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Yoga That Works

The yoga most people are familiar with isn’t meant for everyone. In fact, in this age it’s hardly possible for anyone.

The Vedic literature tells of the sage Vishvamitra’s failure to become self-realized after sixty thousand years of rigid yoga practice, revealing how difficult it is for even the accomplished transcendentalist to reach perfection by the process of ashtanga-yoga.In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna was naturally concerned when Arjuna expressed a desire to leave the battlefield for a life of meditation. When, in the Sixth Chapter, Krishna presents an analysis of ashtanga -yoga, Arjuna finds it too difficult, and Krishna recommends a more feasible process.

To properly understand ashtanga-yoga,one of the many systems of yoga described in Bhagavad-gita,one must first have a clear understanding of what yoga is.

The term yoga literally means “linking” and refers to linking one’s consciousness with the Supreme. The different yogic processes are named for the particular method adopted to reawaken one’s relationship with the Supreme. For example, when the linking process is predominantly through one’s work (karma),it is called karma-yoga, and when it is predominantly through philosophical analysis (jnana),it is called jnana- yoga.

Ashtanga means “eight parts,” and ashtanga-yoga is an eight-step process of linking with the Supreme Lord through meditation on His form within the heart. It emphasizes controlling one’s mind. The materially conditioned mind is absorbed in contemplating objects of sensual pleasure: sounds, tastes, sights, and so on. By stripping the mind of external engagements and developing spiritual conviction, the advanced yogi directs his mind to an awareness of the Supersoul.

Ashtanga-yoga thus offers a feasible process for self-realization, and it certainly appeared to Arjuna to be a possible solution to his anxieties—that is, until Lord Krishna explained the qualifications of a prospective yoga candidate:

To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusha grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and soft cloth. The seat should be neither too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit and firmly practice yoga to purify the heart by controlling his mind, senses, and activities and fixing his mind on one point. One should hold one’s body, neck, and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus, with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear. completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life. (Bhagavad-gita 6.11- 14)

Although Arjuna was a great warrior of the royal family and a close friend of the Supreme Lord. Sri Krishna, because he had responsibilities in his family life and occupation he represents the common man. He therefore expresses to Lord Krishna his doubt about achieving success by a yoga process that requires one to stay in a secluded place for the rest of one’s life.

Furthermore, even if such retirement were possible, who but the most elevated renunciants could tolerate the rigid manner of sitting necessary for eventual perfection? Therefore, in an honest estimation of his capabilities. Arjuna rejects the ashtanga-yoga process as a suitable method for his enlightenment:

O Madhusudana, the system of yoga which You have summarized appears impractical and undesirable to me. for the mind is restless and unsteady. The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate, and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind. (Bhagavad-gita 6.33-34)

Although Lord Krishna had spent considerable time explaining this system of yoga to Arjuna. He basically agrees with Arjuna’s analysis: “O mighty-armed son of Kunti, it is undoubtedly very difficult to curb the restless mind....” Unlike Arjuna, though. Krishna does see a path to ashtanga-yoga’s eventual success, for He adds: “… but it is possible by constant practice and detachment.”

The question therefore arises: What is the practice for controlling the mind, for certainly almost no one in this age can observe the strict rules and regulations of ashtanga- yoga,which demand restraining the senses and mind, observing celibacy, remaining isolated, and so on? The answer to how ashtanga-yoga can be practiced successfully is found in an understanding of Vedic cosmology.

According to the Vedic literature, time in our universe proceeds in cycles of 4.300,000 years, which for our purposes can be called millennia. Each millennium is divided into four ages, called yugas,which rotate like seasons and have their own characteristics. According to the capabilities of the populace in each age, a particular practice of yoga is recommended. For example, in the Satya-yuga people live 100,000 years and are endowed with exceptional qualities of goodness. The Vedas thus enjoin, krite yad dhyayato vishnum: “In Satya-yuga, meditation on Vishnu [ashtanga-yoga] is recommended.”

The Bhagavad-gita was spoken to Arjuna before the beginning of Kali-yuga, the last and most degraded part of the millennium. For most people today, even simple spiritual endeavors seem beyond them. The Vedas thus recommend, kalau tad dhari-kirtanat:“In the age of Kali, bhakti-yoga based on chanting the names of the Supreme Lord is recommended.”

Although bhakti-yoga is a simple process compared to the rigors of ashtanga-yoga, bhakti-yoga based on the chanting of the Lord’s holy name is nonetheless considered the perfection of yoga. The perfection of any yoga system is achieved when the mind becomes incapable of deviating from the Supreme. This final stage of absorption is called samadhi and is described by Lord Krishna at the completion of His description of the ashtanga-yoga system: “A true yogi observes Me in all beings and also sees every being in Me. Indeed, the self-realized person sees Me, the same Supreme Lord. everywhere.”

A bhakti-yogi is naturally fixed in this vision, because out of devotion he busily engages his senses in serving the Supreme Lord. Furthermore, because of the pleasure derived from such loving devotion, his mind remains fixed even in the midst of the greatest allurements.

In contrast to Vishvamitra Muni’s failure to achieve success by ashtanga-yoga, we find the example of the great devotee Haridasa Thakura, who resisted the temptation of the Lord’s illusory energy personified—an incomparably beautiful woman. Haridasa’s perfection illustrates the superiority of the bhakti-yoga process of chanting the Lord’s holy name. The lives of the devotees of the Lord thus confirm His last instruction about yoga in the Sixth Chapter of the Gita: “And of all yogis, the one with great faith who always abides in Me, thinks of Me within himself, and renders transcendental loving service to Me—he is the most intimately united with Me in yoga and is the highest of all. That is My opinion.”