Ashtanga-yoga, Kundalini, and Bhakti
By Jahnudvipa Dasa
A close look at the steps in the traditional yoga system shows why it's unsuitable for the modern age.
The path of the classical yoga system described in the Vedic tradition is long and severe. Conceived by the ancient sage Patanjali, that system is called ashtanga-yoga, or the eightfold yoga system. It is a scientific, psychic method to gradually raise the consciousness to higher levels of awareness, culminating in samadhi. At that stage the self, realizing its own true nature, leaves its mortal shell and enters the liberated state. The eight progressive steps of the ashtanga-yoga system are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. I will briefly describe each step and then contrast ashtanga-yoga with bhakti-yoga.
Yama and Niyama
The first two principles, yama and niyama, are the do's and the don'ts, and they are applicable not only in yoga but in all aspects of life, for regardless of whether one aims at success in material or spiritual life, the key word is renunciation. We can't fulfill our wishes or reach life's goal without being to some degree renounced. Our practical lives confirm this. As a child I had a friend who would save his pocket money. Instead of spending it all on sweets and cinema trips, as the rest of us would invariably do, he would hold back and eventually save enough to buy stereo equipment. I was most impressed by this. As far as I was concerned it was an almost unfathomable feat, because I could never save my money. I always spent everything I had at once.
Later in life this friend went on to become a successful doctor. In high school and college, while his friends were out partying and having fun, he would stay home to study and prepare for exams. I realized then that to obtain success in the long run, one has to renounce many short-term pleasures. To work towards a better position in adult life, one has to forego many of the immediate pleasures one is often pushed to pursue in youthful life. In other words, one has to be renounced. One has to be able to control one's senses. Without sense control there is no possibility of success in material or spiritual life.
To control the senses is the preliminary aim of any genuine yoga system, and in ashtanga-yoga this is accomplished in a diligent and systematic way. Yama, the first step, means avoiding things that hinder attainment of the goal. For example, one must give up things like illicit sex, TV, movies, intoxication, and certain foods, such as meat, fish, and eggs. These things pollute the consciousness, distract the attention away from the self, and place it on the bodily demands and other externals.
Niyama, the second step, refers to the beneficial activities—daily meditations, rituals, exercise—one has to perform to reach the ultimate goal of yoga, union with the Supreme.
One crucial thing a yogi must avoid at all costs in ashtanga-yoga is sex. It is not possible to advance in this system unless one practices complete abstinence. In ordinary mundane life pleasures are mostly pursued outside of ourselves. We search for happiness in the body or mind by connecting the senses with objects or bodies outside ourselves, or we seek mental gratification in the form of name, fame, distinction, and power. The ashtanga-yoga system, however, gives entrance to the deeper pleasures that lie within the soul. But before one can access this hidden pleasure, one has to restrain the senses from their engagement in the external world. In other words, in the yoga system the happiness sought after is not the happiness that arises from sense gratification. Sense gratification is not considered genuine happiness, because it invariably leads to suffering.
ye hi samsparsha-ja bhoga
duhkha-yonaya eva te
na teshu ramate budhah
"An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti, such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them." (Bhagavad-gita 5.22)
This brings us to the third step, asana, known to most westerners as hatha-yoga. This discipline prepares the body to stay in different postures for long periods. The side effects include a healthy, slim body, but the real purpose is to gradually train the body to stay in the same position for hours or days and eventually even months and years. Until one can sit in the lotus position for hours and days without shifting and being uncomfortable, one cannot, for example, successfully raise the kundalini (more on that later).
After years and years of practice, the yogi who has trained the body to master the asanas, or the hatha-yoga system, will begin to work on breathing in the next step, pranayama. The aim of pranayama is, simply speaking, to gradually lower the breathing cycle. The Vedic tradition teaches that the lifespan of all living entities is predetermined by their number of breaths. By lowering the breathing cycle, accomplished yogis can prolong their lives by years—or even decades or centuries. This is necessary because becoming adept in the different disciplines of the ashtanga-yoga system takes a long time.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam relates the history of a prince named Dhruva Maharaja who went to the forest and took to this practice in order to meet Lord Vishnu. He practiced yoga so determinedly that he was eventually eating only leaves. He stood on one leg and practiced pranayama, gradually lowering his breathing cycle to the point of inhaling and exhaling only once in six months.
The true aim of pranayama, however, is more than just prolonging one's life. The real aim is to be able to sit in trance and meditate, first on the prana (life airs) and chakras (energy centers), then on the inner self, and finally on the Supersoul within the heart. By gradually extending the breathing cycle, one can subdue the actions of the body and mind. When the mind becomes still, one can turn it from being engaged in the external world to being focused within. We all know the expression "Take a deep breath" to calm the mind. It works.
The yogi who has mastered breathing (by, as the Gita says, "offering the outgoing breath into the incoming") is ready to proceed to the next step. Called pratyahara, this is the stage where the senses are withdrawn from all external engagements. The self shifts awareness from the physical world to the inner world of the mind. The senses, which are absorbed in the objects and relationships of the physical world, are forced to retract and focus on the inner, psychic world. The world of the mind is subtle. Some people call it the astral plane. In pratyahara the consciousness goes from being absorbed in the external, physical plane to being absorbed in the internal, psychic plane. Transcendental to or above both these planes is the plane of pure consciousness, toward which the yogi strives.
Through further hard practice, yogis able to maintain the focus of their consciousness progress to the stage of dharana, full fixation on the inner, subtle world of the mind. All sensual engagements have ceased, and the yogi perceives only the mind. There is no perception of sound, touch, form, taste, or smell, and thus no awareness of the external world. Only when one reaches the dharana state does dhyana, meditation, arise.
In the modern world people use the word meditation cheaply to describe almost any kind of concentration. Some people even think that to just sit down, relax, and let the mind wander is meditation, or if they are a little more advanced they think that focusing on a flame or a ring on the wall for five minutes is meditation. We should note, however, that in the classical yoga system described in the Vedic tradition meditation does not take place before one can completely cease all external sensual engagements and focus the consciousness on the self. Only then can one progress to the state of dhyana, or meditation.
Now the yogi begins to meditate—and discovers the soul, the real observer within. The soul finally observes its own self as an illuminating particle of consciousness within the heart. Understanding that this is the real self, the mature yogi also sees the Supersoul form of Krishna, who lives in the heart of all living entities. Sometimes pride or insufficient knowledge causes the yogi to mistake the Supersoul for his own self and conclude that he himself is the Supreme. The yogi who makes that mistake will not reach Vaikuntha, the spiritual planets where devotees eternally serve the Supreme Lord, but will go no further than impersonal Brahman, the Lord's spiritual rays. Thus the yogi who discovers God in the heart can either maintain a humble position and surrender to Him, or reach any goal up to liberation from the material world. This is the final test for the yogi: to attain a higher material position, merge with Brahman, or become God's servant. Whatever the yogi chooses at that point will be attained.
The yogi has now reached the state called samadhi, the final goal of meditation, and is ready to leave the body through the process sometimes called raising the kundalini. The yogi pushes the soul out through the top of the skull and goes wherever the consciousness is fixed at that moment. Histories of yogis described in Vedic literature show that the energy thus released is so immense that the body is sometimes consumed by fire. We learn from the Srimad-Bhagavatam that when King Dhritarashtra went to the forest to leave his body in this way, he started a forest fire. It was into this fire that his wife, Gandhari, and Queen Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, entered together to gain release from their mortal bodies.
Only when one has reached the state of samadhi can one begin to raise the kundalini. The yogi pushes the life airs (prana) from the mula-chakra, the lowest chakra, gradually up through the other chakras of the body until it reaches the heart chakra. From its seat there, the soul rises to the highest chakra, at the top of the head. Pushing the prana up through the different chakras constitutes a kundalini rising. As the kundalini is rising, the pressure inside the body becomes so great that the yogi must use the mastered asana and pranayama techniques to block all the holes in body lest the soul should escape through any one of them. The Vedic literature calls the body "the city of nine gates" (anus, genitals, mouth, two nostrils, two ear holes, and two eyes).
This type of yoga is extremely difficult to practice in the modern age. The yogis of yore would go to the forest to practice ashtanga-yoga and leave their bodies.
The Yoga of Chanting
For spiritual perfection in the current age, Kali-yuga, the Vedic literature doesn't recommend ashtanga-yoga, a severe practice. Instead, it recommends the simple, sublime method of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, which can be practiced anywhere, even in an apartment downtown. In fact, a person can benefit more from chanting the holy names of the Lord while sitting in a city apartment than from sitting in the Himalayas practicing ashtanga-yoga for 100,000 years, the general lifespan of people in Satya-yuga, when this practice was the norm.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that one who practices bhakti-yoga can reap any result obtained from practicing any other yoga. And the Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.3.52) states:
krite yad dhyayato vishnum
tretayam yajato makhaih
kalau tad dhari-kirtanat
"Whatever result was obtained in Satya-yuga by meditating on Vishnu, in Treta-yuga by performing sacrifices, and in Dvapara-yuga by serving the Lord's lotus feet can be obtained in Kali-yuga simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra."
People in the present age are simply too disturbed to sit down and practice the ancient yoga system. Maybe a few yogis can still go into the Himalayas, sit in seclusion in a mountain cave, and practice this system, but for the people in general it is not possible. Nor are there qualified teachers to guide a serious student in this yoga process.
The fundamental difference between the ashtanga-yoga system and the bhakti-yoga system is that in the first, yogis try to elevate themselves by their own mental and intellectual endeavors. In bhakti-yoga we ask Krishna to pick us up and carry us back to Him. Srila Prabhupada likened the difference between the two methods to the difference in how a kitten and a baby monkey are carried by their respective mothers. The baby monkey holds on to its mother by its own strength. When the mother monkey jumps around from tree to tree, her baby can lose its grip and fall to the ground. The kitten, on the other hand, is carried to safety by its mother, depending solely on the mother's strength. In the same way, the bhakti-yogi, aware of being powerless without Krishna, depends solely on Him. Ashtanga yogis struggle to cross the ocean of material suffering by their own powers and have no guarantee of success. But someone who surrenders to Krishna can very easily cross over nescience.
daivi hy esha guna-mayi
mama maya duratyaya
mam eva ye prapadyante
mayam etam taranti te
"This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it." (Bhagavad-gita 7.14)
Bhakti-yoga is infinitely easier and more secure than manipulating the prana and chakras to push the soul through the top of the head at the final moment. In bhakti-yoga, Krishna helps His devotee reach the final goal.