Swami Kuvalayananda and A Definition of Yoga

When a student asks me, “What is Yoga?,” my head goes all awhirl ready to explode with the myriad of ways that I could answer such a seemingly innocent question. Yet, as a teacher of Yoga for almost twenty years, I am much less interested in the “what” question than I am in the practical question: “Why should I practice Yoga?”

But when the student insists on an answer, I take my cue from the late Swami Kuvalayananda—the great innovator in the field of modern Yoga. A true pioneer, Kuvalayananda was the first person to submit the practices of Yoga to scientific scrutiny, doing this in India in the early 1920s. Kuvalayananda had broad intellectual interests—which not only included the fields of anatomy, physiology, and modern physical sciences, but which also included Indian and Western philosophies as well as Indian and Western physical cultures. Kuvalayananda was both a brilliant Sanskritist and accomplished poet. He was also an avid physical educationalist and a Yoga practitioner.

In short, Kuvalayananda was a kind of Indian Renaissance man of the early twentieth century. He combined his extensive background and expertise in the physical sciences, Indian philosophy, and Yoga practices to give a working definition of Yoga that has a practical application to this day. Moreover, Kuvalayananda’s insights into the workings of Yoga and its philosophy came from a place of deep reverence for and understanding of the practices of Yoga.

He was, after all, a Yogi.

And yet, at the same time, Kuvalayananda was a scientist, as well as a rationalist, and as such, he regarded Yoga as a bona fide science:

Yoga is that art and science which is calculated to ensure for the individual perfect health for [the] body, infinite happiness for [the] mind and perfect spiritual development for [the] soul. Thus, Yoga is a science which leads to physical, mental and spiritual perfection and is a code of physio-psychological discipline based upon principles that are thoroughly rational. (Kuvalayananda 1941)

According to Vyasa (c. 200–500 CE), the distinguished commentator on the Yoga Sutras, “Yoga is samādhi” [Yogah samādhah I.1]. The Indic term samādhi usually refers to a unified state of higher consciousness usually brought about by a process of deep meditative concentration. But the term samādhi [sam + ā + dha] also means “to put (something) together,” signifying the sense of “integration” at some level.

Kuvalayananda furthered Vyasa’s famous dictum by reworking it in an entirely new and modern direction, by placing Yoga in psycho-physiological terms:

The yogic concept of the working of body and mind is that there is a homeostatic mechanism in both, which contributes to a balanced, integrated functioning (“samādhi”) even in the face of normal external and internal stimuli. (Kuvalayananda 1963)

In today’s modern society, we tend to lead fractured lives. Too much time spent on the computer, on our smart phones, in front of the television screen leads to a sort of lopsided-ness that encourages dis-integration, or vyādhi [vi + ā + dha]. Often interpreted as “disease,” vyādhi is the opposite of wholeness or integration.

The practices of Yoga—āsanas, the physical postures; prānāyāma, the yogic breathing techniques; and dhārana and dhyāna, the practices of mental concentration—are a movement toward samādhi, and as such, are meant to bring about the integration and stabilization of the whole human, at all levels of being—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.

Thus, at its deepest level, Yoga is integration.

So, why do I practice Yoga? I practice Yoga, because Yoga offers me an integrated approach to the art of living, bringing a deep sense of wholeness to all levels of my being—my body, my mind, my emotions, and even my spirit. And, it's this wholeness and integration that I endeavor to offer my students, one breath at a time.

Photo: Swami Kuvalayananda in Meditation circa 1940