When Autobiography of a Yogi first appeared in 1946, it was acclaimed as a landmark work in its field. The New York Times hailed it as “a rare account.” Newsweek pronounced it “fascinating.” The San Francisco Chronicle declared, “Yogananda presents a convincing case for Yoga, and those who ‘came to scoff’ may remain ‘to pray.'” Today it is still one of the most widely read and respected books ever published on the wisdom of the East. Paramhansa Yogananda gives a remarkable answer to the question, “What is Yoga?” in the book, The Essence of Self-Realization, which is excerpted below.
A visitor : “What is Yoga?”
Paramhansa Yogananda: “Yoga means union. Etymologically, it is connected to the English word, yoke. Yoga means union with God, or, union of the little, ego-self with the divine Self, the infinite Spirit.
“Most people in the West, and also many in India, confuse Yoga with Hatha Yoga, the system of bodily postures. But Yoga is primarily a spiritual discipline.
“I don’t mean to belittle the Yoga postures. Hatha Yoga is a wonderful system. The body, moreover, is a part of our human nature, and must be kept fit lest it obstruct our spiritual efforts. Devotees, however, who are bent on finding God give less importance to the yoga postures. Nor is it strictly necessary that they practice them.
“Hatha Yoga is the physical branch of Raja Yoga, the true science of Yoga. Raja Yoga is a system of meditation techniques that help to harmonize human consciousness with the divine consciousness.
“Yoga is an art as well as a science. It is a science, because it offers practical methods for controlling body and mind, thereby making deep meditation possible. And it is an art, for unless it is practiced intuitively and sensitively it will yield only superficial results.
“Yoga is not a system of beliefs. It takes into account the influence on each other of body and mind, and brings them into mutual harmony. So often, for instance, the mind cannot concentrate simply because of tension or illness in the body, which prevent the energy from flowing to the brain. So often, too, the energy in the body is weakened because the will is dispirited, or paralyzed by harmful emotions.
“Yoga works primarily with the energy in the body, through the science of pranayama, or energy-control. Prana means also ‘breath.’ Yoga teaches how, through breath-control, to still the mind and attain higher states of awareness.
“The higher teachings of yoga take one beyond techniques, and show the yogi, or Yoga practitioner, how to direct his concentration in such a way as not only to harmonize human with divine consciousness, but to merge his consciousness in the Infinite.
“Yoga is a very ancient science; it is thousands of years old. The perceptions derived from its practice form the backbone of the greatness of India, which for centuries has been legendary. The truths espoused in the Yoga teachings, however, are not limited to India, nor to those who consciously practice Yoga techniques. Many saints of other religions also, including many Christian saints, have discovered aspects of the spiritual path that are intrinsic to the teachings of Yoga.
“A number of them were what Indians, too, would accept as great yogis.
“They had raised their energy from body-attachment to soul-identity.
“They had discovered the secret of directing the heart’s feeling upward in devotion to the brain, instead of letting it spill outward in restless emotions.
“They had discovered the portal of divine vision at the point between the eyebrows, through which the soul passes to merge in Christ Consciousness.
“They had discovered the secrets of breathlessness, and how in breathlessness the soul can soar to the spiritual heights.
“They had discovered the state which some of them called mystical marriage, where the soul merges with God and becomes one with Him.
“The ordinary person’s energy is locked in his body. The lack of availability of that energy to his will prevents him from loving the Lord one-pointedly with any of the three other aspects of his nature: heart, mind, or soul. Only when the energy can be withdrawn from the body and directed upward in deep meditation is true inner communion possible.”
Paramhansa Yogananda goes on to say how important techniques are in our spiritual quest:
“What happens,” someone asked, “to those who try to reach God without the benefit of Yoga techniques?”
“A few of them are successful,” the Master replied, “if they came into this life with strong spiritual karma from the past. The great majority, however, even if they start out on the path with enthusiasm, gradually become discouraged.
“‘Where is that God,’ they ask finally, ‘to Whom I’ve been praying all these years?’ They attain a little inner peace, but over the years their prayers become increasingly a matter of habit, less one of inspiration.
“Rarely, in the West, have the centuries seen such great saints as there have been in India.”