Several decades ago an extraordinary Mahatma had a vision of coming to the west for the purpose of disseminating the perennial wisdom of the orient to those thirsty for spiritual knowledge. These parched souls, or “lost stars,” as he referred to them were men and women who were still searching after the panacea for all their ills, as well as for the truth of their existence. It was this great being’s mission to impart the rejuvenative practices of Yoga to them. The man’s name was Shri Dhyanyogi Madhusudandasji, one of many Siddhas during this time to make a humanitarian pilgrimage to the occident: teachers like Swami Sivananda and the world renowned Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the highly acclaimed Autobiography of a Yogi also trekked across the globe out of compassion for their fellow humans. They prognosticated that Yoga would sweep across the western hemisphere to counteract the misery caused by ignorance and materialism, and nearly half a century later the predictions of these exemplary men have proved prophetic.
A flailing global economy, the decimation of our natural environment, pandemic poverty and seemingly endless war have left the average person stressed and anxious, if not destitute. Many turn to drugs, alcohol and/or sex as a means of escape, while others immerse themselves in countless other distractions in the hope of finding release. However, all these measures are not only temporary, but destructive, and a new means of coping with stress, disease and depression is desperately needed in our society. Yoga has answered the call.
It is ironic to call Yoga “new” since it is the oldest life science on the earth. Enlightened souls have been expounding on the Yogic doctrines since time immemorial, and countless experiments, conducted in both external and internal laboratories have confirmed what they promise: overall health, and ultimately, liberation. The power of Yoga comes from the fact that it addresses every part of the human being, namely the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The word Yoga itself comes from the Sanskrit word for “yoke” or to unify. What is there to become one with? Firstly, the individual Self (Jiva), and then the cosmic Self (Shiva).
Therefore, true Yoga occurs when there is a harmony between the individual soul and God. This is what all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world have described as being the summum bonum of existence: enlightenment, heaven, Nirvana, Moksha, Samadhi, etc. Of course, freedom from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) is not easily won; only those with great discipline and God’s unmerited grace attain this exalted state. However, one should not be discouraged by the monumental task of self-realization, since along the way there are many measurable benefits to practicing the various forms of Yoga, namely Hatha (physical exercises), Jnana (knowledge), Mantra (sacred sounds), Karma (action)), Bhakti (love and devotion), and Dhyana (meditation).
The benefits of Hatha Yoga are manifold, and have been confirmed by both practitioners and medical professionals alike. In Vedic science the human being is said to have different layers which constitute his existence (called sheathes). The first sheathe is the physical body. By performing asanas (postures) the physical body is made strong and limber. When the body is made flexible there is a subsequent opening and purifying of the nerve channels inside the body known as nadis.. These channels serve as highways by which the prana, or energy can travel freely to nourish, heal, and enliven the body.
Many hospitals (and some insurance companies) have even begun to accept Yoga as a viable form of physical therapy. Hatha Yoga has another, lesser known advantage. Whenever a person experiences a negative emotion (anger, fear, loss, etc.) which remains unresolved then that emotion becomes stored and locked in the physical body. The process of performing hatha can unlock those areas, thereby releasing the emotion. I have heard this phenomena referred to as “crying on the mat” since many yoga practitioners have inexplicably shed tears in the middle of a pose. According to the great Yogis, there is an asana for every physical ill. Ultimately, however, the purpose of Hatha is to prepare the body for meditation.
Jnana Yoga is known as the Yoga of knowledge, and it entails the reading of any bona fide scripture with the intention of stripping away the veils of avidya, or ignorance that distort our understanding of reality. Jnana Yoga is meant to develop our sense of viveka so that the practitioner can eventually discriminate between truth and illusion, the right path and the wrong one. The mind gets purified over time with the practice of Jnana, and confusion begins to wane. Texts like the Bhagavad Gita (revered by Einstein as being the most perfect of doctrines on any subject), The Ramayana, Buddhist Sutras, the Gospels of Christ and even the Tao Te Ching all lend themselves to the pursuit of Jnana Yoga.
Fortunately, many modern scholars and scientists have begun to refer back to these ancient, eastern texts in order to solve the dilemmas of today. Books like The Tao of Physics and The Holographic Universe show uncanny synchronicities between ageless mystical teachings and recent laboratory findings. Quantum physicists have, since the splitting of the atom, continued to search for the ground of being from which all matter arises. Smaller than the atom (once thought to be the minutest particle) were the protons, neutrons and electrons. Once they split these they eventually uncovered infinitesimally small sacs of energy which they dubbed quarks. Then came neutrinos, then strings, and so the process of reverse engineering continued until an amazing discovery was made. Beneath everything, at the core of all matter are photons of light blinking in and out of existence so rapidly that they give the appearance of creating solid forms (like spinning blades of a propeller creating the illusion of a solid disc). And between these photons? Empty space! Such a discovery echoes the teachings of the Vedas and Sutras which speak of the material world as being illusory, a movie projected from the mind of the Creator onto the screen of time and space: “And the Lord said: ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1:3)
Vedic lore speaks of ten major Avatars, or incarnations of God whose sole purpose for incarnating is to destroy irreligion, and to reinstate the dharma. In Februay of 1486 one such avatar appeared on earth, and His name was Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the originator of the kirtan movement. Kirtan, put simply, is the singing of the Lord’s names, the practice of which disentangles the embodied soul from its material fetters. The power of kirtan is in the vibration of the sound made when a divine name is uttered, and this is the concept behind Mantra Yoga. Mantras are sacred sounds that constitute and recreate “reality” by purifying the internal and external environment of he who chants them. In fact, the whole universe is a construct of sound vibration, and that sound, or progenitor is OM (AUM).
Everything in the universe is energy, and that energy vibrates (think of an air conditioner or car engine humming). The totality of all vibrations in the cosmos coalescing into one would make a sound like that which is recounted in Revelations as the “sound of roaring oceans.” The masters assert that there is a mantra for everything, from health, to money, to intelligence and peace. In the end, however, the purpose of the mantra is to serve as a bridge between man and the Lord. Etymologically speaking, the word AUM is the root of the Latin word Amen: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” (John 1:1)
Of the different branches of Yoga it seems that Karma Yoga is best suited to the action-filled, work obsessed western lifestyle. Quite simply, Karma Yoga is performing selfless service for its own sake, and turning the fruits/results of said service over to God. In Karma Yoga the practitioner acknowledges that it is God who is the doer. Philanthropy in its purest form is Karma Yoga. Studies have shown that children that are regularly involved in charity events at school or at their local churches experience better sleep, less stress, and perform better in school, on average. Those who give truly receive.
Bhakti Yoga is for people with an inclination towards love, passion and intimacy. In practicing Bhakti Yoga one seeks to create a bond of love with God and all his creation. To see God in everything and everything in God is the path of the Bhakti Yogi. Hindus are known for their Bhakti more than westerners who seem to have had stoic, puritan ancestors (however, many Baptist and Born Again churches have taken to worshiping the divine with raucous, shameless singing and dancing). In the Vedic epic Ramacharitramanasa we are introduced to Hanuman, the embodiment of Bhakti itself. Hanuman is the 11th incarnation of Lord Shiva, and as such is a perfectly free being with power and wisdom as vast the universe itself. But instead of becoming a Guru, as is his right, Hanuman chooses to remain in the role of servant, always placed at the Lotus feet of Lord Rama. If the goal is God, and God is love, then Bhakti is both the path and destination: “Those who worship Me without deviation, engaged in devotional service- for them I am the swift deliverer from the ocean of birth and death.”
(Bhagavad Gita 12: 6-7)
The centerpiece of a truly effective Yoga practice is Dhyana. Meditation is the process of quieting the ever-churning activities of the mind, and in that stillness uncovering the peace, clarity and joy that await us. Meditation has been called the most noble of pursuits because it serves to improve not only the practitioner, but the entire universe, and is the best practice someone can undertake to improve his/her life. If someone wants to help a tree to grow healthy and strong then they won’t try to water each individual leaf, twig and branch (such an endeavor would not only waste time, energy and water, but the tree would eventually die anyway). But if someone waters the roots, then the whole tree is nourished. Similarly, meditation feeds our souls, the root of our existence, and subsequently our entire being is sustained. Those who meditate regularly stimulate brain growth, have less stress, lower blood pressure, fewer heart problems, better sleep, and more peace.
Pictures taken of the brain waves of Buddhist monks who were at rest showed a brain chemistry which is identical to that of people who are in a heightened state of creativity (like artists, musicians and scientists). They also showed more neuroplasticity than those of the non-meditating subjects, which means that the brain can be rewired, contrary to what brain researchers have previously believed. In a world of noise and chaos meditation is like an internal reset button. Dhyanyogiji says meditation “is a way to find out who you are. Your mind becomes exhilarated. You gain greater peace of mind and relaxation. Your concentration also increases. It also increases efficiency of your day-to-day activities. Everything is better if you meditate.”
When the seeker integrates all these different branches of Yoga into his/her practice with faith, enthusiasm and consistency then this is called Raja (Royal) Yoga, said to be the highest path. And when the goal of Raja Yoga has been reached then all veils of illusion fall away, and the meaning of our existence becomes blissfully clear. As Shree Dhyanyogi stated: “One realizes the full potential of body and mind, attains inner peace, harmony and integration, and ultimately experiences the sublime truth of unity in diversity- the fact that all life is one and is bound by that divine power called love.”
When we have through the practice of Yoga thus reclaimed our true, divine birthright then can we truly call ourselves sons and daughters of God, scions of The King kings, and as princes and princesses of the universe apply the much needed salve to a our wounded world. It all begins, and ends, within.
Eric Noel Perez is a certified Yoga teacher. He teaches Yoga classes in the Bay Shore, New York area.