Dr. David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri), a regular contributor to Integral Yoga Magazine, is one of the few westerners recognized in India as a Vedacharya or teacher of Vedic wisdom. In this interview, he clearly illustrates the relationship between Yoga and Vedanta, particularly illuminating the importance of linking modern day Yoga practice to its classical roots.
Integral Yoga Magazine: What is Yoga Vedanta and what are its scriptural references?
David Frawley: Yoga Vedanta teaches the true goal of Yoga: unity with all. Yoga is the unity of the individual self and the universal Self, and that subject is addressed in great detail by Vedanta. As such, Yoga can’t be separated from Vedanta. Even the Yoga Sutras accepts the authority of the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Vedas. The Gita is considered a Yoga sastra. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists advaita (non-duality) as one of the synonyms for Raja Yoga. In the Viveka Chudamani, Adi Shankara refers to the Yoga Sutras. However, Vedanta doesn’t rest on a book but on a realization for its ultimate truth.
IYM: What is the relationship between Yoga and Vedanta and how did they get separated?
DF: Yoga is one of the six darsanas or systems that accept the Vedas. Vedantic Yoga in the West precedes asana Yoga. When I studied Yoga Vedanta in the late ‘60s, the books we had were from Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Sivananda, Sri Aurobindo, Sri Ramana—all who were very Vedantic. The separation happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s when asana became the focus on Yoga. If we read Sri Rama Tirtha, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Vivekananda we will find the focus is on Yoga Vedanta not Yoga asana. Swami Vivekananda first brought Yoga to the United States and he called it Yoga Vedanta. Some of the other early teachers who brought Yoga to the West named their centers as Ramakrishna Vedanta Center, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta and so on. Yogi Bhajan, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Swami Satchidananda didn’t put their emphasis on Yoga asana. Vedanta is where the spiritual soul of Yoga is found.
IYM: Why do you think Yoga has become so identified with asana practice?
DF: A lot of the asana movement began because people practicing Yoga needed jobs and they could teach asanas; it was a way to do something that didn’t feel like “selling out” and that would help people. But, asana is not the subject of the ancient texts. The Yoga Sutras talk about asana basically in just two sutras that address the importance of sitting straight as a meditation aid and posture. The Sutras exist in the broader Vedic and Vedantic vision. Vedanta teaches how to get there—if you want the highest union you need viveka (discrimination between the real and unreal). The Yoga Sutras is a doorway to the whole world of Vedic teachings.
IYM: Is there any harm in putting the focus on asana?
DF: In the West, Yoga has become an exercise and fitness tradition. But real Yoga is a Vedic tradition. Yoga teachers who don’t know Vedanta aren’t really teaching Yoga—they are teaching exercise, stretching or movement. If you are doing postures alone you are just on the outside of Yoga. Inner Yoga is meditation, which is Vedanta—dharana, dhyana, samadhi. Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda, Swami Satchidananda all emphasized the Self, unity, oneness.
IYM: Swami Satchidananda gave a very simple and elegant approach to Hatha Yoga but his emphasis was not on asana with all the variations.
DF: You should not feel bad that Integral Yoga Hatha is not seen as the most sophisticated asana approach today. Yoga is not about becoming a Yoga athlete. Be proud of Integral Yoga. Yoga is a multimodal approach, it’s about integration. If your Yoga doesn’t address the integral unity of body, mind and spirit, then it becomes only about addressing the outer or physical, like modern medicine. That is why, in Ayurveda, we say it is better to have a simple medicine to address the whole body rather than a complex medicine that addresses only the feet (the physical by itself)!
Integral Yoga is holistic. People confuse Patanjali with asana and they don’t realize that Yoga is Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga, Japa Yoga and so on. We have forgotten the breadth and depth of Yoga and are trying to stereotype and pigeonhole it. A lot of modern Yoga is Newtonian; it’s based on a physical skeletal rather than a multidimensional spiritual approach. If you over-do an asana it can be an obstacle to deeper Yoga practice because it can further attach you to the physical body. Yoga is designed to take you beyond the physical body. The purpose of asana is to put your body consciousness to rest so you can meditate. Asana is not the end, it’s the beginning!
IYM: What is the relationship between Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Vedanta?
DF: Their essence is one and the same. The definition of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras is found in the second and third sutras. These sutras teach us that by controlling the thought waves we can then rest in our true nature. The goal of Yoga is uniting with our true nature of pure consciousness—not with our Yoga mat on the floor! So, these two sutras are the subject matter of Vedanta: realization of the Atma. Vedanta teaches us how to realize the Purusha (supreme Self). Vedanta is about knowledge of one’s essential nature and Yoga is about knowing who you are, not just about performing a good asana. There are over 100 sutras on samyama and samadhi, making it the main subject matter of this text—not about putting your leg over your head!
IYM: You mentioned Swami Sivananda. What do you see as his role in Yoga Vedanta?
DF: He was the great modern teacher of Yoga and Vedanta and that is what he is known for. He named his academy the “Yoga Vedanta Forest Academy.” The Sivananda Upanishad is a book that contains all Vedantic sayings. Swami Sivananda basically established Rishikesh as a global Yoga center. Prior to him, Rishikesh was hardly a little pilgrim town. The idea of foreigners coming to study there was because of him. The teacher who most influenced and inspired the thought and language of Swami Sivananda was Swami Rama Tirtha, who is considered one of the greatest Vedantins. The main focus also of Swami Satchidananda’s teachings is to realize the true Self by mastering the senses, going beyond the body, quieting the mind—all of this is Vedanta.
IYM: What is the sadhana of Jnana Yoga and Yoga Vedanta and its relationship to other Yoga practices?
DF: Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of knowledge—hearing the truth, contemplating the truth, deep meditation. Liberation comes from viveka and releasing our ahamkara or false identification with the body. These are the most basic teachings of the Yoga Sutras, but most Yoga teachers don’t realize that this teaching is also Vedanta. The main method is to inquire into one’s Self. It’s about self-knowledge and finding out who you truly are. This should not be an intellectual exercise. For example, the method of pranayama in Jnana Yoga is to follow the source of prana back to the Self within the heart. In meditation, you follow the thought current back to the Self within the heart. You work on cultivating viveka.
Another important practice is meditation on being (Sad Vidya) in order to gain knowledge of pure existence. By meditating on being, you let go of names and forms. Who are you in your essential nature beyond all external identities? Swami Purushottmananda said find out who you are before and after the body and mind. What is there in you that is eternal and seek that eternal. Jnana Yoga deals with the direct realization of the Purusha. All the other Yogas help you with Jnana Yoga. Raja Yoga is a preparation for Jnana Yoga. It helps you to control the mind therefore preparing you for jnana.
IYM: What is the relationship between bhakti and jnana?
DF: Bhakti Yoga is more concerned about union with Ishwara (God) and Jnana Yoga with Purusha. The bhakta will feel, “God is everything. The jnani will assert, “I am everything.” Shankaracharya was one of the greatest advaitans and also devotional poets in India. So, there is a meeting point of jnana and bhakti. The meeting point is in enlightenment, which may be approached by two methods: self-inquiry (jnana) and surrender (bhakti). One can realizing the divine as the Self or follow the path of surrender to the divine. There is also a path of nondualistic bhakti that is part of Guru Nanak’s (founder of Sikhism) tradition in which the devotee surrenders and merges into God as the supreme Self. Sri Ramana is considered the greatest Jnana Yogi of India. Sri Ramana also talked of devotion as merging with the Self so the deity becomes your Self. Even the devas can represent not only God in form, but formless. Lord Siva is the great Yogi who personifies the Absolute—he transcends duality, he is paramatma.
IYM: With the resurgence of the “asana craze” do you still have hope for the traditional, classical and more holistic approach to Yoga?
DF: As long as we have the Yoga Sutras we have some hope that Yoga can’t be reduced to asana. Right now, the asana business is a $30 billion business! The younger generation thinks this Yoga is the only Yoga, and then those who want to benefit financially from that notion naturally promote it. Eventually, people will want something more and then hopefully they will turn to the Yoga Sutras and the classical tradition of Yoga, and go back to Vedanta as well. Then they will be able to really appreciate the great Yoga teachers who came to this country decades ago.
Dr. Frawley is Founder and Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies and the author of thirty books, several training courses and over a hundred articles on Vedic systems of knowledge. His study of Vedantic meditation methods, particularly the practice of Self-inquiry as taught by Ramana Maharshi, is the subject of his book, Vedantic Meditation: Lighting the Flame of Awareness. He regularly offers programs at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville.