Yoga: Multiple Pathways to the Path of One!

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Feb 6, 2011
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Is this headline a contradiction, a misunderstanding, a philosophically incorrect statement? Perhaps not. As I have written many times before, yoga is not an either/or lifestyle. Yoga is a yes/and lifestyle.

In the West, yoga is often synonymous with posture practice, with various forms of hatha yoga. In its homeland India, a yogi can be anyone from a meditating swami to a ganja smoking sadhu to an ochre clad Tantric to a Bhakti-singing ecstatic to someone practicing yoga in an upper class studio in New Delhi.

In its essential purity, yoga is rooted in its body-practices, in its transcending mental outlook and inclusive spirituality. Yoga is body-centered, mind-expanding, and spiritually uplifting. Yoga is yes/and.

For Patanjali, the great philosophical sage, yoga was a deep methodology of personal transformation, which, in its purest essence transcends both religion and dogma.

Thus you will find hashish smoking sadhus in India, deeply steeped in religious tradition, reciting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras along the burning ghats of Varanasi; you will find bespectacled pundits leafing through his works in Sanskrit in small, dusty rooms. You will not find, however, people dancing and chanting in entranced inwardness to the wisdom of Patanjali’s sacred texts. His work was much too philosophical for that.

For ecstatic examples of yoga you need Kabir or Mirabai, the medieval poet iconoclasts. The fearless Kabir stepped on religious dogma as if dusty dirt under his naked feet. Beyond convention, he embraced both Islam and Hindusim. And today, in India, you will find both Muslim and Hindu villagers singing his songs with equal amounts of devotion. And, as Kabir himself, fiercely on the guru-path, they are also yogis—yogis of the heart.

Mirabai broke the chains of a loveless marriage and embraced her fierce love as a whirling Bhakti Yogi in her songs of longing for her Beloved Krishna. All over India, yogis of the soul sing her songs until the heart wishes their sweet weeping will never end. And for some, the singing finally ends in an inner trance of Kevala Bhakti—when lover and Beloved are embracing as One. To a yogi in the state of Kevala Bhakti, everything is Brahman, everything is experienced as Spirit.

For the great orator, Advaita Vedantin, and majestic meditator, Swami Vivekananda, yoga was Sanatan Dharma, the great religion of the human spirit, colorfully expressed in the form of an intellectually sophisticated and modern Hinduism. He urged us to change, both ourselves and the world.

For another Vedantin, the quiet sage of South India, Ramana Maharshi, yoga was the ocean of silence within. His spiritual realization was both a detached witness to the world and a sharp sword of discrimination that flashed forth the light of life’s ultimate wisdom. He hardly practiced asanas beyond his meditation poses; he did not urge anyone to change the world, except the world within. He was the ultimate yogi of the I AM.

In America, in sweaty yoga studios, posture yogis, who may never have seen a live sadhu or been to India, practice with the fervor of Olympic athletes. They speak of their body-mind-spirit practice, yet they may never meditate, except, perhaps, on their breath when they move. And move they do, beautifully, artfully, sometimes even nakedly.

Their body is their song, their body is their prayer. And, at other times, the body is the biggest part of their ego. Nevertheless, they are yogis. They are as much yogis as that chillum smoking sadhu by that everflowing river of the Indian imagination.

So how can yoga be all that—and even more? Because, yoga is a multiple path and practice. Yoga is practice for the body, yoga is practice for the heart, yoga is practice for the spirit. And for the human imagination.

Yoga is deep, spiritual intention, deep, spiritual being in the moment while you are in the flow of doing what you love.

In that spirit, yoga can be music, yoga can be walking, yoga can be plain sitting. Plain doing nothing. That is, if you invoke the spirit of yoga into those prosaic moments of life. Otherwise it is plain doing nothing.

In order to invoke the spirit of yoga, the sages developed various practices. So what distinguishes yoga from other daily activities is its deep methodology—a science, practice or lifestyle of the body, the mind, and the spirit. Yoga tones the body, focuses your intention and expands your awareness.

Intention and attention gives yoga practice the ability to both deepen and transcend our everyday awareness. If you practice posture yoga and your attention is both breath and body, you tone the body and align your awareness with deeper recesses of your mind. Your awareness expands. The moment expands.

If you add spiritual ideation and a mantra to that practice, the quality of your awareness may deepen or expand even more, as the mantra is your mental asana, and it has cosmic power all of its own. And if you practice sitting meditation after your mantra-and-breath-focused posture practice, your awareness becomes more subtle and still, more inward and blissful. A sacred symbiosis has been created.

In yoga, we employ a conducive methodology and practice to achieve certain physical, mental and spiritual results or experiences. If you want your yoga poses to effect your mood and your glands and your endocrine system more than your alignment, you practice a certain way, you breathe a certain way.

Likewise, when you meditate, different methodologies and techniques produce certain results. Some calm, some energize, some focus the mind. Others do all of the above. Yet others produce a spontaneous inner magic that transcends all differences, even mind itself. We experience unity beyond technique, in spiritual oneness and deep peace.

The spiritual consummation of yoga, say the Tantric yogis, is union in the realm of spirit. And spirit, by its all-pervading nature resides in both heaven and earth, transcends and includes body and mind.

Yoga is transformation. At its best, yoga refines both body and mind, so that their functions may emulate and reflect the world of nature, of spirit. Yoga is to bring a part of heaven into the world of body and mind. Or to experience that body (Shakti) and mind (Shiva) are both heavenly. Hence, the Tantric concept of the body as Divine Temple.

In some yoga paths, such as in Vedanta, body and mind are seen as illusions, as diversions of spirit. The Vedantin yogi may shun the body and the world and anything else diverting his or her attention from dwelling in the heavenly Spirit realm. That is also yoga. Quite a different path from Bikram’s, whose aging yet handsome body projects a confident physicality that is far from illusory.

Some insist that deep, meditative experiences can be as easily induced while doing asanas or bike riding. They insist scratching your ass is no different than having a Samadhi experience. I suggest, it depends who does the scratching., you or the Buddha. Saying all experiences are the same is as silly as saying you can perform your asana postures in your mind while meditating and reap the same physical benefits.

There are levels of interior transcendence, just as there are levels of proficiency in doing asanas. There are levels of depth, levels of intensity in our inner experiences. There are levels of being, or koshas in yoga, which will determine the level of depth of your perception, feeling, or experience. Hence there are many types of Samadhi experiences, many types of psychological ecstasies, or trances.

As you practice your yoga asanas according to your teacher and your style, you will get certain results. That is achieved by following the science, the methodology of yoga. Similarly, the methodology of meditation is practiced on its own terms, in its own realm, with its own goals. And this practice of inner yoga is also, like posture yoga, part art and part science.

The point is, there are many forms of yoga, and they will all give you different results and experiences. If your aim is spiritual realization, then make meditation and study and chanting your primary focus—daily and intensely—with asanas and a vegetarian diet thrown in for good balance. If your goal is deep fitness and a wholesome lifestyle, then keep doing your asanas regularly (and eat your veggies, too!)

The good news is, we are all yogis! And, in the ultimate spiritual sense, yoga is both many and one. Just like the colorful garden of humanity itself! One humanity, many people. One yoga, many paths.


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.


33 Responses to “Yoga: Multiple Pathways to the Path of One!”

  1. elephantjournal says:

    very well written , good explanatory piece to share, takk, vennen

  2. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for that endorsement, min gode venn!

  3. Considering the talk going on in the East/West Yoga Community about what IS yoga, this, piece hits some bases. Recently, it was called to my attention that Americans who have incorporated Sanscrit Lingo into thier vocabularies to describe spiritual experiences have perhaps picked up a pigeon lingo which may or may not be offensive to many Hindus. With the increased Globalization of the past 40 years we have incorporated Eastern concepts and vocabulary into our culture in the West. Apparently, they may feel we are mis interpreting them and imposing our cultural values of speech onto thier sacred speech. I have to say, it never occured to me, but yes indeed I can understand that this might be culturally disconcerting. We use this lingo because we may not have these same names in our vocab…. What to do… probably nothing…but it has made me think about describing these same things in english words as closely as possible…. not sure if I can…but it made me think about things on a cultural level….The Sanscrit Hindu Debate seems to have at its core a feeling that Westerners only READ about Yoga and Sanscrit. Since it isn't deeply embedded in the Western culture as an ORALLY transmitted Speech, the attitude is that we are misusing and culturally unaware of what we are saying and doing. The tradition of Oral transmission is very important to the Hindu culture. Apparently it is very appalling to some Hindus that we banter around terms like Kundalini, which I am told we couldn't possibly have any real knowledge about…, as well as the word Tantra, Shaivism, Diksha, Puja, Yoga, Matrika and various other commonly used Sanscrit words. Call me innocent but I absolutely had no idea that Westerners seems crass and unknowing using these words. I always assumed that these words were free to use for all. It made me think of the Ugly Yoga American. It made me cringe. It also made me wonder if perhaps I had more to learn on a cultural level then I had previously thought. Having spent time amongest many Indian people and teachers, it had never occurred to me that there was this underlying feeling from some groups. I think you are right, with Globalization, things will crossover and its not necessarily a bad thing. In my own mind, there is no way I can stop using sanscrit words to describe and talk about my own spiritual evolution. For me, the study of sanscrit being limited to learning several chants and study of Shiva Sutras, Patanjali, and Bhagavad Gita. I am sure it is a type of racialization or prejudice that we as Westerners are surprised to hear directed towards us. Honestly, It does make me wonder if I appear as a bumbling yoga commentator who seems like a cartoon character of crassness and simplicity….The cultural mmmmm….

  4. Love this Ramesh! You've triggered a craving for a Yogaville fix!

    "Truth is One, Paths are Many." ~ H. H. Sri Swami Satchidananda

  5. Ramesh says:

    Melissa, you bring up some very important issues to which many more could be added. Yes, I do agree that we in the West can misrepresent Indian cultre, yogic terms, sanskrit words, etc. That is a legitimate concern, but I also do not think we can generalize. For starters, even Indians do not always agree on their own terms, or have the same understanding of the same terms. Explanations for the word samadhi may differ from teacher to teacher, or depend on the context. So these issues are quite complex.

    Soem Western yogis do not like using Sanskrit terms at all, which is also understandable and fine. Personally I like using sanskrit at times because it is a very precise language and has the largest vocabulary when it comes to yogic spirituality. Over time, I think we will also develop an english vocabulary that may to some extent replace the sanskrit terms, which is already happening to a large extent.

    But if we want to specifically talk about the details of, let's say tantric cosmology, I find it impossible to just use English, as the english word I am using may not correspond at all to someone else's and that may create a lot of confusion. :

  6. Ramesh says:

    Thank you, Lynn. I love that quote!

  7. Well done, Ramesh.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    (Join Elephant Yoga on Facebook)

  8. jiivadhara says:

    This is so poetic today… like a hearts song… to the yogic experience. Thank you so much and Namaskar!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Bob. I am glad you, our main yoga man, liked it.

  10. Ramesh says:

    Thanks jiivadhara. Yes, i felt particularly poetic when I wrote it, too.

  11. Ari Pliskin says:

    This article relieves us from the burden of wondering whether our yoga is the right yoga or the traditional, historically accurate yoga. How could it be? There are several!

  12. ARCreated says:

    I loved 99percent of this 🙂 we are all yogis…which is pretty much what I keep saying…

  13. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, ARCreated… that's about 10% more than me, the author, fabulous….

  14. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Ari, for relieving my burdens, too, by your nice comment…

  15. ARCreated says:

    pretty much as it should be…I think my main concern is why do we have to keep talking about ass scratching? 🙂 just sayin 🙂

  16. Ramesh says:

    just a fun footnote and metaphor for me and Bob, others may scratch their heads!

  17. "Ramesh started it." (Said with my best five-year-old whine.)

  18. ARCreated says:

    don't make me pull the yoga bus over 🙂

  19. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Seva Soule Yoga, Red Fox. Red Fox said: Yoga: Multiple Pathways to the Path of One! […]

  20. Dharma says:

    A smart exercise of diplomacy and Satya Ramesh! Compliments! ;-D

  21. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Dharma. Would not call it an exercise in diplomacy, though. While we all call various forms of yoga by the same name, there are qualitatively different experiences and results gained from the various forms of yoga…not all paths are the same, even though we call it yoga… that was part of the points I made.

  22. Hi, Matthew.

    Seems to me you're setting up a straw man here, then knocking it down. Obviously if the "one Truth" is defined to be any one person's truth, then everything you say makes perfect sense.

    But equally obvious to me is that there can only be one absolute truth of the universe, taking human perception out of the equation altogether.

    Also obvious–we have absolutely no idea what that absolute truth is.

    So I completely agree with Ramesh's "Truth is One, Paths are Many", where truth is defined, as I think Ramesh intended it, as "the infinitely wondrous unfathomable life-force of the universe".

    Please tell me–how could there be any more than one of those?

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    (Join Elephant Yoga on Facebook)

  23. matthew says:

    Hi Bob. Maybe I should have asked "Whaddya feel?" A feeling isn't a straw man. Abstractions just make me queasy and disembodied, so I tell them to go away.

    I think it's about purpose. What is the idea of absolute truth used for? Does it promote coherence or foster division? It is a famous guru trick to use it to cohere followers, and then divide those followers from others.

    I experience effusive wonderment, but a life of writing gives me little stomach to define truth. And I have no idea what the universe looks like without human perception.

  24. The way you're interpreting "Truth is One, Paths are Many", we're in complete agreement.

    I've seen Ramesh himself use this concept to alternately promote coherence and foster division in his provocative writing.

  25. matthew says:

    I guess the phrase is ambivalent then. My problem is that it pretends not to be.

  26. matthew says:

    He does it well!

  27. Ramesh says:

    If I may jump in here, Matthew and Bob, to say that there is in yoga the idea that 'absolute truth" is the inner experience of oneness, or union in Samadhi…and it is not just an abstraction to me as this is what I experience in deep meditation… an increasing level of depth and peace, silence, union, oneness. There is also the concept that all mystics, whether Buddhist Christian or Yogi, end up in the same inner space…no matter the practice. On the way there, many things happen, because the mental makeup and the practices differ… but the idea that body/mind/spirit are transcending and inclusive levels of reality makes practical sense to me, that's my experience, not just an abstraction. problem is, of course, as Matthew points out, if you say, my inner truth is the only truth and you can only access it my way! That's religion and dogma… but if you say, as the best yogis do, this is what I experience, try it for your self and you might, too.
    In other words, the intellectual idea of universalism and freedom of thought is one important "truth' to uphold and stand for, but there's also that inner yogic or mystical truth, which is also universal (available for all) but can only be accessed in the silence of our own transcendental experience.

  28. Ramesh says:

    yoga does make universal claim about inner experiences, it does say that this practice will give you inner peace, etc., and I agree that this can be a problem is you are dealing with a teacher who manipulates that idea, but the problem then is with the teacher (and the student who falls for that manipulation) not yoga.

    This is tricky stuff, but these claims are written all over yoga–from patanjali to tantra–practice this, and you will all experience such and such. Cittavrittinirodha –"the absence of the fluctuation of thought" is a big claim, but it also makes total sense that your monkey mind jumps less and less like a monkey the deeper your meditation. That's our experience… in tantra it is called union, also a big claim, but basically the same yogic thing.

  29. Ramesh says:

    i hear you, Matthew, and i agree in many ways, but I do also find deep value in yoga philosophy, especially the tantric concepts. As Joseph Campbell said, we need myths to live by, and I would venture that we also need philosophy to live by. Especially when the philosophy makes sense, such as the concepts of Shiva and Shakti, Consciousness and Energy is all part of Brahman and both are One in Brahman. Those are powerful concepts that makes sense even in terms of modern physics, and it does make sense in my own daily life as well to feel that all is sacred, all is consciousness, all is Shiva/Shakti all the way… it makes sense from an experiential point of view as well.

    Problem is of course, if these are just intellectual ideas, but even so, they are much more benign than the idea of going to hell if you don't believe a certain way. Point is, we are more than just our feelings and we humans we throw around concepts all day long, especially writers.

    But when all is said and done, it all comes down to our inner experiences, and most of the spiritual ones I have had, I rarely talk about, because there is really no language that could adequately describe them, nor often the right circumstance to talk about them. In other words, the word Samadhi does little in explaining what it actually is. but it does point us in a direction that is infinitely more benign than some exclusive heaven for the chosen few.

  30. matthew says:

    Yes. I enjoy inclusive pointers that resist obscurity and subsequent power imbalances between communicator and communicant.

  31. […] the previous article we also described the “path” as stepping into that view, which takes constant practice. Every time we get stuck, cling, […]

  32. […] VF: You talked a little bit about your path to becoming a monk. How did you fall into, if that’s the right term, Kashmir Shaivism? […]

  33. […] No right, no wrong…I would say, different strokes and all. […]