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The Roots of Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness

The following is a research paper I wrote for a World Religions graduate class. As you read, consider: How can understanding and honoring the roots of these practices improve your life even further?

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have become everyday terms for the Western world, providing relief from busy lifestyles. However, for most, these practices are done without a deep understanding of their religious roots. Yoga is branded as an exercise class, meditation as a means of relaxation, and mindfulness as the wellness industry’s newest buzz word. In reality, these three practices originated from Hinduism and Buddhism as a means to find peace, faith, and release from suffering. When something is separated from its root, it becomes less potent. Too often, beliefs are studied as separate from each other, when truly there are more connections than realized. Understanding the roots of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness from these Eastern religions would greatly benefit Westerners looking to enhance the impact of these practices. These practices are a blend of both Hindu and Buddhist traditions that have intersected and influenced each other over time. Studying these roots will allow for more cultural appreciation as opposed to appropriation. 

The Vedas are the ancient scriptures that form the foundation of Hinduism. Written and followed starting in 2000 B.C.E., the four texts outline how to worship gods through actions such as chants, ceremonies, and hymns. In 500 B.C.E., written works called the Upanishads came to influence and change Hinduism and, eventually, the system of yoga. In Hinduism, the ultimate goal is Moksha, or liberation. The Upanishads explain that achieving Moksha is when one realizes that Brahman, the all encompassing spirit, and Atman, the deepest self, are the same. Also included are the benefits of practices such as meditation and deep breathing. The first use of the word yoga is in the Katha Upanishad (6.10-11): “When the control of the senses is fixed, that is yoga…then the person is free from distraction” (Simpson 40). At this time, yogis were ascetics who were completely removed from society to experience mediation. Yogis are described in the epic poem the Mahabharata (12.294.14-17): “He is motionless like a stone…he neither hears nor smells nor tastes nor sees; he notices no touch, nor does [his] mind form conceptions. Like a piece of wood, he does not desire anything” (Simpson 50). It is in The Bhagavad Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, where the first actionable description of yoga is provided. The setting of the Gita is on a battlefield, where a warrior named Arujuna is frozen in fear, unsure of how to proceed in a battle between his family members. His charioteer is named Krishna, but is really an incarnation of the God Vishnu. “Krishna teaches techniques to transcend his confusion. In the process, he redefines yoga as a way to be active instead of renouncing” (Simpson 60). This gave more people the understanding of how to bring yoga into their lives, without needing to be completely removed from society. By the 200’s B.C.E., the practice of yoga had begun to really take shape, and the need to develop a set of guidelines became clear. It is from this need that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were written; writings that would go on to guide the system of yoga into the present day. The Sutras describe the purpose of yoga as reaching Samadhi - a meditative state in which the practitioner is at one with the universe. Patanjali provides an actionable path to reach Samadhi - the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

The story of Buddhism begins with Siddartha Gautama in the 400’s B.C.E. Born into a prestigious Hindu family in India, he was shielded from all suffering. Upon discovering that it was a part of human nature, Siddartha made it his mission to escape suffering. He tried many things, including yoga, “Siddartha was a yogi seeking enlightenment, and it was his followers who established Buddhism as the practice of his new path: the Middle Way” (Kelland). Though he took many positive aspects of yoga, he still had not escaped suffering. Instead of continuing his quest, he decided to rest under a tree. 49 days later, he found Enlightenment, or Nirvana, and thus became the Buddha. The Buddha went on to teach his followers that there are three marks of reality. Change and suffering are facts of life, and it is attachment that causes suffering. He said people could respond to suffering using the Four Noble Truths: to live is to suffer, suffering comes from desire, to end suffering ends desire, and release from suffering is possible by following the Noble Eightfold Path. In the Four Noble Truths, “the Buddha was saying that if we can recognize suffering…and look deeply into its roots, then we’ll be able to let go of the habits that feed it and, at the same time, find a way to happiness” (Nhat Hahn 15). The Noble Eightfold Path, also called the Middle Way, provides a way to find release from suffering. Following this path would mean using ahimsa (non-harming) in intentions, words, actions, and work, while also meditating using focused awareness to get to Samadhi. These steps are listed as starting with the word “right”, meaning “complete” (e.g. right understanding, right intention, right speech). It is also important to understand that Buddhists believe that there is no separate self, in contrast to Hinduism. This lack of self is called Anatta, and Nirvana is the realization of Anatta. With this guidance, or Dharma, focused meditation and mindfulness became a major focus in Buddhism. 

Hatha, physical pose practice, is the most recognizable form of yoga today, though early understanding of yoga was about finding Samadhi. The physical pose practice has ties to the Indian ascetics who removed themselves from society to practice meditation, conforming their bodies into shapes that sometimes looked comfortable and sometimes not. Hatha yoga techniques “were adapted from earlier forms of austerities, which became less intense and more appealing to householders” (Simpson 132). To make a Hatha Yoga class more authentic and perhaps more impactful, practitioners should study the Eight Limbs of Yoga within the Sutras. The Eight Limbs grow upward like a flower. To create the experience for Samadhi, or a beautiful blooming flower at one with the universe, one first needs really good soil. The soil are the Yamas and Niyamas, disciplines for behavior toward self and others. The Yamas are about behavior towards others and include many ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism including non-harming (ahimsa, right action), truth (satya, right speech), non-attachment (aparigraha, right understanding), and moderation (brahmacharya, right effort). The Niyamas are about behavior toward/of the self and include contentment (santosha, right understanding), cleanliness (saucha, right effort/intention), discipline (tapas, right effort), self study (svadyaya, right understanding) and isvara pranidhana (faith, right meditation). The soil must also exclude the five obstacles, described in Sutra 2.3: “Ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred, and clinging to bodily life…” (Satchidananda 80). These ideas are directly linked to the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Four Noble Truths, and Noble Eightfold Path. As the Eight Limbs of Yoga is described further, one gets closer to Samadhi by strengthening the body (asana), expanding the breath (pranayama), and adopting specific meditation practices (pratyahara, dharana, dhyana). Though there are clearly many religious ideas in the Sutras, Patanjali is clear that it can be accessed as separate from religion, as shown in Sutra 2.44: “By study of spiritual books comes communion with one's chosen deity” (Satchidananda 140). Patanjali believed in the importance of faith, but did not prescribe which faith in particular. This is attractive in the secular nature of modern times.

The Noble Eightfold Path and the Eight Limbs of Yoga help the practitioner reach Samadhi. From that state, they have the possibility of finding Moksha or Nirvana. Sutra 3.2 describes the seventh limb of yoga: “Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward [one] object” Swami Satchidanda shares commentary on this sutra: “The Hindu scriptures give a beautiful example of this ‘continuous flow.’ They say it is like pouring oil from one pot into another. It is a continuous string; it doesn’t break. The mind is fixed. Communication between meditator and object of meditation is steady” (Satchidananda 163). Similarly, the seventh step of the Noble Eightfold Path is “right meditation”, and can be translated as: “[using] the disciplines of meditation (dhyana) and focused awareness to contemplate the nature of reality more deeply” (Molloy 136). These overlapping mindsets show the interconnectedness of the belief systems.

Guidance on meditation and mindset work together in the spiritual texts of Hinduism and Buddhism. The meditative states described in the Pali Canon (early Buddhist texts) “sound like visions from Upanishadic sages, especially the realm of ‘neither perception nor non-perception’” (Simpson 48). Likewise, the Bhagavad Gita shows Buddhist ideas: “[The Buddha] taught a way out of suffering based on detachment from desire. By the time of the Gita, his teachings were popular. Krishna draws on their message, along with several other systems of yogic philosophy, presenting all of them as paths to liberation” (Simpson 90). Krishna advises Arjuna with advice from the Four Noble Truths: ‘Yoga amounts to the breaking of the connection with suffering’....‘impermanent’ thoughts and feelings ‘come and go,’...(Simpson 90). The main difference in meditation is that in Hinduism, the goal is to realize that the self is at one with the Supreme Being (Brahman), whereas in Buddhism there is no self and no god, there is only “being”. Today, beginning meditators would benefit from any deep concentration and detachment from the ego, while advanced meditators could think deeply about which approach fits their mindset. 

A powerful way to experience yoga and meditation is in a group setting. This correlates with the “sangha”, “a community of Buddhists who practice the Dharma and seek enlightenment together” (Keller). Gathering with people on the same spiritual path enhances the capacity for growth and change. “In Yoga they refer to Satsanga, associating with the truth or with someone virtuous such as a guru” (Keller). Ancient yoga was studied with a spiritual master, or guru. To increase the spiritual benefit of their practice, yogis could look for an instructor attuned to the roots of yoga. Guidance from spiritual texts also give ideas for handling relationships with others, as in Sutra 1.33: “By cultivating an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, the [mind settles] in undisturbed calmness” (Satchidananda 51). This type of thinking is also seen in Buddhism, with the belief of “weakening attachment to patterns of thinking, while encouraging wiser social conduct” (Simpson 90). Being with others in spiritual practices and learning how to relate to them without attaching brings a sense of community and peace into our lives. 

Mindfulness has become a catch-phrase, but being truly mindful is incredibly difficult in our busy world. It is not so different from the meditative states described above, except that “mindfulness is a form of meditation that occurs throughout every moment of the day” (Keller). Most of what the West knows today about mindfulness can be attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, and to the popularity of the writings of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn. Mindfulness is a daily action wherein you are “aware of your in-breath and out-breath…so you can continue to cradle the suffering…[it is] the best way to be with our suffering without being overwhelmed by it” (Nhat Hahn 17). Mindfulness is a way to take meditation off the yoga mat, away from the seat cushion, and into the real world to assist the practitioner in the present moment. 

Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness were born in the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. These practices are still an integral part of Hindu and Buddhist religions, used as a way to get closer to their ultimate liberation. In contrast, a typical Western yoga class is secular. The secular nature has helped more people access these teachings, but in many cases has led to a separation from the original source. Appreciation and respect for these practices can be avoided by studying the deeper aspects of these traditions. In a go, go, go world, there is gold to be found inside of them. These time-tested practices were honed over thousands of years with an incredible question at its heart: How can we find peace? An easy to follow, step by step path is laid out for us within Hinduism and Buddhism, and we do not have to be a member to access their teachings and benefit from their practices. In our world today, what if we looked for more connections, rather than separations? 

Works Cited

Kelland, Mark. “Multicultural Personality Theory.” Chapter 17 – Yoga: A Purpose for Personal Development, and Buddhism: Zen and the Middle Way – Multicultural Personality Theory, Pressbooks, 2014. Accessed 1 July 2024.

Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2014.

Simpson, Daniel. The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga’s History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices. New York: North Point Press, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 

Satchidananda, Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali / Translations and Commentary by Swami Satchidananda. Buckingham: Integral Yoga Publications, 2020. 

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Amazing! It's been a year since I completed my yoga teacher training in Hatha yoga, and this paper was a great review of everything I spent so much time thinking about last spring/summer. My brain, post-Covid, tends to dump little details that I don't consider daily. Now that I am back on Peaks Island this summer studying Hatha yoga with my teacher Patty, this paper was a great little reminder of all the things I read and journalled about. Thank you!

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Yes Lisa! That's the exact reason I wanted to take the World Religions class - I knew it would remind me of some of those important details we tend to forget as we go. Thanks for leaving a comment it means so much!! Hope you're enjoying the kids yoga camp! Can't wait to see more pictures.

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