When I first read the Bhagavad Gita, I was so absorbed in the dramatic story of cousins at war for the rightful claim to a throne and the captivating conversation between protagonist Arjuna and his charioteer, that I almost forgot I was reading a manual on the essence of yoga.
Certain chapters felt like magical realism but fortunately, my yoga teacher training days, under the guidance of wise philosophy and meditation teachers in India, gave me a key to unlocking the complexities of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.
Given that most of the Gita consists of advice from Krishna, many people consider it a practical guide on how to live in a world of challenge and change, rather than a philosophical text.
So, what has Yoga got to do with it? And how does Bhagavad Gita Yoga relate to the yoga we practice today?
In this article, I’ll reflect on how the Gita captures the essence of Yoga, its relevance in the modern world and how we might incorporate its teachings into our daily Yoga practice.
Read on to explore:
- The Bhagavad Gita analogy
- Central concepts of yoga philosophy
- Definitions and goals of yoga
- Types of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita
- The importance of practice
- Relevance of the Gita’s teachings today
The Bhagavad Gita analogy
Described by Eknath Easwaran in his translation of the classic as “India’s most important gift to the world” (Easwaran: p14), the Gita encapsulates the lofty wisdom of ancient Indian scriptures into a relatable allegory.
The story itself is a metaphor for our internal war: battling to control the mind.
Look beyond Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, and you’ll realize it is actually an internal dialogue within the depths of consciousness. Krishna is the manifestation of our deepest Self; the divinity that lives within and guides us.
Read from this perspective, it becomes easier to understand how the Gita captures the essence of the Upanishads.
Central concepts of Yoga philosophy
The core concepts of yoga are derived from the Upanishads, a set of philosophical-religious Sanskrit texts from ancient India.
Rather than a systematic philosophy, the Upanishads are like a kaleidoscope of visions and experiences reported by the rishis (seers or sages who discover spiritual truths through meditation).
Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita is illustrated with central concepts of yoga philosophy such as:
- Brahman: the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the transcendent reality
- Atman: the divinity within each individual
- Dharma: the cosmic law (the way of things) that upholds the universe
- Karma: the network of cause and effect; action and consequence
- Samsara: the cycle of death and rebirth that binds all creatures in the material world
- Moksha: liberation from the samsara cycle and karma to reach liberation
The Gita does not belong to any school of thought, it simply encapsulates the yogic wisdom of the Upanishads.
Definitions and goals of Yoga
This allegory of the war within recalls the second verse of the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali which defines yoga as the mastery of the fluctuations of the mind.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word citta from this sutra is often translated as “mind-field”, reinforcing the notion of the battle for self-mastery.
There are various definitions of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, none of which refer to the physical practice (Hatha Yoga) that we are most familiar with in the West. One thing these definitions share is a focus on disciplining the mind.
Krishna informs Arjuna that Yoga means “perfect evenness of mind” (The Bhagavad Gita 2:48); its goal is detachment from external motivations such as rewards, success or failure, pleasure or pain.
Dedicated practice is required to reach this level of freedom from external stimuli, which is why “yoga is skill in action” (The Bhagavad Gita 2:50).
In a nutshell, the Gita teaches us that the purpose of yoga is to still the mind as a means of becoming unified in consciousness to discover the true Self. All schools of yogic thought share this goal, though the path to reach it varies according to the type of yoga.
Types of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita
The Gita describes four types of Yoga, which are considered the four main paths of Hindu spirituality.
While the focus and practices of each path vary, they all require the practitioner to detach from the ego to reach the same destination: being at one with the Self.
#1 Karma Yoga
The Yoga of selfless action and duty.
In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that the goal of yoga is achieved through devotion to selfless work and serving the welfare of others.
#2 Jnana Yoga
The Yoga of knowledge, or wisdom.
Krishna explains that wisdom is superior to any material offering and that those who follow the path of jnana soon develop the wisdom to achieve perfect peace.
#3 Bhakti Yoga
The yoga of love and devotion.
Throughout the Gita, we are reminded to worship the God (Brahman) within. Anyone who seeks ‘Krishna’ in their heart will be united with the divinity.
#4 Raja Yoga
The yoga of meditation to discipline the mind.
The Gita offers a detailed guide on meditation. Krishna assures that the mind can be conquered and claims that meditation is superior even to the paths of knowledge and selfless service.
The importance of practice
Yoga In the Bhagavad Gita can seem contradictory or confusing as you are ushered through themes of selfless action, transcendental knowledge, meditation, and love.
Stick with it though, and the consistent underlying message will shine through: the practitioner must be dedicated to whichever path they choose to reach the goal of Yoga.
Compared with the other Upanishads, the Gita more closely resembles a practical handbook for daily living, so it makes more sense in practice.
Essentially, ‘Bhagavad Gita yoga’ denotes regular practice and detachment. Krishna assures Arjuna that anyone who is “self-controlled, striving earnestly through the right means, will attain the goal.” (The Bhagavad Gita 6:36)
Relevance Of The Gita’s Teachings Today
What has yoga got to do with the Bhagavad Gita?
On the face of it, the postures, sun salutations and even breathwork in yoga classes today seem to have very little to do with detachment and realizing the true Self.
Go a little deeper into the practice, however, and you might be surprised to find you are already taking small, but significant, steps along your yoga path.
Practicing asanas (postures) helps develop a one-pointed, or intently focused, mind.
This is because the physical practice helps you to become completely absorbed and present in the posture by focusing your attention on the alignment, drishti (focused gaze), and breath.
When your body is in a posture that is both sthira (steady) and sukha (comfortable), it is reflected in your mind; calming the wavering thoughts of the external world’s stresses and obligations.
Breathwork in modern yoga classes can also have a calming effect on the mind; deep, slow, rhythmic breathing generates tranquil, content states of mind.
The breath is the most vital process of the body and the techniques of pranayama (breath control/life force expansion) help to activate and regulate the life force in order to attain a higher state of vibratory energy and awareness.
The yoga in the Bhagavad Gita continues to be practiced today, growing in popularity in the Western world.
More and more yoga schools are offering meditation classes and workshops, Swami Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga is a bestseller and Integral Yoga – a fusion of jnana, karma, bhakti and raja Yogas- is now a recognised Yoga Alliance qualification.
Takeaways from the Gita for our daily practice
- No effort goes to waste; seeking spiritual awareness through selfless acts will help you live a meaningful life (and subsequent lives…).
- We can use our logic, knowledge and reason to explore and better understand the true nature of the mind.
- Recognizing the divinity within all creatures, allows us to act out of love and compassion.
- Calming the mind, by moving attention away from the external world, helps to achieve inner peace.
- Regular, committed and consistent practice is key to progress.
On reflection, Arjuna’s strife in the Bhagavad Gita is remarkably relevant to our society and the people practicing yoga today. Easwaran brings this home quite dramatically:
Life offers no fiercer battle than this war within. We have no choice about the fighting; it is built into human nature. But we do have the choice of which side to fight on.The Bhagavad Gita, Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran, pg 66
Do you think ‘Bhagavad Gita Yoga’ is still relevant today?
Learn more about the themes and importance of the Bhagavad Gita in this article. Or, if you want to go more in-depth into the different paths of yoga presented in the Gita, you can read about them here: jnana, karma, raja, and bhakti.