Part II: Characteristics of Protean Yoga

As the world passes from the stage of mind to supermind, our consciousness becomes global instead of national. [i] With this evolution we have come to the gradual realization that our own individual cultures aren’t the end and culmination of human experience. We have stepped out of ourselves to find other cultures which complement and extend the achievements of our own individual culture.

In the dialectic of motion, as the particular becomes aware of the universal, the universal becomes aware of the particular. In this case as the Western civilization became aware of the world, it also became aware of India. With the increasing awareness of things Indian, we have been thrown face to face with Yoga. For Yoga pervades all aspects of Indian life. [ii] This Yoga is my topic-bija.

What is Yoga?

We must first sink to the bija-essence of Yoga. In this paper, we shall first examine the ‘protean’ presence of Yoga in Indian culture, looking for certain features that seem to characterize it. After examining Yoga in this static fashion, we shall look at its dynamics through time, by a discussing the origins of Yoga. In discussing the origins of Yoga we shall find it illustrative to compare and contrast the Bhagavad Gita, a classic statement of general Indian spirituality, with Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra, the first work to systematize the techniques and philosophy of yoga. Through this comparison we shall see the differences and similarities between the popular view of Yoga and the technical views of Yoga. Having characterized Yoga through its static and dynamic elements we shall then examine the techniques for autonomy in two schools of Yoga, tantric and classical. These schools represent polar aspects of Yoga’s tradition, which shall help us to separate the kernel of Yoga’s essence. Having achieved an understanding of the multiplicity of forms that Yoga has assumed, we shall examine the response of Western culture to Yoga.

Thus my sadhana, meditation, begins on the bija seed of Yoga. Through the subtleties of this seed of Prakrti, Purusha is reflected. Remember one acquires salvation through knowledge, jnana, of Purusha.

Yoga a living organism, not a rigid system

“Unlike the other darsanas, the yoga-darsana is not solely a ‘system of philosophy’; it sets its mark, so to speak, on a very considerable number of pan-Indian practices, beliefs and aspirations. Yoga is present everywhere -- no less in the oral tradition of India than in the Sanskrit and vernacular literatures. Naturally, this protean Yoga does not always resemble the ‘classic’ system of Patanjali.” [iii]

Yoga pervades the Indian way of being. But Yoga is no set thing. As we shall see, Yoga has no particulate beginning in Indian. It hasn’t ended either, for Yoga is a vital tradition even today in modern India. Yoga has no set philosophy, as it is continually modified and extended. There isn’t even a set system of techniques, as the primary techniques vary from generation to generation. Yoga then assumes the nature of a living organism. It is never one set thing, but is always in the process of change and growth. As such, it is typical of its nature as Prakrti. Yoga still strives to reach completion.

India is Yoga’s body [iv]

What are the qualities of this protean Yoga? First it is heavily associated with India, as a physical continent. India is Yoga’s body.

“Yoga has ended by becoming a characteristic dimension of Indian spirituality. This prestige, this protean presence, raises a problem pregnant with consequences. May not yoga be an autochthonous creation of the whole of India, the product not only of the Indo-Europeans but also, and especially, of the pre-Aryan populations.” [v]

India only listens internally

As an example of the self-enclosed nature of Yoga, Indian thinkers have traditionally referred exclusively to their own traditions. As a whole they are not open to external influence.

“There has never been much interest in non-Indian religion, throughout the religious and philosophical literature of India - after all, India is the most important and the only spiritually significant part of Jambudvipa.” [vi]

India has been the center of the world for its thinkers.

Yoga’s Person [vii] not exportable

Neither has Yogic thought or discipline been as exportable as other of its philosophies, such as Buddhism. Any time Yoga has been exported, as in tantric times, to Tibet or Malaysia, it has been ‘corrupted’ of its purely Indian nature. Yoga manifests itself in a new way if it is moved. Most of the unorthodox, left-handed practices, vamacari, of Yoga are even attributed to the outlying areas of India by Indian thinkers. [viii] Even when Yoga is practiced in America, today, it is practiced in an American context. So it seems that while certain features of Yogic practice and belief are very exportable, that the kernel of Yoga is tied to the Indian sub-continent. Religion and environment are yoked together. It would be interesting to trace the environmental features of India that led to such a belief/technique as Yoga.

Yoga belief: Humans suffer from ignorance

The second-quality of Yoga is its particular relation to the dialectic between man and his existence. They begin with the affirmation that to exist is to suffer. Patanjali, Yoga Sutra: “All is suffering for the sage.” [ix] All further Yogic thought-energy is devoted to the release from this initial suffering.

The first question that arises is: why does man suffer? Classical Samkhya Yoga says man suffers because he confuses Purusha and Prakrti. Tantric thought says that man suffers because he doesn’t realize the basic oneness of existence. Both stress the confusion and ignorance, avidya, in man. This kernel realization is common to all Yogic philosophy. Man suffers. He suffers because he is ignorant.

Yoga belief: There is a solution to suffering

Classical Yoga - Self realization as Purusha

The various yoga darsanas then devote themselves to the solution of this suffering. Classical Yoga says man suffers “by reason of the pains of change, anxiety, and habituation.” [x]   Man suffers from the very nature of Prakrti. The only solution is to be released from Prakrti into Purusha, from the changing to the permanent.

Tantra - Transcend Purusha/Prakrti duality

Tantra, in transcending even the Purusha/Prakrti duality, realizes that release from Prakrti is meaningless. The tantric “can both visualize and experience life and the universe as the revelation of the Supreme Divine Force (Sakti).” [xi] In tantrism existence becomes divine. Suffering doesn’t matter, as it is only another transcended polarity. As the Bhagavad-Gita says in relation to death and pain: “For what is unavoidable thou shouldst not grieve.” So whether the Yogic goal is to transcend the human condition of suffering or to understand that suffering doesn’t really exist, the Yogis strive to reach the state of painless existence.

Yogi attains superhuman powers, siddhis

The Yogi in attempting to transcend the human condition attains superhuman or non-ordinary powers, siddhis.  Patanjali lists the varieties of these miraculous powers in Book 3 of his Yoga-Sutras. To the non-Yogi these powers seem god-like and transcendent. The ordinary individual then sees the Yogi as a man-god. “Among the populace, the Yogans have always been regarded as redoubtable magicians, gifted with superhuman powers.” [xii] “The divination of man, the ‘man-god’, remains a predominant motif of Indian spirituality.” [xiii] So in his journey to transcend the human condition, the Yogi attains the state of man-god. The Yogi is likened with the magician.

Yoga requires sacrifice

The Yogi seeks these techniques that will allow him to shed his humanity in order to become a god. He must sacrifice himself to become a god. All Yogi techniques require sacrifice. Classical Yoga stresses sacrifice of human existence to the pure individual consciousness of Purusha. Tantrism and the more popular brands of yoga always stress sacrifice of the individual self to a god. None of the ways of Yoga, no matter how diverse, is easy. Each requires a strict discipline.  As the Indian classic, the Bhagavad Gita 6: 36 says:

“Yoga is hard to attain by one who is not self-controlled; but by the self-controlled it is attainable by striving through proper means.”

As we shall see, the discipline of yoga is focused first on the body and then on the mind. The Yogi eventually gains complete control over his organism. He is sacrificing himself to the goal of absolute being or awareness.


While the Yogi sacrifices his personal selves, he gains the universal. With this sacrifice comes a religious ecstasy called a nirvana, samadhi, or nirudha. So the yogic techniques are not only to avoid pain but also to achieve this transcendent ecstasy, associated with enlightenment to one’s true self. The skin is shed and the true being arises, ultimately wise and in a state of constant bliss. Thus the Yogi has two simultaneous aims. By transcending human ignorance he avoids pain and gains ecstasy.

Summary of Yoga’s characteristics

Let us summarize. Protean Yoga is tied to the continent of India. Primary to its beliefs is the equivalence between existence and suffering. The cause of suffering is human ignorance. Transcendence of the human condition is the only way of release from this ignorance. This transcendence leads to superhuman powers. The Yogi becomes a magician, a man-god. To become a man-god, one must sacrifice the old attachments to the ideal of oneness with the absolute. In the sacrifice of the personal one gains the universal, which is the ecstatic religious state of samadhi.

[i] Aurobindo, Lecture Gerry Larson, December 1, 1972, UCSB

[ii] Eliade, 101

[iii] Eliade, 101

[iv] Purusha, the Divine Nature, manifests in Prakrti (India) as Buddhi (Yoga). Lost in Ahamkara (ignorance) humans think they are Prakrti, and pursue their material desires. In pain from disappointment they turn to Yoga (Buddhi, the reflection of Purusha (their Divine Nature)).

[v] Eliade, 101 - Continued from above quote.

[vi] Bharati p. 60

[vii] While physical Yoga, Yoga’s Body, enjoys a growing popularity all around the world, in general it has been divorced from Yoga’s metaphysical side, Yoga’s Mind. Therefore the Body has been exported while the Mind has remained rooted in India. Yoga’s Person, made up of Body and Mind, has not been exportable out of India.

[viii] Bharati, p. 65

[ix] Eliade, p 11

[x] Patanjali: Yoga Sutra 2, 15

[xi] Zimmer, 571. Sakti, ‘the Supreme Divine Force’, is normally visualized as the Mother Goddess.

[xii] Eliade, p. 294

[xiii] Eliade, p. 103


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