Yoga is a Sanskrit word from the Hindu traditions of India that can refer to a variety of human practices, disciplines, and experiences to attain union with the Supreme Being. Yoga also refers to any state of perfection that is realized through rigorous meditational or asceti-cal discipline. Yoga is practiced by the self, both in order to reach a state of transcendent consciousness, and to be united with the divine.

At higher levels, yoga is a state of union of the self with the supreme love bestowed by divinity, which also becomes subsumed in this union. The relationship of yoga to love—more specifically to divine love—usually involves the achievement of liberation or a state of bestowed grace. Thus, yoga is more than the human achievement of evolution to higher states of consciousness; indeed, at the highest level, yoga becomes the very power of love that transforms the heart, and to which even divinity submits. Yoga is thus the harnessing power that conducts supreme love and subsumes both the soul and God eternally.

Although yoga originated in Hinduism, the practice was adopted by other indigenous traditions of India, namely Buddhism and Jainism, and later Sikhism. In modern times, practices of yoga have spread to Western cultures, and in the United States alone, about 30 million people practice some aspect or form of yoga. Yoga centers are found all over the country, with several major international magazines dedicated to its practice and philosophy. Moreover, yoga practice has been integrated into the regimens of health retreats, spas, gyms, and even major medical centers, which incorporate yoga as a means of rehabilitation or restorative health.

In the broadest sense, the word yoga denotes the “joining together” of two entities. Many introductions to yoga explain that the term is a Sanskrit word derived from the verbal root yuj, which means to yoke or connect. The essential elements as well as the ultimate meaning of yoga are present in the English definition of the noun form of yoke. The simple lexical description of a yoke is a harness or crossbar by which the heads or necks of two farm animals are linked. Similarly, two entities, namely the soul and God, are joined together by this harness called yoga—the harnessingpower being the divine love that unites the individual soul with the supreme Soul. This joining can also be understood as the soul uniting with super-consciousness, or a state of spiritual transcendence.

Evidence of meditational and ascetical practices of yoga date as far back as five millennia to India’s oldest civilizations.The word yoga first appears in the sacred texts of the Upan-ishads and attains its place as one of “the six schools of Indian philosophy,” foundational to much Hindu thought. However, the sacred texts that relate love to the highest levels of yoga are three: the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Glta, and the Bhagavata Purana.

The word yoga possesses a complex set of meanings because of its many applications, and this can be observed in the text of the Bhagavad Glta. Although the word generally denotes the soul’s union—or path to union— with the divine, more specifically, yoga indicates a variety of means, paths, or practices for reaching any one of several levels of perfection. These levels are expressed by words bearing prefixes that modify the term, yoga: karma-yoga (the yoga of action) (Bhagavad Glta 3:3); jnana-yoga (the yoga of knowledge) (Bhagavad Glta 3:3); and buddhi-yoga (the yoga of discernment) (Bhagavad Glta 2:49).

The level of achievement or state of perfection is expressed in such terms as yoga-samsiddhim (Bhagavad Glta 6:37). Within the realm of the divine, yoga is a feminine power of divinity known as yoga-maya (the power of yoga) (Bhagavad Glta 7:25); and the divinity of Krishna is known by the epithet of yoges-vara (the supreme Lord of yoga) (Bhagavad Glta 11:4, 9; 18:75, 78).

The Glta establishes the relationship of yoga to bhakti (“devotion to God”) by the end of the sixth chapter:

Truly, the one among all yogis, for whom the inner self has come to me, Who possesses faith,who offers love to me— I consider that one to be most deeply absorbed in yoga. (Bhagavad Glta 6:47)

This verse reveals that the highest form of yoga involves the soul’s offering of love (bha-jate) to Krishna.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali also acknowledges the ultimate status of the supreme Lord in the practice of yoga by stating that “the perfection of samadhi—which itself is the highest perfectional stage of the eight-limbed system called ashtanga—is isvara-pranidhana (“dedication to the supreme Lord)” (Yoga Sutra 2:45). In the simplest of terms, then, the goal of yoga is to please the supreme Lord to whom the yogi offers love, or bhakti.

The practice of yoga as an explicit offering of bhakti for Krishna is even more developed in the Bhagavata. Many of its passages urge practitioners to make yoga a practice that exceeds its lower goals and to focus instead on the highest aspiration of Krishna bhakti (Bhagavata Purana 3:25, 19; 4:31, 12).

Toward the beginning of the Bhagavata Purana, is an emphatic statement that “the intent of yoga is vasudeva-para yoga (Krishna)” (Bhagavata Purana 1:2, 28). Like the Glta, parts of the Bhagavata text—two chapters in particular—explain in great detail the yoga practice (Bhagavata Purana 3:28; 11:14): The personal form of the supreme deity of Vishnu is to be appreciated through meditation, or dhyana (Bhagavata Purana 10:3, 28), and that those who are advanced in yoga are granted a vision of the Lord (Bhagavata Purana 3:21, 13). Many verses are devoted to describing how the yogi should focus the mind on the form of Krishna (Bhagavata Purana 3:28, 12, and others) and that it may take many lifetimes absorbed in the perfection of yoga meditation (samadhi) to finally attain a vision of the divine form (Bhagavata Purana 3:24, 29).

Yoga in the Rasa LIla, the Bhagavata’s famous five-chapter divine love story, functions dramatically. The word yoga first appears in the compound “Yogamaya,” or “the divine feminine power of yoga,” in the last line of the very first verse of the Rasa LIla:

Even the Beloved Lord, seeing those nights in autumn filled with blooming jasmine flowers, Turned his mind toward love’s delights, fully taking refuge in Yogamaya’s illusive powers. (Bhagavata Purana 10:29, 1)

This usage of yoga in the compound Yogamaya is like none other throughout the entire Bhagavata text. In this single instance, the supreme Lord himself takes full refuge in Yogamaya to enact his greatest lila, “divine act of Krishna.” Toward the end of the story, Yogamaya appears for a second time, but in the abbreviated form known as Maya (10:33, 38), which arranges for the maidens of Vraja to fulfill their traditional outer world roles while remaining absorbed in the inner world of their hearts, fully immersed in love for the divinity. Yoga, then, is known in this passage as the divine feminine power that facilitates God’s desire for loving exchanges with his devotees, as well as the devotees’ desires for loving reciprocation with God. Ironically, yoga is also that power that conceals God’s heart from souls who are not ready for Love.

The word yoga appears four times in the Rasa LIla as the epithetical name yogesvara, referring to the divinity of Krishna. However, in one instance in the compound yogesvares-vara, the meaning is expanded to “the supreme Lord of the masters of yoga.” These rare yogis who have achieved perfection through the practice of yoga are the gopIs, the greatest among all masters of yoga. Krishna, who is the master of these yoginis (female masters of yoga), is capable of arranging for their pleasure through the agency of Yogamaya.

The Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana— or related words derived from the same verbal root dhya—are found in seven places in the Rasa LIla story. The Bhagavata extols the cowherd maidens as masters of meditation. Meditation is the method whereby the gopis bridge the gap of separation from Krishna, a way of embracing Krishna from within, for the maidens who cannot embrace him outwardly. Krishna even advises the gopIs who appear before him that they can feel even more love for him in his absence, by means of meditation than they can in his presence (Bhagavata Purana 10:29, 27). The yoga of meditation is so essential to the passionate devotion of the gopIs that they sometimes embrace Krishna within through meditation, although he is directly present before them (Bhagavata Purana 10:32, 7-8).

Generally speaking, accomplishment in yoga depends on human endeavor and discipline, and a yogi’s efforts, if successful, leads to the achievement of yogic perfection. However, the Bhagavad GIta claims that the highest perfection of yoga is reached only if its practice leads one to Krishna. It is not surprising, then, that at the very center of the godhead, yoga is exhibited in the Rasa LIla story by both Krishna and the GopIs. Such yoga is of the nature of prema, or pure divine love. Neither Krishna nor the cowherd maidens are ordinary yogis. Rather, they are supreme yogis who do not strive for the union of yoga through discipline and practice. Their form of yoga is what is bestowed upon both divinity and devotee by an act of grace emanating from the divine feminine power of yoga known as Yogamaya. In the Rasa LIla, yoga is thus reinterpreted in light of bhakti, in terms of what is perceived as the supreme yoga, or yoga of the divine realm.

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