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Yoga and Vedanta
Mica: I have been studying Vedanta for the last year, enquiring as much as possible. I have been using Ram’s lectures on Vivekachudamani and the Gita, plus the book How to Attain Enlightenment and your website. Before I came to Vedanta, I was practising various forms of yoga, that is, meditation, asana and pranayama for about nine years. I’m a qualified teacher in these areas. Recently, a friend has asked me to give a four-hour workshop on one of her “yoga” weekends. As I understand it, there’s nothing wrong with doing asana, etc. as long as I do it with knowledge that I am the self, and that the action only affects the jiva. Do you think it’s okay to mix Advaita Vedanta with the Western concept of physical yoga? For example, I was considering basing the workshop on the Gita, focusing on jana yoga/inquiry, seeing the asana practice as a form of karma yoga. However, I’m still in the firefly stage, and thus I am seeking your advice. Perhaps I should wait until I am more firm in the knowledge? At the same time, since she has asked me to do it, I feel somewhat obligated.
I hope to hear from you soon, as she wants me to do this workshop Sunday week. ☺ Thank you for your time!
PS: Having had time to contemplate and bring my focus back to the essence of Vedanta, I see the rajasic nature of my previous email. I decided not to do the workshop for my friend. I want to be firm in the knowledge of my nature as limitless awareness before even considering if it’s possible to mix asana with Vedanta. Currently, I don’t think they would mix very well and could be a distraction to each other.
Alternatively, I’ve decided to try and make it to Germany to attend one of your events, most likely Berlin.
Thanks for your time.
Sundari: Sorry I could not reply sooner, but we have a huge backload of emails to reply to and we must respond in the order they come in. There is absolutely nothing wrong with combining Vedanta with physical yoga, especially since you seem to correctly understand the distinction between experience/action and knowledge. If you focus on jnana yoga/inquiry and teach the asana practice as a form of karma yoga, that is perfect. We know many yoga teachers who have incorporated Vedanta into their practice. It may be a stretch for typically experience-based yoga types or people who are not inquirers and not qualified for self-inquiry, but leave the planting of the seeds up to Isvara, who is the only true teacher. We are all just mouthpieces for the truth.
Read the article below I put together on Vedanta and Yoga. I think you will get your answer and hopefully understand the whole picture better.
Meditation/yoga is designed for people who think they are doers. The word yoga has two primary meanings in Sanskrit. The first and most common is “union, contact or connection.” The second meaning is “topic,” traditionally used in conjunction with another word, pramana, which means “a means of knowledge.” Vedanta is a means of knowledge that ends the quest for knowledge. A common misconception is that Vedanta is a traditional path of yoga known as jnana yoga – or the yoga of knowledge. But it is not really a path. Vedanta is the pathless path that underpins all other paths, and it is not about action, although self-inquiry is an action. The difference between Vedanta and Yoga is quite vast and important to understand, but the main reason Vedanta is not a path of Yoga is that Vedanta negates the doer, the yogi. It shows that the doer, the yogi, is an apparent, not a real, self. It establishes the apparent person’s identity as limitless, actionless consciousness, not as a limited doer of actions.
Yoga is a dualistic path for doers who want to connect with or contact the self, based on the idea that reality is dual and that there are two selves, a real or true self and a limited self, a person. It says that the two are different, but both are real. There is no satya/mithya distinction in yoga – i.e. discrimination between that which is real, i.e. satya, that which is always present and unchanging – and everything else, i.e. mithya, that which is only apparently real, not always present and always changing. These are the two orders of existence, and although they are not in opposition and do not contradict each other, not knowing the difference between the two = ignorance = suffering.
Unless yoga practice is purely athletic and body-based (as is often the case), most yoga involves many practices that are meant to put the limited self “in contact” or union with the real or true self, i.e. limitless awareness. Yoga says that through these practices the limited person can experience limitlessness, i.e. freedom, if it can “contact” the true or higher self. But Vedanta says no action taken by a limited entity can produce a limitless result, such as freedom from limitation. And Vedanta says that you are never not in “contact” with the self, because you are the self.
In reply to the idea that yoga is a system of experience-oriented practices that yoke the limited self to the limitless self, one of our great sages, Badarayana, says that Vedanta is “the yoga of no-contact.” He means that it is only knowledge. Vedanta is the knowledge that there is only one self, and it is the means (teachings) that deliver that knowledge when wielded by a qualified teacher to a qualified inquirer.
You cannot compare self-inquiry with meditation/yoga, especially if all you are teaching (or practising) is the physical aspect of yoga, but Vedanta can be introduced to non-qualified yogis, starting with karma yoga. Self-inquiry is hard work and only for the qualified and dedicated. It involves subjecting the mind with great dedication to a valid and independent means of knowledge, i.e. Vedanta. Assuming the necessary qualifications are present and you are taught by a qualified teacher, self-knowledge does “the work” of removing ignorance. Self-inquiry, meditation/yoga as an action without karma yoga most often results in frustration because it will not remove suffering, limitation.
Self-inquiry, although an action, can produce a limitless result, assuming qualifications and if it is done correctly, i.e. with karma yoga, because the fruit is of self-inquiry is self-knowledge, which is limitless and has the power to remove ignorance/suffering. Meditators/yogis, in general, are not interested in negating the meditator/yogi; they are interested in getting a particular experience for the meditator/yogi. So the meditator/yogi remains intact, in fact the doer is reinforced by meditation/yoga.
Vedanta states that moksa is viveka, discrimination based on knowledge. It teaches that only knowledge, not experience, is capable of removing ignorance. Most Westerners involved in yoga have the idea that vritti/vasana kyshaya – removal of all thoughts and vasanas – constitutes moksa. If you view moksa as yoga, i.e. chitta vritti nirodha, it is not moksa, because the self is free and can be known as one’s self whether or not the chitta vrittis exist. Yoga is good for removing vrittis, and we can successfully argue that it is highly unlikely that a yogi will discriminate the intellect from the self if the tamasic and rajasic vrittis have not been attenuated by yoga. Vidyaranya Swami says (and we agree) yoga may be a “leading error” insofar as a yogi working on his or her samskaras and achieving various samadhis may after some time convert the desire to experience samadhi into self-inquiry that will lead to viveka, discrimination. But it is the exception rather than the rule because yogis tend to take up yoga with the belief that moksa is samadhi, a blissful experience of the self, not discrimination.
We say that Vedanta is superior to yoga in the context of the knowledge/experience debate about the nature of moksa, not because we have a bone to pick with yoga. Most seekers want to relieve their suffering with some kind of beatific experience and are attracted to yoga for that reason. If they are occasionally successful, they usually continue to put more effort to gain subtler and subtler samadhis. They tend to end up frustrated because no jiva can control experience; that’s Isvara’s job. You may have found this out for yourself. And yogis tend to have big egos because they can more or less achieve high states of mind with willpower, believing they are responsible. The doer is alive and well, with an inflated opinion of itself as “more spiritual” or “special” than others who cannot achieve these states.
However, Vedanta endorses yoga as a means to prepare the mind for self-knowledge, as a means of purification (anta karana shuddi), since a pure and prepared mind is a non-negotiable prerequisite for the assimilation of self-knowledge. Self-knowledge cannot and will not obtain in a mind that is run by its likes and dislikes, fears and desires. Vedanta states that one can’t get the knowledge of non-duality and enjoy the fruit of self-knowledge (freedom) as long as the citta vrittis (vasanas/likes and dislikes) are binding.
Traditional Vedanta, although non-dual, teaches two paths: a path of action (yoga) for doers and a path of knowledge for inquirers (see the Bhagavad Gita.) Vedanta integrates the two paths in this way: seekers start out looking for freedom as doers. But you can’t “do” your way to freedom, because you are already and always have been free. As one practises yoga, karma yoga particularly, one’s hang-ups (citta vrittis/vasanas) are ameliorated and the mind of the yogi, the doer, becomes increasingly contemplative. He or she discovers the limitation of action and becomes an inquirer, i.e. contemplative, and can appreciate the essence of Vedanta, which is: “Brahma satyam jagan mithya, jivo bramaiva na parah.”
Translated, this means consciousness is the limitless self and that the individual, the yogi, is non-different from consciousness. Once self-knowledge is assimilated, the yogi remains as an apparent self, but that apparent self appears as an unreal object to you, awareness/consciousness (chaitanyam). Something that is apparent is as good as non-existent (even though it does exist), but it and the world it inhabits has no effect on you, consciousness. Vedanta breaks one’s connection to one’s apparent identity and establishes one’s identity as limitless awareness. Therefore freedom is attained only by knowledge, not by action.
As I said, Vedanta is all for meditation and yoga. But, meditation/yoga practice does not equal self-inquiry, because meditation/yoga is not a valid means of knowledge. It is a tool to aid self-inquiry; it does not equal self-inquiry; unless you have realized that you are not the meditator/yogi but the one who knows the meditator/yogi, meditation/yoga can keep one stuck for years trying to have an experience of the self, which many meditators/yogis do have, but the problem is the identification with the experiencer/meditator/yogi (the doer) is still there. Unless the knowledge that meditation is designed to impart is fully assimilated – i.e. “I am whole and complete, non-dual awareness” and not the meditator/yogi – the experience ends because it was just that, an experience. All experience takes place in time and therefore has a beginning and an end, which is true of any spiritual experience: epiphany, samadhi or kundalini awakening.
As you have probably discovered, the experience of self-realization that meditation/yoga can bring does not necessarily lead to freedom, moksa. It does not necessarily result in peace of mind either. Stepping up the meditation/yoga practice merely compounds the problem because the main issue remains unaddressed – the DOER, which is why there are so many frustrated meditators/yogis or spiritual experiencers around, trying to get the feel-good experience back. Even if they succeed, they will most likely “lose” the self-realization once again because the knowledge that they are that which makes all experience possible, i.e. limitless awareness, escapes them. The benefit of meditation is lost without self-knowledge and a valid means of knowledge to unfold what it means to be awareness. As soon as the meditation ends, the person is still there – with all their problems – very often even worse off than before because of the feeling of failed expectations.
Meditation/yoga is no different from any other activity done to achieve a particular result; it is truly useful only if practiced with the karma yoga attitude.
Karma yoga is an attitude one takes towards actions and their results. It is responding appropriately to what life asks of you on a moment-to-moment basis, consecrating every thought, word and deed before you think, speak or act to Isvara, the Field of Existence, which is to say to yourself, whether or not you see that both the person and the Field of Existence share a common identity as consciousness.
Failure to appreciate the truth of karma yoga often results in low self-esteem, the feeling that “I am a failure.” The solution to low self-esteem is to follow dharma with the understanding that one’s knowledge of all the variables in the field that produce results is and always will be limited. Therefore the results of one’s actions can never be known.
Action can produce likes and dislikes (vasanas) only if the result is looked upon as a success or failure. When the result is looked upon as a function of the invariable laws of action or what is even better if it is the grace of the dharma field, no new likes and dislikes are created. Existing likes and dislikes will no doubt create desires and produce actions, but new likes and dislikes are avoided. With this attitude towards the result actions born of likes and dislikes becomes the means of eliminating the likes and dislikes themselves. The mind becomes free from the agitations of elation (rajas) and depression (tamas). Such a mind is tranquil and contemplative.
The knowledge that the meditation/yoga points to is that meditation/yoga is just another object appearing in you, allowing the reflection of the self to appear in a still mind. However, seeing as no experience can take place without you, awareness, and because as awareness you are actionless, no special experience is required to experience the self.You are always experiencing the self, whether you are meditating, “doing” yoga, at work, walking in a busy street, wherever and whatever is going on around you – there is nowhere awareness is not, because it pervades every atom of existence. It is impossible to not be experiencing awareness if you are living and breathing. The point of Vedanta is, if you are unaware of this fact, it is of no use to you. You are bound by the limited entity/jiva, and suffering as a result.
In essence, what makes self-inquiry so different from yoga is that it is not an experience; it is the application of discriminative knowledge. As stated above, its success depends on the qualifications present in the mind. Self-knowledge is grace and it reveals that awareness is your true nature and all experience (objects) arise from you and appear in you, but you are free of the objects. The objects are you, but you are not the objects. Keeping this knowledge in mind and continually contemplating on it is self-inquiry. Self-inquiry as a practice is different from meditation/yoga because knowledge is maintained by an act of will, whereas in meditation/yoga the knowledge “I am awareness” appears (or not) during a particular experience. Self-knowledge does not generally appear in meditation/yoga; if it does, the meditator/yogi usually does not realize the importance of the “I am consciousness” thought or understand what it means, and therefore does not take awareness as his or her identity as the self, so the knowledge is not assimilated.
Self-inquiry is also superior to meditation/yoga because the doer does not need to maintain a particular state and wait for the knowledge. He or she has the knowledge already and applies it continually. Inquirers understand the value of self-knowledge, whereas meditators/yogis do not. That is why the meditators are meditating and the yogis practice yoga. The act of will required for self-inquiry is a burning desire for freedom from limitation born of the knowledge that there is nothing to gain through objects.
A lot of the argument between yoga and Vedanta is centred on the meaning of the word samadhi. Does it refer to a state of mind that is gained though yoga practice or is it a word that refers to the self? Is the self sama (equal) dhi (buddhi), meaning it values everything equally because everything is only consciousness? Yoga does not make this very important distinction clear. Most yogis and Buddhists confuse nirvikalpa samadhi with moksa – taking it to be the “ultimate” spiritual “achievement” or state. But nirvikalpa samadhi, like all states, is an experience which ends – and it is also an object known to awareness. All experiences end. Enlightenment is not an object of knowledge. It cannot be gained, because you already are it. What stands in the way of your appreciation of this fact is ignorance, the misapprehension of your non-dual true nature, based on the hypnosis of duality produced by maya.
As blissful as it is to experience nirvikalpa samadhi, it is not necessary for moksa, because the self is present whether or not the mind is blissfully sattvic and (supposedly) without thoughts. Thoughts are not the problem. Many Buddhists say that “no-mind” is the key to “nirvana.” But who is it that knows the no-mind, no-thoughts or nirvana? If you know something, it can’t be you, can it? The knower and the known share the same identity as awareness, but they do not exist in the same order of reality, because the knower is the subject and the known is the object. The mind is an object known to you, awareness. One cannot get rid of the mind and all its thoughts, because it belongs to Isvara, and even if one could, there is no need, because the mind is not the problem.
Identification with the mind is the problem. The mind is a product of the vasanas. Buddhism does not address the conditioning that creates and runs the mind, the gunas, and it ignores the Total Mind, or Isvara, altogether, so it has no teaching. The best Buddhism can offer with its gruelling methods to get rid of the mind and becoming a “good” person is relative calm and peace of mind. And although it is not moksa, there is a lot to be said for living a dharmic life. But unless the conditioning that controls the mind is understood in light of self-knowledge, the vasanas are still binding.
If self-knowledge has not actualized, as soon as the peaceful experience wears off, which it will sooner or later because the peace is based on experience and not knowledge, the person – the doer, or the mind – is back, the vasanas are still there, and therefore the problems are still there. So one has to go back to meditation or yoga or whatever one does to try to get rid of the mind. It never works, not for long, no matter how much one tries to contort the mind into conformity. As stated, this is because it is not the mind that is the problem and even if it was, it is not in control of the results of its actions. Karma yoga along with jnana yoga is what is needed.
When self-knowledge has obtained, there is no longer any need for meditation/yoga, spiritual experiences of whatever ilk or “high states” of being (although one still enjoys them), because as the self you are beyond all states – all states are known to you. You are a walking, breathing meditation as the self, regardless of what is going on in the mind. One no longer chases the experience of awareness, because you know that you are only ever experiencing awareness, no matter what is or is not happening in the mind. There is no need for long beards and flowing robes (or fancy yoga gear and retreats) to make a statement that one is enlightened or “look the part.” You can just be a regular and very ordinary person, living a seemingly ordinary life, knowing full well that you are not the person but awareness, thus unobtrusively experiencing an extraordinary life.
Go ahead and teach your yoga workshops, have the courage to trust the scripture of Vedanta. Start simply at your level of comfort and expertise with the teachings, by introducing karma yoga. Progress from there to introducing the basics of self-inquiry. Tattva Bodh is a good beginner text, you will find it in the publications section on our website. So is the Bhagavad Gita. Trust Isvara to guide you, but most importantly, keep up your self-inquiry to firm up your knowledge.
~ Much love, Sundari