|The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Hokusai|
Yoga philosophy tells us that while the material world (prakrti) is ever changing, there is an eternal, unchanging side of the universe that you can connect with. However, in different yoga traditions, there are two very different ways of understanding the eternal, unchanging nature of the universe: dualism and non-dualism.
Today I thought I’d provide you with a brief overview of the two basic ways of viewing the eternal in the yoga tradition. It just makes sense to me after discussing impermanence (see The Greatest Yoga Lesson of Them All) that I should fill you in a bit on what yoga offers for those who want to follow the yoga path all the way to liberation, the very peak of the yoga mountain. I also hope this will clear up some misunderstandings about traditional yoga, which I have great respect for.
I’ll start with a brief description of dualism because that is the view of the universe in Patanjanli’s yoga, the type of yoga philosophy most frequently taught these days, even though it wasn’t originally the basis for Hatha Yoga. I’ll then provide a brief description of non-dualism, which actually was the basis for Hatha Yoga as well as Tantra Yoga and Vedanta. I’m presenting you with alternatives so you know you have a choice. But keep in mind that if you don’t want to aim for a lofty spiritual goal but just want to practice yoga to make your life better here in the material world, you should feel free to do that. If you don’t want to climb the whole yoga mountain, you don’t have to. Just go as far as you like.
Dualism and Patanjali’s Classical Yoga
“The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga.” B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, page 3
In this philosophical system, everyone has their own eternal and unchanging soul (the atman). While your body and mind are made from the same material as the ever-changing world around you, your soul is made from a different substance, purusha, the same substance as the eternal and unchanging Universal Spirit. Although you may think of yourself as being your body and/or you mind, this is considered to be “spiritual ignorance.” Your true self in this system is your atman, your eternal and unchanging soul. And that’s what you’re trying to reveal by quieting your mind with your yoga practice.
According to Patanjali, if you follow the eight-fold path outlined in the Yoga Sutras, relinquish all your worldly attachments, and dedicate your life to the practice of yoga, you can achieve liberation from life in our ever-changing material world.
“At the peak of this ecstatic unification, yogins reach the point of no-return. They become liberated. According the dualistic model of Classical Yoga, this implies the dropping of the finite body-mind. The liberated being abides in perfect “aloneness” (kaivalya), which is a transmental state of sheer Presence and pure Awareness.” —Georg Feuerstein from The Yoga Tradition
In this path, after you move through many phases of quieting your mind, your soul is released from your body-mind, you are freed from being reincarnated again, and you achieve union with the divine for eternity. This does not unite you with any other souls, however. It’s just you and the divine, united in “perfect aloneness.” If this isn’t what you expected or you are disappointed by the idea of perfect aloneness, read on!
Non-Dualism and Hatha Yoga, Tantra Yoga, and Vedanta
“This is the state called non-dual—literally not-two—in which we can simultaneously experience the diversity of the multiverse and recognize that none of it is different from Awareness itself.” —Sally Kempton
In this philosophical system, there is one all-encompassing universal consciousness that is eternal and unchanging, and that includes all living beings within it as well as the rest of reality. However, unlike the universal consciousness, the living beings within it, including their souls, are temporary. We are like waves in the “ocean of being,” waves that arise, travel some distance, break and then are absorbed back into the sea.
Although we live as temporary, ever-changing beings, through dedicated practice, we can experience union with the universal consciousness and the souls within it. Without dropping your body-mind or giving up your life in the material world, you can come to full realization that there is no separation between yourself, others, and the vast universal consciousness. When yoga teachers talk about how in yoga separateness is an illusion and how in reality we are all “one,” this is what they are referring to.
The yoga practices of Hatha Yoga, including asanas, pranayama, meditation, and kundalini techniques, were originally intended to allow you to experience this form of union. As Sally Kempton says:
“The ultimate effect of practice with an awakened kundalini is the experience of union: the union of the human consciousness with the vast Consciousness of which it is a part, or as the yogic texts put it, the recognition that there is no separation between ourselves in the whole.”
Coming to the realization that you already are united with the universal consciousness is not something that requires arduous practice. You could experience it temporarily as you meditate and feel your boundaries dissolve or in a moment of grace. That short-lived experience may then inspire your practice. Or your realization could be permanent, which means living in our ever-changing world in a state of enlightenment.