice as well as the obstacles to practice and those things that are favorable to progression in yoga. It is the foundational text for Aṣṭāṅga yoga and is essential reading for all serious students of this method, though it can be very difficult to penetrate for the beginner, especially without the presence of a qualified teacher to explain it.
As an alternative to The Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita is a rich and descriptive literature that’s far more accessible, offering great insights into yoga, the yogic state, and the fruits of practice. In fact, when asked about The Yoga Sutras, Guruji felt that they were, initially, quite difficult for many of his Western students to comprehend and would often recommended they first read the Gita, as most call it.
The Gita is an ancient text that gives a much broader overview and understanding of the discipline of yoga. It approaches yoga from several different perspectives such as karma, bhakti and jñāna yoga, offering alternative views and approaches to yoga practice. It is an excellent preparation for understanding The Yoga Sutras. Despite its association with Hinduism, it is considered by many to be approachable from a secular standpoint as it outlines a yogic understanding that can be applied to all aspects of life without any ties to religion.
The Upanishads, like the Gita, give little direct instruction on the practical techniques of yoga, but lay the foundations for an understanding of the yogic state through an examination of the relationship between the personal and Universal Self, the union of which is the ultimate goal of yoga practice. The Upanishads often present their teachings through the enquiry of an enlightened teacher by a student in a way that is descriptive and easily digested.
Other texts such as the Bhagavata Purana and Ramayana contain descriptions of the lives and actions of great sages and characters who have attained the highest states of yoga. It is through their examples that we are able to gain a deeper understanding of our own path. The Yoga Sutras contain a sutra in relation to this. Sutra 1:37 states “Vītarāga viṣayaṃ vā cittam” – “or [fixing] the mind on a person who has abandoned attraction” (offered as a way to overcome obstacles in yoga). The character of Hanuman in the Ramayana is an excellent example of this. He has obtained perfect control of his senses and exhibits all the characteristics of a very great yogi. By reading his story and fixing the mind on his character, the reader may be able to able to internalize those characteristics, helping to overcome obstacles on the yogic path.
Although it is something that is difficult to quantify empirically, reading about Hanuman, Buddha, Christ, or modern enlightened saints, such as Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna, brings an innate understanding of the yogic state through the examples of their lives. Indeed, comprehending the essence of these great masters is particularly profound in informing yogic bhāvanā and, thus, steers practice in the desired direction. Similarly, being in the presence of a living teacher who has brought their mind and senses to a state of quietude—a level of control that all practitioners are striving toward—is extremely beneficial.
Lastly, bhāvanā infers a high level of faith and devotion in the yoga path. These are two elements that provide enormous resilience and determination to continue when progress seems difficult. When combined with an understanding of authentic yoga philosophy, dedication to practice and the connection to a great teacher or yogic role model, you will begin to feel the goal of yoga is finally possible.