'Union' is at the heart of yoga, but what does it mean?
Over the centuries, a vast pool of philosophical wisdom has developed around the concept of “union”. Exploring the pool of wisdom around union has the potential to open up a whole new way to experience your yoga and meditation practice and bring these unifying effects into daily life.
In the world view of India’s ancient sages, a central concept was the underlying unity that links all forms of life. Many of the sacred rituals and hymns of these early times expressed reverence for this eternal principle that allows the universe to function as a unified whole.
The spiritual wisdom developed by these seers included the discovery of a way to control the mind so that this highly valued unity could be experienced within the self. This was the birth of meditation and the term used to describe this “union” was yoga, a Sanskrit word meaning to join or unify.
Yoga’s original association with meditation later expanded to include many other disciplines, including the hatha yoga that has become so important in recent times. At its highest level, yoga refers to the union of the individual soul with the universal soul, and the various disciplines of yoga each offer a different pathway to this union.
Over the centuries, a vast pool of philosophical wisdom has developed around the concept of union — from the time of India’s early sages through to the work of more recent spiritual leaders and yogis. If you’re a meditation or yoga practitioner, exploring this pool of wisdom has the potential to open up a whole new way to experience your practice, helping you to maximise their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits and bring their unifying effects into daily life.
At its highest level, yoga refers to the union of the individual soul with the universal soul, and the various disciplines of yoga each offer a different pathway to this union.
If you’re inclined to be more of a philosopher or spiritual seeker rather than a yoga or meditation practitioner, you’re also in for a fascinating, mind-expanding journey. Let’s start by going back a few thousand years to the time of India’s ancient sages.
The wisdom of the ancient rishis
Thousands of years ago, the rishis (sages) of India began to express their sense of unity with the natural world through their poetic hymns to nature deities such as Surya (sun), Agni (fire) and Vayu (wind). These hymns were later compiled into the sacred texts of Hinduism that became known as the Vedas.
The ancient Vedic hymns were valued not only for the poetic beauty of the words, but also for the vibrational impact of the sacred sounds involved. These sounds had mystical qualities that induced a feeling of calmness and inner unity. In addition, the sages discovered that chanting certain syllables — which came to be known as mantras — also had this unifying impact.
As well as feeling closely linked with nature, the rishis also sensed the unseen energies of the vast universe beyond their everyday world. They experienced a spiritual connection with this divine mystery, as expressed beautifully in the Rig Veda (IV.58.11): “The whole universe is stationed in your home within the ocean, within the heart, in life.”
As mentioned earlier, the rishis also made the incredible discovery that the essential oneness of the universe could be experienced within the soul through the disciplined practice of meditation. In the Upanishads (sacred texts added to the Vedas between 1000 and 200 BCE) this sense of inner unity was expressed as the uniting of the individual soul (Atman) with the vast universal soul, known in Sanskrit as Brahman.
For example, the Maitri Upanishad describes a step-by-step discipline for attaining unity with Brahman in the following way: “The precept for affecting this [unity] is this: restraint of the breath, withdrawal of the senses, meditation, concentration, contemplation, absorption”. From this we can see that even in these ancient times, structured methods of meditation were developed in order to arrive at the desired state of unified awareness.
Meditation and union-based philosophies
Throughout the centuries, Indian philosophers further developed the concept of the underlying unity of reality and the way in which this unity could be directly experienced through meditation.
Early influential thinkers included the ninth-century yogi Adi Shankara, who taught a philosophy of non-duality (divine Oneness) known as Advaita, and Swami Swatmarama, who wrote the 15th-century Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a yoga manual that also includes instructions for attaining states of unified consciousness during meditation.
Later philosophers who focused on the principle of unity included spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), who brought the Advaita message of Oneness to the West through his powerful speeches at the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago, and mystic-philosopher Sri Aurobindo (1892–1950) who taught the importance of integrating yoga’s uniting principle into daily life through his system of spiritual development known as Integral Yoga.
The ancient Vedic hymns were valued not only for the poetic beauty of the words, but also for the vibrational impact of the sacred sounds involved.
Both of these spiritual leaders also expressed the importance of “unity in diversity” in the modern world: the need to overcome the divisive tendencies between the world’s nations, cultures and religions. The world view held by these two philosophers can be traced to the inclusiveness of the Hindu religion and its ancient philosophies of unity, as expressed in the following lines from the sacred text known as the Bhagavadgita (chapter 6, verse 29): “He whose self is harmonised by yoga sees the Self abiding in all beings and all beings in the Self; everywhere he sees the same”.
Swami Vivekananda echoed this message from the Bhagavadgita through his image of the universe as a vast field of Cosmic Consciousness or Cosmic Intelligence that, he says, is basically “what people call Lord or God or Christ or Buddha or Brahman or Spirit”. He points out that it is through yoga — union between the individual soul and the universal soul — that we can directly experience this Cosmic Consciousness. (Again, we need to remember that within the context of Hindu spirituality the word yoga is generally associated with meditative states that achieve this divine union.)
The unifying principle at the heart of these philosophies is experienced in a different way through the traditions of hatha yoga. Let’s take a look at this physical discipline and its uniting energies through a spiritual lens.
Hatha yoga: body, mind and heart as a united force
One of the many different forms of yoga that evolved from meditation, hatha yoga was initially devised (around the 10th century CE) as a way to relax and bring health to the body in preparation for meditation. While the asanas (postures) of hatha yoga do play an important role in this context, it’s now widely recognised that hatha yoga can be a stand-alone practice with a wide range of benefits.
The magic of asanas is that they allow the principle of unity to be initiated and experienced on a physical level, with ripple effects into mental, emotional and spiritual levels. By comparison, meditation is largely focused within mental and spiritual realms.
However, the renowned yoga teacher BKS Iyengar makes the point that hatha yoga’s unifying impact on mind, body and spirit actually needs to be encouraged by the practitioner, so that asanas are not just experienced on a physical level. In his book Light on Life Iyengar says:
“The sensitive awareness of the body and the intelligence of the brain and heart should be in harmony. The brain may instruct the body to do a posture, but the heart has to feel it too. The head is the seat of intelligence; the heart is the seat of emotion. Both have to work in cooperation with the body.”
If you’re a yoga practitioner interested in developing a unified mind–body–spirit awareness, you could start by consciously experiencing each asana on a feeling level: for example, enjoying the expansiveness of stretching movements and the gentle feeling of surrendering to poses that involve contraction of some kind.
Alternatively, you could consciously bring a sense of loving awareness into each asana, or gratitude for the gift of being able to move your body in so many different ways. This helps you to experience asansas in a heartfelt way, so that your mind, body and spirit are functioning as a unified whole.
Breathing also plays an important role in the unifying effects of yoga. Another highly respected yoga teacher, TKV Desikachar, explains in his book, The Heart of Yoga, that breath and movement need to be consciously linked, as breathing is a vital tool for unifying the inner and outer selves. He says, “For breath and movement to be co-ordinated, our mind must attentively follow their union … The rules for linking breath and movement are simple: when we contract the body we exhale and when we expand the body we inhale”.
In addition, if you usually follow your asana practice with a meditation session, you can enhance the transition to meditation by focusing on the unifying processes that have taken place during the asanas.
Setting an intention that focuses on unity
You can enhance the unifying effects of both yoga and meditation by setting an intention or goal, known in yoga philosophy as sankalpa, before your sessions. For example, you could state or write down something along these lines: “I resolve to experience asanas in a more heartfelt way during my yoga practice so that they have a unifying effect on my mind, body and spirit”.
If you repeat your sankalpa daily it makes a strong impression on your subconscious mind, and over time this can transform the way you experience your practice.
Modern research aligns with ancient wisdom
According to yoga philosophy, it’s the tension in our mind between opposites (such as pain and pleasure, aggression and loving acceptance) that produces the often stressful way we think and perceive the world. So an important part of creating unified consciousness is the dissolving of these boundaries that separate our thoughts into these dualities.
The sage Patanjali expressed this concept around 200 BCE in his Yoga Sutras, pointing out that through meditating and mastering posture “one is not disturbed by the dualities”.
Modern research shows how this duality is actually reflected in the structure of the human brain, which is divided into right and left hemispheres that generally function in an unbalanced way. As pointed out by Bill Harris, in Thresholds of the Mind, “Because the brain filters and interprets reality in a split-brained way, we tend to see things as separate and opposed, rather than as connected and part of the oneness spoken of by the great spiritual teachers (and in the last few decades by quantum mechanical physicists)”.
This in turn often leads to a feeling of being separated from others in our daily lives and cut off from the vast interconnected web of life. These alienating tendencies often create the need to function competitively rather than through cooperative activities that foster a sense of unity and belonging. Moreover, these feelings of separation often lead to stressful psychological states such as anxiety and fear, which statistics reveal to be widespread in the 21st century.
Research has also shown that any form of focused attention tends to redress the hemisphere imbalance of the brain that causes psychological distress. As meditation and yoga both involve a form of focus — such as the breath or the movements of the body — they provide an ideal way to synchronise the two brain hemispheres and thereby create the unified consciousness that brings emotional wellbeing.
If you’re a regular meditator or yoga practitioner you may have noticed that the unifying effects of these practices produce a greater sense of connection with the external world. At the highest level, this can be experienced as a profound sense of peace and unity with the universe as an interconnected whole.
Yoga and meditation in our troubled world
Focusing on, and developing, the principle of union thus has the potential to transform not only your practice, but also every facet of your life. If you’re not a yoga or meditation practitioner, embracing the concept of union as a philosophical and spiritual framework for your life can have a similar transformational effect. In both cases the uniting energies involved can overcome many of the divisive forces of modern life, bringing huge changes to your interactions with other people, your enjoyment of daily activities and your appreciation of the world of which you are a part.
If you’d like to establish regular sources of inspiration to “fuel” this highly beneficial approach to life, you could read ancient texts such as the Bhagavadgita, the Upanishads or the Yoga Sutras. Or if you find these texts a bit challenging, you could try books by more recent spiritual leaders such as Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo (mentioned earlier), or author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose book Sadhana includes a beautiful discussion of the concept of unity within Indian spirituality.
So, whenever you feel distressed by news of the latest terrorist attack, climate change effects or corporate corruption, the timeless wisdom of India can provide a powerful tool for dealing with any negative feelings and thoughts that arise.
Energy flows where attention goes, as they say, and you can choose to focus on activities that connect you to the benevolent force that unifies and lovingly supports the great web of life. Doing so on a regular basis has the potential to not only transform your life but, through ripple effects, it can bring many positive benefits to others. In this way you can actually become a potent force for change — without any struggle, conflict or aggressive political activism.
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