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The Philosophy of Yoga - An Aesthetic Appraisal

by Nitin Goel on June 15, 2020  in articlearticlesbuddhismshivayoga

Tapakar Yogic AasanYoga is one of the most ancient spiritual concepts of East, and despite a philosophical look it has an equally significant physical basis. It is not a body of doctrines, theories or principles. Intellectual problems or inquiries as to 'why' or 'whence' are not the areas of yogic deliberations. Boiled down to basics, Yoga is a collection of simple practices, a kind of body rituals, consisting of action, method and technique.

The Bhagvad Gita clarifies this interpretation and lays stress upon the Karma Yoga. This scripture says 'Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga.'

The Kathopnishad describes Yoga thus: 'When the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not - then, say the wise, is reached the highest stage. This steady control of the senses and mind has been defined as Yoga. He who attains it is free form delusion.'

According to B.K.Iyenger, Yoga is the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human upliftment.

The word yoga itself is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root 'yuj'. It means 'to yoke' or 'join'. Thus, Yoga is the science that yokes 'the finite' with 'the Infinite', or 'the finite spirit' with 'the Supreme Spirit'. In the book 'Gita according to Mahatma Gandhi,' the author says that yoga means "the yoking of all the powers of body, mind and soul to God; it means the disciplining of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, and the will-power." The learned author further says that yoga helps one achieve a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly, whether it is pleasure or pain. Yoga prescribes no pantheon; one can have a deity of one's own choice to guide yogic performance. In modern terminology Yoga thus is a secular ritual.

The Origin of Yoga

Artifact from Harappa - Indus Valley Civilization



In the valley of the River Indus, a team of archaeologists under Sir Mortimer Wheeler discovered the remains of a civilization, which is now acknowledged to be approximately five thousand years old. Amongst the valued artifacts discovered were a number of seals depicting horn-capped figures sitting in positions which are advanced Yogic postures. The most famous of these seals is that of an ithyphallic deity now recognized as Shiva.




Vishnu as Yoga-Narayana
Yoga Narayana is the concrete form of the abstract concept of the goal of Tantra sadhana, i.e. attainment of supreme bliss or moksha through total detachment from pursuit of wealth artha),delight (kama) and virtues ( dharma ) by practise of yoga. Various Puranas call Narayana as Mula-Prakriti, Sri Vidya and Lalita, the names of the goddesses of Tantra. The name Narayana means one who dwells in the deep (nara means waters) and ayana (means place). It refers to the Primordial god in form, the first one to spring out of the formless. Since Narayana personifies the ultimate joy, he is sitting in Padmasana, with his eyes closed and turned inward, thus showing him in complete absorption and radiating bliss. This image of Yoga Narayana (the lord of yogis) represents the quintessence of Yoga-sadhana.

This magnificent image of Vishnu as Yoga-Narayana belongs to Chandela art of l0th century. He is shown seated cross legged in dhyana mudra on lotus pedestal and is adorned with Srivatsa on chest and heavily jeweled ornaments.


Indeed tradition has it that it was Lord Shiva who first manifested in himself both Yoga and Tantra. The ithyphallic nature of this object points to tantric connotations while the essentially Yogic posture in which he is seated points to him being the Lord of Yoga. Yoga ultimately also got associated with Vishnu, where in his Yoga Narayana form he is personified the supreme object of Yoga.



Shiva Shakti


The term 'Yoga' emerged for the first time, in the metaphysics of the Sankhya, a philosophy born of 'buddhi', meaning mind and which is basically the meaning of the term 'Sankhya'. In the Sankhya theory of cosmic evolution there sprouted the seeds of a systematic philosophy of 'Yoga', called the 'Sankhya-Yoga'. It recognized two ultimate entities - Prakriti and Purusha or nature and spirit.

Sankhya acclaims that the objective universe in its infinite diversity evolves out of this Prakriti when it is yoked with Purusha. The Purusha has no physical entity and manifests only when yoked with Prakriti. Sankhya calls the manifested cosmos the 'parinama' (result), of this yoga of the male and female elements, or evolution out of the union. In visual terms this is envisioned as the physical mating of Shiva with Parvati, his Shakti, and represented in art as such.



Vishnu Lakshmi

Sankhya gives to Yoga a definite metaphysical shape and the status of an independent philosophy. It perceives creation as a cyclic evolution on the completion of which the objective universe dissolves and the cyclic process begins afresh. This Sankhya theory of evolution makes no reference to God and thus incidentally Yoga evolved as a secular concept with the result that almost all sects in India adopted it with alike zeal. Hindus personified Purusha and Prakriti in Shiva and Shakti and perceived the Creation as the result of the union of the two. Later evolution of yogic thought also perceives this cosmic element in the union of Vishnu and Lakshmi.

Shamvara and Vajravarahi in Yab-Yum



In broader perspective it is the same wherever the creative process is involved. In Buddhism this is visible in the Yab Yum imagery.

It must be noted here that the woman, who is the Prakriti, creates by union with the male, but through her own expansion. This quality of expansion is her exclusive preserve and is evident in the sexual act where it is the female who expands while consummating the union (or yoking). Similarly while carrying the fertilized seed in her womb, her belly expands.


Patanjali and his Yogasutra

Patanjali was the earliest to systematize Yoga into a body of philosophy. He assimilated elements of Buddhism and Jainism also, but his metaphysical basis consists broadly of Sankhya. He, however, makes a significant modification in Sankhya metaphysics. To the Sankhya theory of Prakriti and Purusha, Patanjali adds the element of 'Purushavishesha', the All Pervading Seer, or God, whom he neither defines nor gives evidence for the existence of, but only accepts its reality and believes it.

Om (Aum)


Patanjali consecrates 'Purushavishesha' as the supreme divinity of Yoga and he calls it by the name of 'Aum', the sacred syllable and the most powerful of all 'mantras'. Indeed in its multi-dimensional rise and fall of sound - taking off from middle level, the lips, rising to zenith, the palate, and descending into the unknown recesses, the throat, Patanjali sought in the syllable 'Aum' parallelism for his 'Purushavishesha' who, like 'Aum', also pervades the 'three worlds'. Patanjali says, the created ones can unite with the 'Purushavishesha' by commemorating 'Aum.' Thus Patanjali was the first individual to realize the nature of AUM as an independent potent entity.

Padampani Avalokiteshvara


In the arts of ancient India this is exemplified in the classical representation of the human body, known as tribhanga, or the posture of 'three bends.' In this particular visualization, the head, torso, and legs slant in contrary directions: the legs and hips to the right, the trunk to the left, and the neck and head then gently to the right. It is a lyrical, dreamy, very graceful pose. The three curves formed by the body symbolize the three worlds, upper, lower and middle, better known in Sanskrit as triloka. Significantly AUM too is made up of three curves, making the analogy self-evident.



Patanjali's Eight-Fold Yoga

The most significant contribution of Patanjali however, was his development of the practical aspects of Yoga, and the elaboration of both its theory and practice. He virtually made Yoga a practical science of body and mind, a metapsychology along with metaphysics, and identified various physical positions, exercises and moves and mental modes which today constitute the diverse forms of Yoga. Patanjali enumerates these means as the eight stages of Yoga leading towards the attainment of Nirvana. Known as Ashtanga Yoga (Asht - eight; anga - limb), these are:

1. Yama, or Self-Control: Yama is a kind of self discipline consisting of five parts:

a). Non-injury (ahimsa)
b). Truthfulness (satya)
c). Non-stealing (asteya)
d). Celibacy (brahmacharya)
e). Non-hoarding of material objects (aparigraha)

The emphasis here is on the non-acceptance of anything that instruments pleasure.

2. Niyama, or Rules for Regulating Life: While yama are precepts that are universal in their application, Niyama are rules of conduct that apply to individual discipline. They are again five:

a). Purification (shaucha): Of the body through washing and by taking pure food only; and that of the mind by practicing friendliness, kindness, cheerfulness and indifference to the vices of others.
b). Contentment (santosha)
c) Penance by practicing austerities (tapas)
d). Self-Study of sacred texts (svadhyaya)
e). Meditation on God (Ishvara pranidhana)

Parasram Yogic Aasan




3. Asanas or Body Postures: This is the third stage of yogic evolution. Asanas are physical exercises that bring steadiness, health and lightness of limb. A steady and pleasant posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. According to B K S Iyengar, asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. They secure a fine physique, which is strong and elastic without being muscle-bound and they keep the body free from disease. Indeed the yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.





There are many kinds of 'asanas' elaborated in the Yoga-sutra, many of which find their echo in the annals of Indian art. Take for example the 'Tadasana,' the first posture mentioned in Iyenger's famous book Light on Yoga.' Tada means mountain, and broadly suggests an upright, straight, and unmoved posture. Tadasana therefore implies a pose where one stands firm and erect as a mountain. Tadasana is often described as a standing meditation posture. In Indian art, this stately posture is first witnessed in the form of Jinas, the founder of the Jain faith. Across the centuries the sculpted figure, whether male or female, stands often upright, steadfast and motionless, as though rooted to the earth.


Yoga Master BKS Iyenger Displaying the Tadasana


In the actual performance too of this asana, across modern yoga studios around the world, the practitioner stands firm with weight evenly distributed. Kneecaps are pulled up, hips move inwards and the stomach is held up but neither tightened nor sucked in. The chest is forward and the outer shoulders extend horizontally. Chest and shoulders are further expanded due to the rhythm of yogic breathing or pranayama (discussed next). The spine is extended, the neck is held straight and the eyes gaze straight ahead. Arms are held down along the sides of the body; they do not hang limp but are charged, with fingers energized, straight and pointing downwards.


Every South Indian bronze of the goddess, whether of Parvati, Lakshmi, or Sita, has one hand raised to hold a flower while the other is held alongside the body with fingers extended and pointing downwards. While we may stand casually at ease with one arm extended, none of us extends our fingers in such a manner. The sculptural convention of elongated arms with fingers extended so as to reach down the knees is not solely attributable to artistic stylization. It is explained in a large measure by the tradition of Tadasana in which the fingers are extended.




Then there is the simple posture of sitting cross-legged.

Why do most yogis sit cross-legged? Some believe that the answer lies simply in the fact that the yogic system was created thousands of years ago, mostly in a country where people were used to sitting on cushions on the floor. But trust yoga to have a practical and useful reason behind each characteristic. Indeed all of the traditional writings on Yoga stress the importance of sitting, with the spine in as erect a position as possible. Patanjali said:

'Sitting is to be steady and pleasurable. This is done by loosening of effort and by thinking on the endless (infinity).'

From the purely metaphysical point of view there is yet another and important reason to sit cross legged. Prana the vital air which circulates in us, flows round the body and tends to escape at the fingers and feet. If the hands and legs are crossed or folded, especially as in the lotus seat (padmasana), then a "closed circuit" of energy is formed, minimizing the leak of energy by continually feeding it back into the body.


Sarnath Buddha


The Padmasana is one of the most popular postures in which deities are shown engaged. Nearly always such an image is neither athletic nor warrior, but the dispassionate ascetic who has always been held in the highest esteem (like the Buddha). It expresses not the muscular physical form, but the serenity of meditative state. It stands for an ideal state which did and does exist in reality in the practice of yoga. In padmasana the legs are crossed and placed high upon the thighs with soles turned up. In addition to meditation this posture is also used by gods and enlightened beings for preaching the finest example of which is the Buddha image from Sarnath, where he is shown still half-absorbed in the bliss of the meditative state, from which he has awakened to preach.







The seated figure in the pose of yogic meditation was adopted by the various religions of India without being restricted to one or other faith. The Buddha, the Jina (Jain), the Hindu God Shiva, the goddess Lakshmi when venerated by elephants, the goddess Parvati and also several other figures of saints and teachers, all assume this classic posture.





Another asana of interest from the point of view of art is the Vajrasana, the thunderbolt or the pelvic pose. In this posture one kneels down and then sits back on the heels. This form of sitting is very commonly used domestically in Japan. Apart from being very suitable for meditation, this stance is also excellent for digestion. As the ancient yogis put it, 'It increases the digestive fires.' Fittingly thus Samurai warriors from Japan are often depicted in this posture.

Vajrasana is an extremely useful and comfortable exercise and is yogically speaking very efficient. It provides a satisfactory answer for many people who would otherwise find themselves depressingly uncomfortable in the cross-legged postures. Most exercises performed in the lotus seat could just as appropriately be performed in Vajrasana.





Mention must be made here of the 'Parvatasana,' Parvata literally means a mountain. In this variation of Padmasana, the arms are stretched over the head with the fingers interlocked.



Laughing Buddha





Intriguingly, the Laughing Buddha is often shown in this stance, albeit standing.



4. Pranayama or Breath-Control: Prana means breath, respiration, and in the broadest sense, all that is vital in life. It also connotes the soul as opposed to the body. Ayama means length, expansion, stretching or restraint. Pranayama thus means extension of breath and its control. Thus in Pranayama control is established over all the functions of breathing namely:

a). Inhalation (filling up, Skt. Puraka)
b). Exhalation (emptying the lungs, Skt. Rechaka)
c). Retention or Holding the Breath: In this state there is no inhalation or exhalation (Skt. Kumbhaka)

Pranyama thus is the science of breath. It is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves. Warns the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: 'As lions, elephants and tigers are tamed very slowly and cautiously, so should prana be brought under control very slowly in gradation measured according to one's capacity and physical limitations. Otherwise it will kill the practitioner' (chapter II, verse 16).

A yogi measures his life not by the number of his days but by the number of his breaths. Therefore, he follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow deep breathing. These rhythmic patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce craving. As desires and craving diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration.

As fires blaze brightly when the covering of ash over it is scattered by wind, the divine fire within the body shines in all its majesty when the ashes of desire are scattered by the practice of Pranayama.

Shankaracharya gives the following metaphysical interpretation of Pranayama: 'Emptying the mind of the whole of its illusion is the true rechaka (exhalation). The realization that "I am Atman" (the infinite spirit) is the true puraka (inhalation). Finally the steady sustenance of the mind on this conviction is the true kumbhaka (retention). This is the true Pranayama.'

Prana the vital, dynamic air in our mortal bodies, is a part of the cosmic breath of the all-pervading infinite Universal Spirit (Parmatama). Pranayama attempts to harmonize the individual breath (pinda prana) with this cosmic breath (Brahmanda-prana).

It has been said by Kariba Ekken, a seventeenth century mystic:

'If you would foster a calm spirit, first regulate your breathing; for when that is under control, the heart will be at peace; but when breathing is spasmodic, then it will be troubled. Therefore, before attempting anything, first regulate your breathing on which your temper will be softened, your spirit calmed.' (Quoted by B K S Iyenger)

Human nature is like a chariot yoked to a team of powerful horses. One of them is prana (breath), the other is vasana (desire). The chariot moves in the direction of the more powerful animal. If breath prevails, the desires are controlled, the senses are held in check and the mind is stilled. If desire prevails, breath is in disarray and the mind is agitated and troubled. Therefore, the yogi masters the science of breath and by the regulation and control of breath, he controls the mind and stills its constant movement. Indeed in the practice of Pranayama, the eyes are kept shut to prevent the mind from wandering. Thus says the Hatha Yoga Pradipika: 'When the prana and the manas (mind) have been absorbed, an undefinable joy ensues.' (Chapter IV, verse 30)

The YogiNot surprisingly thus, the importance of Pranayama in Yogic thought provides a fundamental basis for the conception of the human figure in the canons of Indian art. Indian artists have over the centuries shaped the body as a disciplined one, a subtle body glowing radiant with the light of inner realization.

Stella Kramrisch puts it admirably:

'In Indian art the figures are, as it were, modeled by breath which dilates the chest and is felt to carry the pulse of life through the body to the tips of the fingers. This inner awareness was given permanent shape in art, for it was daily and repeatedly practiced and tested in the discipline of yoga. It was found that by the concentrated practice of controlled breathing, an inner lightness and warmth absorbed the heaviness of the physical body and dissolved in the weightless 'subtle body,' which was given concrete shape by art, in planes and lines of balanced stresses and continuous movement. This shape, inwardly realized by yoga, was made concrete in art.'


5. Pratyahara or Withdrawal of Senses from Objects: If a man's reason succumbs to the pull of his senses he is lost. On the other hand, if there is rhythmic control of breath, the senses instead of running after external objects of desire turn inwards, and man is set free from their tyranny. This is the fifth stage of yoga, namely Pratyahara, where the senses are brought under control. It requires complete detachment from the world around as also from the products of one's mind and senses because these too are external objects at least to the inner self. It is thus a difficult exercise.

6. Dharana or Concentration: An illuminating tale from the ancient epic Mahabharata provides an interesting illustration of this stage of yoga:

Once Dronacharya the venerable guru of the royal princes organized an archery contest to test his pupils' proficiency with the bow and arrow. Before they actually took a shot at the target (an eye of the bird perched on a tree), each of them was asked to describe what all was visible to them in their frame of view. Some of them mentioned the particulars of the tree, others described the bird while some others even waxed eloquent upon the picturesqueness of the whole scene. When it came to Arjuna's turn however, he informed Dronacharya that to him only the eye of the bird was visible and nothing else. Needless to say it was only Arjuna's arrow which found its mark.

When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of Pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by Pratyahara, the sadhaka (practitioner) reaches the sixth stage called dharana. Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind is to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption. Approached in this frame of mind, the task at hand is sure to be successfully accomplished.

Spiritual Superman (Virasana Buddha)7. Dhyana or Meditation: As water takes shape of its container, the mind when it contemplates an object is transformed into the shape of that object. The mind which thinks of the all-pervading divinity which it worships, is ultimately through long-continued devotion transformed into the likeness of that divinity.

When oil is poured from one vessel to another, one can observe the steady constant flow. When the flow of concentration (dharana) is uninterrupted, the resultant state that arises is dhyana (meditation). According to Iyenger, 'As the filament in an electric bulb glows and illumines when there is a regular uninterrupted current of electricity, the yogi's mind will be illuminated by dhyana. His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation.

Thus Buddha, when engaged deep in meditation during his search for Nirvana, is often depicted in a posture known as the 'Dhyana Mudra.'


Meditating Shiva8. Samadhi: Samadhi is the end of the sadhaka's quest. At the peak of his meditation, he passes into the state of samadhi, where his body and senses are at rest as if he is asleep, but his faculties of mind and reason are alert as if he is awake.

The sadhaka is tranquil in this state, and worships the formless infinite as that from which he came forth, as that in which he breathes, as that into which he will be dissolved. The soul within the heart is smaller than the smallest seed, yet greater than the expansive sky. It is into this that the practitioner enters.

It is that state of being when contemplation completely merges with the object it is contemplating, and all distinctions between 'the seer' and 'the seen' get eliminated. Comparing the experience of samadhi with other experiences, the sages say: 'Neti! Neti!' - 'It is not this!' The purport being that this state can only be expressed by profound silence. The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged in the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known, for they are merged like camphor and flame.


References and Further Reading

  • Daljeet, Dr. Tantra: New Delhi, 1994.
  • Dehejia, Vidya (Ed). Representing the Body (Gender Issues in Indian Art): New Delhi, 1999.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Yoga Immortality and Freedom: Princeton, 1969.
  • Hutchinson, Ronald. Yoga A Way of Life: London, 1974.
  • Iyenger, B.K.S. The Concise Light on Yoga: London, 1983.
  • Saraswati, S.K. A Survey of Indian Sculpture: New Delhi, 1975.
  • Walker, Benjamin. Hindu World: New Delhi, 1983.
  • Zimmer, Heinrich. The Art of Indian Asia (2 Vols): Delhi, 2001

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