In its simplest definition, yoga means addition or plus. In order for there to be addition, there must be one or more operands, at least two terms which are being added. When this definition is applied to the famous discipline which emanates out of India, yoga becomes that activity which enables the individual soul to connect with the Supersoul, or Paramatma.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
Every life form has a soul within it. Though this soul doesn’t change, the body it inhabits most certainly does. At some point this body is created, grows for some time, leaves byproducts, and then eventually gets discarded. Throughout all these changes, the identity of the life form does not change. We can take our own life as an example. As youths we had completely different bodies than we do as adults, yet our identities never change. We may look at an old picture of ourselves and be amazed at how we looked, but we can never accurately say that the person in the picture was someone else. The individual always remains the same because the soul never changes.
From Vedic information, we understand that the life spark inside the body is a tiny little entity known as the atma, or soul. The soul is so small that it cannot be measured by any blunt scientific instrument, nor can it be perceived by the naked eye. The only way to understand the presence of the soul is to study the symptoms of the outward body. In this regard the soul is similar to the wind. No one can actually see the wind, but we can realize its presence by feeling the air blowing on our faces or by seeing the trees and the clouds move.
Every living entity - any person, animal, fish, insect, reptile, plant, etc. - has an individual soul which serves as the guiding force for all activities. The soul can be thought of as the driver of the car. We can have a world class automobile with state of the art engineering and precision handling of the wheels, but all of this craftsmanship is useless without a driver. It is the person operating the vehicle who allows the automobile to have any value. In a similar manner, it is the presence of the spirit soul within the body that enables a person to be deemed alive. The soul is not alone, however. The Vedas tell us that there is another tiny spark residing side-by-side with the atma. This spark doesn’t belong to the individual though; it is an expansion of God. This soul is similar in quality to the individual, but since it is a direct representation of God, it is much more powerful. For this reason, this specific soul is referred to as Paramatma, or the Supersoul.
Why is it super? With our individual soul we can manage the activities of our current body. This body may change over time, but the driver remains the same. So in this regard, the individual soul is quite powerful. The atma is limited in power, however, in that it cannot control the actions of any other body. A soul can only reside in one body at a time, meaning that we are unaware of the activities and experiences of other living entities. The Supersoul does not have this limitation. Since God expands Himself to reside within the heart of every living entity, He is conscious of all activity, past, present, and future, of every living entity that has ever lived and that will ever live in the future. Thus God’s soul is super, or param.
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone's heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.61)
The question then arises as to the need for two souls. If our souls are sufficiently capable of driving the car known as the body, what is the need for the Supersoul? Why would God decide to expand Himself to reside within our heart? This is where things get a little tricky. While the individual soul is certainly responsible for the activities that a person chooses to take up, it is the Supersoul that is responsible for the results. Paramatma is a neutral witness, which means that it doesn’t play favorites in regards to material fortunes and misfortunes. At the same time, Paramatma is a representation of God, thus nothing can occur in this world without its intervention. All actions and reactions in this world are due to the influence of the Supersoul. The Supersoul is the source of all matter and spirit in this world, for Paramatma is non-different from God.
Aside from controlling the workings of nature, Paramatma exists for another more important reason. As individual spirit souls, our natural constitutional position is to always be engaged in service. Currently, we are engaged in all sorts of second-class service; service to our friends, family, community, nation, cat, dog, employer, etc. Since our individuality comes from spirit, naturally our service should also be directed at the spiritual instead of the material. Where do we find this spiritual entity who we can serve? Where do we go to find our natural occupation?
This is where yoga comes in. God is already residing within our heart, though He is standing by as a neutral observer. Since our soul is meant to engage in His service, we need only look inside our own heart to find our eternal companion. Knowing that the Supersoul exists and realizing its presence are two different things. We need a discipline, a set of activities which will help us connect with the Supersoul. This is precisely what yoga aims to do.
Now that we understand the meaning of yoga, how does this relate to all the different sitting postures and breathing exercises? Most of us know yoga to be a gymnastics exercise, something used to improve health and flexibility. The biggest hindrance to realizing the presence of the Supersoul, i.e. attaining yoga, is the influence of the senses. Therefore, an aspiring yogi’s first aim is to curb the influence of the senses. This is why yoga commonly involves strange breathing exercises and tricky sitting postures. These exercises were all passed down from God so as to help the living entities reduce the influence of the senses. Once our senses are kept in check, it becomes much easier to realize the presence of the Supersoul.
The five senses are hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and seeing. When we speak of sense gratification, we are referring to any activity that aims to please one of these five senses. For example, eating is aimed at satisfying the sense acquiring organs of the tongue and stomach. Sex life aims to provide sense gratification through stimulation of the genitals. Based on this definition, it seems that everything we currently engage in is sense gratification. If everything is sense gratification, what else is there? How can we curb the influence of the senses when every activity we perform involves interaction with the senses?
“Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses. When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects. One is freed from all material designations, and one’s senses are purified simply by being employed in the service of the Lord.” (Narada-pancharatra)
The soul, or atma, is above the influence of the senses. The senses are products of matter; they are tied to the body that we currently occupy. We know that certain species have heightened senses of smell or hearing. This is evidence of the fact that senses are part of the material body; a body which is ever-changing and non-permanent. The soul, on the other hand, is immutable and unchangeable. Aside from the soul being above the influence of the material senses, there is also something called spiritual sense gratification. Just because material senses are part of the temporary material body doesn’t mean that there aren’t spiritual senses. Spiritual senses are those things relating to the atma and the Paramatma. Since these senses can’t be realized until the material senses are nullified, the process of yoga is required.
Since God is the supreme spirit, association with Him represents the highest form of spiritual sense gratification. Associating with God automatically makes us immune to the effects of the material senses. This is why yoga is such a popular discipline. When a person practices yoga very nicely, they will start to transcend the effects of the material senses, which means that they will see some nice side-effects as a result. For example, their body will be in equilibrium, so their blood pressure will be lower, their breathing will be less restrained, and their heart will be healthier. At the same time, they will become more flexible and less restricted in their bodily movements. These material perfections come as a result of satisfying the spiritual senses. What happened over time, however, was that people started taking to yoga simply to achieve these side-effects, while completely ignoring the spiritual aspect to the discipline. Hence we are left with the current situation where nobody is able to really practice yoga perfectly. They may be able to stand on their head or put their legs into strange positions, but they are nowhere near realizing the presence of the Supersoul.
In the famous Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna briefly covers the key components to practicing meditational yoga properly. The first requirement is that one be completely celibate. Sex life causes the greatest stimulation of the material senses, thus it represents the biggest hindrance towards advancement in yoga. No one can be considered a serious yogi while remaining a slave to their senses. Another requirement is that one must find a sacred place to practice their yoga. This requirement makes sense because yoga requires silence and concentration. Since time immemorial, the serious yogis in India have chosen sacred and secluded places to practice their yoga. One must also sit up straight and have a cushion made of deerskin in order to keep insects away.
From these rules and regulations described by Lord Krishna, we can understand that meditational yoga is almost impossible to perfect in this age. Luckily for us, there are other forms of yoga. Since the goal is to achieve union of the soul with God, there will surely be other ways to achieve this connection. More than anything else, one must always remain with the Lord at all times in body, mind, and spirit. The most effective type of yoga for the people of this age is bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Bhakti means love or devotion, so when it is applied to yoga it means directing all of one’s activities towards connecting with God.
Of all the activities of bhakti-yoga, chanting is the most powerful. The chanting process is also commonly referred to as mantra meditation. One sits quietly and recites a sacred formula, or mantra, over and over again. The type of mantra makes a difference, for a mantra is a series of words designed to produce an effect. The most efficacious mantra for bhakti-yogis is the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. This is the greatest [maha] mantra because it contains God’s most important names, Krishna and Rama, along with His energy, Hara. When one performs this mantra meditation silently and to oneself, it is called japa, and when it is performed in a congregational manner with others, it is called sankirtana.
Whether we choose japa or sankirtana, the important point is to always perform mantra meditation. Unlike other kinds of yoga, this mantra meditation can be practiced by any person, at any time, and at any place. A person doesn’t have to be born to Indian parents, or enroll in a yoga class, or even understand Vedanta or Sanskrit. All that is required is a sincere desire to connect with God. Of all the yogas and religious practices that are adopted, this mantra meditation stands head and shoulders above the rest, thus it is something we should all sincerely take a shot at. Chanting Hare Krishna will allow our minds to focus on God at all times, delivering us the spiritual sense gratification we so desperately need.