Monday, June 22, 2015

Who is a Yogi and Who is a Dhongi?

First of all, my apologies to all those friends who have expressed that they have been waiting to read about the second half of my European backpacking trip that I completed last month. Since my return I have been preoccupied with a handful of "Important & Urgent" matters, and so haven't been able to write that post, but I promise to do it soon, may be even later this week.

Today's post is a quick response to a meme I noticed on different social network websites in connection with the International Yoga Day celebrations. As you all know, the first International Day of Yoga was celebrated all around the world yesterday. Thanks to the initiative of the Indian prime minister Mr. Narendra Modi, in December last year, the United Nations General Assembly had approved June 21 to be celebrated as International Day of Yoga every year. The celebrations were a huge success both in India and abroad. However, as is inevitable, the celebrations, especially in India, also generated some criticisms (for example, this was all a PR stunt for Modi, etc.). This post is not a critique or evaluation of those criticisms. My post is just in response to the meme below circulated by Modi-haters which reads as follows in English: "He can't even sit in padmasana (the Lotus pose)... Modi is no yogi; He is a dhongi (a cheat)."

Congress party's meme on Narendra Modi following the International Day of Yoga celebrations in New Delhi
When I saw this meme, I immediately did a Google search on "Modi and Padmasana," because it seemed a little odd to me that Modi can't do a padmasana. First, padmasana or the lotus pose might be a difficult pose for many Westerners but it usually isn't for most Indians who have the habit of sitting cross-legged on floor from childhood. Also, it seemed odd that Mr. Modi couldn't do a lotus pose, given that he had spent years as a pracharak for the RSS; yoga along with many fitness exercises are commonly practiced at all the shakhas (or branches) of RSS.

Not surprisingly, the Google search yielded many pictures of PM Modi sitting in perfect padmasana. When I shared one of these pictures with the friend who had posted the meme, I immediately got a skeptical response that the picture must have been photo-shopped. Now, I love healthy skepticism, but this seemed more like a prejudiced response to me, because the response was immediate. In other words, no time had been spent to verify facts. Also, I couldn't see any noticeable signs of photo-shopping. Lastly, at least one of those pictures (the second one below) came from a reputable source, specifically The Sunday Times, so I had no reason to suspect the authenticity of the pictures.

Narendra Modi in padmasana
Anyway, the point of this article is not to prove that PM Modi is a great yogi. First of all, I'm not a Modi bhakt (devotee), so I don't have any motivation to do prove anything on behalf of Mr. Modi; nor does he need me. Sure, I'm a fan of his on certain issues, but I'm also as big a critic of him. Second, and more importantly, I don't know Mr. Modi personally. So I have no basis of knowing whether he is a "true" or "fake" yogi, but nor do the people who keep sharing memes about Mr. Modi being a "fake" yogi.

The point of this article is to educate people about who could be considered a true yogi. As those familiar with Sanskrit know, the word yoga means being in union with the supreme spirit or cosmic energy. Today, most of modern yoga may have been restricted to poses and physical exercises, but yoga as a discipline goes much beyond manipulating the body.

Patanjali in his famous Yoga Sutras described eight limbs of yoga:
  1. Yama: These are the five things that yogi must abstain from:
    1. Ahimsa: Abstain from all forms of violence (including verbal)
    2. Satya: Abstain from falsehood
    3. Asteya: Abstain from stealing
    4. Brahmacharya: Abstain from sexual misconduct 
    5. Aparigraha: Abstain from greed
  2. Niyama: These are the five observances
    1. Śauca: Purity in thoughts, speech and action
    2. Santosha: Being content with oneself and one's circumstances
    3. Tapas: Persistent austerity
    4. Svādhyāya: Engaging in self-reflection
    5. Ishvara-Pranidhana: Contemplation on the nature of True Self
  3. Asana: Literally means "a seat" or to be able to sit continuously for long periods of time. Later (in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika), asanas also came to mean the yoga poses that we practice today. But the point to remember is that they are still meant to help the body be still for long periods of time, something that is essential for samadhi.
  4. Pranayama: Breathing exercises (literally means having control over one's breath and life force)
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects or not being a slave to external attractions.
  6. Dharana: Concentration
  7. Dhyana: Meditation
  8. Samadhi: Merging or uniting one's consciousness with the higher Self.
Among these eight limbs, the last one, i.e., samadhi is the most difficult to attain, and ultimately the goal of yoga. So, a true yogi is one who has mastered the art of going into and coming out of samadhi. In this sense, perhaps 99.999999% of the practitioners of yoga (and that includes me) are not really true yogis. Forget samadhi, most of us can't even keep our body (asana) and mind (dharana) still on our will for a few minutes.

Does that mean that we all are fake yogis then? No, I won't say that. We all may call ourselves yogis, but only in the sense of being learners or students of yoga. And as students, we are yogis only to the extent of commitment we have made to the whole eight-fold path of yoga, that which involves disciplining not just the body but also the breath, mind, sense organs, and subtle energies so that they are all in better alignment with the supreme spirit and/or cosmic energy.

In other words, there are essentially two ways to view the word yogi: 1) a person who has mastered the process of going into samadhi (yogic union with the higher Self), and 2) a person who has committed himself/herself fully to all the eight-limbs of yoga (and not just the yoga poses). Most of us practitioners of yoga have never reached samadhi, so we can't truly call ourselves yogis. Most of us have also not made a 100% commitment to all the eight limbs of yoga, so we can't even call ourselves as good students of yoga.

You may ask, "OK, so what are you saying about Modi? Is he a true or fake yogi?" My answer to these questions is that you are asking the wrong questions. Whether Mr. Modi is a true yogi or not is his business, not ours. Our business is to focus on ourselves. We should engage in repeated self-reflection (svadhyaya) and evaluate how much we have really committed to the process of becoming a yogi. That's all there is. Sincerely try to be a good yogi, but don't waste your time trying to prove to others that you are one. As a corollary, if you are trying to prove to others how true/good a yogi you are, then you are most likely not.