Yoga Will Never Make You Enlightened (Unless You Become a Buddhist!)

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Jan 22, 2011
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…or start putting as much energy into a daily meditation practice as you put into your posture yoga practice. Period.

Why does yoga superstar Rodney Yee call himself a yogi yet encourages people to practice Buddhist meditation? Why do so few yogis practice yogic meditation?

The simple reason is that the renaissance men of modern posture yoga, such as B. K. S. Iyengar, put little emphasis on yogic meditation practices. Consequently, the Western teachers that eventually followed in his footsteps, from Brian Kest to Seane Corn, never emphasized nor have the knowledge to teach the higher lessons of yogic meditation.

Hence, my fellow yogis, if you desire Enlightenment with a capital E, then you better join a Buddhist Sangha where they spend time sitting instead of moving. Or, you can seek out one of those Indian yogis who still knows the art and science of pratyahara, pranayama, dharana, and dhyan—all those teachings you have heard of in class, but most yoga teachers do not have a clue about how to actually teach.

I am not talking abou paratyahara as sense withdrawal practice by staying away from watching too much sensationalist news on TV, see too many gratuitous violent movies, or surf the net at all odd hours of the day.

I am talking about pratyahara as part of your meditation practice, an inner technique in withdrawing the mind from the external world, so that one may enjoy the mind as it is blissfully reflected in the lake of its own inner essence.

I am talking about the process in meditation that prepares for and precedes your focusing on your breath and your mantra and your carefully chosen chakra. In other words, the process of meditation that distinguishes yogic meditation from TM meditation, for example.

That is, the process of meditation which enables the mind to withdraw the senses from the external world before you actually start meditating. In TM, you simply meditate by repeating a mantra. In yogic meditation—the way Patanjali intended but not prescribed in any detail—you prepare the mind through pratyahara before you actually commence the deeper process of meditation on your mantra, which is then synchronized with its inner meaning, its sacred sound, your breath and your chosen chakra (istha chakra).

That’s yogic meditation. That is at least one important aspect of yogic meditation. And you won’t learn that process in most yoga studios. Because most yoga studios do not teach the spiritual and meditative aspects of yoga.

Most yoga studios teach posture yoga. And the goal of posture yoga is not Enlightenment with a capital E. The goal of most posture yoga is to have better abs, a slimmer body, experience deeper relaxation and more general wellbeing.

That said, many yoga studios do teach pranayama, which is also part of the yoga of Enlightenment. However, the hatha yoga pranayama taught in most yoga studios is not intended for Enlightenment either, it is intended to energize the body and control the bodily airs, or vayus. Its main purpose is to increase wellbeing and health.

Spiritual pranayama (also termed raja yoga or rajadhirajayoga pranayma), as it was taught by Astavakra (ca. 400 BCE) and the tantric sages that preceded him, uses mantra and concentration synchronized with the breath to achieve sublime states of bliss.

It has a different goal than hatha yoga pranayama—its goal is to merge breath and mind in the ocean of Cosmic Consciouness. Its goal is not to exert mental force to control the body but rather to synchronize body and mind so that mind can merge with Spirit.

Because such techniques are not taught in most yoga studios, those yogis who seek Enlightenment, those who seek the deeper spiritual experiences of life, they go elsewhere to seek self-transformation. They become Buddhists, for example.

Yes, why is it that so many yoga students who have spiritual aspirations frequently quote teachers who hardly, if ever, spend time doing headstand and peacock posture—people like Thich Nath Hanh and the Dali Lama? Simply because you don’t need a yoga mat or a Rodney Yee yoga video to pursue the path of spirituality or to become Enlightened.

But you do need some form of spiritual practice.

Indeed, many of the great saints of yoga and Buddhism—people like Ramana Maharshi, Ananda Mai Ma, Milarepa and Marpa—they spent very little time doing yoga postures.  Instead they spent a whole lot of time meditating. An amazingly whole lot.

Milarepa locked himself in a cave for many years until he looked green from eating nothing but nettle soup. In other words, he had to do his home work before being considered the greatest yogi this side of the Buddha.

Ramana Maharshi meditated in his cave until ants started eating at his butt so fiercely that some of his disciples had to remove him and tell him he had better things to do—such as teaching others the art of spiritual Enlightenment.

However, there are other Enlightened yogic sages that took a more heart-centered approach to Enlightenment, such as poets Kabir and Mirabai. They danced and sang their way to Enlightenment, but not with any less fierceness as these other yogis. They often spent sleepless nights singing or chanting their bhakti hearts out to their chosen Beloveds, namely Rama and Krishna.

The point is, then fellow yogis, if you want more than what you got, if you desire more than what you got beneath your organic yogi pants, then meditation, either in half or full lotus, will have to become more frequently practiced than the yoga poses you have been used to doing.

Moreover, you’ll have to seek out a teacher or guru who knows how to teach you the lessons required to bring the mind beyond the body and into the realm of Spirit. Unless you just want to read your way into Enlightenment, which most yogis worthy of their sacred mantras would say is next to impossible.

Or, like so many other yogis, you can become a Buddhist. Or a Sufi. But why pick another path when yoga already has all you need? And more!


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


63 Responses to “Yoga Will Never Make You Enlightened (Unless You Become a Buddhist!)”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis, The Yoga Sanctuary. The Yoga Sanctuary said: RT @elephantjournal: Comment: "Yoga Will Never Make You Enlightened (Unless You Become a Buddhist!)" #buddhism […]

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh …Ramesh….Ramesh…provacateur extraordinaire! Maybe you write this for the EJ audience and the "yogis" of yoga and beyond…that might explain your viewpoint…but I must tell you..that…and I think you know this…Buddhism…Tantric Buddhism…beyond reading the Sutra…beyond reading intellectual western writers writing about Buddhism and Bliss…Buddhism if taught by an authentic lineage more Yogic than anything you would ever need to have or find. Are there poses, postures, breathing? Yes. Milarepa had done all of this. My teacher is a master of this. If you practice Buddhist "Yoga"…to completion…and your result authenticated by your Guru…then the fruit of this Yoga will not need to be done again on an outer level. This is a quick path…burning up karma…So I just wanted to let you know it is wrong if Buddhists think that sitting meditation is the only method to make you enlightened…or non buddhists think that Buddhism does not have a tradition of Tantric Yoga. Traditionally this practice is extremely secret. Lately westerneres have made videos and written about this Yoga. If a westerner writes about the Great Perfection then turn and go the other way.

  3. YesuDas says:

    I always enjoy reading your stuff, Ramesh.

  4. Bruce says:

    Excellent words, Ramesh. I have felt/expressed these very sentiments. Ultimately, it is just you and the cushion.

  5. Ramesh says:

    From Facebook:
    Kerry Usanda Verdon my yoga teacher teaches meditation, breath work, and stillness amongst other things. Love it.
    about an hour ago ·
    Jennifer Taylor That is why I practice Kundalini yoga.
    about an hour ago ·
    Robin Ellen Lucas meditation is the whole point of yoga. some people have to move first. but, it's not just physical. after moving in asana, it's the perfect time to harness all of the energy for meditation. otherwise, you miss the gem

  6. ARCreated says:

    Thich Nhat Hanh — moving meditation is meditation too. My yogaasana is not about being slimmer, never has been…it heals me in different ways than my meditation practice ….and when all else fails I ride my motorcycle anyway…

    I pooh pooh on your this is the only way rhetoric :) I am disiclined to agree with your assessment. although I do lead meditation in my yogasana classes I do not see one as more important that the other, merely complimentary. and remember each person has a different physical experience…don't presume to know what will work for one will work for another.

  7. Hi, Ramesh. Great article, as usual.

    You know this already, of course, but for your readers who might not be aware of it, the path of highly disciplined meditation is only one of four paths defined in the Bhagavad Gita itself.

    The Yoga Sutra is a guide to only one of the four, and, not surprisingly, strongly influenced by Buddhism.

    We happen to be covering all four of the major paths right now in Gita in a Nutshell. This week is a summary:

    Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks.

    During the next four weeks we'll be looking at the specific passages from the Bhagavad Gita that describe each of the four major paths: 1) Knowledge, 2) Selfless Giving, 3) Meditation, and 4) Love.

    Bob W.

  8. Ramesh says:

    From Facebook:
    Tracy Hovde Johnson I think there is a turning of the tide, at least in Minneapolis where I practice. As more of the people who started yoga for the "exercise" are beginning to feel some sort of energetic awakening they are receptive for more than just asana and many, especially smaller independent studios, are teaching a more traditional practice including long sivasanas, pranayama, yoganidra, meditation and mantra practice.

  9. Carol Horton says:

    Hi Ramesh – on one level, I get your point and agree – rather ironically, I myself am currently exploring options for Buddhist meditation instruction as an outgrowth of my yoga studies!

    On the other hand – I think there is a lot more in contemporary asana practice than you acknowledge – especially on what I'll call for shorthand the spiritual and psychological levels. There are lots of classes that offer much, much more than exercise.

    True, though, I don't see much emphasis on "enlightenment" in yoga. But it's also true that contemporary Western Buddhist teachers seem to be offering an understanding of enlightenment that's quite different from the classical model – and closer to what people get out of a serious asana practice. Here I'm thinking of teachers like Jack Kornfield, who wrote "After the Ecstasy, the Laundry" – emphasizing that you can have tremendous spiritual experiences but still find that you don't know how to have healthy relationships. So a lot of instruction coming out of Western psychology, which offers so much in terms of developing a healthy small "s" self is mixed in with more classically spiritual teaching.

    I think that this sort of everyday "enlightened living in the world" is what many practitioners today are looking for, as opposed to Capital "E", Enlightenment.

  10. Bhaeravii says:

    First of all, ENLIGHTENMENT, the goal of meditation, is over emphasized. The focus is on sitting on top rather than climbing the ladder and appreciating the process in the here and now. Enlightenment is a natural psychological process and it is not isolated to particular types of meditation or spiritual paths. It falls upon one naturally. It is part of the human death process. It is about recognizing it. Enlightenment has a big draw since the mind thinks it is a better place than where it is now. Many yogic paths force enlightenment.
    Second. there are many paths and types of meditation. it is about intention more than technique. I would rather interact with people who care about people, lead respectful lives, and are not philosophical hypocrites than yogi types who are thinking they are spiritually superior due to doing a certain type of meditation. Spirituality, a word I am coming to dislike for its over use, is a karmic path. Each person will work out of the paradigm they have been given. Even the people with no visible path or say, practice a mainstream religion like catholicism (which like other main religions, has its mystical branch) have some measure of spiritual awareness. It is not for us to judge.
    Best be respectful and tread lightly with the SHOULDS.
    Every single person I know who does yoga, and this means a wide variety of people, all do some type of meditation. sitting, walking, breathing, focusing. taking out a moment. I know 40 year dedicated yogis who sit 4 times a day who are some of the meanest spirited people with terribly dysfunctional relationships and simple neighbors who play soccer who are elevated compassionate human beings with no self consciousness about such. there can be no generalization.
    Having a great life and great relationships has nothing to do with spiritual experiences. they are parallel, not intertwined. Having a spiritual practice is no guarantee for a better life. You have to work at both.

  11. John says:

    Lord Buddha had said that after 2500 years will come another Buddha in the western world. Who is the new Buddha?

  12. Justin says:

    so true…which is why I am a student of Yogarupa Rod Stryker. His ParaYoga is an integration of Tantra, Hatha, & Ayurveda. His Tantra lineage is of the Himalayan tradition of SriVidya. A full yoga practice…not yoga lite.

    What is ironic in my own story is that I spent years dabbling in Buddhism, thinking I would eventually make a spiritual home there because I did not see anything that interested me in the yoga world. And long story short, found Yogarupa and his teacher Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (Swami Rama's successor & spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute).

    While this process was a surprise to me & counter my own leanings…it has also been a surprise in discovering a whole world that actually informs Buddhism. I have been struck time and again, as I am practicing in this yogic tradition, how much Buddhism is really an extension of this larger Vedic-Tantric-Yogic tradition(s). While I knew that to some degree, due to the Buddha's life story, but I am struck by listening to most Buddhists talk about who they are and what they do…as if it was a Buddhist thing…as if it was not really a Vedic-Tantric-Yogic thing. Yes there are differences, yes similarities of a Protestant Reformation to Roman Catholicism, but I question at times to what extent Buddhism is its own thing and to what extent it is a subset that tended to prioritize a set of Yogic-Tantric teachings & technologies over others (for various reasons…& too they were considered heterodox by the Brahmin elite during various historical periods, etc).

    again interesting and insightful article.

  13. Charlotte says:

    Thanks, Ramesh. Dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the heart of yoga. Yet relatively few yoga teachers these days practice. I think that Western yoga practitioners find yoga through the physical practice because we are a very physically identified culture (think the obsession with youth and beauty that has long dominated popular culture and more recently has colored our cultural perception of yoga). The physical practices are the doorway into the world of yoga. Many people stop here and don't want to look further. This is entirely appropriate for many practitioners, and can still be quite beneficial. I began practicing Buddhist meditation in 1986 with my teacher, Pujari, who practiced in the Insight Meditation Society tradition. It didn't take long for me to figure out that for me, meditation is the path and asana and pranayama are its complement. I think that asana and pranayama are the yoga system's gift to spiritual practice, but for many, they are not an end unto themselves.

    It is true that there are very few yoga teachers out there with the experience and depth to teach meditation. It takes years to become a competent asana teacher, but one should only teach meditation if one has gone deep enough to understand the difference between ego and no ego. That requires seeing the truth of ourselves and the nature of our beliefs. It's a humbling process that not everyone is willing to stay with. I'm very grateful to have met a teacher who is highly trained in both hatha yoga and meditation.

  14. Blake says:

    I would suggest not chasing enlightenment.

  15. Liza says:

    If you start at Samadi, all other limbs(Patanjali) will come naturaly.The path of least resistance.
    Yoga is not a practice at all, it is a State of being. North America
    likes the physical asspect of 'Yoga'.

  16. Yogi Mat says:

    OK – read all this and all there is here are platitudes and thinly-veiled conceit and/or contempt. Such a shameful waste of time – everyone on EJ shoots from the same place – everyone has the answers – now WHAT is the question? – you have to be Buddhist to get enlightened – right ? Well yoga is not about having all the answers it is about AVOIDING THE WRONG QUESTIONS – and this is another one of those WRONG QUESTIONS that EJ encourages in its myopic pursuit of page views by way of a dull, media-o-cratic business model. ANYWAY – I gotta go – just off to buy an oblong piece of sticky vinyl that takes about 100 years to degrade in landfill – or maybe I should use that tired old virtue phrase "yoga mat" – one of EJ's sponsors (top left panel) would be pleased to supply me I am sure – then I will MINDLESSLY nominate EJ for some CONSENSUS OF STUPID "green" award on my path to yogic bliss!

  17. TamingAuthor says:

    Good article, Ramesh.

    The good thing about yoga studios focusing only on the postures and health is that people from other religious traditions can participate without being offended or turned away. Every negative has its upside as well.

  18. vanessaf says:

    Ramesh, how do you know?

  19. NotSoSure says:

    Great article. Full disclosure, I am a Hatha yogi. I am also a nightstand Buddhist meaning that I read about Buddhism in order to avoid actually practicing Buddhism. I wholeheartedly agree that the purely physical postural yoga taught is most studios today is missing the point. Not to mention waters down the practice and does a great disservice to my fellow yogis.

    But I do have a couple of quibbles. For me at my best, postural yoga is a meditation in action. Hatha yoga can/does bring calmness, awareness,sense withdrawal, concentration etc. And the fact that I have gotten stronger and can now beat up most Buddhists is just a bonus on my path to peace and enlightenment.

    Quibble 2: BKS Iyengar himself said that for the first thirty years his yoga practice was purely physical. However,the yoga he has been teaching since the 70’s evolved to be not primary concerned with the physical but the spiritual/mental/internal. Read “Light on Life” and you will understand how Mr. Iyengar believes that Hatha yoga is indeed a vehicle to enlightenment.

    Please keep up the insightful posts here on EJ. You are quickly becoming one of my favorite reads.

  20. Silvar Elbsumas says:

    So you reach enlightenment in what ever way you do. Then what?

  21. […] the vajrayana we are presented with the full-blown enlightened view; and the path is simply the invitation to step into that view. So this unstained child is […]

  22. Kimstetz says:

    Ramesh, your title put a smile on my face! I couldn't agree with you more. 7 years into asana practice I was lucky to spend a weekend with David Nichtern for a required yoga TT at OM and loved the Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices. This has reshaped my teachings and put me on a clear path with daily meditation and what I am actually doing while on the cushion and off. Been 10 years of regular meditation practice since that weekend and I don't know want to know what happens without it.

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