This article is dedicated to Simona and Emina, two good friends and seekers of truth

Why Yoga?

The very word yoga suggests some kind of freedom or elevated state of consciousness. It also suggests a practice that is not confined to culture or religion, to something that is not bound by time or personal bias. The practice of yoga links us to a more ethical, healthy and natural way of living – free from the extremes of worldy happiness and sorrow.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras define yoga as a focussing of the attention “to whatever object is being contemplated to the exclusion of all others” – yogash chitta vritti nirodhah. Nirodah means ‘complete absorption’. Yoga is also intimately connected to the conclusions of spiritual philosophy of the Vedas and Vedanta. There are internal and external sadhanas or practices of yoga that lead the practitioner to the ultimate goal of yoga practice – self-realization.

Mantra Meditation And Yoga

I have been asked by certain friends to explain the meditation techniques practiced by devotees of the Hare Krishna movement.

I have been reading B.S. Iyengar’s book, Light On Yoga. In this very interesting book, Mr Iyengar refers to yoga as ‘the physiology of virtue’ ie. aspiring for something sublime via the medium of the body. The yoga process he is referring to here is astanga-yoga, or the eightfold mystic yoga process.

The great Vaishnava scholar, Bhaktivinoda Thakur, describes two kinds of yoga processes in Prema-pradipa. One is raja-yoga, the process of yoga practiced by the Puranic scholars and philosophers; and the other is hatha-yoga, or the school of yoga practiced by the tantric panditas. ‘Ha’ means ‘sun’ and ‘Tha’ means ‘moon’, relating to the prana or life-force emanating from the sun and the moon.

Bhaktivinoda Thakur gives a simple summary of the eightfold yoga path or raja-yoga in Prema-pradipa:
1. Yama – Negative injunctions ie. refraining from sex, lying, stealing etc. There is a sadhana (consistent spiritual practice) of purification. Certain practices are so difficult to perform that they require the presence of a guru.
2. Niyama – Cleanliness and scriptural study.
3. Asana – Sitting postures (of hatha- and raja-yoga). The practice of asanas helps us to use the body as a tool to shape ourselves for the experience of union with our higher or supreme consciousness. Another aspect of this is dridhakarana or ‘becoming strong’. An asana is only spiritually enhanced when combined with other yoga practices, like pranayama and dhyana.
4. Pranayama – Control of breathing and life airs. Pranayama has to be practiced in a peaceful or sattvic environment (which is very difficult in Kali-yuga). Pranayama purifies the nerves (kumbhaka takes three months). The practitioner achieves laghava or ‘lightness’ through pranayama.
5. Pratyahara – The withdrawal of the senses from the sense-objects. At the stage of dhatrya, or indifference, the body becomes steady.
6. Dharana – Fixing the mind on a place (like the navel or nose). Dharana involves a deepening of concentration.
7. Dhyana – Literally means ‘meditation’. This is a natural development of dharana. Such a yogi experiences direct perception of the divine within and without.
8. Samadhi – Absorption. Here, the yogi is nirliptiharana or ‘free from worldly attachments’. Accomplished yogis understand there is only physical benefit in these systems. They know that it is very difficult to detach the mind and senses from the objects of the senses. It is easy to engage the mind and senses in spiritual activities, however, through the bhakti-yoga process.

Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), on the other hand, leads the practitioner towards ‘spiritual virtue’ by means of a sadhana or ‘spiritual practice’ based on spiritual activities (or karma-yoga). Bhakti Yoga is a process of the heart and soul – and is, therefore, sometimes referred to as atma-yoga (atma means ‘soul’ or ‘self’ in the ancient Sanskrit language). B.S. Iyengar eloquently explains how the various limbs of the astanga-yoga process can elevate an individual to a state of equanimity and control of the senses. In astanga-yoga the process is painstaking and the rewards are great; in bhakti-yoga the process is easy and the awards, like astanga-yoga, are as good or even greater.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society For Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), referred to bhakti-yoga as the ‘topmost yoga system’, in the sense that the goal of yoga is quickly achieved for the sincere practitioner. What is so special about bhakti-yoga? Prabhupada refers to bhakti-yoga as an easy process. Like astanga-yoga, the goal is clearly delineated. The goal is to achieve samadhi (absorption) in spirituality; or, plainly put, to develop love of Krishna/God. The great saint, Prahlad Maharaja, defines the ninefold process of devotional service – sravanam (hearing about Krishna), kirtanam (chanting the glories of Krishna), smaranam (remembering Vishnu or Krishna), pada-sevanam (serving the lotus feet of the Lord), vandanam (offering prayers), arcanam (worshipping the Deity of the Lord), dasyam (becoming the Lord’s eternal servant), sakhyam (becoming the Lord’s most intimate friend) and, lastly, atma-nivedanam (surrendering one’s entire being to the Lord ie. full self-surrender). Of these nine processes of bhakti-yoga, hearing and chanting the glories of the Lord are considered the most important. That is why so much emphasis is placed on the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra by Hare Krishna devotees.

What is the maha-mantra?

When we think of the word mantra, we immediately think of the repitition of a word or of certain words. The newspapers might refer to the crowds calling, ‘O-bama, O-bama’ as a mantra. But the word, like most of the Sanskrit words adopted in our western lexicon, has deeper significance. The word mantra is composed of two Sanskrit words – manas and tra. Manas means ‘mind’; and tra means ‘to free’ or ‘to liberate.’ Mantra, therefore, can roughly be translated as ‘a chant that frees the mind (from material absorption or thoughts).’ And maha is a Sanskrit word that means ‘great.’ So, the maha-mantra is ‘the great prayer or chant of deliverance of the mind.’ There are many, many mantras in the Vedic Culture. But there is only one maha-mantra. And that is why we place so much emphasis on the chanting of this mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama/ Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Vedic scripture give many references indicating that the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra is the process for self-realization in the present Age, the Age of Kali.

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