There are many definitions of yoga such as:

  • Yoga as the movement from one point to another, higher one
  • Yoga as the bringing together, the unifying of two things
  • Yoga as action with undivided, uninterrupted attention

These definitions of yoga have one thing in common: the idea that something changes. This change must bring us to a point where we have never been before. That is to say, that which was impossible becomes possible; that which was unattainable becomes attainable; that which was invisible can be seen. One of the basic reasons many people take up yoga is to change something about themselves: to be able to think more clearly, to feel better and to be able to act better today than they did yesterday in all areas of life. In these endeavours yoga can be of great help, and it requires no prerequisites that must be fulfilled before we set out on this path. Just because yoga originated in India does not mean that we must become a Hindu in order to practice it. On the contrary, it is not even expected of a Hindu that he or she practice yoga. Yoga does not require a particular belief system and, if we already have one, it is not challenged by yoga. Everyone can begin, and the point at which we start is very personal and individual, depending on where we are at the time.

Why do we set out on this journey at all? Because we sense that we do not always do what might be best for ourselves or others. Because we notice that we often do not recognize things around us and in us clearly enough. And why does this happen? Because the veil of avidyā (misapprehension, incorrect knowledge, false understanding) clouds our perceptions. We can, in any given moment, be right or wrong in our assessment of a situation, but this is something we cannot tell at the time. If our view of a situation is false, then avidyā is present and the ensuing action will be clouded by it. In this way avidyā influences both our actions and the results of our actions, which we will sooner or later have to confront. From the yogic point of view everything is real and there is no illusion. Even avidyā, the source of so many problems, has a value and is real. Everything we see and experience is accepted. This concept is called satvāda (the yogic concept that dreams, ideas, thoughts, and all that we imagine is real.) Yoga also claims that everything is in a state of change and flux. We will not see things tomorrow in the same way we saw them today. This concept is called pariṇāma-vāda. (theory of real transformation)

If we follow yogic thinking further, we find that there is something that can perceive this constant change in things because it is itself not subject to change. This is puruṣa something deep within us that is really able to see and recognize the true nature of all things, including the fact that they are in a state of constant change. But puruṣa is cloaked with the same veil of avidyā that covers the mind.

Avidyā is expressed and experienced in four different ways. One way is asmitā, the ego: “I am right”; “I am sad”; “I am a yoga teacher.” These are statements of asmitā. We identify completely with something that might possibly change, and may no longer belong to us tomorrow. Another form of avidyā is raga, the desire to have something whether we need it or not. A third form is dveṣa, which manifests as refusing things and having feelings of hatred. And finally there is abhinivesa or fear – afraid of death, we cling to life with all our might. These are the four possible ways in which avidyā is expressed.

The essential purpose of yoga practice is to reduce avidyā so that understanding can gradually come to the surface. But how can we know whether we have seen and understood things clearly? When we see the truth, when we reach a level that is higher than our normal everyday understanding, something deep within us is very quiet and peaceful. Then there is a contentment that nothing can take from us. It is not the kind of satisfaction derived from gazing at a beautiful object. It is much more than this. It is a satisfaction deep within us that is free from feeling and judgement. The center of this contentment is puruṣa.

This is an excerpt taken from: The Heart Of Yoga by T.K.S. Desikachar – If you wish to read further on this topic we recommend this book.