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The Origin and Essence of Yoga and its Relation to Buddhism

The Origin and Essence of Yoga and its Relation to Buddhism

Nowadays you can take a yoga class in almost every city and there are numerous online channels that make it easy to practice yoga at home.

Different physical postures are combined with breathing, sometimes static, sometimes in a flow, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.

But what exactly is the essence of yoga? What is the goal? How did it come about?

Table of Contents

Why Do We Write About This on a Buddhist Blog?

The history of yoga provides insight into the cultural context in which the Buddha was born and proclaimed his teachings, which can be of value to the Buddhist reader.

It’s also plain fun to look at the great similarity between classical yoga and Buddhism.

This overlap is mainly reflected in the path itself, or even more specifically in the tools used to take steps on the path.

However, there are also differences at the core of both philosophies. These differences emphasize important Buddhist principles.

Enough reasons to take a closer look at yoga in relation to Buddhism.

What does Yoga Mean?

The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj (connect, unite) and means as much as ‘bring under control’.[1]

Yoga refers to controlling and stilling the mind, establishing a unity between body and mind and between the individual self and universal consciousness, in order to break free from suffering (Sanskrit: duḥkha).

You could essentially say that anyone who makes a sincere effort to develop the mind through meditation in order to free it is a yogi, that is, someone who practices yoga.

So the word ‘yoga’ is a fairly general and universal term.

In the broadest sense, it refers to more or less all spiritual systems that originated in ancient India, be it Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism.

From the 5th century AD, however, the term yoga takes on a much more specific meaning and yoga is seen as one of the six orthodox Hindu movements.

It is this form of yoga that can be called classical yoga and it is this yoga tradition that we refer to here with the term ‘yoga’.

What is Classical Yoga?

The change that yoga has undergone in its popularization over the past century can be compared to the ‘mindfulness’ phenomenon.

‘Mindfulness’ has stripped itself of any form of Buddhist foundation, the same applies to yoga with regard to the classical yoga tradition from which it originated.

Just like ‘mindfulness’, yoga has become more accessible in this way, but at the same time it has lost depth.

Nowadays, yoga is mainly about yoga-as-exercise, aimed at developing strength, flexibility and (physical) relaxation.[2]

Most yoga practitioners will know that yoga is originally from India, in generale the knowledge about yoga will not go much further.

Those who are looking for something more traditional in the hope of finding more depth in their practice may end up with Iyengar yoga[3] or asthanga-vinyasa yoga[4].

However, Iyengar yoga and asthanga-vinyasa yoga are also very recent variants, developed in the mid-20th century by B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Patthabi Jois, respectively.

Both Patthabi Jois and Iyengar were disciples of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya[5] who taught vinyasa-krama yoga in Mysore (India), but vinyasa-krama-yoga itself is also no older than the early 20th century.

Where Krishnamacharya still emphasizes spiritual development and explicitly relies on classical yoga in combination with his deep Ayurvedic knowledge (ancient Indian medicine), this no longer applies to asthanga-vinyasa yoga and Iyengar yoga. The latter two yoga systems, even though they seem more traditional, are actually already yoga-as-exercise.

Both systems (more so in Iyengar yoga than in asthanga-vinyasa yoga) also use aspects of hatha yoga.[6]

Hatha yoga itself certainly has a more ‘classic’ variant.

Hatha yoga is first defined in a commentary on the Vajrayāna Buddhist Kalacakrattantra of the 11th century AD, in the context of a tantric sexual ritual (more on this later).

In the centuries that followed, hatha yoga was adopted by many different tantric Hindu movements and various new aspects such as chakras and kundalini were introduced.

Although hatha yoga is more ‘classic’ than the earlier systems, and techniques are used that may be older than the 11th century, in the end it is still not classical yoga.

Classical yoga refers to one specific yoga tradition, namely ashtanga yoga (ashtanga means the ‘eight arms’).[7]

Asthanga yoga took shape in the first centuries AD in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali[8], grounded in vedic teachings and strongly influenced by Buddhism.

It is the essence and origin of asthanga yoga and the relationship of asthanga yoga to Buddhism that we will dwell on in particular, but we will also make a trip to hatha yoga for those interested and end with a conclusion about contemporary yoga.

The Origins of Yoga

We have already discussed the origins of Buddhism in The Life of the Buddha and the  history of the three major Buddhist movements that we know today in Buddhist Schools: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.

To be able to appreciate the origin of yoga, it makes sense to go back even further in time.

This gives us the opportunity to gain more insight into the cultural context in which Buddhism originated.

The Indus Civilization: Cradle of Ascetic Practice

From about 3000 BC to 1300 BC, the Indus Civilization (also known as Harappa Civilization) was the largest civilization in the Middle East and South Asia, and that includes ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.[9]

The Indus Civilization included present day northeastern Afghanistan, much of Pakistan, and western and northwestern India.

Archaeologists found a 5 x 5 cm seal in Mohenjo-daro, one of the larger cities of the Indus civilization, depicting an image of a humanoid creature with horns in a kind of yoga-like pose.[10]

For those who want to see it, the image has an ascetic vibe, a kind of self-discipline or self-control. Surrounded by all kinds of animals, the creature in the center seems quiet and turned inward, untouched by all the tumult in the environment.

Hindu scholars see the god Indra or Shiva in this image and the seal is often used to show that yoga (in the broadest sense of the word) has existed for thousands of years.

However, since the script of the Indus civilization has not been deciphered, caution is required in the interpretation of these types of images. After all, the caption cannot be read and the interpretation is pure guesswork.

Academics consider it equally possible that the image depicts an adored deity of the animals, having nothing to do with Hinduism at all.

Be that as it may, the Indus civilization appears to have been a fertile ground for the later emergence of ascetic meditative practice.

The Vedic Scriptures

The gradual decline of the Indus civilization from ca. 1800 BC onwards (the cause for this is unclear), coincides with the Indo-Aryan (Indo-Iranian) migration to the subcontinent.[11]

These migrants, who came from Central Asia, brought with them an oral tradition of literary and religious origin.

The religious views they brought with them merged with the indigenous legacy of the Indus civilization, ushering in the Vedic period, which lasted from around 1750 BC to 600 BC.

The name Vedic period refers to the Vedic texts that were written in Sanskrit during that period.[12]

The word Veda means as much as ‘knowledge’ and the Vedas are the oldest Sanskrit texts we know.

Within Hinduism, it is stated that the hymns and chants of the Vedas represent the exact sounds of the universe itself, from the moment of creation.[13]

By reciting the Vedas, one is supposed to literally participate in the creation song of the universe from which all observable and unobservable things have arisen from the beginning of time.

There are four Vedas:

  • The Rigveda[14], ‘knowledge of honoring the gods’, is said to be based on the universal vibrations as understood by the sages who first heard them. The work also addresses fundamental questions about existence. This is the oldest Vedic text, probably composed between 1500-1000 BC.
  • The Samaveda[15], ‘knowledge of melodies and songs’ is a work of songs and melodies that are said (along with the dance they stimulate) to lift the soul. The work seems to be derived entirely from the Rigveda and probably dates from around 1200-800 BC.
  • The Yajurveda[16], ‘knowledge of worship rituals’, consists of rituals and mantras that, as the name implies, are used directly in worship services. Here, too, the content largely derives from the Rigveda, but with a different focus. The text was probably composed around 1200-800 BC.
  • The Atharvaveda[17], ‘knowledge of Atharvan’, is about the procedures for daily life that can include wedding and funeral ceremonies, magic spells to avert evil, initiations and observations about daily life. The name of this Veda is said to be descended from the priest Atharvan and although some hymns are based on the Rigveda, the content is different. This work may also have been compiled around 1200-800 BC, but given the language and form, some scholars dispute that this is an authentic Veda.

In summary, it can be said  that the Rigveda sets the standard tone that is further developed by the Yajurveda and the Samaveda. The last work, the Atharvaveda, is inspired by the earlier works, but sails its own course.

Unsurprisingly, the Vedas form the basis for all Vedic religious movements, and all currents that have the Vedas as their foundation can be captured under orthodox Hinduism.

Yoga is one of these orthodox Hindu movements.[18]

Late and Post-Vedic Scriptures

Towards the end of, and after the Vedic period, various scriptures were prepared that distill their contents from the Vedas and are of great importance to the yoga tradition.

The Upanishads

In each of the Vedas, roughly four types of text have gradually been incorporated as a kind of extension and commentary on the original text:

  • Samhitas (mantras and blessings)
  • Aranyakas (texts about rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices and symbolic sacrifices)
  • Brahmanas (commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices)
  • Upanishads (texts on meditation, philosophy and spiritual knowledge).

We will only focus on the Upanishads here.[19]

Upanishad means ‘to sit close’ and refers to a student sitting close to the teacher to receive the deeper meditative instructions and knowledge.

The Upanishads are seen as the last word on the text and are the most famous and probably last additions to the Vedas, dating from around 600-300 BC.

It is here that the word ‘yoga’ is first mentioned and the way of yoga first takes shape.

The Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita[20], which means ‘the song of god’, probably dates from around 500-200 BC and can be seen as one of the great works of the Hindu synthesis, in which the various Hindu religious traditions are recorded and incorporated.

The text, often abbreviated as ‘Gita’, is a dialogue between the god Krishna and the human Arjuna just before the start of the Kurukshetra War in the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

It is philosophical, sociological and religious but prevents the emphasis on one correct spiritual path, making it a source of inspiration and wisdom for all orthodox Hindu traditions.

Yoga as a Way to Unification

The word ‘yoga’ is first found in the Rigveda, but it is only in the Katha-upanishad from the Yajurveda dating from around 500-300 BC that for the first time the word yoga has similar meaning as it is known to us. [21]

In the Katha-upanishad, yoga is mentioned in relation to ātman (verses 1.3.10 to 1.3.13):

“He (the atman), difficult to be seen, full of mystery, the Ancient, primeval one, concealed deep within, He who, by yoga means of meditation on his self, comprehends Atman within him as God, He leaves joy and sorrow far behind.”

According to  the Upanishads, ātman is the subject of self-knowledge, the bearer of spiritual reality, that which permeates everything, in every being, that unites all men and all creatures, the hidden, eternal, immortal, pure bliss.

Atman is the ‘self’, the essence of the individual, which according to the Vedas exists in the ultimate sense.

The Katha-upanishad further describes yoga as a path to self-realization (verses 2.2.6 to 2.2.13):

“Only when Manas (mind) with thoughts and the five senses stand still, and when Buddhi (intellect, power to reason) does not waver, that they call the highest path. That is what one calls Yoga, the stillness of the senses, concentration of the mind, It is not thoughtless heedless sluggishness, Yoga is creation and dissolution.”

By self-realization here is meant the insight that ātman (the ultimate self) is equal to brahman.

Brahman is the cosmic principle or cosmic self, the ultimate reality in the universe, that which is the cause of everything, the creator of everything. It is immutable and ever-present.

Although the word ‘yoga’ here shows some similarity with contemporary schools for the first time, the use is broader.

Yoga here still essentially embraces the meditative path of all (orthodox) Hindu schools.

The Buddha in the Post-Vedic Period

Around 600 BC, what is called the “second urbanization” of modern-day northern India begins.[22]

Peasant villages grow into relatively large settlements and in the central Ganges plain the empire of Magadha becomes more prominent. Magadha forms the basis for the Maurya dynasty where later in 268 BC. Ashoka the Great will rule.[23]

As already indicated, it is in the centuries around 600 BC. that the Upanishads are established as a theoretical basis for classical Hindu philosophy.

Cultural, political and also linguistic changes give rise to religious unrest.

The Brahmin priestly caste, which until then enjoyed the highest prestige and had the exclusive right to various Vedic rituals such as sacrifices and the acquisition of gifts, comes under pressure and creates space for sramana[24] movements.

Sramana means as much as ‘one who makes an effort’ and refers to people who are looking for the truth by leading a sober and ascetic life.

It is in this turbulent period of change that the Buddha was born in the Sakya community in the 5th century BC, probably a kind of oligarchy with the father of Siddhartha Gautama (the later Buddha) as head.

The Sakyas were non-Vedic and were not affected by the influence of Brahmin priests or the teachings of the Upanishads, but solitary ascetic practitioners did move through the area.

In The Life of the Buddha we reflect extensively on the path that Siddhartha Gautama took to eventually become a Buddha, we will not repeat that here.

Origin and Essence of Asthanga-Yoga

In the centuries after the Katha-upanishad, the yoga system was further elaborated by ascetic practitioners.

The most extensive texts expounding the theory and practice of yoga are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, dating from the first centuries AD.

The Yoga Sutras are strongly influenced by both scriptures of orthodox Hinduism such as  the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita,  but also by the non-Vedic teachings of Jainism and Buddhism. For example, various Buddhist terms are borrowed and used.

The Yoga Sutras are divided into four chapters. We will briefly summarize each chapter.


In the first chapter, samadhi-pada (samadhi here means ‘direct perception’), techniques for developing concentration are explained. Concentration is needed to calm and purify the mind so that it becomes isolated (kaivalya) from the impurities. When the mind is silent and isolated, it reveals the real ‘self’ and one can free oneself from bondage.


In the second chapter, sadhana-pada (sadhana means ‘practice’), two different systems are described to overcome the obstacles that hinder the yogi, namely kriyā yoga and ashtanga yoga.

Kriyā yoga is the preparation for asthanga yoga:

  1. Sobriety or self-discipline (tapas)
  2. Studying the Vedic scriptures (svādhyaya)
  3. Devotion to God (iśvara praṇidhana)

It is in this chapter of the Yoga Sutras where the aforementioned ‘eight arms’ that ashtanga refers to are described:

  1. Abstentions (yamas): That is, moral or ethical behavior, which consists of nonviolence (ahimsa), sincerity (satya), not-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and possessing nothing (aparigraha).
  2. Observations (niyama): These are rules of conduct, namely purity (saucha), contentment (santosha), sobriety (tapas), the study of scriptures (svādhyaya) and devotion to God (ishvara praṇidhana). The latter deserves some extra attention. Patanjali incorporates into his philosophy what some call a “personal god” (Ishvara), who serves as a guide or aid on the path to liberation.
  3. Postures (asana): These are the physical postures in which one can stay firmly and comfortably.
  4. Breathing (pranayama): The control of the breath (prana).
  5. Retreat (pratyahara): The withdrawal of the senses, the turning inward.
  6. Concentration (dharana): the steadfast or one-pointed concentration of the mind.
  7. Meditation (dhyana): The process by which the mind focuses more and more powerfully on something, a more refined form of concentration.
  8. Absorption (samadhi): Unification with the object of meditation, in which there is no longer a distinction between meditation and the object.

A small note for the Buddhist reader: It is true that the terms in steps 7 and 8 correspond to the Buddhist terms jhāna and samādhi, but with a slightly different meaning.


In the third chapter, vibhuti-pada (vibhuti means ‘power or manifestation’) the last 3 arms of ashtanga yoga (dharana, dhyana and samadhi) are further described.

For example, it is stated that the practice of meditation can not only give insight into pure consciousness, but can lead to supernatural powers. The text warns that these supernatural forces can be an obstacle on the path.


The last chapter, Kaivalya-pada (kaivalya means “isolation”), describes the process of liberation.

The Purpose of Ashtanga-Yoga

According to the Yoga Sutras, the cause of suffering (dukha) is the connection between the observing, pure consciousness (purusha) and the material being (prakrti), creating an ‘I’-consciousness.

That ‘I’-consciousness is the basis for illusions (maya) resulting in ignorance (avidya).

The goal of ashtanga yoga is to achieve ever deeper concentration and stillness, a gradually increasing control over the mind that leads to liberation from internal and external influences and finally the release of purusha from prakrti in order to become one with brahman (the universal consciousness).

In conclusion, it can be said that, in contrast to the contemporary emphasis on postures (asana) and breathing (pranayama), the emphasis in classical yoga is entirely on moral behavior and meditation and the goal is not physical but spiritual in nature.

So much for the essence ashtanga yoga. Now we will take another small foray into hatha yoga before exploring the relationship between ashtanga yoga and Buddhism.

Origin and Essence of Hatha-Yoga

The oldest use of the term hatha does not originate from Vedic texts but from Vajrayāna Buddhist texts from the 8th century AD.

The term hatha yoga is first defined in a commentary on  the Kalacakratantra from the 11th century AD, in the context of a tantric sexual ritual:

“When the undying moment does not arise because the breath is unrestrained [even] when the image is seen by means of withdrawal (pratyahara) and the other (auxiliaries of yoga, i.e. dhyana, pranayama, dharana, anusmrti and samadhi), then, having forcefully (hathena) made the breath flow in the central channel through the practice of nada, which is about to be explained, [the yogi] should attain the undying moment by restraining the bindu [i.e. semen] of the bodhicitta in the vajra [penis] when it is in the lotus of wisdom [vagina].”[25]

Later in the 11th century, hatha yoga is first described in more detail in the Amṛtasiddhi, again a tantric Buddhist text from Vajrayāna Buddhism.

This text describes postures and respiratory control to keep bindu (here: vital energy) in the head and not let it pass through the central channel to the perineum.

From the 11th century AD, Hindu scriptures also talk about techniques associated with hatha yoga, with the aim of developing superhuman powers (siddhis).

A single system or purpose of hatha yoga is not easy to give. It was adopted by various (tantric) Hindu movements over the centuries.

15th century hatha-yoga include new concepts such as kundalini ­­awakening[26] and chakras[27].

Eventually, the texts also contain conflicting goals ranging from raising bindu (as in the [28]Amritasiddhi), to increasing kundalini (as in the Kubjikamatatantra).  

What can be said is that, unlike asthanga yoga, hatha yoga focuses more on postures, breaths and less on moral behavior and meditation.

In summary, the techniques often seem to be mainly aimed at generating, preserving and increasing energy. However, for the majority of practitioners, some form of spiritual liberation will probably have been paramount.

Similarities Between Yoga and Buddhism

There are many similarities between the ashtanga yoga of Patanjali and Buddhism.

The Emphasis is on Morality and Concentration

The Buddha taught a path of morality (sīla), concentration (samādhi) and wisdom (paññā).

Morality (sīla) is the prerequisite for developing concentration.

By living morally, you prevent remorse and regret, two obstacles that prevent the achievement of concentration and create the conditions for a peaceful life.

For lay people, the Buddha recommended five precepts for this: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from wrong speech and refrain from using intoxicants. Many more rules apply to monks, including celibacy.

With morality as a condition, concentration can be developed. In the Pali Canon, the ancient Theravāda Buddhist texts, the term samādhi is used for this concentration.

Samādhi here is the ability to unify the mind, focus one-pointedly on the meditation object, and keep it focused on this object.

Depending on the object of meditation, with increasing concentration, jhāna (absorption) can be achieved, whereby the sensory doors close and the distinction between the meditation practitioner and the object disappears.

The Buddha again and again urged his disciples to practice samādhi as a foundation for insight.

Without concentration, it is not possible to see the true nature of things because the mind simply is not clean and clear enough.

This emphasis on morality and concentration as a prerequisite for insight is very similar to the emphasis Patanjali places in the Yoga Sutras .

A Comfortable Stable Posture

Asanas (postures) in yoga often refer to the different standing, sitting and lying postures that are sometimes linked together in a series, which requires strength, balance and control over the muscles.[29]

However, these postures and flow variants seem to be much more recent in origin.

Patanjali describes asanas in the Yoga Sutras as a “fixed and comfortable posture” and thus refers to the sitting postures used for pranayama[30] (breathing exercises) and for meditation, where meditation is the path to samadhi[31].

The Buddha also emphasizes a sitting posture for meditation.

Although the Buddha has given instructions on how to practice mindfulness (sati) in all four postures: sitting, standing, walking and lying down, it is only in a sitting posture that samādhi can be developed and jhāna can be achieved.

Differences Between Yoga and Buddhism

Where the similarities can mainly be found on the practical part of the path, the differences lie more in the metaphysical.[32]

Āstika: The Three Characteristics of Orthodox Hinduism

To make it easier to look at the differences between yoga and Buddhism, a small sidestep to āstika can be helpful.[33]

From the 5th century, yoga has been counted among the six orthodox Hindu traditions and all schools of yoga can be classified under the heading of āstika.

Āstika (from Sanskrit asti, meaning ‘there is, there exists’) is a modern scholastic concept in which those (orthodox) ancient Indian religious systems are categorized that meet three conditions:

  1. They accept the authority of the Vedas (the oldest Sanskrit texts of Hinduism).
  2. They believe in the existence of Ishvara (a concept that varies depending on the school from God, the Supreme Being, the Universal Absolute or the Special Self).
  3. They accept the existence of ātman (the self or ultimate self).

Although this may seem somewhat academic, this classification makes sense because it directly reveals the main difference with Buddhism.

Indeed, it is these three characteristics that were forcefully rejected by the Buddha, causing the systems, although at first to appear similar in the way, to diverge from each other in a deeper sence.

The Authority of the Vedas

Where classical yoga takes the Upanishads and Veda’s as its foundation, the Buddha has firmly and repeatedly rejected the authority of the Vedas, both as scripture and their eternity and divinity.

The Buddha is very critical of the Brahmin caste, the priests who blindly pass on the Vedas from generation to  generation, as the Buddha says to Bhāradvāja (MN 95):

“Suppose there were a row of blind people who each come into contact with each other: the former does not see, the middle one does not see, and the latter does not see. Similarly, Bhāradvāja, with regard to their statement, the Brahmins seem like a row of blind people: the former does not see it, the middle one does not see it, and the latter does not see it. What do you think, Bhāradvāja, if this is so, does not the faith of the Brahmins turn out to be unfounded?”

The Buddha also opposed various customs, rites and rituals established by the Brahmin priestly order, whether or not based on the Vedas.

For example, he emphatically opposed the sacrifice of animals and the caste system of ancient India. He even founded an order of nuns, which was completely unthinkable from the Vedic Brahmin caste.

The study of the Vedas and Upanishads therefore has no special place within Buddhism, which nontheless does not mean that it cannot be looked upon with respect.

The God Idea

Whether this point really differs from Buddhism may depend somewhat on interpretation, namely the interpretation of what is really meant by ‘devotion to Ishvara[34] in the Yoga Sutras.

In orthodox Hinduism, Ishvara generally refers to God or the divine in the form of creator, the first in the universe and so on.

Patanjali opts for a more general definition of Ishvara as unsurpassed, unparalleled, immeasurable omniscience, the teacher of all ancient teachers.

In the freest interpretation, this can be read as devotion aimed at progress on one’s own personal path, the deep desire to fathom the ultimate reality.

However, given the historical context of the words, a meaning closer to the orthodox Hindu thought of a higher being is quite conceivable.

Although Buddhist teachings have various realms or dimensions, including the existence of devas and Brahmas, which can be translated as divine beings, who are in various states of bliss without a physical body, the Buddha repeatedly emphasizes the temporality of this existence.

According to the Buddha, gods are simply mortal, and none of these gods is the creator of the world.

In the Brahmajāla Sutta, the sermon on the ‘all-encompassing net of views’, the Buddha describes beautifully how, as a result of high concentration and the memory of past lives, one can come to the wrong view that there is one god (Maha-Brahma, the Great Brahma) as creator.

However, if you can look even deeper, you will see that even Maha-Brahma is transient.

Therefor, devotion to god in any form in essence holds no place in Buddhism.

Buddhism does have devotion in the form of trust (saddhā) in the Buddha and his path, which is close to the freest interpretation of Ishvara in the Yoga Sutras.

Atman vs Anattā

This is perhaps the most crucial difference.

Where you could argue about the above differences to what extent the orthodox Hindu views really apply to asthanga yoga, that is not possible here.

After all, the goal of yoga is the unification of ātman (the real self) in the form of purusha[35] (pure consciousness) with brahman[36] (the cosmic consciousness), in other words the insight that our true self is no different from the cosmic self.[37]

The key word here is ‘self’.

In both the individual and the cosmic, yoga has a ‘self’ as an existing reality.

However, the Buddha emphasizes again and again that everything is anattā in the ultimate sense.

Anattā is composed of an meaning ‘not’ or ‘without’ and attā meaning ‘self’, the Pali variant of Sanskrit ātman.

The Buddha literally states that the ātman of the Vedic tradition is a wrong view (diṭṭhi) that binds us to samsara.

According to the Buddha, consciousness consists of numerous separate moments, all of which arise and decay at an enormous speed and are interconnected by complex conditions.

For example, the Buddha emphatically does not teach nihilism, because there is indeed a connection between the moments in the form of a complex cause-effect relationship (kamma-vipāka) that makes possible both a wholesome and unwholesome development of the mind. And he does not teach eternalism (which yoga teaches), for there is no lasting ‘self’ in any form.

According to the Buddha, concentration (samādhi) is necessary to perceive the arising and decay, the impermanence of mental and material phenomena (nāma-rūpa).

It is this perception that leads to the insight that all conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra) are permeated by the three characteristics non-self (anattā), impermanence (anicca) and suffering (dukkha).

This wisdom (paññā) opens the door to Nibbāna (nirvana) and is the Buddha’s unique insight.

When asked where the Buddha goes when entering Nibbāna, he does not answer. The reason is simply that the question in the deepest sense has a wrong assumption, namely that there is something that can go somewhere, merge with something.

Where anicca and dukkha only apply to the conditioned phenomena (saṅkhāra), anattā also applies to Nibbāna. Nibbāna is permanent and free from suffering, but it is still without a self.

The Buddha thus rejects in the ultimate sense the reality ātman, purusha and brahman whether they are seen separately or as a whole.

Conclusion for Contemporary Yoga

Yoga nowadays is mainly yoga-as-exercise.

Emphasis is placed on holding and varying postures combined with rhythmic breathing.

Sometimes a few more breaths of sitting ‘meditative practice’ are added and finally a short relaxation while lying on the floor.

Ahba, our teacher, has sometimes indicated that this form of yoga is an energy exercise and that you run the risk of becoming attached to this energy. You cannot develop concentration with this form of yoga, while this was originally the most important part of the yoga path to achieve ultimate liberation.

By emphasizing the body, the modern version of yoga even threatens to increase one’s attachment to one’s body and thus become a source of increasing pride.

Arrogance, jealousy, continuously comparining yourself with someone else and a certain harshness are then lurking around the corner and you only risk getting further entangled in samsara.

This is very different from classical yoga of ancient times where the emphasis was placed on meditation and the abandonment of the worldly and one’s own body.

Where modern yoga is very different from Buddhism, it can be said that classical yoga is very close to Buddhism.

Anyone who really wants to deepen the yoga practice, to let it be more than just an alternative to the fitness school, would do well to put more emphasis on moral behavior and meditation than on the movements.

On the mind instead of on the body.


For those who cannot find this within their own yoga school, the Buddhist path may offer a nice addition to their practice.

[1] Yoga (
[2] Yoga as exercise (
[3] Iyengar Yoga (
[4] Ashtanga-vinyasa Yoga (
[5] Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (
[6] Hatha Yoga (
[7] Ashtanga, the eight limbs of yoga (
[8] Yoga Sutras or Patanjali (
[9] Indus Valley Civilisation (
[10] Pashupati Seal (
[11] Indo-Aryan migrations (
[12] Vedas (
[13] The Vedas by Joshua J. Mark
[14] Rigveda (
[15] Samaveda (
[16] Yajurveda (
[17] Atharvaveda (
[18] Yoga philosophy (
[19] Upanishads (
[20] Bhagavad Gita (
[21] Katha Upanishad (
[22] History of India (
[23] Maurya Empire (
[24] Śramaṇa
[25] Birch, Jason (2011). “The Meaning of Haṭha in Early Haṭhayoga”. Journal of the American Oriental Society
[26] Kundalini (
[27] Chakra (
[28] Bindu in Hatha Yoga (
[29] Asana (
[30] Pranayama (
[31] Samadhi in the Yoga Sutras (
[32] Vedanta and Buddhism: A Comperative Study by Helmuth von Glasenapp
[33] Āstika and nāstika (
[34] Ishvarapranidhana (
[35] Ātman in Hinduism (
[36] Purusa (
[37] Brahman (

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