om. asato mā sad gamaya tamaso mā jyotir gamaya, mṛtyor mā amṛtaṁ gamaya. oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ.
Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.
Om peace peace peace.
from Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad
Most human beings act as though the purpose of life is to seek happiness derived from the enjoyment of the senses. Whatever desire arises in the human mind, the tendency is to fulfill it. If that desire does not get fulfilled, it will lead to inner frustration and anger, and if we do manage to get what we crave, our never-satisfied ego wants more and more of it. If we examine human history, the greed, war and pollution of the environment that we see everywhere can be traced to the fundamental root cause, desire.
In the ancient wisdom-filled yogic text, the Bhagavad Gītā, it is said that whatever one’s mind thinks of (saṅkalpa), for that thing one develops a desire, and one will strive to fulfill it. Whatever it is that one desires, one will make efforts towards that, but one may or may not achieve the desired object. If we do achieve it, it will only lead to greed, and if something obstructs that achievement, it will lead to anger. But there will be no end to desire. It takes some amount of courage to investigate one’s own mind, in order to figure out what one really wants. But definitely, an individual’s actions will show to the world what he or she is craving- whether it is wealth, acknowledgement, fame, sex or anything else. We assume that all those things in which we find satisfaction, through the use of the senses, will finally quench the thirst of the ego, ahaṁkāra – but surely they do not. And we all know this from our personal experience, because even when the desire gets fulfilled, there is still a sense of dissatisfaction. And this is the dilemma of humanity from times immemorial.
When a person realizes this, it can be said to be the beginning of Yoga. At this stage, one can make the conscious choice to enter onto the path of Yoga, a path of true inner evolution, in order to realize one’s pure nature as the Supreme Consciousness (which is the ultimate goal of all Yoga). It is called Self-knowledge.
It is a difficult journey, but not impossible. The scriptures (Upaniṣads, Bhagavad Gītā, etc.) can serve as a guideline, so as not to get caught up and lost on our journey towards freedom, peace and happiness – (which fundamentally is for what we are all searching). These scriptures teach us the yogic methods by which we can purify our naturally extroverted minds, and this is necessary because the true nature of the Self only reveals itself by a purified mind.
One of the Upaniṣads describes this dynamic as: “The person who has not given up all bad behavior, is not peaceful, cannot concentrate, and who has not pacified his mind is not qualified to get this knowledge“. (Kaṭhopaniṣad 1.2.24) Hearing this, most of us will understand that the one who is aspiring to Yoga has to make an effort to truly acquire these above-mentioned inner qualities. Otherwise, it is possible for one to understand the teachings intellectually, but it will not directly culminate in one’s own experience (anubhava).
There is also a section in the Bhagavad Gītā which states very clearly the sāttvika characteristics of the mind that will lead one to happiness, freedom and Self-knowledge. These are: humility, lack of pride, nonviolence, patience, non-hypocrisy, purity, persistence, self-control, dispassion, lack of egotism, non-clinging, absence of extreme identification with one’s possessions, unswerving devotion to Truth, resorting to a quiet space, and constantly engaging in the subject of Truth (BG XIII.7-11). These are the qualities that will bring purity of mind to a true yogī, and the opposite of these qualities will only lead one to being a bhogī. The words yoga and yogī are derived from the saṁskṛta root yuj, which means “to join”. It means that one must join one’s entire being to the inner Truth. The word bhogī is derived from the saṁskṛta root bhuj, which means “to enjoy“. For a bhogī, the concern is mainly the enjoyment of sense objects.
In the ancient Purāṇas (Indian mythology), the forces of darkness and evil are often depicted to be very strong and challenging to the forces of light and goodness. The path of Light and Truth is narrow; in order to attain a pure, sāttvika mind, a yogī cannot do many of the things others are doing, such as being arrogant or proud, boasting, causing harm to others, being egotistical, stealing, cheating – just to name a few. It takes being conscious of one’s own mind and motivations to make the necessary effort. It feels more free to do as one pleases, but on deeper reflection, we can see that this freedom is no freedom at all.
A yogī will develop mumukṣutva, an intense desire for liberation, and this desire will become so strong that what seems at first impossible can in fact be accomplished. Only then a yogī starts to train his mind in a way that becomes conducive to Self-realization. This is so because it is only in a sāttvika mind that viveka, discrimination of what is not-Self and what is the true Self, can take place and ultimately culminate in the realization of one’s inner nature. Otherwise, these sublime teachings are as useful as daylight is to an owl who can only see during the night. The path of Truth and Light, the path of Yoga, is the path that will lead one to true satisfaction and happiness – and also will contribute to the betterment and welfare of society. –Anja Kuehnal
1. In your class, focus on one of the qualities that are are preliminary for ātma-jñāna, the knowledge of the Self. They are mentioned in Bhagavad Gītā XIII. 7-11. Define them and encourage students to find ways to work on strengthening them in their lives.
2. Emphasize the aim of a vinyāsa practice. The word vinyāsa means an ordered placement of a sequence of events from beginning to end (vi – ordered, nyāsa – placement). Every moment of life, whether consciously or unconsciously, we make a choice. The choices we make as yogīs should lead us to śreyas, the highest good. Everything we do ultimately matters, and this includes the food we eat, how much we consume and how we interact with one another. If what we do strengthens our sāttvika qualities, it will lead to purity of mind. This is necessary in order to remove all of the things that we are not, and then ultimately to see our true Self, which is sat-cid-ānanda. Sat is existence beyond time and space, cit is consciousness without any object, and ānanda is bliss that is not caused by anything.
3. Encourage students to establish a regular routine for their sādhanā, consistent spiritual practice. Something they are not questioning. Like getting up in the morning practicing meditation. (More details can be found in Sharon Gannon’s book The Magic Ten and Beyond.)
For the yogī all of life is sādhanā. It is a process of evolution of one’s own self. So don’t find excuses or justify laziness, or rationalize that “Since the truth is already there, I do not need to make any effort”. These are tāmasika tendencies of the ego, which likes its identification with worldly things.
4. Be aware that all the many efforts one makes to purify the mind are only necessary because of avidyā, ignorance. Avidyā means taking something for what it is not. We are all taking this world to be something independently real, when in fact, through the practices of Yoga, we come to realize that there is only the Self.
5. Practice nāḍī-śodhana-prāṇāyāma at the end of class before śavāsana as a tool to balance the prāṇa in the body, to help create the awareness that nothing from the outside is needed for true happiness.
6. Emphasize the practice of meditation to help focus and quiet the mind. This will also help you to always appreciate what the real goal of Yoga is.
7. Do a word-by-word translation of this verse in your classes:
asato mā sad gamaya tamaso mā jyotir gamaya, mṛtyor mā amṛtaṁ gamaya.
asato mā sad gamaya — please lead me from unreality to reality asataḥ — (from) unreality/untruth mā — me sat — to reality/being/truth (√as = to be) gamaya — please make me go/lead me (√gam = to go)
tamaso mā jyotir gamaya — please lead me from darkness to light tamasaḥ — from darkness mā — me jyotiḥ — to light gamaya — please make me go/lead me (√gam = to go)
mṛtyor mā amṛtam gamaya — please lead me from death to immortality mṛtyoḥ — from death mā — me amṛtam — to immortality/nectar gamaya — please make me go/lead me (√gam = to go)