The Goals of Yoga
Yoga as a Healing Art
Rolf Sovik, PsyD
February 9, 2017
How do yoga, meditation, breathing practices, and relaxation help us heal? The topic is a big one, which we will examine from many points of view as we move through this multipart series: Yoga as a Healing Art. Healing is a core element of both yoga philosophy and yoga practice. In fact, healing is something we all aspire to, even if we do not always realize it—we all want to be healthy physically, mentally, and emotionally, and many of us also aspire to what we might call healing on the spiritual level as well.
As we begin our quest for health and healing, I’d like to invite you to ask yourself the following question: “What is it that brought me to yoga and keeps me here—keeps me involved, seeking, studying, and doing my practice?” Most people come to yoga because of some kind of discomfort, ailment, or pain. Often it’s a physical ailment, such as arthritis or a stiff lower back. It could be that our muscles are tight due to stress or a sedentary lifestyle and we want to increase our range of motion and become more flexible. Or it could be pain of a deeper nature—chronic stress, past trauma, a failed relationship, or the realization of the undeniable fact that we are aging. I vividly remember one seminar participant, a middle-aged gentleman, stating that he came to his first yoga class because his wife “dragged me by my ears,” and that he kept coming to class “because it feels good.” And isn’t that the truth? It does feel good, on many levels. The point is, many of us come to yoga because of something physical, because we are seeking relief—and we stay for much more than that.
To gain some more insight on yoga as a path of healing, let’s turn to the Bhagavad Gita. This text was written some 2,500 or 3,000 years ago and has lasted such a long time because of its beauty and profound, universal wisdom. In the Bhagavad Gita the divine teacher Krishna gives four main reasons that people come to him (that is, come to yoga), and healing is the first. Here’s what Krishna says: “Of good people, four types offer their love to me.” It’s interesting that he starts off by saying “good people”—it’s understood that all of these seekers are automatically good people. As you read the four main reasons people come to yoga, according to the Bhagavad Gita, consider which first drew you to yoga.
This will be the main topic of our discussion, so we will keep coming back to this point and expanding on it, keeping in mind that pain and distress of many kinds (physical, emotional, mental) bring us to yoga. The individuals who are inspired to find healing in yoga are deliberately seeking something therapeutic from yoga—transcendence of pain and the limitations it causes—and they believe they will find it there.
2. Personal Gain
It may feel a bit odd to be talking about personal gain in the context of yoga, but there are things in life which give us pleasure and joy and that are worth aspiring to. A promotion at work may not seem like a spiritual goal, but if it brings us happiness, helps our family, and helps us contribute more to society, then it’s an important spiritual element in our life. So, joyful living has to do with attaining those things in our lives which make our lives full, rich, and meaningful. There’s something about yoga that spreads out into life far beyond our cushion or asana mat. Yoga is boundless.
Many of us come to yoga because we’re seeking wisdom on the path of self-unfoldment. We are curious about our purpose in life—the higher calling of the soul. We may have come to know (or at least sense) that there is much more to life than simply fulfilling our basic urges, making money, and acquiring material goods. As we reprioritize, we start to reflect on how our own life is developing in light of our higher purpose. We may have heard or read that yoga offers us wisdom that will point us in the right direction and shed light on our path, so we become seekers of true knowledge.
The Bhagavad Gita talks about a fourth goal of yoga—the domain of seekers who have already gone beyond the level of knowing what life is about, and who are now acquiring the highest level of realization. Ultimately, we need something that satisfies us over the long haul. And yoga certainly offers us that. The kind of seeker who starts with this goal is truly exceptional: rare indeed is the individual who has already transcended pain, is satisfied with what he or she has, does not desire more, and lives in the light of real knowledge! Most of us fall into the first three camps. The possibility of healing and of overcoming suffering is what draws the overwhelming majority of us to yoga.
When we look at the goals of yoga, the beauty is that that once we’ve made a little progress on the path, we start to see the next goal on the horizon as achievable. In the process, we come to transcend what has held us back. In the next installment in this series we will examine how the paths of healing and of enlightenment are ultimately the same path.
About the Teacher